Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands

Controversial consort of Queen Juliana and father of Queen Beatrix

On New Year's Eve 1936, the Dutch royal family hosted a small fancy dress party at the Noordeinde Palace in The Hague. The theme was the Arabian Nights. Princess Juliana, the heir to the Dutch throne, wore an elaborate harem costume; other guests dressed up as pashas and houris. Only Juliana's fiancé, Prince Bernhard zur Lippe- Biesterfeld, ignored the theme. He and his younger brother Aschwin stunned the party by appearing in the uniform of soldiers fighting for General Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Bernhard Leopold Friedrich Eberhard Julius Kurt Karl Gottfried Peter zur Lippe-Biesterfeld, Noble Seigneur and Count zu Schwalenberg und Sternberg: born Jena, Germany 29 June 1911; created 1937 Prince of the Netherlands; married 1937 Princess Juliana of the Netherlands (succeeded 1948 as Queen of the Netherlands, abdicated 1980, died 2004; four daughters); died Utrecht, The Netherlands 1 December 2004.

On New Year's Eve 1936, the Dutch royal family hosted a small fancy dress party at the Noordeinde Palace in The Hague. The theme was the Arabian Nights. Princess Juliana, the heir to the Dutch throne, wore an elaborate harem costume; other guests dressed up as pashas and houris. Only Juliana's fiancé, Prince Bernhard zur Lippe- Biesterfeld, ignored the theme. He and his younger brother Aschwin stunned the party by appearing in the uniform of soldiers fighting for General Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Under Bernhard's direction, what had begun as an innocent celebration of his engagement to Juliana ended as a boisterous stag night. Queen Wilhemina, who was deeply religious, tried hard to be amused. "I watched my dear mother-in-law-to-be all through it," Bernhard recalled, "and I must say she took it very well, though I think she was shocked quite a few times. There was never anything like it in the Noordeinde before or since."

The same could be said of Bernhard, a minor German prince who invented a completely new role for himself as consort to Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, after Wilhemina's abdication in 1948. In his prime during the 1950s and 1960s, he was the epitome of the modern, jet-setting prince, just an unlisted phone call away from the leading statesmen and businessmen of the day.

In 1954, for instance, he founded the Bilderberg conferences, a forum where politicians and officials on both sides of the Atlantic could meet to discuss world problems in private. He was the founder-president of the World Wildlife Fund, and president of the Fédération Equestre Internationale. Within the Netherlands, he sat on the board of the national airline KLM, established his own foundation to promote arts and sciences, and held the specially created post of Inspector- General of the Armed Forces.

But Bernhard's downfall, when it came, was suitably spectacular. In February 1976 the US Lockheed Aircraft Corporation confirmed it had made secret payments to politicians and officials in several countries to help obtain contracts. Lockheed's vice-chairman, Carl Kotchian, told a Senate sub-committee that "a high Dutch official" had been paid $1.1m to aid the sale of F-104 G Starfighters to the Netherlands Air Force.

A commission appointed by the Dutch prime minister confirmed that the official was Prince Bernhard, acting in his capacity as Inspector- General of the Armed Forces. The commission was "unable to establish where this money eventually went". Bernhard claimed the money was intended for the World Wildlife Fund; but he never mentioned this fact to Lockheed, and the WWF said it had never received the money. Even more controversial was a further payment of $100,000 to Bernhard in 1968. It was alleged, and equally strongly denied, that he had used this money to buy a Paris apartment for his old friend Poussy Grinda, the sister of a French tennis star.

In a letter to the lower house of the Dutch parliament, Bernhard wrote that

the report has convinced me that my relations with Lockheed have developed along the wrong lines. In particular I have not observed the caution in these that is required by reason of my vulnerable position as consort of the Queen and as Prince of the Netherlands . . . I accept the consequences.

These were: resignation from all positions connected with the armed forces, and an end to his business activities. In addition, Bernhard resigned from his presidency of the WWF.

