Obituary: Prince Bernhard

German-born consort to Holland's Queen whose life embraced triumph - and scandal

Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who has died aged 93 of cancer, peaked in 1944 as commander-in-chief of the Dutch armed forces and troughed in 1976, when exposed for taking bribes in the global Lockheed scandal.

The choice of Bernhard, a dashing young princeling from a dispossessed but wealthy German house, as consort for Juliana, only daughter of Queen Wilhelmina and last of her line, was normal for the House of Orange-Nassau. What was unusual was that Juliana did the choosing. She met him at the winter Olympics in Bavaria in 1936 and they married in 1937. Beatrix, the present queen, was born in 1938.

His first Dutch appointment was as an army captain. He was used to uniforms, having joined the Nazi brownshirts on Hitler's accession in 1933 and moved on to the SS in 1934. The official biography says he left in 1935, on completing his law degree, and that he had joined only to evade Nazi tests imposed on students. He then worked in Paris for the chemical cartel IG Farben. He met Hitler once, to resign his German citizenship. The Fuhrer was the only European leader who did not send a wedding gift.

In 1939, Wilhelmina made her son-in-law the forces' inspector-general. When the Germans invaded, the royals left, and, in Britain, he learned to fly, sneaking off on US Army Air Force combat missions as "Wing-Commander Gibbs". Then, in September 1944, he was appointed Dutch c-in-c and proved a dashing commander. In the true Orange tradition, the Prince gave military succour to his adopted nation. He personally prevented orgies of revenge against the former occupiers and collaborators.

He thus handsomely lived up to the gesture so many Dutch people had made on his birthday, June 29 1940, six weeks after their defeat. Forbidden to fly Dutch or Orange flags, they put white carnations in their buttonholes; the Prince always wore one.

Rather fewer joined the floral demo on his 65th birthday in 1976 - three months after Bernhard was revealed as the "high Dutch official" who, a US Senate investigation indicated, had taken $1.1m from Lockheed.

The House of Orange's fabulous wealth did not come from giving money away. The state paid Bernhard 798,000 guilders (£110,000) a year tax-free at the time of the scandal, and the US Senate was also told he used some of the money to support a mistress in Paris. He gave up his public offices and, most painfully of all, his inspector-general's uniform. Following Orange tradition, Juliana abdicated in 1980 and the couple lived a secluded life.

Postwar, Bernhard rejected ultra-conservative overtures to suspend democracy to facilitate reconstruction. But in a 1971 interview he caused a minor constitutional crisis by admitting he had told a prime minister that the government should have the chance to rule without the traditionally fractious Dutch parliament for a year or two. This authoritarian trait was typical of a frustrated ruler: prewar he wanted Dutch Nazis shot without trial for using the Hitler salute, and in 1957 personally confiscated a driver's licence for ignoring a right of way.

For 30 years, he travelled the world promoting the economic and cultural interests of the Netherlands, as well as his pet causes. He also helped to restore relations with Indonesia, the former Dutch colony embittered by a brutal war of liberation. He set up the Bilderberg Circle, a private forum for frank discussion of world issues by the west's great and good, and a string of foundations funded by rich friends, the first to buy wartime Spitfires. He collected $10m from the "1,001 Club" of his and his wife's friends: the entry fee was $10,000 to the World Wildlife Fund, which made him president, as did the International Equestrian Federation.

I last saw him at a 1988 London conference on Anglo-Dutch wartime relations. Alert and debonair as ever, he sported the white carnation and seemed entirely at home. In such a context at least he had every right to be.

Queen Juliana died earlier this year. He is survived by his daughter Queen Beatrix, and by Princesses Irene, Margriet and Christina.

· Bernhard Leopold Frederik Everhard Julius Coert Karel Godfried Pieter, Prince of the Netherlands, born June 29 1911; died December 1 2004

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