His Ancestors Were German Kings. He Wants Their Treasures Back.

New York Times 12 March 2021
By Catherine Hickley

A public dispute over thousands of artworks and artifacts could hinge on whether a crown prince supported the Nazis during their rise to power.

Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preussen, the head of the Hohenzollern dynasty, in his office in Potsdam, Germany, this week.

POTSDAM, Germany — Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preussen’s quest to recover thousands of artworks and artifacts that were once in his family’s possession is not going well.

As the current head of the Hohenzollern dynasty, which spawned the kings of Prussia for 300 years and emperors of Germany for half a century, Prinz von Preussen, 44, has been negotiating with officials since 2014 over the ownership of royal treasures — paintings, sculptures, medals, glass, furniture, tapestries, porcelain, books and documents — that were confiscated from his family in eastern Germany after World War II and are now part of museum collections.

Those talks were conducted in secret until 2019, when documents from the negotiations were leaked to the news media. The process stalled, and the atmosphere soured.

Officials in the German states of Berlin and Brandenburg, whose museums hold the disputed objects, now say a major obstacle to restarting the talks is a slew of injunctions that Prinz von Preussen has filed against historians and journalists for publishing what he says is inaccurate information about his family. These lawsuits, in the states’ view, are stifling a critical debate about German history and, in particular, the role of Prinz von Preussen’s great-grandfather in the rise to power of the Nazis. Prinz von Preussen says this criticism is unfounded.

“I am confident that we will meet together again, because it is in all of our interests to reach an agreement,” he said in an interview on Tuesday in his office in Potsdam, about 20 miles from Berlin. “We have an interest in avoiding endless court processes that drag on,” he added.

Prinz von Preussen’s hopes for a negotiated settlement were dealt a blow on Thursday, when state legislators from Berlin’s governing bloc introduced a motion in the regional assembly that, if passed, would withdraw the state from the talks. This would leave the courts as Prinz von Preussen’s only option to continue his claim.

When news of Prinz von Preussen’s demands became public, they were characterized in news media as exorbitant and unrealistic, and he was mocked as “Prince Dumb” on a satirical German television show. The Left Party pasted posters featuring the slogan “No gifts for the Hohenzollerns!” around Brandenburg, and, this week, a petition the party instigated calling for further negotiations to be canceled collected enough signatures to secure a debate in the legislature of that state, too.

“The Hohenzollerns are not just any noble family,” said Torsten Wöhlert, a Berlin official involved in the talks. “They are the imperial family, and the role they played in the colonial past, World War I and World War II is always a part of that.”

“It is not just about family history, it is German history,” he added.

Prinz von Preussen’s great-great-grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was the last emperor of Germany and by far the richest man in the country before World War I. After Wilhelm abdicated in 1918, he retained substantial wealth: At least 60 railway wagons carried furniture, art, porcelain and silver from Germany to his new home in exile in the Netherlands. The kaiser and his family also held onto substantial cash reserves and dozens of palaces, villas and other properties.

But after World War II, the Hohenzollerns’ forests, farms, factories and palaces in East Germany were expropriated in Communist land reforms, and thousands of artworks and historical objects were subsumed into the collections of state-owned museums.

Prinz von Preussen’s claim for restitution was first lodged by his grandfather after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when thousands of Germans took advantage of new laws allowing them to seek compensation and restitution for confiscated property. Officials assessed it for more than 20 years before negotiations with the family began.

If Prinz von Preussen pursues the case in court, success could hinge on how much support his great-grandfather, Crown Prince Wilhelm, gave to the Nazis in the 1930s. Under German law, if a court deems someone lent the Nazis “substantial support,” then their family is not eligible for compensation or restitution of lost property.

The crown prince hoped that Adolf Hitler would reinstate the monarchy, and wrote him flattering letters. He defended Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies and wore a swastika armband in public. If a court were to agree that Crown Prince Wilhelm’s support for Hitler was “substantial,” then Prinz von Preussen’s claims would be dismissed.

