Kaiser Turned Woodcutter
Kaiser Wilhelm II's mausoleum at Huis Doorn
© Huis Doorn
ied in the park at Huis Doorn. His two wives were laid to rest in the park at Sanssouci in Potsdam. It was a glorious day at Doorn: Kaiserwetter. Those who followed the coffin included Seyss-Inquart, the Reichskommissar of the occupied Netherlands, and Admiral Canaris, the head of the German military intelligence service. Canaris was later executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, while Seyss-Inquart was executed in Nuremberg after the war. There were swastikas at the funeral, which the Kaiser would not have wanted, and a wreath from Hitler.
The family elected not to open the mausoleum at Huis Doorn to visitors. Peering through the window, I catch a glimpse of the Prussian flag with its black eagle draped over a casket. I walk around the park: the horses, the deer, the graves of the five imperial dogs; the spot where the Kaiser, methodically, obsessively, needlessly, turned thousands of trees into stumps; the majestic trees in the watery autumn sunshine. I wander through the castle, past the dinner services and the silver, the tapestries and the snuffboxes that once belonged to Frederick the Great, a role model for Wilhelm, his epigone. The abundance of knickknacks and bric-à-brac is wearying, but the portrait of the delightful Queen Louise of Prussia, who charmed Napoleon at Tilsit, hits me square in the face: this woman married at seventeen, gave birth to ten children, and died at the age of thirty-four.
I see the dining room with its table laid for eternity, where no one will ever dine again, and the special fork with three tines, one of which also served as a knife for a Kaiser who had a withered left arm. I amble through the bedrooms that once belonged to the Kaiser and his two wives, the smoking room, the study, the library of this amateur archaeologist; the Empress's modern toilet, neatly concealed in an antique closet. This is a place where people lived. Survived. Maintained the appearance of a court in exile. With a Kaiser who read aloud from the Bible every morning to his assembled staff. And who then went out for a walk, to chop wood, eat lunch, have a siesta, answer correspondence from all over the world, dine from plates that were whipped away the moment His Majesty had finished eating. A routine designed to provide meaning in a meaningless life.
Huis Doorn, confiscated after the war, is now the property of the Dutch state. Subsidies have recently been scaled back, but an army of volunteers keeps the place open and running. Whatever happened to the Kaiser's large financial legacy remains a mystery. The House of Orange, the Dutch state, the House of Hohenzollern and the banks provide no clarity. I came to Doorn with the notion that I would find one of the few WWI lieux de mémoire on Dutch soil. However, what I encountered was more like a trou de mémoire of the Great War, and I walked around, somewhat bewildered, within a lieu de mémoire of European absolutist empires and monarchies, perhaps a last echo of the Ancien Régime, surviving in a form that is both tragically ironic and slightly grotesque. After all, the grandmother of Wilhelm (who remained ‘our Willy’ to the British branch of the family) was Queen Victoria and the last tsar was his first cousin by marriage. Huis Doorn? It's most definitely worth a visit.
Translated by Laura Watkinson