What Do the Hohenzollerns Deserve?

Adolf Hitler and ‘Crown Prince’ Wilhelm
Georg Pahl/German Federal Archive
Adolf Hitler and ‘Crown Prince’ Wilhelm during the Day of Potsdam celebrations, Potsdam, Germany, March 21, 1933

In the early hours of November 10, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor of the Hohenzollern dynasty, fled by train into exile in the Netherlands. The armistice ending World War I was signed the next day. Under the Weimar Constitution of 1919, Germany’s monarchy was abolished; its aristocracy lost its privileges but was allowed to keep much of its property. After World War II, however, the Soviet authorities expropriated the possessions of the former noble families—palaces, manor houses, lands—in their occupation zone of eastern Germany, which was soon to become the German Democratic Republic. Following German reunification in 1990, some of those families sought to reclaim what they had lost. A law passed in 1994 allowed for restitution or compensation claims, though only on condition that the claimants or their ancestors had not “given substantial support” to the National Socialist or East German Communist regimes.

The Hohenzollerns were among those who demanded compensation, as well as the return of tens of thousands of priceless artworks, antiquities, rare books, and furniture now in public museums, galleries, and palaces. Among their requests is the right to reside in one of the Potsdam palaces, preferably the grand 176-room Cecilienhof, which today is a museum. Despite years of negotiations between the German state and the family, their claims remain unresolved. Last summer, as more and more details about the negotiations in the case were leaked to the German press, a bitter public controversy erupted over Germany’s monarchical past. The critical question is whether the Hohenzollerns had “given substantial support” to the Nazi regime.

To be sure, the dynasty’s history is bleak, tainted by colonial massacres, most notably the Herero and Nama genocide in German Southwest Africa in 1904–1908, as well as by its aggressive warmongering in 1914. After World War I, Wilhelm II made no secret of his deep hatred for the Weimar Republic. In 1919, in a letter to one of his former generals, the exiled emperor, whose anti-Semitism grew more and more virulent during the interwar years, blamed the Jews above all for the fall of the monarchy:

The deepest, most disgusting shame ever perpetrated by a people in history, the Germans have done onto themselves. Egged on and misled by the tribe of Juda whom they hated, who were guests among them! That was their thanks! Let no German ever forget this, nor rest until these parasites have been destroyed and exterminated from German soil! This poisonous mushroom on the German oak-tree!

“Jews and mosquitoes,” he wrote in the summer of 1927, were “a nuisance that humanity must get rid of in some way or other,” adding: “I believe the best would be gas!” After the outbreak of World War…

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