(DW) House of Hohenzollern struggles to make restitution claims

(DW)

Since the last German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, unceremoniously abdicated in 1918, the heirs of the Prussian royals have been trying to regain properties and riches expropriated after both wars. But it’s complicated.

Mondfinsternis 2018 | Deutschland (Getty Images/M. Hangst)

When a court in June dismissed the Prince of Prussia’s claim on the former Hohenzollern family-owned Rheinfels Castle — a vast medieval bulwark on the Rhine river that has belonged to the Rhineland-Palatinate town of St. Goar since World War Two — it was the latest in a series of failed restitution attempts. 

As revealed last week, Rheinfels Castle is only one of numerous objects that the heirs to the House of Hohenzollern headed by Georg Friedrich Ferdinand — the Prince of Prussia and great-great-grandchild of last German monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II — is trying to reclaim. Since 2013, negotiations have been ongoing between the aristocratic dynasty, the federal government and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg concerning the restitution of tens of thousands of art objects, unpaid housing rights in Potsdam’s Cecilienhof Palace, and compensation payments for expropriations following World War Two.

All parties are striving for a legally binding, out-of-court settlement. Whether this will be achieved, however, is unclear. According to the weekly Der Spiegel magazine, the state presented a draft contract months ago, but the Hohenzollern family apparently reacted with a counter-proposal of several hundred pages. The Ministry of Culture, headed by Monika Grütter, said the latter was not “a suitable basis for promising negotiations.”

Read moreColonial art restitution: ‘The desire is not to wipe museums clean’

Treasure trove of claims

The list of claims is long and diverse. Among other things, Georg Friederich demanded a “permanent, unpaid and land register-protected housing right” in Potsdam’s Cecilienhof Palace, owned by the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation in Berlin-Brandenburg. The historically important palace building was recently renovated with taxpayers’ money.

Der Spiegel also reported that the Lindstedt Palace in Potsdam, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, could be an alternative restitution target for the prince, in addition to the Liegnitz Villa on the outskirts of Sanssouci Palace. But the elaborate restoration of the latter property is currently underway with public funding of almost 8 million euros (nearly $9 million).

Then there’s the demand for the return of tens of thousands of paintings, graphic prints, sculptures, porcelain objects, medals, furniture, books and photographs — objects of great value and historical significance. These include the ornate Neuwieder Kabinett by David Roentgen, one of the grandest pieces of furniture ever made in Europe; works by artists such as the painter Friedrich Tischbein and by Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger; clothing worn by Emperor Wilhelm I; and the armchair in which Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, died.

Rechtsstreit um Burg Rheinfels (picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger)

Georg Friedrich Ferdinand, Prince of Prussia, is deep in a restitution struggle

Museums fear closure

Most of the objects are located at the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the German Historical Museum. More than a dozen museums, archives and libraries fear that parts of their collections could be compromised.

Samuel Wittwer, director of the of Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation, told Der Spiegel that Berlin’s Grunewald Hunting Lodge and the New Pavilion in Charlottenburg Palace’s gardens would have to close if the Hohenzollern family got everything they are demanding.

DW contacted Hohenzollern lawyer Markus Hennig in regard to Wittwer’s assertion, however he declined to comment  about this and other questions regarding the Prussian Prince’s extensive restitution claims.

On Monday, however, Hennig told the German Press Agency that, contrary to various reports, his client wanted to keep the items that are being claimed in public museums. “From the point of view of the House [Editor’s note: of Hohenzollern], the primary goal is to preserve the collections in the existing museums and continue to make them accessible to the public,” he said.

On Wednesday, he also warned against a “scandalization” of the matter and appealed for respect for his client.

  • PRUSSIA’S GLAMOUR AND GLORY — THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PALACES IN BRANDENBURGSanssouci PalaceSmall but fine: Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam was only Frederick the Great’s summer residence, but today it is the world star among the palaces of the Prussian royal family. Sanssouci Palace — translated “without a care” — enchants hundreds of thousands of tourists every year with its picturesque location and architectural sophistication.

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Interpreting history

Henning further added that the Hohenzollerns are interested in the establishment of a “Hohenzollern Museum” in which the works in question could be exhibited. But any such museum could be highly contentious as the Hohenzollern family would have a say in all the museum’s exhibitions, publications and events that present their own history.

This could compromise the independence of state institutions, says historian Stephan Malinowski. He believes the family should leave the interpretation of its history “up to the institutions and places where public funding are concerned and to the democratic rules that govern them.”

“Prudently put, I think the desire to have the historical narrative and the interpretation of the House of Hohenzollern left up to them, but be publicly financed, seems adventurous,” Malinowski told DW.

A century after the abdication of the last German emperor, King Wilhelm II, one would think the question of the ownership of the Hohenzollern legacy would have been clarified long ago. Yet the origin of today’s dispute remains intertwined with the moment the Prussian constitutional monarchy ended and parliamentary democracy began in Germany.

The imperial property of Wilhelm II was confiscated by the young Weimar Republic in 1918. But while the Hohenzollern descendants regained a large number of castles and estates — including Cecilienhof Palace, where the young prince would now like to live — in 1926, they lost them again in 1945 after the end of World War Two.

Since the majority of the Hohenzollern estates were located in the territory of the Soviet occupiers, this time the Hohenzollern family was ousted by the communist state that ruled East Germany until 1989.

Read moreWeimar, 1919: Birth of Germany’s first democracy

Kaiser Wilhelm II with regalier (picture-alliance/dpa)

Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor who ceded his royal properties when he abdicated and moved to the Netherlands in 1918

Finding a lasting solution

The Unification Treaty of 1990 recognized the expropriation of land and buildings as unlawful, but not the expropriation of inventory. In principle, the Hohenzollern family is entitled to the objects encompassed by the treaty, as well as to compensation for the expropriation.

The one exception: a court decides that the Hohenzollern family “considerably abetted” the National Socialist regime. Germany’s 1994 Indemnification and Compensation Act, which compensates post-1945 land expropriations, excludes compensation in this instance.

But the jury is still out on the level of Hohenzollern collaboration with the Nazis, despite the fact that Prussian Crown Prince supported Hitler in the 1930s.

Some have further rejected the basis for compensation claims due to the Hohenzollern’s complicity in World War One, with Kaiser Wilhelm II signing the order for German mobilization. Writing on the news website of public radio station, RBB24, journalist Tomas Fitzel penned an article titled “Nobility is evil,” and which argued that the royal descendants deserved little after the Kaiser “plunged Europe into the abyss and suffered complete defeat.” 

Such opinion, in addition to legal and historical ambiguity and debate over the implication of the Hohenzollern restitution claims for public museums, seems to indicate that the issue is unlikely to be fully resolved any time soon.

Nonetheless, the parties involved — the House of Hohenzollern, the Ministry of Culture and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg — have emphasized their desire to try to reach an amicable solution. 

The parties are scheduled to begin renegotiations on July 24.