Preferably everything alone

Freek Schlingmann calls Willem I, the first king of the Netherlands, “father, merchant and enlightened despot”, whose 250th birthday is now being celebrated with a large exhibition. But not in Amsterdam or The Hague, but in Fulda. The Dutch have a split relationship with the monarch, in Fulda they celebrate him as the first secular prince who reformed and modernized the small state. The fact that this happened has to do with the upheavals in Europe that Napoleon Bonaparte had triggered with his wars of conquest.

It was also Napoleon who had deposed Willem Frederik’s father as hereditary governor of the Republic of the United Netherlands. With his brother, Napoleon placed a Frenchman on the throne of the newly created Kingdom of the Netherlands. He offered the Prince Bishopric of Fulda to Willem Frederik’s father in return for the loss of his territories. But the governor did not want to enrich himself at the expense of his peers and renounced the title in favor of Hereditary Prince Willem Frederik.

Fulda Castle, where Willem I, who later became the first king of the Netherlands, reigned as prince from 1802 to 1806 and…Photo: Rolf Brockschmidt

He had no scruples and was supported in this by his mother, Wilhelmine of Prussia, the niece of Frederick the Great. As early as 1795 the family had gone into exile in England and then to Oranienstein near Diez. The Orange Prince Willem Frederik became Prince of Fulda, Corvey, Dortmund and Weingarten in 1802 at the age of 30. Eager to quickly establish a fait accompli, he set about reforming the impoverished territory whose only growing economy was begging. He wanted to gain respect as a model ruler. What was good for him was good for the country. Like his role model Frederick the Great, he saw himself as the first servant of the state.

The prince always spent the winters with his family in Berlin from January to May. In order to live befitting his status, he acquired the so-called Dutch Palace Unter den Linden. Since Willem Frederik fought on the Prussian side against Napoleon and the coalition lost at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806, the Principality of Fulda was also over. “The Prince of Orange no longer governs Fulda,” wrote Napoleon succinctly. After four years, Willem Frederik had to go into exile again in Berlin and England, from where he triumphantly returned to the Netherlands in 1813.

Berlin memorial plaque for Willem I., which was erected on the site of the former…Photo: OTFW, Berlin

After the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig in 1813, the Orangists in the Kingdom of the Netherlands sensed the dawn. Three statesmen, Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, Frans Adam van der Duyn van Maasdam and Leopold van Limburg Stirum, offered the Orange Prince the title of “Sovereign Prince” instead of the antiquated governor. On the condition of a new constitution, Willem Frederik was willing to do this and landed in a fishing boat on the beach at Scheveningen in 1813. At the Congress of Vienna, the great powers decided to form the Northern and Southern Netherlands as a unitary state as a buffer against France – with a king at the head. In personal union he also became Grand Duke of Luxembourg as Willem I. The Southern Netherlands, predominantly Catholic, felt patronized by a Protestant king, and his unfortunate language policy of establishing Dutch in present-day Belgium met with resistance even among Flemings.

“What are ministers? Nothing!”

Willem I was considered a diligent and strong-willed king, but he was resistant to advice. “What are ministers? Nothing! If I want to, I govern without a minister and arbitrarily put people at the head of the ministries, for example my equerry; after all, I am the only one who acts, who is responsible for the actions of the government”, he raged in 1815, when the participation of the States-General in government was to be included in the constitution.

He had seen himself as an enlightened autocrat in little Fulda and determined everything, so he now saw his role in the Netherlands as well. He planned roads and canals throughout the kingdom, something that Dutch and Belgians still benefit from today. He was a believer in railroads, saw to industrialization, land reclamation, education, the founding of the National Archives and the Royal Library in The Hague, and last but not least, the founding of the National Bank of the Netherlands to fund it all. Willem I also tried to push back the influence of the Catholics in the south through church reform, also using tricks when passing the new Basic Law.

Belgium declares itself independent in 1830

Tensions grew to such an extent that the south, now Belgium, declared itself independent in 1830. Willem I could not accept this and ordered Dutch troops to enter the south, whereupon the Belgians asked the French for help. The so-called “ten-day campaign” on the orders of Willem I ended with a retreat. He had to bow to international pressure, Belgium – and with it the unit – was lost. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Brabant and Limburg were divided. The king did not accept the secession until 1839 and finally resigned in 1840 when the ministers were to be given more responsibility.

Willem I in his Berlin exile on Unter den Linden in 1843 – shortly before his death. He died in that chair.Photo: Wikipedia

Bitter, he retired to exile in Berlin Unter den Linden, where he died alone in 1843. Willem I ruled like a patriarch, he expected diligence and work from the emerging bourgeoisie, but he did not think much of democracy and freedom.

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