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The German history wars

The former Prussian royal family’s effort to recover riches lost after the Second World War hinges on one question: did their ancestors’ support help Hitler and the Nazis take power?

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On 29 August 2020, German demonstrators protesting against Covid restrictions tried to storm the Reichstag building in Berlin. Unlike their counterparts in Washington, DC on 6 January, they did not succeed; there were far fewer protesters, and there was no head of state to goad them. It was startling to see some of the Berlin mob waving flags and banners in the colours of pre-1918 imperial Germany – black, white and red – in the same way that the Washington crowd waved flags of the Confederacy.

These are also the colours Hitler used when he designed the Nazi Party’s flag. They stand for a distinctively authoritarian concept of Germany, in contrast to the black, red and gold of the 1848 Revolution, the Weimar Republic from 1918 to 1933, and today’s national flag.

There is no chance of a monarchical restoration in Germany. The far-right Reichsbürger (Reich Citizens) movement, founded in 1985 by a former railway traffic superintendent, has fewer than 20,000 adherents, including those who were brandishing the imperial German flags in front of the Reichstag. The refusal of the Reichsbürger to recognise the legitimacy of the modern German state has led to sporadic acts of violence, including the fatal shooting of a policeman in 2016. But when they are not engaged in activities such as issuing their own “Reich” currency and postage stamps, the members spend their time quarrelling with each other and are not taken seriously even by other parts of the German far right.

The idea of restoring the German Reich has only a limited appeal in Germany. The Hohenzollerns, the royal family of Prussia and then, following the unification of Germany in 1871, the German Reich, are not going to make a comeback, nor, surely, would they ever want to. But they have recently emerged from decades of obscurity to make headlines again.

This time it’s not so much about politics as about property. The Hohenzollern family is headed by Georg Friedrich, “Prince of Prussia”, the great-great-grandson of Wilhelm II, the last Kaiser, who reigned between 1888 and 1918. Georg Friedrich is a businessman who, among other things, has launched a variety of beer called Prussia’s Pils (drinking it, the advertising copy claims, is a “majestic pleasure”). It seemed an obvious business move to try to recover, or obtain compensation for, some of the family’s former property lost during Germany’s turbulent 20th century.

In 1918, a socialist revolution forced the Kaiser off the throne following Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Wilhelm II went into exile, taking with him 59 railway wagons laden with his possessions, including furniture and works of art, which he used to furnish a manor house in the Netherlands, where he spent the rest of his life.

After the Second World War, all this was confiscated by the Dutch state on the grounds that the ex-Kaiser and his sons had supported the Nazis, and in 1953 it transferred the house and its contents to a specially created foundation, which has kept it as a museum. In 2014 the Hohenzollern family began proceedings through the international law firm Eversheds to have it returned to their possession. But in May 2015, the Dutch government rejected the claim, and there the matter has rested.

Far more extensive, however, were the family’s properties in Germany itself, confiscated in the 1918 Revolution. In 1926 the Hohenzollerns managed to reclaim a sizeable portion of their property through an agreement signed with the government. Post-1945, their possessions and estates were mostly located to the east of the Iron Curtain, where they were confiscated again, this time by the Soviet Union. After its creation in 1949, the German Democratic Republic, a Soviet puppet state, nationalised the possessions along with most other private property. So when the Berlin Wall fell, they were appropriated by the reunited German state. Faced with millions of claims from individuals, families and businesses, the German parliament allowed the return of property confiscated by the East German state and then, in 1994, it passed a measure permitting compensation for the loss of property confiscated by the Allies between 1945 and 1949.

[see also: What the Hitler conspiracies mean]

But there was a catch. The 1994 law acknowledged the validity of compensation claims only if the previous owners had not “significantly promoted the National Socialist or the Communist System”. So in 2011, Prince Georg Heinrich commissioned the Cambridge historian Christopher Clark to produce a confidential report on the question of whether or not his ancestors had lent significant support to the Nazis.

Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, Clark is a household name in Germany. The German edition of his history of Prussia, Iron Kingdom (2006), was a bestseller and brought him into contact with Prince Georg Heinrich, whose lavish wedding celebrations he is rumoured to have attended in 2011. A year later he published The Sleepwalkers, a gripping narrative of the outbreak of the First World War, which appeared in German in time for the centenary commemorations and topped the bestseller lists for weeks. It earned him national fame, media appearances, interviews with politicians, and invitations on to chat shows, where he would gladly sing revolutionary songs from the year 1848 in an agreeable light tenor and in perfect German. Since then he has fronted four popular history series on German TV, the most recent involving visits to Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Clark owes his popularity in Germany not just to his compulsively readable histories, or his impressive articulacy and charm. It is also because his books are widely understood to lift the guilt many felt about the history of Prussia, abolished in 1947 as the cradle of militarism, and the outbreak of the First World War, which the 1919 Treaty of Versailles blamed on Germany.

