Wednesday, October 23, 2019

He’s no Stauffenberg

By Thomas Schuler

It was almost 15 years ago when Prince Georg Friedrich of Prussia announced his return from his birthplace of Bremen to Berlin and Potsdam. His ancestors in the House of Hohenzollern, which the 43-year-old has titularly headed since 1994, had been Prussian kings since 1701 and German emperors from 1871 until the abrupt end of the monarchy in 1918. In 2005, the prince said in an interview with the monthly journal Cicero: “I have difficulties with being designated an aristocrat. I see myself as a perfectly normal citizen of the Federal Republic.”

This was a welcome pronouncement in Germany. Although he stressed that it was important to him that his family be perceived as “an institution,” he added, with humility: “But for this I don’t need a castle. I’d be happy if I could just sit in a cafe with my laptop. I grew up in a cottage in Fischerhude and was happy as could be. The last thing I need to define myself is a castle. We can get by just fine without” – without a castle, he means. What impressed the public was his critical historical awareness. At a symposium on Kaiser Wilhelm II, the prince’s great-great-grandfather who abdicated in 1918, he said that quite deliberately the participating historians would deal critically with his forebear. He also spoke openly about “entanglements with the Nazis,” which he in no way disputes.

Thus, Prince August Wilhelm, a son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, allowed himself to be roped in by the National Socialists. However, Prince Ferdinand, the grandfather of the current crown prince, was an active member of the resistance against the Nazi dictatorship. “Alongside many bright lights, we also had our black sheep, just like in many families.”

The semblance of humility and restraint vis-a-vis reality has since given way. Since the middle of July, it is on record that Prince Georg Friedrich is demanding from the federal government and from the states of Berlin and Brandenburg the return of thousands of artworks currently being exhibited on loan in state museums. They are worth hundreds of millions of euros. He also demands at least €1.2 million in damages for family assets nationalized in 1926. As a result of the postwar Soviet occupation of German lands, the Hohenzollerns lost the right of residency in castles in the east for having collaborated with the Nazis.

According to the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, which first publicized the secret negotiations, he also demanded “the permanent right of residency at Potsdam’s Cecilienhof Palace or two other castle villas at no cost” as well as the reappropriation of a trove of paintings and other museum items that were confiscated after World War II. They are worth hundreds of millions of euros.

Public outcry came quickly on the heels of the recent revelations, followed by pointed criticism from Berlin politicians. “Emptying collections and museums that have been maintained for decades with taxpayer money is unimaginable. Residency rights in Cecilienhof considering the context of the last century of its history is also a non-starter,” says Berlin Permanent Secretary for Culture Torsten Wohlert.

The issue is about more than the return of assets to an aristocratic family. It also touches on the reinterpretation of history. A law passed in 1994 forbids any awarding of damages if the beneficiary provided significant assistance to the Nazi regime. Although or because historians agree on the applicability of the law in this case, the demand for damages triggered a debate on the role of aristocracy – and the Hohenzollerns in particular – in the Third Reich.

Three years ago, the Hohenzollerns began speaking of newly discovered sources substantiating claims that in 1932, the crown prince sought to “thwart Hitler.” A lawyer for the family, Markus Hennig, emphasized that, unbeknownst to the public, the family had had “contact to the resistance” against Hitler and that the crown prince had been “chosen as head of state” by the conspirators around Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg in the event of a successful assassination of Hitler. As presented by the family and their attorney, it sounds as if the resistance was the determining element in the Hohenzollerns’ relationship to Hitler and the National Socialists.

Historians disagree. Stephan Malinowski, who teaches at the University of Edinburgh, has researched the role of the aristocracy in the Third Reich and has provided expert testimony on behalf of the Brandenburg state government, stressed in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “This interpretation has never to this day been borne out by one single document. If judges were to identify the former crown prince as a member of the resistance, in contradiction to 40 years of specialized research, it would be truly enlightening to see the supporting evidence.”

In terms of the July 20 plot to kill Hitler, Malinowski concedes that “above all, older conspirators discussed the House of Hohenzollern as a solution for filling the expected vacuum left by a successful assassination of Hitler. […] Seizing on contacts between the family and the right flank of the July 20 plotters to deduce affiliation to the resistance seems rash considering the scant results of research on the matter.”

The crown prince is rather seen as “a symbol of the collaboration that allowed Hitler access to the apparatus of state.” When Germany’s first concentration camp opened in Dachau, the crown prince wrote in a letter to the American opera singer and actress Geraldine Farrar that the “ingenious Führer” should be given time to complete his “clean-up work.” He signed the correspondence with “Heil Hitler!” and sent a duplicate copy to Joseph Goebbels. In letters to Hitler, he addressed the German chancellor as “Mein Führer!”

The federal and state governments categorically reject the prince’s demands. The State Ministry of Culture is evidently seeking to avoid a dispute and is proceeding cautiously. A permanent comprehensive solution is targeted for the myriad art collections and objects in question, but the two sides are still a long way from an agreement. The occasional politician is already requesting that streets and public squares honoring the Hohenzollerns be renamed. The family’s attorney has now explained the family’s demands as an attempt at legal clarification of their assets and has expressed eagerness to avoid further scandal.

Perhaps the prince fears being seen as greedy. After all, the claim that he owns no castle or palace doesn’t hold water. He regularly visits Hohenzollern Castle in Hechingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, the ancestral seat of his family. A successful claim for residency rights in Berlin and Potsdam would thus secure for the Hohenzollerns their second, third and fourth castles.

At the end of June, Georg Friedrich Prince of Prussia was defeated in court as part of another legal dispute regarding Rheinfels Castle in Koblenz. He had also attempted to reclaim this former family estate high above St. Goar on the Rhine. In 1924, the city of St. Goar gained ownership of the castle on the condition that it would never be sold. In 1998, the city signed a 99-year leasehold agreement with the hotel in close vicinity to the castle ruins – with the option to double the length of the term. The head of the Hohenzollern clan is arguing that the agreement more or less amounts to a sale of the property, which would be forbidden by the conditional ownership terms of 1924. Also at issue are the renovation costs. Mayor Horst Vogt (CDU) has declared that the city, state and hotel have invested millions in the asset, and that the Hohenzollerns would enjoy zero success “with their raid,” at least in the short term. It is not yet clear whether the family will contest the ruling.

Historian Norbert Frei, a professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Jena and currently also a professor at Stanford, points out that even if no judgement is returned allowing the family to reclaim its assets, the psychological damage has already been done “by dint of a counter-Enlightenment that distorts historical facts, blurs responsibilities and obliterates critical historical awareness. In some media reports, it is already suggested that the role of the Hohenzollerns in the transition of Germany from Weimar democracy to Hitler’s dictatorship is ‘disputed.’ The opposite is true. In 1933, it was perfectly clear that the Hohenzollerns did not stand with the republic. They were indeed among Hitler’s enablers.”

Thomas Schuler
is a freelance journalist based in Munich.