What does one do when princes go rogue? A rarefied question, perhaps one to file under top-drawer problems. And yet not without popular appeal, as evidenced by the explosion of breathless expert punditry and wild speculation (see if you can spot the difference) that has greeted the announcement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that they wish to be little less royal and a bit more financially independent.
All very House of Windsor, you might say. Yet, Britain is not the only country wrestling with a troubled prince right now. Germany is also witnessing a spot of regal controversy, involving lots of money and touching on wrenching questions about its past and present identity. What began as a behind-the-scenes wrangle about former royal possessions has become a national talking point, generating headlines, fuelling academic and legal disputes, and providing good material for primetime satirists and parliamentary debate.
This is all the more surprising as it's been an age since Germany was a monarchy. Since Kaiser Wilhelm II bolted from his throne in 1918 following defeat in the first world war, the country's "ruling houses" — topped off by the Hohenzollerns, Prussia's royal family — have largely faded into irrelevance, useful space-fillers in gossip columns but absent from the sharp end of public life.
Enter Georg Friedrich, Prince of Prussia. The 43-year-old current head of the House of Hohenzollern, a great-great-grandson of the kaiser, last year lodged a claim for the return of scores of valuable objects, from paintings to letters, and the right to take up residence in one of the family's former palaces. These were expropriated after the second world war by the Soviets, later becoming public property in communist East Germany.
After German unification in 1990 the family sought restitution. The subsequent negotiations dragged on, though there were expectations that some form of agreement might be reached. That changed when the prince served up the list of demands. One of the more eye-catching ones was the right to live at Cecilienhof, a neo-Tudor palace where victorious Allied leaders gathered in 1945 for the Potsdam conference to determine the postwar settlement for Germany.
As well as grabbing headlines, the demands triggered a debate about the former royal family and, in particular, the question of its relationship to the Nazis — most notably the role of the then crown prince. Under Germany's restitution laws, one of the reasons for dismissing a claim is if the claimant or their predecessors provided "considerable" encouragement or enabling support to the Third Reich.
In the case of the Hohenzollerns, expert opinions were called in from a group of four historians. Their assessments, which showed an even split, became public when they were leaked by Jan Böhmermann, a spiky television satirist. The fuse was lit for a flurry of critical assessments of the family's past, in what has been dubbed a new Historikerstreit — the term for previous charged disputes among historians about Germany's past — and, in turn, threats of legal action from the prince.
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The row has long left the academy. In the Bundestag, opposition parties have lodged motions attacking the Hohenzollern claims. In east Germany — a good chunk of which was once the part of the family's realm — the issue has fed popular grievances about property rights and the return, from the west, of one-time overlords. On a longer timeline, it has prompted a review of Germany's transition from a monarchy to a republic and to the role of the aristocracy under the Nazis.
"These are important questions for Germany's historical identity in the 20th century," says Robert Gerwarth, a historian based at University College Dublin. The controversy has flared up at a sensitive time when the issues of populism, identity and the rise of the right are dominating the national discussion, he adds.
Some observers note that this is not without irony. Compared with other dethroned royals, the Hohenzollerns came off rather well. The Romanovs lost their lives; the Habsburgs their titles. Until this scandal broke, Prussia's royals enjoyed their material comforts in relative obscurity; it was stepping into the limelight, rather than back, that brought the costly attention — a lesson their Windsor cousins could have taught them.
Written by: Frederick Studemann
© Financial Times