It is not that Clark’s books are biased. As he rightly says, it’s time to move on from finger-pointing and treat these as historical topics like any other. Prussia stood for more than simply militarism, particularly during the Enlightenment, and all the countries involved in the catastrophe of 1914 had territorial ambitions, not just Germany. That Clark is Australian-born and teaches at Cambridge was taken in Germany as a sign of his lack of parti pris. When he was knighted in 2015, it was for services to Anglo-German relations, and on the recommendation of the then foreign secretary Philip Hammond, who had heard good things about him from his German counterparts.

It is a curious fact that if you say Germany was not exclusively or even primarily responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914, you are regarded as left wing in Britain and right wing in Germany. When I dared to suggest in 2014 that the war was not about the British defending democracy against the Kaiser’s attempt to crush it in Europe, Michael Gove denounced me as someone peddling “left-wing versions of the past”. In Germany, Clark has been equally misunderstood as advocating a right-wing version of history biased in favour of the Hohenzollerns. But anyone expecting him to say nice things about them in his report on their relationship with the Nazis must have been disappointed.

Clark made it clear that, after his abdication in 1918, the ex-Kaiser wanted his throne back. When the National Socialists started to win electoral support from the end of the 1920s, Wilhelm put his faith in Hitler as a means of bringing about a Hohenzollern restoration. The ex-Kaiser approved both of the decision of his fourth son August Wilhelm to become a Nazi stormtrooper in 1930, and his wife’s attendance at the Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally. Deeply anti-Semitic, Wilhelm blamed his overthrow in 1918 on a Jewish conspiracy and declared Jews, “a poisonous fungus on the German oak tree”. He declared they should be exterminated. “I believe,” he said privately, “gas would be best.”

Eager for support from monarchists, the Nazis reciprocated. Leading Nazi Hermann Göring travelled to the Netherlands for a meeting with Wilhelm in January 1931, and again in the summer of 1932. But the law did not permit the ex-Kaiser to return to Germany, whereas his son, “Crown Prince” Wilhelm could come and go as he pleased. In the second round of the presidential election in April 1932, the Crown Prince publicly declared he would vote for Hitler against the sitting president, Paul von Hindenburg. After the election, which Hitler lost, the Crown Prince boasted that his support had nevertheless won Hitler two million extra votes. He also wrote to Hitler in September 1932 expressing his hope that the Nazi leader would come to power in a coalition cabinet with conservatives (which he did in January 1933). In meetings with the Crown Prince in 1926 and 1932, Hitler encouraged him to think that if he came to power, the Hohenzollerns could be restored after the death of the aged Hindenburg.

However, when Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler declared himself head of state, and both the Crown Prince and his father realised that the Nazi leader had no intention of facilitating a Hohenzollern restoration. Dim-witted and unpopular, the Crown Prince, Clark concluded in his report, was a playboy, fond of fast women and fast cars, and famous for the affairs and flirtations which the writer Lion Feuchtwanger pilloried to comic effect in his novel The Oppermanns (1933). He was, Clark wrote, “a twit”, and while he was undeniably pro-Nazi, the help he gave the Nazis was not “substantial”.

***

Armed with Clark’s report, Prince Georg and his lawyers launched their restitution and compensation claim in 2014. Their demands were reported to include the permanent right of rent-free residence for the family in the 176-room Cecilienhof, and involve some 15,000 items of property. Prince Georg withdrew his claim to reside at the Cecilienhof but the rest remained. They also requested “institutionalised participation” in state-owned “public institutions” (museums, castles and the like) to which they had made permanent loans of items.

Initially, a local authority in the state of Brandenburg, where most of the property was located, granted the Hohenzollerns compensation of €1.2m, but this was overruled by the state government’s finance ministry, which commissioned two further historians to provide reports.

The first of these was Peter Brandt – son of the Social Democratic chancellor the late Willy Brandt – who is best known for his 1981 book on the social history of old Prussia; the second, Stephan Malinowski, is an expert on the history of the German aristocracy who teaches at the University of Edinburgh. Both provided evidence to show that the Crown Prince was an admirer of Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in Italy, where King Victor Emmanuel III remained on the throne as formal head of state. The Crown Prince thought this provided a model for a future dictatorship in Germany. His public backing for the Nazis in 1932 and 1933 was, Brandt and Malinowski concluded, a significant influence in persuading large numbers of monarchist Germans to vote for Hitler and support the Third Reich thereafter.

