When I studied history, I was particularly struck by the abdication of Emperor Charles V in 1555. I recognized the wisdom in it.1
Queen Wilhelmina’s decision to abdicate certainly caused some raised eyebrows with her British cousins, who had been left reeling by the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936. When the future Queen Elizabeth II dedicated her entire life to her people at the age of 21, Queen Wilhelmina commented, “She has definitely settled better to the inevitable than me and has raised herself higher above it.”2
Wilhelmina would not be the first Dutch monarch to abdicate – King William I abdicated in 1840 after wishing to marry Henriette d’Oultremont, his late wife’s lady-in-waiting. Not only that, the Dutch Constitution expressly took abdication into account. Wilhelmina had begun toying with the idea of abdication in 1938, after a personal reign of 40 years. She had brought up the topic at a family dinner, but her daughter had not been up to it yet. Though the Second World War temporarily put all plans of abdication on hold, she continued to mention it occasionally in her letters to her daughter. By 1947, she was physically worn out and suffering from a heart condition which made it necessary for Princess Juliana to act as regent twice. Though her daughter tried to convince her to hold off her abdication until her golden jubilee, Wilhelmina dreaded celebrating another jubilee.
In her memoirs, Wilhelmina wrote, “It was only after the period of transition following the liberation that I felt justified in seriously considering the question of abdication. An incentive was provided by my daily duties, which were more numerous than before the war and left my spirit little or no time for relaxation, which did not help my fitness at moments when special demands were made of me.”3
On 12 May 1948, Wilhelmina announced her intention to abdicate in a speech on the radio. The date had some significance as the date of her father’s inauguration 99 years earlier. On 31 August 1948, a grand celebration took place in the Olympic Stadium of Amsterdam where she spoke the words, “I have fought the good fight.”4
She would officially abdicate on 4 September 1948, 50 years and four days since the start of her personal reign. She signed her abdication in the Royal Palace of Amsterdam which was co-signed by her daughter and son-in-law. She later wrote, “When we entered we found a somewhat subdued atmosphere, which was however soon improved by my happy and cheerful manner. How numerous were and are my reasons for gratitude, in the first place, my confidence in Juliana’s warm feelings for the people we both love so much and in her devotion to the task that was awaiting her and her ability which she had proved on various occasions. Then also the fact that my office was transferred to her during my lifetime and that I might have the opportunity to see something of her reign. Really, there was no room for sadness in my heart.”5
Then Wilhelmina – who had now reverted back to the title and style of Her Royal Highness Princess Wilhelmina – took her daughter to the balcony of the palace to introduce her as the new Queen. She said, “I am honoured to inform you myself that I just signed my abdication in favour of my daughter Queen Juliana. I thank you all for the trust you have placed in me for the last fifty years. I thank you for the affection with which you have surrounded me every time. I look to the future with confidence with my darling only child in charge. God be with you and the Queen. And I am happy to say with all of you, long live our Queen! Huzzah!”
Princess Wilhelmina left the palace through the back door later that day.