Prinz von Preussen said his great-grandfather had “recognized this criminal regime, and it very quickly became clear that he didn’t have the moral fortitude, or courage, to go into opposition.” But he questioned whether that amounts to “substantial” support, adding that this was a “question that has to be cleared up by legal experts.”

Contrary to media reports, Prinz von Preussen said, he has no intention of cleaning out Berlin and Brandenburg’s museums: He was simply fulfilling his family duty by pursuing the claim.

Yet officials in those states said Prinz von Preussen had acted aggressively, and that one of the major obstacles to resuming talks is the legal battle he has initiated against what he describes as false statements by scholars and media figures. Six historians, and a number of journalists and media organizations, as well as the Left Party, have received warnings from Prinz von Preussen’s lawyers, or become the subjects of injunctions.

“It’s not a clever strategy,” Wöhlert said. “The prince is very badly advised. He has an excellent media lawyer who is winning almost every battle in the first round. But in the end, he is losing the war.”

In the interview, Prinz von Preussen conceded some mistakes. “After things became very stormy, we began trying to counter the incorrect reports,” he said. “Now the original accusations have faded, but there are new accusations that I am trying to limit freedom of thought or academic freedom. I am reflecting on these in a self-critical way.”

A view of Cecilienhof, a former royal palace in Potsdam.

Prinz von Preussen has already changed tack once in the dispute. In 2019, when his claims became public, his proposal that he should have the right to reside in Cecilienhof, a former royal palace in Potsdam, provoked outrage and ridicule. Though he quickly retracted it, “with hindsight, it was regrettable,” he said.

More recently, a Jan. 29 letter that an adviser of Prinz von Preussen wrote to lawmakers in Brandenburg has been interpreted by some as a threat.

The letter refers to items that the Hohenzollern family owns without dispute that are on loan to Berlin and Brandenburg museums, including a ceremonial sword, cases for crown jewels, and portraits of Prussian officers. Those objects, the letter said, are in demand elsewhere in the country and “could just as well be exhibited in an appropriate context” outside Berlin and Brandenburg.

Manja Schüle, Brandenburg’s culture minister, said she was “very irritated” by the letter. “Some of the media coverage even referred to it as extortion,” she added.

Prinz von Preussen said the letter was “wrongly interpreted” and he plans to keep the loans in place “as long as the interest is there” from the museums.

Wöhlert said it was the Prinz von Preussen’s right to withdraw the loans, but added that it “would be political suicide. I would send in a camera crew to film the objects being removed, and I don’t think it would go down well.”

As well as public opinion, scholarly discourse also appears to be moving against Prinz von Preussen’s claim. In January last year, his request was scrutinized during a public hearing in Germany’s Parliament, in which historians were invited to give their verdict on whether his great-grandfather, the crown prince, had contributed to Hitler’s ascent. At that time, they were divided on whether the crown prince’s support for the Nazis could be deemed “substantial.” But now a consensus among scholars is emerging that it had been, both Wöhlert and Schüle said.

Christopher Clark, a professor of history at Cambridge University, argued in a 2011 report that the crown prince was too marginal to have “substantial” impact. He has since revised his view in the light of new research by the scholar Stephan Malinowski: In a letter in The New York Review of Books last year, Clark wrote that Malinowski had shown “beyond doubt that the crown prince, though never a collaborator of the first rank, was a more proactive supporter of the Nazis than we thought.”

Although it would serve Prinz von Preussen’s claims to downplay his great-grandfather’s role in Hitler’s rise, he said his family has never tried “to sweep the Third Reich under the carpet.”

“Many people are concerned that if an agreement is reached with the state actors, then the crown prince has been exonerated,” Prinz von Preussen said. “But I think this is wrong — this discussion has to continue. These restitution discussions have to be conducted separately from the public historical debate about the role of my family in the Third Reich.”

While that debate continues, Prinz von Preussen remains in the public eye — a position he seems not to enjoy.

“When it gets personal, it’s unpleasant,” he said. “When posters with my portrait are hung up around Potsdam, and my children start asking why papa is on the poster, this does cross a line. Anything else, I can tolerate.”
© website copyright Central Registry 2023