The Kaiser’s Family Wants Its Stuff Back. Germany Isn’t Sure They Deserve It.
The former royal family lost countless artworks, palaces, and wealth in the 20th century. But were they victims—or enablers of the Nazis?
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It has been a full century since the abdication of the last emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, but the would-be heir to his throne is still known as a prince. Technically, the title has effectively become his last name, but for Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preußen, the great-great-grandson of Germany’s last monarch and the current head of the Prussian noble family the House of Hohenzollern, the trappings of royalty still have an attraction.
Georg Friedrich is in the midst of a suddenly high-profile fight with the German government over property once owned by the former royal family. Some of it was ceded to Germany after the dissolution of the monarchy, and some was taken over the course of the country’s tumultuous 20th-century path from democracy to the Third Reich to division to reunification. Now, the family wants its stuff back. On the negotiating table are thousands of artworks and antiquities, $1.3 million in compensation, and the right of Georg Friedrich to reside in a former family castle.
All this has come to light after the recent leak of proceedings from negotiations between the prince’s family and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg and the federal government—negotiations that were started by Georg Friedrich’s grandfather in the 1990s after the reunification of Germany. Many of the items the family is claiming ownership over have been in public hands for decades. Most have been administered by public agencies and are on display in public museums. Some, including the residence the prince is hoping to occupy, are themselves museums.
The negotiations over these pieces of history have opened questions over the relevance of a long-gone royalty, the country’s capacity to atone for the wrongs of the past, and, most uncomfortably, who can be held responsible for the rise of the Nazis.
They’ve also put an unwanted spotlight on Georg Friedrich, a private citizen and businessman. Though he recently launched a beer brand on the family name, Preußens Pilsener (with the tagline “Majestic Pleasure”), he serves no public role. Yet, as the head of the Hohenzollerns, he represents the complex legacy of a family whose members ruled Germany as kings and emperors for hundreds of years—a monarchy that led Germany into World War I and sparked the revolutions that birthed the republic 100 years ago.
“The last thing I need to define myself is a castle,” Georg Friedrich famously told a German political magazine when he was 28. Now 43, married, and with four young children, his priorities appear to have shifted.
The Hohenzollern family claims came to light this summer when details of the negotiations were revealed by Der Spiegel, just weeks after courts denied Georg Friedrich ownership of another castle from the family’s distant past. Other news sources published a leaked excerpt of the potential compensation being negotiated, including details on the permanent right to residency in one of three palaces built during the time of the German Empire.
Many in Germany were outraged. “This country does not owe a single coffee cup to the next-born of a luckily long-vanquished undemocratic regime, let alone art treasures or real estate,” Stefan Kuzmany, a columnist for Der Spiegel, wrote after the revelations. “Even the request is an insult to the Republic.”
But requests like these have been relatively common in the 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, as families have sought compensation for land, property, and much more taken from their ancestors. Deciding the merits of these compensation requests has been part of the ongoing catharsis in a modern-day Germany that’s coming to terms with the legacies of a very complicated 20th century.
For the Hohenzollern family, this concerns the spoils of many generations at the apex of German nobility—palaces and artwork and antiquities surrendered by the family after the fall of the kaiser in 1918 and even more taken by the Soviets after the end of World War II and the establishment of the communist East German state in 1949.
A law passed after the reunification of Germany in the 1990s secured the legal right for people to claim compensation for property taken from their ancestors. The one catch is that compensation would not be allowed in cases where the ancestors in question had been complicit in the darkest phase of German history by providing “substantial support” to the Nazis—a level of support the law does not define. Photographs of Crown Prince Wilhelm, the son of the former kaiser, with Adolf Hitler in the 1930s and the membership in the Nazi party of another prince have become sticking points in the compensation request of Georg Friedrich. Lawyers and historians hired by the Hohenzollern family and the German government are now trying to determine whether what was taken from the former royal family should be given back.
“What, according to this law, has to be figured out is if the last crown prince had been substantially supporting the Nazi regime or not,” said Stephan Malinowski, a historian at the University of Edinburgh who has been reviewing the records. “And this is a very tricky question to figure out.”
An hour train ride west of Berlin is the city of Potsdam, home to a complex of palaces and gardens built over the past several centuries as summer residences for the kings of Prussia and Germany and now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. On the edge of a lake a short distance from the city’s highlight, Sanssouci Palace, sits Cecilienhof Palace, a 176-room grand residence modeled after an English country manor and completed in 1917—the last such palace built by the German Empire. Now a museum, Cecilienhof Palace is also one of the three options on the negotiating table that, if the Hohenzollern family gets its way, could serve as its permanent residence.
