Only the Good Die Young

Last Wednesday evening (1 December) Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands died in hospital at Utrecht, at the age of 93. He had been the husband, or “prince-consort,” of Queen Juliana (mother of the present Queen Beatrix), who herself died earlier this year, on March 20. The highlight of the service to his adopted country that this German-born prince performed was no doubt his role during Holland’s occupation in World War II, when he commanded the Dutch resistance from his post in London. The day after his death, as you would expect the Dutch press was filled with remembrance and tribute articles, even the financial press (free registration required). These included, from the Algemeen Dagblad, A Fighter to the End (free registration required), which is perhaps a strange title since, shortly after being admitted to the hospital for the last time, the Prince instructed his doctors not to intervene anymore. Plus, he had reportedly communicated to friends the loss of his will to live after the death of his wife in the spring. Also from the AD: the tribute They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore, by Marc Kruyswijk. Make them how? Namely “difficult, but full of character, headstrong, but colorful. Convinced that he is right – whether he was right or not.” Well, we’ll see how “right” Prince Bernhard was.

It only took one day later for the dirty laundry to start being laid out in public. And for all his wartime record, the Prince had quite a load of dirty laundry indeed that he had accumulated through his life.


The highlight of that was – probably – the “Lockheed Affair” of the mid-1970s, in which investigations by the US Congress turned up the issuing of bribes, of over one million dollars, by that American aircraft manufacturer to a highly-placed Dutch official for the purpose of influencing the Dutch government to purchase certain Lockheed-made warplanes. Suspicion centered heavily on the Prince as that highly-placed official, who nonetheless informed the then-Dutch premier, Joop den Uyl, that it wasn’t him. Wanting the matter looked into further nevertheless, Den Uyl established the “Donner Commission,” an investigative commission of three Dutch “wise men” headed by A.M. Donner (then a judge on the European Court of Justice) to investigate. From what they found, it sure seemed that Prince Bernhard was their man; true, they found no “smoking receipts” for the money written in the Prince’s hand, but they did uncover two letters from him to Lockheed soliciting “commissions” for helping to push their Orion military airplane on the Dutch air force.

Confronted by the commission with these letters, the Prince’s reaction was somewhat predictable: “Those can’t be from me!” “If they are, I’ve forgotten all about it,” and “It was all in the cause of winning more funds for the World Wildlife Fund,” a save-the-animals charity that the Prince had founded and headed since 1961. To which the corresponding text in the Donner Commission’s final report noted that there was no indication that Lockheed intended to pay the money to anyone but the Prince directly.

So it sure looked like it was the Prince, that war-hero Prince, who had distorted the military interests of the same country whose taxpayers were paying millions each year to finance his luxurious life-style, in order simply to supplement those millions of Dutch guilders with a few millions more. But actually prosecuting a member of the Dutch Royal Family would open up a whole can of constitutional worms that neither Den Uyl or anyone else in his government wanted to see. Prince Bernhard was simply removed from his position of Inspector-General of the Dutch armed forces and forbidden to wear a military uniform in public anymore. And to those who had the rank and the nerve to ask him about Lockheed he would simply refuse to answer, saying Ik sta hierboven – “I’m above all of that.”


But now he is dead, and it took only until the second day after his death was announced for many (but not all) Dutch newspapers to follow with the news of the conversations with friend and journalist Martin van Amerongen that the Prince had had between 1995 and 2002, which van Amerongen (shortly before his own death in 2002 which brought them to a halt) put together into an interview, with the understanding from the Prince that nothing was to be published until he, Bernhard, was dead. Van Amerongen worked for a local Amsterdam weekly, De Groene Amsterdammer, and that paper has indeed announced its intention to publish the collective Van Amerongen interview in next week’s edition. (Some extracts to whet the public’s appetite, in Dutch of course, are here – no, no registration required.)

What’s in that “interview”? Among other things, what’s there is Bernhard’s confession that he did indeed take Lockheed’s money, in the amount of $1.1 million, back in the mid-1970s. Not that he saw much of it, you understand: “Of that million, by the way, the greatest part of it I never saw in my lifetime, and I gave the rest away. But that doesn’t matter at all for history’s sake. I’ve become reconciled to the fact that soon the word Lockheed will be engraved on my gravestone.” Indeed. Nonetheless, according to coverage of the Lockheed revelations in the NRC Handelsblad (free registration required), it seems that his wish will be granted to be buried (in the House of Orange crypt in Delft, of course) in the uniform of a general of the Dutch air force. (You recall that he wasn’t supposed to appear anymore in a military uniform after Lockheed, but in fact through the years the Dutch government granted him certain exceptions, such as when he was on the reviewing-stand for “Victory in Europe” commemorations each May.) On the other hand, if his corpse is to be dressed that way, then the current government intends to refuse his wish to have his body displayed to mourners in a half-open casket.