[see also: Why Trump isn’t a fascist]

Further important evidence was supplied after the last, semi-free elections of the Weimar Republic, on the Day of Potsdam on 21 March 1933. Here, Hitler staged a reconciliation with the old order at the opening of the newly elected parliament. At this point, the Nazi leader had not yet established a full dictatorship. He needed conservative support for a majority in the Reichstag. But many German conservatives, from the old elites, the business world, the armed forces, landed society, and the churches, worried about the violence of Nazi stormtroopers and the “socialist” rhetoric of the party’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

The Hohenzollerns turned up to the Day of Potsdam in force. Broadcast on national radio, celebrated in the middle-class nationalist press, and reported abroad, the ceremony marked the symbiosis of nationalist traditionalism and National Socialist radicalism. As the historian Karl Dietrich Bracher noted in his classic 1960 account of the Nazi seizure of power, the ceremony was important for “the number of those who used it to justify their fellow-travelling with the new order; the phenomenon of the “March violets” [the middle-class Germans who joined the Nazi Party in 1933] is also as closely connected with it as possible”.

As Ulrich Herbert, a leading German historian of Nazism, concluded, it was difficult to sustain the argument that the Crown Prince was a marginal figure after Malin- owski and Brandt had presented their evidence. For Heinrich August Winkler, doyen of historians of the Weimar Republic, there was no doubt that: “Merely by calling on people to vote for Hitler in the second round of the Reich presidential elections in April 1932, the Crown Prince had performed an important contribution to making Hitler acceptable to conservative Germans loyal to the Kaiser.” Winkler showed that two million more people voted for Hitler in the second round compared to the first, and the overwhelming majority of these were conservative, middle-class electors who treasured the memory of the Bismarckian Reich.

***

In the light of these new findings, Clark changed his mind, conceding that “the Crown Prince had energetically worked to overcome the reservations of conservatives about dealing with the Nazis, also after the seizure of power”. He had supported the Hohenzollerns’ claims in his report, he said, because he thought they only involved “a few landscape paintings and family heirlooms”. Had he known how extensive their restitution efforts were, he said, he would never have “placed my pen at their disposal”. Queried on his change of position, he pointed out quite correctly, “That’s what happens in history: we find out new stuff, we change our mind.”

In the meantime, in 2015, Prince Georg and his lawyers had commissioned a fourth confidential report, this time from Wolfram Pyta, a history professor in Stuttgart, and author of a major biography of Hindenburg. It went much further than Clark, portraying the family as actively anti-Nazi, scheming with General Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler’s predecessor as Reich chancellor, and with leading Nazi Gregor Strasser, to try to stop Hitler by forming a coalition of Nazis and conservatives. But Pyta was unable to disprove the conclusions to which the Crown Prince’s public backing for Hitler inevitably led. Pyta’s arguments were dismissed by leading specialists as “bizarre”.

By this point, the case had gone to trial before an administrative court in Potsdam; but the federal government in Berlin now paused the trial in order to attempt an out-of-court settlement. In July 2019, details of the behind-the-scenes negotiations between the Hohenzollerns and the federal government were leaked to the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

Then, in November 2019, a well-known German comedian, Jan Böhmermann, devoted a whole issue of his regular TV show to the Hohenzollerns’ claim. The programme’s title was “Balls of Steel” – the equipment Böhmermann considered necessary for the prince to have brought the claims. A large part of his polemic consisted of contrasting the wealthy Hohenzollern clan with the persecuted victims of German colonialism in Namibia before the First World War: powerful stuff, but in the end, irrelevant to the issues at stake. Of more direct importance was Böhmermann also getting hold of the four expert reports and posting them online for all to read.

As a result, the federal government sanctioned the renewal of the Potsdam trial, though the case has been postponed to autumn 2021 to give the parties more time to prepare their cases.

***

Prince Georg’s lawyers are reported to have filed more than 120 writs against journalists and historians, bloggers, broadcasters, politicians, lawyers and others, threatening them with fines or up to six months in prison if they persist in making what the family regard as false claims about its ancestors’ sympathy for the Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s. The recipients include Malinowski, as well as the chair of the German Historians’ Association Eva Schlotheuber, and the Marburg professor Eckart Conze, who was served with a writ because he had complained that the Hohenzollerns were issuing too many writs.

