Bernhard was born Bernhard Leopold Friedrich Eberhard Julius Kurt Karl Gottfried Peter zu Lippe-Biesterfeld in Jena, Germany, the elder son of Prince Bernhard von Lippe and Baroness Armgard von Sierstorpff-Cramm.
After World War I, the Prince's father lost his German municipality and the revenue that came with it. The Prince spent his early years at Reckenwalde, the family's new estate in East Prussia (now Woynovo in Poland ), near the city of Züllichau (Sulechow). The Prince received his early education at home. When he was twelve, he was sent to board at the gymnasium in Züllichau and several years later to board at a gymnasium in Berlin, from where he graduated in 1929.
Bernhard then studied law at university in Lausanne, Switzerland and in Berlin, where he acquired a taste for fast cars, horseback riding, and big-game hunting safaris. He was reckless and was nearly killed a boating accident and an airplane crash, and he suffered a broken neck and crushed ribs in a 160 km/h (100 mi/h) car crash.
In the 1930s, with the rise of Adolf Hitler, Prince Bernhard's younger brother Aschwin, publicly declared his support for the Nazi Party. Prince Bernhard himself trained as a fighter pilot then was later made an officer of the German Reiter SS Corps. The Prince eventually went to work for the German chemical company, IG Farben. After a period of training, he became Secretary to the Board of Directors at the Paris office in 1935. Because he was a Protestant and a Royal, Bernhard was acceptable by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands as a suitable husband for Princess Juliana. However, Bernhard's appropriateness as the consort of the future Queen would later become a matter of public debate.
Prince Bernhard's political insensitivities in the Netherlands distanced him from the Dutch people at a time when tensions were high and another war in Europe seemed almost certain. First, traveling to the Reich Chancellery, he met personally with Adolf Hitler who had publicly insinuated that the marriage of the German Prince to the future Queen of the Netherlands was a sign of an alliance between the two nations. Then, for several days leading up to his marriage to Princess Juliana on January 7, 1937, Prince Bernhard entertained SS officer Langenheim in the Dutch royal palace. The Prince provided the SS representative with an assessment of the political situation in the Netherlands and the role of the Dutch Nazi Party, all of which was reported back in detail to the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Whether Bernhard in doing so consciously acted against Dutch interests has been a question for debate.
However, Prince Bernhard began to redeem himself in the eyes of the Dutch people at the outset of World War II. Carrying a machine gun, the Prince helped the royal family escape the Netherlands after the German invasion and take refuge in England. Once safely there, Princess Juliana and the children then went on to Canada, where they remained until the end of the war.
In England, Prince Bernhard asked to work in British Intelligence but the War Admiralty, and later General Eisenhower's Allied Command offices, did not trust him sufficiently to allow him access to intelligence information. However, on the recommendation of King George VI, he was later permitted to work in the war planning councils.
From 1942 to 1944 Bernhard flew as a pilot with the Royal Air Force. He also helped organize the Dutch resistance movement and acted as personal secretary for Queen Wilhelmina.
By 1944, Prince Berhard became commander of the Dutch armed forces. After the liberation of the Netherlands, he returned with his family where he became active in the negotiations for the German surrender. He was present during the armistice negotiations and German surrender at Wageningen (in The Netherlands) on May 5, 1945. However, he outraged the Dutch when he declared that he felt sorry for the German General Blaskowitz, later charged with war crimes, who was responsible for the Nazi surrender in the Netherlands. Such matters, plus a much more regal attitude than the unpretentious Princess Juliana, prevented the Prince from becoming genuinely like by the Dutch, but he won some respect for his hard work in helping to reinvigorate the economy of the Netherlands in post-war years.
Prince Bernhard became a member of the councils of all branches of the Netherlands military and was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was made a director of Fokker Aircraft, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and within a few years was invited to serve on the board of directors of numerous international corporations. After a 1952 trip with Queen Juliana to the United States, Prince Bernhard was heralded by the media as a business ambassador extraordinaire for the Netherlands. With his global contacts, in May of 1954 he was key in organizing a meeting at the Bilderberg Hotel in the Netherlands for the male-only business elite and intellectuals of the Western World to discuss the economic problems in the face of the then growing threat from communism. As a result of the success of this first meeting, it would become an annual affair known as the Bilderberg Group. The idea for the European Union was spawned at Bilderberg.
Though generally not reported in the Dutch press, growing strain arose between Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard during this time. The jet-setting Bernard used his many absences from the country to carry on numerous affairs, while throwing lavish parties at the various Dutch embassies.
Although he had once been an avid big-game hunter, Prince Bernhard's most lasting contribution to humanity came in 1961 when he founded the World Wildlife Fund in recognition for the need for conservation. The fund would become one of the world's largest and most respected independent conservation organizations. In the past 40 years the World Wildlife Fund has invested over a billion dollars in 11,000 projects in 130 countries. Prince Bernhard has stayed a dedicated advocate of wildlife conservation all his life.
By the 1970s, Prince Bernhard served on more than 300 corporate boards or committees worldwide and was loudly praised in the Netherlands for his very active efforts to promote the economic well-being of the country. But scandal rocked the Royal family in 1976 when it was revealed that Prince Bernhard had accepted a $1.1 million bribe from U.S. aircraft manufacturer, Lockheed Corporation to influence the Dutch government's purchase of fighter aircraft. Prime minister of the Netherlands Joop den Uyl ordered an inquiry into the affair while Prince Bernhard was refusing to answer reporters' questions, stating: "I am above such things." The Dutch and international press headlined the stories for months, dredging up old records of Prince Bernhard's German SS participation and his numerous extra-marital affairs, including the purchase of a luxurious Paris apartment for mistress Helene Grinda. Further evidence came to light of the Prince having been deeply involved with Tibor Rosenbaum, the Swiss banker and front man for Mafia financier Meyer Lansky. To make things worse, it was revealed that the Prince had also been involved in business dealings with Robert Vesco who had been a frequent guest at the Royal Palace. Vesco used an Amsterdam mailing address while committing the largest single fraud ever, stealing more than US$220 million from a Swiss based company, Investors Overseas Services Ltd.
On August 26, 1976 a toned down, but nonetheless devastating report on Prince Bernhard's activities was released to a shocked Dutch public. The Prince's own letter in 1974 to Lockheed Corporation that demanded "commissions" be paid to him on Dutch government aircraft purchases was one of the most damaging documents in a mountain of evidence. The investigations also revealed other serious actions by the Prince, including arranging to pay more than a million dollars in bribes to Juan Peron of Argentina in exchange for Argentina buying new railroad equipment from the Netherlands.
Prince Bernhard resigned his various high profile positions in many businesses, charities, and other institutions and in return the States-General voted against criminal prosecution. Over time, the Royal family would work hard to rehabilitate the Prince's name.