For as long as she could speak, Wilhelmina only ever knew a life where she was (or would become) Queen of the Netherlands. The longest reigning Dutch monarch led her people through tumultuous times—the dawn of the 20th Century, the economic collapse of the 1930s, and both World Wars. She did so with dignity and aplomb, unquestionably committed to the principles of Dutch sovereignty.
Born in 1880 to King Willem III and his second wife, Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont, a four-year-old Wilhelmina became heir presumptive to the Netherlands after the death of her half-brother and great uncle. Willem died shortly after Wilhelmina’s tenth birthday. Emma served as regent for the young queen until Wilhelmina’s enthronement at the age of 18.
Queen Wilhelmina handled the early challenges of her life with a stubborn grace. The young queen certainly left an impression. Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom described the young Wilhelmina as pretty, polite, and intelligent, but Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany could attest to her keen wit. During a meeting prior to World War I, the Kaiser commented that his guards were “seven feet tall,” while Queen Wilhelmina’s were “only shoulder high.” She elegantly responded, “Quite true, Your Majesty, your guards are seven feet tall, but when we open our dikes, the water is ten feet deep!” The Netherlands maintained neutrality for the duration of World War I thanks to negotiations with the German Emperor—perhaps he remembered her threat.
Despite Dutch neutrality, Wilhelmina supported a strong defense policy throughout the Great War. She took an active interest in her nation’s military and insisted upon a protocol of vigilance at her country’s borders, even when it came to her husband, Prince Henry, crossing to visit his German family. She often traveled the country to visit troops and donate to relief funds. Much to Wilhelmina’s discontent, a sprawling World War I entangled the Netherlands in unexpected ways. The Allied blockade hindered Dutch trade, a sore point for a great merchant power. At the war’s end, Allied forces protested Wilhelmina’s decision to grant the Kaiser political asylum.
Queen Wilhelmina’s experiences in the War to End All Wars tempered her reign before the next world war began. She laid her husband to rest, then her mother, and secured the future of her royal line by helping her daughter Princess Juliana locate a suitable husband. Amidst all this, and around the wreckage of the world economy, her prudent investments would see her become one of the wealthiest people in the world.
World War II came to the Netherlands on May 10th, 1940 in the form of German invasion. Queen Wilhelmina declared a “flaming protest” at the attacks on her territory. She fled the Netherlands, taking refuge in England and sending her family to Canada for the war’s duration. Her departure was a calculated rather than cowardly move— if she remained, her people would assume collaboration. Wilhelmina’s departure declared her resistance. Her government-in-exile remained in London until the war’s end, and she encouraged occupied territories to remain strong on Radio Oranje. Spurred on by her words, the Dutch resistance fought on until her return in 1945.
After two World Wars and fifty-eight years of rule, Wilhelmina abdicated her throne to her daughter Juliana in 1948. During her reign, her decisions saw her nation through one of the most difficult times in modern history. Today, she remains fondly remembered by the Dutch.