The German press has been preoccupied in recent weeks with a story rooted deep in the shadows of the past. The focal point is a demand to restore the property of the most famous family in German history: the Hohenzollerns. The Prussian royal family, which was deposed 100 years ago, is demanding the return of several of the family’s principal assets, which were confiscated after World War II.
The present head of the House of Hohenzollern is Georg Friedrich, prince of Prussia – an energetic businessman and the legal heir of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who went into exile at the end of World War I. In recent years Friedrich has been busy bolstering his family’s image and launching a brand of royal Prussian beer, among other things.
He usually does not advocate for restoring Germany’s monarchy, and notes that the matter “is not on the agenda at the moment.” At this stage, he is demanding that Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam and the royal crown of the German empire be returned to the family.
The historical aspect of the story is tied to the House of Hohenzollern’s involvement in the Nazi regime. According to German law, demands for property restitution are rejected out of hand if the plaintiff or his ancestors provided “significant support” to the Nazis, and accordingly, the Prussian royal family’s request was denied. After all, from his place of exile in Holland, the deposed Kaiser Wilhelm hoped for the fall of the Weimar Republic, and in the early 1930s he even expressed hope that Hitler would restore the monarchy – as was the case in fascist Italy.
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The court has received four opinions from historians who were asked to determine whether the Kaiser really did support Nazism, and to what extent the support was significant. Two of them, German historian Peter Brandt and Stephan Malinowski of the University of Edinburgh, claimed that the Kaiser’s support for Hitler was indeed significant, while Christopher Clark of Cambridge University claimed that it was not, simply because he was unable to exert any influence after he was deposed.
On the other hand, Wolfram Pyta of the University of Stuttgart, who wrote a biography of General Paul von Hindenburg, expressed outright support for the family’s claims. In his 155-page opinion, Pyta claims that Wilhelm actually made every effort to prevent the appointment of Hitler as chancellor and actively rejected the legitimacy of the Nazi regime.
As is usual these days, with comedians filling the role of intellectuals, a stand-up comedian is also involved in this affair: Jan Boehmermann, the presenter of the late night TV program “Neo Magazin Royale” on Germany’s public television broadcaster, ZDF.
On his show Boehmermann blatantly mocks the Hohenzollerns and adorns his monologues with biting images of Prince Friedrich’s “steel testicles,” which presumably safeguard the pedigreed sperm of the Prussian dynasty. He published the historians’ opinions on a special website, Hohenzollern.lol, sparking a heated discussion that also found its way to the daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel.
Wecan reasonably assume that the trial will reject the Hohenzollerns’s demands, but the family’s petition, and the support that it has received from important groups among the German elite, signify a broader phenomenon: the recent increase of European nobility’s self-confidence, including deposed royal dynasties.
Ostensibly, a royal title in the 21st century is no more that an ossified relic from a bygone era. And yet, studies demonstrate that in many European countries, aristocratic families have to a great extent maintained their solidarity, and their sense of uniqueness. And in many cases they have also maintained their economic power, mainly through ownership of land and other assets.
British historian Peter Mandler has demonstrated that many royal houses, aware of the opposition they faced among some parts of the public, lowered their public profile throughout the 20th century. For example, most aristocrats don’t live in their palaces, preferring to use them as real estate assets or tourist attractions. At the same time they have increased their ties with other groups in the economic elite they have integrated into.
In recent decades, princes and barons have begun to appear once again in the public arena, this time as celebrities or bearers of national heritage and conservation. In Great Britain, the list of the 200 wealthiest families still contains dozens of aristocrats.
The dark spell of the aristocracy
The power of aristocratic families is largely supported by their prestige and the curiosity their names arouse among broad sectors of the European public – even in France, where the feudal regime was eliminated 200 years ago. TV series such as “The Crown,” which is now in its third season, are made for entertainment, but they also intensify the appeal of royal families and aristocracy in general.
In his book “Pleasures and Days,” French author Marcel Proust painted a portrait of the aristocracy-loving snob, who is hypnotized by the ancient pedigree of his boring aristocratic acquaintances. “The universe is not empty for you, it’s full of symbols of nobility,” wrote Proust. “When you read about the battles won by their ancient ancestors, you find the names of their descendants, whom you invite for dinner. … Because in your imagination, the family names of your new friends are accompanied by a long series of portraits of their ancestors.
“The family trees that you nurture with such concern, whose fruits you joyfully pluck every year, are planted deep in the most ancient French estates. Your illusions combine the present with the past. For you, the spirit of the Crusades breathes life into the banal contemporary faces.”
And in fact, as Proust claims, the aristocratic pedigree provides color to the wealthy elite, who for the most part are nondescript and boring. Figures from the distant past, such as Charlemagne or Godfrey of Bouillon, come to life at bland bank cocktail parties or at Sotheby’s public auctions, like vampires bursting forth from an ancient grave.