It would be, for the family, a long-awaited return. After the 1918 revolution that brought down the kaiser, the building was one of many royal properties seized from the family. After years of negotiation, a 1926 agreement with the young democratic Weimar Republic in Germany split the assets of the former royal family, handing much of it over to the state, including Cecilienhof. As part of the deal, the former crown prince was granted the right to reside in the palace, an agreement that was set to last for three generations.
The palace quickly became the site of important events in world history. Crown Prince Wilhelm, allowed to live in Germany under the condition that he play no part in politics, hosted Hitler at Cecilienhof and in Potsdam at least three times between 1926 and 1935, according to historical documents. The most significant of these meetings was the so-called Day of Potsdam in March 1933, when newly elected Chancellor Hitler and President Paul von Hindenburg forged an alliance that led to the full Nazi takeover of power. After the German surrender in World War II, the palace continued its significance, hosting the Potsdam Conference of U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, in which the allies divided up the country for postwar occupation and the eventual division into East and West Germany—meetings many call the start of the Cold War.
“The largest part of the former estate was located within the former Soviet zone of occupation and was hence expropriated,” said Markus Hennig, a lawyer for the family. That included Cecilienhof Palace.
After reunification, as soon as the law allowing compensation for the loss of assets through expropriation or occupation was signed in 1994, the Hohenzollern family launched its appeal. More than 25 years later, the details are still being worked out.
“There’s a split, I guess, in the German population,” Malinowski said. “You have, of course, on the right side of the spectrum and among the conservatives, they would say, ‘Well, they’re just claiming back what was always theirs, and there’s nothing wrong about it,’ whereas you have, I would say, a majority of people feeling something very strange is happening here.”
The artworks and antiquities being negotiated have been in public hands for 70 years, and Malinowski says it was a surprise to many people in Germany that it all could potentially become someone’s private property. (Hennig contends the Hohenzollerns have no intentions of removing items from museums.) “I think even for the majority of German citizens it comes as a surprise that there is such a thing as a former royal family,” Malinowski said. He is among a group of historians, including Karina Urbach, who see a clear connection between the former royal family and the rise of the Nazis. He is also among a group of historians, newspapers, and politicians facing legal pressure from the Hohenzollerns over statements made about the negotiations.
Unlike other members of the once dominant noble class, Germany’s former royal family members are not the target of much public attention. When Georg Friedrich and his family relocated to Potsdam in 2018, Gala, a German magazine covering the royals of Europe, briefly turned from its primary focus on British dukes and duchesses to publish a short article on the move, tucking it in a section titled “Other royal and princely houses.”
Though long out of power, the German aristocracy still exists. The legal privileges of noble families were abolished with the founding of the Weimar Republic in 1919, but most were able to keep at least some of their estates, including castles, forests and large stretches of agricultural land. Some have managed to turn these inheritances into thriving businesses. Hereditary aristocratic titles are also still passed down, mostly in the form of the particle “von” in surnames, which is not uncommon in German society. President of the European Commission of the EU Ursula von der Leyen, for example, got the title when she married into a family of former German nobles. There are likely thousands carrying such aristocratic lineage in Germany, but only those from a few families have the residual wealth to go along with the title, including the House of Bavaria, the House of Fugger, the House of Hanover, the House of Hesse, and most of all, the House of Hohenzollern. But wealth doesn’t necessarily draw the public’s interest. When Georg Friedrich’s 2011 wedding was broadcast on national television, the press noted a lack of enthusiasm amongst the German public. “Indifference reigns,” one noted.
Hennig argues that the German media are only now paying such close attention to the family’s negotiations because the leaked documents gave the false impression that secret deals were being made. “He’s a very discrete person. He’s not selling his private life,” Hennig said of Georg Friedrich.
The negotiations have been known to the public since 2014, he says, and what’s been covered in the press in recent months distorts the family’s claims. Like any legal proceeding, he argues, it’s entirely appropriate for negotiations to happen behind closed doors. “The royal family is not asking for more rights than a civil person but not for fewer rights either,” Hennig said.
The Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, which is engaged in these negotiations along with the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, declined an interview request.
Malinowski says that whether the Hohenzollerns want the spotlight or not, the family’s stature and role in the country’s history makes its compensation request notably different from other cases—and therefore worthy of more scrutiny.
“Whatever a crown prince does in the 1920s has a symbolic importance because a lot of people, millions of people and known conservatives, are going to observe him. And if he sends a message to the right wing and the bourgeoisie and the nobility in the country by saying, ‘I’m wearing a swastika, and I’m supporting Hitler,’ then this has an impact. But proving this is close to impossible for historians,” Malinowski said.
