The Kaiser’s Family Wants Its Stuff Back. Germany Isn’t Sure They Deserve It.

The Kaiser’s Family Wants Its Stuff Back. Germany Isn’t Sure They Deserve It.
The former royal family lost countless artworks, palaces, and wealth in the 20th century. But were they victims—or enablers of the Nazis?

It has been a full century since the abdication of the last emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, but the would-be heir to his throne is still known as a prince. Technically, the title has effectively become his last name, but for Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preußen, the great-great-grandson of Germany’s last monarch and the current head of the Prussian noble family the House of Hohenzollern, the trappings of royalty still have an attraction.

Georg Friedrich is in the midst of a suddenly high-profile fight with the German government over property once owned by the former royal family. Some of it was ceded to Germany after the dissolution of the monarchy, and some was taken over the course of the country’s tumultuous 20th-century path from democracy to the Third Reich to division to reunification. Now, the family wants its stuff back. On the negotiating table are thousands of artworks and antiquities, $1.3 million in compensation, and the right of Georg Friedrich to reside in a former family castle.

All this has come to light after the recent leak of proceedings from negotiations between the prince’s family and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg and the federal government—negotiations that were started by Georg Friedrich’s grandfather in the 1990s after the reunification of Germany. Many of the items the family is claiming ownership over have been in public hands for decades. Most have been administered by public agencies and are on display in public museums. Some, including the residence the prince is hoping to occupy, are themselves museums.

The negotiations over these pieces of history have opened questions over the relevance of a long-gone royalty, the country’s capacity to atone for the wrongs of the past, and, most uncomfortably, who can be held responsible for the rise of the Nazis.

They’ve also put an unwanted spotlight on Georg Friedrich, a private citizen and businessman. Though he recently launched a beer brand on the family name, Preußens Pilsener (with the tagline “Majestic Pleasure”), he serves no public role. Yet, as the head of the Hohenzollerns, he represents the complex legacy of a family whose members ruled Germany as kings and emperors for hundreds of years—a monarchy that led Germany into World War I and sparked the revolutions that birthed the republic 100 years ago.

“The last thing I need to define myself is a castle,” Georg Friedrich famously told a German political magazine when he was 28. Now 43, married, and with four young children, his priorities appear to have shifted.