It was a shaming end to a public career that had begun in what were - by royal standards - relatively humble circumstances. Bernhard zur Lippe- Biesterfeld was born in 1911 into a minor German dynasty whose few remaining prerogatives disappeared at the end of the First World War. He was sent to law school, first in Lausanne, and later in Munich and Berlin. While in Munich he suffered an attack of pleurisy that nearly killed him. Part of his ribcage was removed and for several weeks the surgeons left a hole in his back to drain the wound. During his convalescence, Bernhard used to amuse his friends by smoking a cigarette and exhaling the smoke through the hole.

In 1935 Bernhard joined the Paris office of the chemical combine I.G. Farben. His new career was cut short in 1937 when he married Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, whom he had met at the Winter Olympics in Bavaria. As Juliana's consort, Bernhard could not continue working for a German company. He also renounced his German nationality, in a frosty interview with Hitler. Having become a Dutch citizen, he was commissioned into the Dutch army as a captain.

Despite these gestures, there were many Dutch who suspected Bernhard was at heart a German, and Wilhemina was not prepared at this stage to allow Bernhard a larger role in public life. In May 1940, when the Germans invaded, she appointed him to the State Council, but a few days later he was ordered to accompany Juliana and their two young daughters to the relative safety of London.

There followed four frustrating years. Juliana and the children were dispatched to Canada, while Bernhard stayed in London with Wilhemina. Churchill was wary of letting Bernhard serve with the British forces. Instead, in November 1940 Wilhemina appointed him chief Netherlands liaison officer with the British and he was able to act as a useful conduit for intelligence about the German occupation. The exiled Dutch queen also used him as a roving ambassador to rally what remained of the Dutch empire.

Bernhard's chance to prove himself came in September 1944, when Wilhemina appointed him Commander-in-Chief of the Dutch Forces. The appointment was a ruse by Wilhemina, who feared that captured Dutch resisters would be shot by the retreating Germans as guerrillas. By incorporating them into the Allied forces under General Dwight Eisenhower, she hoped they would be treated as regular soldiers according to the rules of war. A few days later he set up his first headquarters at Diest, just across the border from Belgium. Almost immediately Bernhard became embroiled in controversy.

General Bernard Montgomery was planning an attack to establish a bridgehead across the Rhine at Arnhem. Bernhard later claimed that he and his Chief of Staff tried in vain to persuade Montgomery that the plan was too ambitious. However, after the defeat at Arnhem, it was alleged that there had been an intelligence leak from Bernhard's headquarters, via a Nazi double agent on Bernhard's staff called Christian Lindemans, who was arrested in November 1944. Bernhard protested that Lindemans only arrived at his headquarters three days after the landing at Arnhem. The affair rumbled on until 1986, when the Dutch government released its files on the case. These documents supported Bernhard's contention that he had been used as a scapegoat by the British for the Arnhem débâcle.

When the Lockheed scandal erupted, Bernhard's privileged position as Queen Juliana's consort may have saved him from jail. In August 1976, the Dutch prime minister Joop den Uyl ruled out a criminal prosecution. "The government has finally given consideration to the fact that to open a probably very lengthy criminal investigation, and especially to undertake a prosecution, could have serious consequences for the position of the head of state," he said. It was generally believed that Juliana, an entirely innocent party, had told den Uyl she would abdicate if her husband was prosecuted.

Contrition, like inactivity, did not suit Bernhard. In 1979 he outraged Dutch opinion by appearing at Earl Mountbatten of Burma's funeral in naval uniform - even though he had resigned all his military posts. In 1980, when Juliana abdicated to make way for their eldest daughter, Beatrix, there were more protests when Bernhard was granted a state pension of £195,000.

Nor did Bernhard entirely withdraw from public life. He remained president of the Dutch branch of the WWF and continued to take a close interest in conservation issues. In 1992 it emerged that he had lost £500,000 of his own money in a fantastic scheme, organised from London, to expose rhino-horn poachers in southern Africa.

In recent years Prince Bernhard had appeared rarely in public. But last February he spoke to the press "for my own honour" to deny newspaper allegations that he would have struck a deal with the Nazis to become their regent for the Netherlands, and that he had had affairs with a female friend and a male assistant.

The following month, Princess Juliana died. Despite failing health, Bernhard attended her funeral, supported by his daughters Irene and Queen Beatrix, and wearing his trademark white carnation in his lapel.

Richard Tomlinson



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