The Hohenzollerns have not been without their defenders, notably Benjamin Hasselhorn, author of a 2018 study of Wilhelm II arguing that if the Kaiser had died a hero’s death at the end of the First World War, he could have rescued the German monarchy. Quoting Winston Churchill, Hasselhorn has presented constitutional monarchy as the best system of government. But there was no way that the Kaiser was ever going to put himself in the way of physical harm; and the possibility of his family, given their antidemocratic views at the time, accepting a constitutional monarchy after 1918 was remote. Hasselhorn’s defence of the Hohenzollerns before parliamentary hearings has not been endorsed by many historians, but it has convinced some politicians at least that historical opinion is too divided to allow a decisive verdict to be reached.

Another defender of the Hohenzollerns, Frank-Lothar Kroll, a specialist in the history of Prussia, has condemned Conze and Schlotheuber for what he sees as their bias and their inclination towards “political correctness”. Kroll pointed out that the Prussian monarchs had believed it was the duty of the authorities to care for the welfare of the poor. It was wrong, he said, to equate the Hohenzollerns with “Prussianism” and Nazism. They had a good side as well.

His intervention highlighted some of the wider issues in the controversy, sparked by the coincidence of 18 January 2021 being the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the German empire, following Bismarck’s triumph in the Franco-Prussian War. While some liberal historians, notably Conze, have portrayed the empire of 1871-1918 as a kind of antechamber to the Third Reich – authoritarian, militaristic, racist, even genocidal with respect to its colony in Namibia – others, such as Hedwig Richter, author of a recent history of democracy in Germany, have seen it as an example of modernity – technologically advanced, and home to radical social movements such as feminism and socialism.

The truth is that it was both. While there was an active political and electoral culture, the government was authoritarian, appointed by the Kaiser and not responsible to the legislature. The military had enormous influence, and although there was a large feminist movement it moved decisively in a conservative-nationalist direction even before 1914. As such, the debate resembles the present “culture wars” over the British empire, and is about as useful to genuine historical understanding.

***

The Hohenzollern case has also become politicised. The Green Party – a significant political force in Germany – and the post-communist Left Party are leading the enquiries and hearings being held before committees in the federal parliament. Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats, are inclined to be more understanding of the Hohenzollerns’ claim, along with the small, business-friendly Free Democratic Party, which sees the issues at stake largely in terms of property rights. Merkel’s main coalition partners, the centre-left Social Democrats, have failed to take a clear stance, reflecting their general political helplessness and disorientation over the past few years. The strongest supporters of the Hohenzollerns are the Alternative for Germany, the far-right party that has strong backing in the former East and has been arguing that Germany should no longer apologise for its past. It’s an endorsement the Hohenzollerns could really do without.

Der Spiegel reported that at the end of January 2021, the family’s representatives threatened to withdraw the thousands of items placed on permanent loan to museums, galleries and buildings in Brandenburg unless negotiations, which have been suspended for a while, are reopened. There are, they say, plenty of institutions in other parts of Germany that would be happy to display them.

However, the state governments of Berlin and Brandenburg are not inclined, as Berlin’s senator for culture Klaus Lederer, a member of the Left Party, has said, to give in to this kind of ultimatum. The consensus view of historians, he continued, was that the Hohenzollerns had substantially aided the Nazis. The Hohenzollerns continue to dispute this. A number of well-known conservative German historians have signed a letter in support of their claim, and the Aberdeen-based historian Thomas Weber, an acknowledged expert on the rise of Hitler, has also lent his support. The federal government has ruled that until the governments of Berlin and Brandenburg can agree that the case can be taken forward, it is not minded to reopen negotiations on a settlement out of court. These two state governments have also declared they are not inclined to settle out of court.

Prince Georg now regrets having (briefly) demanded the right to live in the Cecilienhof. He has said he is reflecting in a self-critical way whether he should have filed the writs, given the public criticism this has aroused. Meanwhile, the Superior Court in Hamburg has dismissed an appeal against a lower court rejecting the Hohenzollerns’ case against Malinowski. The ruling, from which there is no further appeal, stops the family and their representatives from accusing Malinowski of making up the evidence he has presented. It has been greeted by the press as a significant clue to the fate of the lawsuits still in progress. There are in any case only two of these, and no new writs have been issued for several months.

The wider implications of the affair are more troubling. The Hohenzollerns are not just any family. They come with a heavy historical baggage. A decision in their favour would mean in effect ignoring their ancestors’ collaboration with the Nazis, even if such help was not substantial enough to bar restitution of some of their former property. It would undermine the Federal Republic’s continuing and, so far, largely successful effort to come to terms with the Nazi past. There were important continuities between the German empire and the Third Reich – militarism, authoritarianism, nationalism, anti-Semitism – as well as differences. It was not by accident that Hitler designed the Nazi flag in the imperial colours.

[see also: How should we remember the Holocaust?]

Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University, and the author of The Third Reich in History and Memory (Abacus)

This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die