“If the question was just to figure out if this man had sympathies with the Nazis, then my answer would be 100 percent clear: Yes, he had, and, yes, he collaborated with Hitler and the Nazis at the beginning of the Third Reich. I don’t think that many historians will argue against this,” he said.
For some, the connections between the Hohenzollern family and the Nazis are too apparent to ignore. The Brandenburg state chapter of Die Linke, Germany’s leftist political party, has taken a stand in opposition to the Hohenzollerns’ compensation request. In August, the party launched an initiative to gather enough signatures to bring the subject of the family’s negotiations before the state parliament so elected officials could openly debate the requested compensation. The initiative’s call for signatures argues that “[t]he great wealth of the Hohenzollern, accumulated over centuries, has been earned by the people. The former real estate and property of the Hohenzollern was (apart from personal belongings) actually state property, which was financed from taxes.”
Anja Mayer is the chair of Die Linke Brandenburg, and she calls the family’s claims “totally outrageous,” noting that lawyers for the family have issued a cease-and-desist order against the party over statements it made about the nature of the negotiations. She says the party launched the initiative simply to bring the public to the negotiating table. “It’s very important that this goes to the state parliament to make it public, to have the people and the government involved,” she said through an interpreter. Mayer contends that the state does not owe the family anything. “Obviously the Hohenzollerns collaborated with the Nazis, and someone who did that does not have any right for compensation afterward,” she said.
“From my point of view, the discussion to what extent the former crown prince might have supported National Socialism is misleading. All his actions were entirely led by the idea of reinstalling monarchy in favor of the House of Hohenzollern,” said Hennig, the Hohenzollern lawyer. “Obviously, he had to take utmost care with all his actions and with everything he said, particularly to protect his family. Nevertheless, the Nazis always found him suspicious. Hitler’s secretary wrote in her diary that the first thing the Führer said after the failed assassination [of him in 1944] was, ‘The crown prince is behind all that.’”
Hennig contends that the children of the former kaiser were no fans of Germany’s new experiment in democracy in the 1920s, and the only interest the crown prince would have had in someone like Hitler was as a disruptor who could open the family’s path back into power.
And even if the crown prince had tried to help Hitler come to power, some say his help wouldn’t have amounted to much. The historian Christopher Clark of Cambridge University was commissioned by the Hohenzollerns to write an expert report in 2011 about the years leading up to the Third Reich. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Clark explained how his research revealed that Crown Prince Wilhelm was almost useless to Hitler, calling him a “twit.” “The crown prince suffered from overconfidence bordering on the delusional. If one were to list Hitler’s most important supporters, he would not be among the first 300,” Clark said. “He is barely mentioned, by the way, in the literature on the Nazi seizure of power.”
The family’s connections with Hitler and the Nazis are well-known and even acknowledged publicly by Georg Friedrich. In fact, Hennig says, it was the government that called for negotiations with the Hohenzollerns to continue. Both sides have had full access to historical reports from both Clark and Malinowski, offering diverging but relevant views of the family and its connections, he says. “The initiative to intensify our communication and to initiate a round table [discussion] came from the public sector. From the beginning, it has been made clear by the government officials that those talks should be held discretely, but we also guaranteed each other full transparency about our level of knowledge and all sources involved,” Hennig said.
The renewed controversy over the negotiations spurred by the leak in July, he suggests, was likely motivated by politics. State elections were held in September in Brandenburg, one of several states formerly part of East Germany where far-right groups are gaining popularity. The state’s finance minister, Christian Görke, a member of Die Linke, had been calling loudly for the end of “secret negotiations” with the Hohenzollern family. Die Linke was hit hard in the election, losing seven of its 17 seats in the state parliament and being ousted from the ruling political coalition. Görke will also lose his position as finance minister. Mayer worries that the incoming coalition leans further to the right and may be more willing to strike an overly generous deal with the Hohenzollern family.
What, if anything, the government owes to the former royal family is still to be decided. The initiative in Brandenburg seems unlikely to pull the negotiations into parliamentary debate given the political sea change there, and both the family and the government entities involved in the negotiations have expressed their interest in avoiding formal court proceedings. But the desire to come to a mutual agreement behind closed doors strikes some as a missed opportunity to openly reckon with these complex and sometimes contradictory elements of German history—a history that’s still very much a matter of debate.
“Of course the family has an interest in order to portray the family history in a pleasant light. Unfortunately there are not so many pleasant things to discover the more you look at it,” Malinowski said. “I’m quite confident that the picture in the Weimar Republic and in the Third Reich of this family becomes darker and darker the more you look at it. Which might be said about very many German families.”
Hennig says the negotiations will continue. “Our common interest is a wide-ranging and amicable settlement,” he said.