German prince Georg Freidrich is no pauper
The "prince' wants to take over the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, Germany, the site where the Soviet Union, Britain and the U.S. negotiated the end to World War II. | Wikimedia (CC)

BERLIN — The Prince is no pauper but it seems the poor fellow has problems with his crown jewels. And this is no simple little private problem, to be expected with princes! Nor is this handsomely smiling, youngish man, who hardly looks his 44 years, itching only for jewels. He also wants hundreds or even a few thousand fine jewelry cases, delicate porcelain and glass objects, portraits of martial Prussian generals, sculptures, even a decorative sword or two.

Very valuable stuff,  and by scratching further, one comes upon his yen for palaces, villas, fields, and forests — all almost like out of “A Thousand and One Nights”! He calls himself, for short, Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preussen (Prince of Prussia).

Once upon a time, this all belonged to a thousand-year-old, noble, indeed very royal family, the Hohenzollerns. Its oldest sons once ruled Brandenburg, became kings of Prussia, then Kaisers of all Germany — until the day in 1918 when thousands of sailors and soldiers joined more and more workers and decided very mutinously that they no longer wanted to die in a bloody war for the  Hohenzollerns and their cronies. That ended a world war and also turned Wilhelm II, Germany’s wealthiest man, into an ex-Kaiser and an ex-pat in Holland as well.

The claimant calls himself Georg Freidrich, Prince of Prussia | video snapshot

There were some who moved quickly to replace him. They wore no crowns and were not nearly so rough and tough as those mutineers. In fact, perhaps to help him against homesickness, they refrained from amputating all too many crown jewels and things and let Wilhelm ease his exile woes with nearly 60 railway carloads of Hohenzollern loot! Even then, more than enough was leftover in Germany to maintain the Kaiser’s daughter and his six sons in a very regal — or at least princely manner. Of a grand total of more than a hundred palaces, estates and similar properties almost forty remained with the Hohenzollerns. The oldest son — or prince, for he always considered himself “heir apparent” (and who can see into the future?) — lived on happily in Potsdam near Berlin in a new, beautiful lakeside palace called Cecilienhof, named for his wife Princess Cecilie. Its 176 rooms helped them scrape through those difficult years.

This fairy-tale dream (for them) came to an end, not with a rescue by some heroic horseback knight — but with another disastrous catastrophe. Sadly, the children of those armed mutineers from 1918, even of many striking workers, were led into yet another war, far more terrible than the previous one, killing many millions and devastating immense regions, this time also in Germany. Cecilienhof palace escaped undamaged but the princely Hohenzollerns immediately chose to leave it and flee westwards, for it lay in East Germany, where noble palaces were confiscated and landed estates divided up amongst those who had toiled there.

It achieved brief fame as the meeting site for leaders of the three victorious powers, Truman, Stalin, and Churchill (then replaced, thanks to British voters, by Clement Attlee), who agreed that Germany must be de-nazified, demilitarized, and prevented from any further expansionism. On the side, in that palace in Potsdam, Truman received secret news that the a-bomb experiment in New Mexico was successful — and ordered the annihilation of two cities in Japan. Those events — pointed warning hints to Stalin — caused over 100,000 people women, children, and the elderly to be burnt alive. But this was not yet known to very many, so Potsdam and Cecilienhof became symbols of the end of Nazi fascism and the liberation of many millions.

But ghosts do not always give up easily and some are still spooking around — like the Kaiser’s smiling great-great-grandson Georg Friedrich Prince of Prussia, mentioned above. After 1945 the family agreed to leave their valuable trinkets in museums and the palace of Charlottenburg in West Berlin (named for the queen who was married—at least in name—to King Friedrich “the Great”). But the attached notes must mention that they are on loan from SKH (His Royal Highness). No such deal was open to them in the East — until the demise of the Eastern GDR in 1990. That is when the clan saw new opportunities.

At first, the Prince of Prussia wanted to move with his family back into Cecilienhof, which had become part museum, part hotel. Such chutzpah met a stone wall publicly (or would an ivied facade be a better analogy?). So he scaled down his demands; he might even consider leaving the artifacts in the museums — for a price, however, most certainly in the seven-digit range.

Years of assessing financial values followed and then negotiations, beginning in 2014, which dragged on for years. But then the Hohenzollern mix of threats and promises was leaked to the media, causing great indignation. Worse yet, Berlin’s governing coalition changed. Until 2016 it was ruled by somewhat generously-inclined Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, but after that, instead, by Social Democrats tied up with Greens and the Left (LINKE), and especially the latter emphatically rejected paying anything at all to the Hohenzollerns. Their property had forfeited in 1945 by agreement among the wartime allies because they had supported the Nazis, though in fact only confiscated by the Soviets in the  East. But more recently, and despite all their protests, new studies have made very clear that while one son committed suicide, very unpolitically, and another younger son did oppose Hitler, two sons aided him and the oldest, the heir apparent, had given election speeches for and with Hitler, had swastikas sewn on his sleeves, and lent his family name, the most famous in Germany, to the Nazis power grab. The coalition which has ruled Berlin since 2016 would tolerate no deals with descendants of the Kaiser clan. And yet — Berliners will be voting again this September. What if a different team wins out? The ears of the Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, and pro-fascist Alternative for Germany (AfD), now all in opposition, are not tuned so sharply and decisively anti-monarchist. If they win a share in a possible new line-up, how would it decide?

