Twists and Turns of History: The Many Dimensions of the Hohenzollern Claim to Their Former Properties

Schloss Sanssouci is perhaps the best known of all Prussian palaces, it is not part of the current restitution claims
The Hohenzollern, the heirs of the German Kaiser and King of Prussia, have made more headlines over the past couple of months than usual. Why? They have filed different lawsuit to reclaim former properties. One of the court cases, about Schloss Rheinfels in St. Goar along the most scenic part of the Rhine river in Western Germany, has been dismissed this summer. For a couple of years now and behind closed doors, there have also been negotiations between the Prussian branch of the Hohenzollern family, the federal government of Germany and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg  in Eastern Germany concerning the restitution of tens of thousands of art objects, unpaid housing rights at Schloss Cecilienhof or two other residences in Potsdam, and compensation payments for expropriations following the Second World War. Due to the demands of the family that were deemed not "a suitable basis for promising negotiations" by the German Ministry of Culture, the content of those more or less secret negotiations were first covered by the media. 

To better understand this post, also read our previous articles on the German royal- and nobility during the Third Reich as well as "Restoration or No Restoration: A Question of Nazis or Communists".

Prince Georg Friedrich of Prussia is the current head of the family
Understandably, all of this a touchy subject in Germany with not many in favour of the Hohenzollern claim. The Prussian rulers don't have the best street cred with Germans to say mildly. For a long time, Kaiser Wilhelm II was largely seen as the person who was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War - and he and his family didn't exactly cover themselves in glory either during the years of the Third Reich with some family members actively aiding the rise of Hitler and the Nazis during the 1920's and 1930's. Prussian militarism in general is oftentimes blamed as a contributing factor for the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. And while the Prussian virtues still make up for many of the German stereotypes, they are largely seen with mixed feelings in Germany itself. So you will have a hard time finding a large group of Germans supporting the claims of the Hohenzollern heirs. 

A couple of months ago, I actually asked on Twitter and among my followers, a surprising number - most of them non-Germans and admittedly royal afficionados - were actually in favour of a restitution. So far, I have always kept my opinion on the matter to myself but today, I want to share a few thoughts with you...

History is never easy and always multi-layered, not least the history of Germany during the 20th century. From the days of the monarchy to the First World War, the turbulent 1920's and the Weimar Republic to the rise of the Nazis, some of the darkest chapter's of the world's history and the Second World War, on to the establishment of two German states, a peaceful revolution and reunification, there's a lot of change, twists and turns. It is the way things went and it's tough simply discarding these twists and turns because you would prefer a different outcome. And while I don't necessarily always agree with the common trope that it is the winners that write the history books, it is the winners who get to decide the course of history (though how it plays out in the long run is another story altogether). 

The Hohenzollerns aren't an isolated case. As discussed previously, a lot of German royal and noble families lost (some of) their estates following either world war. After the First World War, especially the ruling families had to divide their assets with the state. A natural step considering that they would have very likely never amassed the same fortune if they hadn't ruled over said state, maybe sometimes even using funds of the state to build a castle or palace. Not so much the Second World War itself but what happened in its last weeks and aftermath was especially tough on the big landowners in East Germany, not to speak of Germans from the former eastern territories of Germany beyond the Oder-Neisse line or German-speaking people in Bohemia.

In 1945, the Soviets introduced an agrarian reform, or Bodenreform in German, which expropriated all of East Germany's landowners with more than 100 hectares. Under the motto "Junkerland in Bauernhand" (nobleman's land in farmer's hand) many nobles as well as other mid-size and large landowners were dispossessed and they had to flee East Germany oftentimes only given hours to pack up their life. All in all there were 7,160 landowners who lost their properties solely based on the reason that they owned more than 100 hectares of land. It was under these laws, that the Prussian branch of the Hohenzollern family also lost most of their estates, because their heartland lay in the Communist occupation zone. 

Following the establishment of the two Germanys, the Federal Republic paid some compensations to those families by introducing the Lastenausgleich, a programme to recompense Germans and ethnic Germans who fled their homelands for their lost properties. Perhaps naturally the money paid did not equal the worth of their former estate but was intended to help get them started in West Germany with owners of small estates receiving more of their former worth percentagewise. While I cannot tell you, how much money was paid to the Hohenzollern based on that fund, they surely received some money. I understand that this was just a drop in the bucket for most families and can in no way equal that what was lost, neither financially nor emotionally. 

In 1990, Germany was reunified. The "Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany", more commonly known as the "Two Plus Four Agreement", confirmed the expropriations that took place between the end of World War II and the founding of the GDR. This meant that the great majority of those who were dispossessed had lost their estates forever. This included the Hohenzollern heirs as only those who could prove that they were expropriated by the Nazis before they were by the Communists, had the chance to reclaim their possessions. So how come that there now is renewed discussion and negotiations about the Hohenzollern case? 

The core of the new Hohenzollern claim are thousands of art objects housed at various museum in and around Berlin. Most of them, as well as housing rights at former palaces, were granted to the family in the 1926 agreement between the former Kaiser and the Weimar Republic. It is this agreement that the family insists upon. I have little doubt that there are both emotional as well as financial interests behind these new claims. In the end, it is a legal question and jurists will have to decide. But I cannot help thinking: Can we simply discard the breaks, twists and turns of our history? A lot of time has passed between 1918 or 1926 and 2019. Can we just draw an arc around all of that? Go back to the status quo of 90 years ago? 

The Hohenzollern family isn't an isolated case. History is intertwined and complex. There were  up to 14 million Germans and German-speaking people who were expropriated or forced to flee following World War II. They left their houses and possessions with only what they could carry on their back. Where do you want to start those debates and where do you want to end them? It isn't just a legal question but also a historical, political, moral, social and ethic one. For me, it goes so much deeper than the question of the heirs of the German Kaiser - who even though probably poor among the German royal- and nobility are still so much better off than most people - wanting some artworks, furniture and housing-rights back. I realise that with the Hohenzollern claim were are talking about properties in modern-day Germany and that has different and perhaps less complex layers to it than estates located in present-day Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, the Baltic States or the Balkans. But we still cannot detach one dimension from the other, just as we cannot detach what happened between 1933 and 1945 and the atrocities committed by Germans from what happened to Germans following 1945. 

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