The truly best article of all on this affair that I’ve found so far in Dutch coverage is the opinion-piece also published in the NRCMyth Gave Bernhard Plenty of Space – by Ben van der Velden, who wrote for the NRC back during the 1970s, including over the Lockheed affair. It’s to this article that I owe much of the narrative I give above about Bernhard and Lockheed. But Van der Velden’s larger point is that, despite the findings of the Donner Commission that verged as close to an outright accusation of bribe-taking as you can get, Bernhard was still able to offer his feeble excuses and then just walk away, not letting the affair – or the reduced privileges for him that was its result – visibly bother him in any way. (Remember “I’m above all that.”) The reason he got away with this is, as Van der Velden puts it, precisely the relationship he had with the Dutch: a combination of myth (Prince Bernhard was the victorious wartime resistance leader to many, and would so ever be) and dull indifference. Those who cared about what he might do regarded him as once and forever a hero; and most other people simply didn’t care. The unstated, but crystal-clear extension of this argument is that Bernhard has been able to do this yet again – namely by putting off confessing to his misdeeds in the Lockheed affair until he was no longer around to have it embarrass him – and, once again, the outrage will be missing.


The thing is, Bernhard’s “dirty laundry” did not stop there. First of all, there were the stories of bordello-visits and illegitimate children – including at least one identified, and refused permission to attend the family-only funeral ceremonies – but that was apparently merely par for the course, nothing to get too upset about. But there were also other things, definitely not “par for the course.” Bernhard was, after all, born into the lower German nobility in 1911, and so found himself in Nazi Germany in his twenties (before marrying Princess Juliana in 1937). He always maintained that he hadn’t really been a member of the Nazi party, that someone else had registered him and he had never sent any financial contribution. Recent research – mentioned in the Dutch newspaper Trouw (Prince Took His Revenge on his Death-Bed – free registration required) – has shown otherwise, and that article also tells of how Bernhard at least had enough strength before he died to call and give a piece of his mind to the researcher who had discovered and published a copy of his Nazi Party membership card.

Quite by accident, I recently turned up a pair of even graver accusations against the Prince. The first had to do with a letter he allegedly had conveyed to Heinrich Himmler, head of Hitler’s SS, in 1942, offering in the case of a Nazi victory to take up the function as Gauleiter of the Netherlands, as long as the Nazis agreed in that case to leave the Dutch royal House of Orange undisturbed. The second involved his regular visitations to certain London bordellos even as he was the top representative of the Dutch government-in-exile there during the War, in the company of a comrade (code-named KingKong) who happened to be a German spy. You’ve all heard of “A Bridge Too Far,” the allied disaster in trying to capture Arnhem by parachute assault in September, 1944; well, this accuser maintains that it was Bernhard who spilled word of these plans to the Germans beforehand, so that some Wehrmacht divisions could be waiting near Arnhem as the British (and Polish) paratroopers dropped. Not only did that defeat result in a decimation of the British First Airborne Division, it also delayed the liberation of most of the Netherlands for at least six months – long enough for the so-called “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45, when thousands of Dutch starved to death as Holland was the front-line between the armies and the Nazis drastically reduced civilian rations.

This accuser’s name is Theo van Gogh; yes, better known as the movie director assassinated on Election Day by a Moroccan Islamist gunman. But he was also an essayist, or better said, a polemicist. He wrote for a succession of Dutch newspapers, moving on to the next one as he became just too controversial for the one before. This particular article he wrote for his periodic column in the “Metro” newspaper, and so I can’t give you a link to it, since “Metro” doesn’t make archives like that available. But it is reproduced in the book he brought out in 2003 which was a compilation of his writings, entitled Allah Weet Het Beter, or “Allah Knows Better” – available only in Dutch, and so only from Dutch-book Internet bookstores, such as the Belgium-based Proxis.

So maybe that accusation about Arnhem and “A Bridge Too Far” is true, maybe it is not. We’re lucky, though, that there are enough people still around to set the record straight about what the life of Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands really was all about, if only in somewhat of a patchwork way. Let’s let the last words be his, from the extracts already published of the Groene Amsterdammer interview: “I always had earned a lot of money, so I didn’t need that million from Lockheed. How stupid could I be?”

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