The Hohenzollerns still celebrate weddings and funerals in their home church, the giant cathedral in East Berlin, with exquisitely clad members of the once royal family and other nostalgically-inclined citizens, mostly West Berliners, trying to recapture traditions from those “good old days.” Such citizens also vote in elections.

There is another confusing factor. Cecilienhof and other former properties are not in Berlin but in the separate state of Brandenburg which surrounds it. Since 2019 the government there, though also headed by a Social Democrat, includes Greens, also Christian Democrats — but not the Left, thus also provided the reborn Hollenzollern Prince Charming with new hopes for many euros.

The Left, in opposition outside Berlin since 2019, started a petition drive against any deals in Brandenburg  with the slogan “No gifts for Hohenzollerns!” 20,000 signatures were required to gain a place on the legislature’s agenda. It got 23,000, sufficient but well below expectations, partly because of the weather but largely because of covid-19 restrictions, with most people worried about face masks, distancing, closed schools, job restrictions, and job losses far more than about princely castles — or jewel boxes. The Hohenzollerns also sued against the petition, legislators, courts, lawyers, and historians are all now involved and no one can predict when the entire mess will be cleared up!

The old royalty has already won some symbolic victories. The giant palace of its kings and kaisers, between the TV tower and Brandenburg Gate in East Berlin, was badly wrecked by wartime bombing. In 1951, with labor power and building materials in shortest supply and interest in such a symbol even shorter, the ruined structure was not repaired but removed. In its place, a modern “Palace of the Republic” was built, with a giant concert (alternately a meeting or dance hall), a theater, bowling alley, discotheque, a dozen varied cafes and restaurants, and two floors full of comfortable sofas and armchairs where anyone and everyone could escape heat, rain or snow and rest or chat comfortably and for free. One end of the long building was reserved for the People’s Chamber, the legislature.

But again fate stepped in. After unification in 1990 (often called annexation), anything recalling that hated leftist republic was taboo. The giant TV tower could not be easily carted away, but the Palace of the Republic was, despite constant protests. In its beams, it seems, asbestos had been discovered. In its stead stands a replica of the Kaiser’s palace, or rather a huge new edifice with its fancy, eagle-filled façade and its big cross on top. After much uncertainty as to what to do with this gargantua, it was decided to avoid the royal name, call it Humboldt Forum and fill it with a library and a museum of artifacts taken — in one way or the other — from Germany’s pre-1918 colonies in Africa and the South Pacific. Its elaborate opening ceremony has now been postponed because of Covid 19.

Kaiser Wilhelm II: From exile in the Netherlands in 1927 said, “The press, the Jews and mosquitoes are a plague from which humanity has to free itself, one way or the other.”

The finely-carved West African masks and tools of German-occupied Cameroun and Togo or Southwest Africa, now Namibia, and the sleek canoes of Samoa or the Bismarck Archipelago, now Papua-NewGuinea — will be exhibited there unless or until they have to be returned to their original homes. They differ markedly from the etched silver, fine porcelain, or stiff portraits still exhibited in a few Hohenzollern palaces but all of them recall the spirit of Prussian expansionism.

No mustachioed monarch now loudly orders his soldiers to show no mercy, to take no prisoners while spreading the benefits of Prussian civilization to uncivilized continents. Potsdam is no longer a second home of the Hohenzollerns, a center of royal, spiked-peak-helmeted Prussian regiments; the very identity of Prussia was banned in 1945. Nor is it a sleepy East German county capital. But, not far from Cecilienhof, it does contain unified Germany’s equivalent of the Pentagon, a center of its Bundeswehr, responsible for strategical and tactical deployment in Mali, Afghanistan, Kosovo, the waters off Lebanese and Somali coasts – and who knows where else? And Germany, we are constantly reminded, must again take its proper “place in the sun,” commensurate with its economic, political and military strength.

This is not some vague future hope. German troops are establishing a new training center in central Mali, where they also train recruits of other Sahel nations; German combat divers will soon be training “Special Forces personnel” in Niger, although units of German “Special Forces” being trained as yet in their German homeland, have been found to be riddled with ardent pro-Nazis.

More than ten years ago Colonel Georg Klein of the Bundeswehr ordered a bombing attack on two stranded oil tanks in Kunduz in Afghanistan although they were surrounded by civilians. It is estimated that over a hundred were killed, a large number of them children. Long denied in innocent statements, the facts were finally admitted, but survivors were granted only a ridiculously tiny pittance.  Klein was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.

And in the autumn the German Bundestag — or parliament — will decide on whether or not to purchase armed drones, and on which Near East dictatorships to support with heavy tanks, atomic submarines, and other lucrative export goods.

Expansion today is not conducted under funny Prussian helmets or by skilled aces in double-wing airplane dogfights but with missiles and automatic drones. Can a strengthened and militant Left, and rightly-worried members of other parties, or in none, revive the spirit of those sailors and soldiers in Kiel and the many workers’ councils in 1918 and 1919? Can they prevent the growing threats, rejecting pressures, enticements, betrayals, and sell-outs more successfully than in the past — before it is too late?


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.