Last German kaiser’s heirs fight for riches lost behind Iron Curtain

A century after Germany's monarchy was abolished, some of its blue-blooded descendants are riding back into battle to reclaim what they see as their royal birthright.

Last German kaiser's heirs fight for riches lost behind Iron Curtain
The courtyard of the Cecilienhof Palace following its renovation in 2018. Photo: DPA

At stake are fabulous palaces and thousands of priceless artifacts and artworks.

The fight has thrown a new spotlight on Germany's aristocratic families, who are now usually best known through glossy celebrity gossip magazines, and specifically the House of Hohenzollern.

The descendants of the last German emperor and king of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II, have embarked on a struggle to get back properties and treasures that were confiscated by the Soviets in 1945.

The biggest prize up for grabs is the right of residence in Cecilienhof Palace near Berlin, site of the 1945 Potsdam Conference.

READ ALSO: 10 fascinating things to see in Potsdam

The Tudor-style mansion, which boasts 176 rooms, six courtyards and 55 fireplaces, was the last Prussian palace built by the Hohenzollerns.

It was there that the victorious Allied leaders, US president Harry Truman, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, decided the shape of a post-war world.

The palace and other riches long lost behind the Iron Curtain came back into reach for the Hohenzollern family with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the turbulent event three decades ago this October 3rd.

Family representatives and cultural foundations have held secret negotiations on their compensation and restitution demands since 2013, sometimes in Angela Merkel's chancellery building.

The issue and the secret talks only came to light in July in a report by news weekly Der Spiegel, which was later confirmed by the culture ministry.

Thousand-year history

The Hohenzollerns, whose history has been linked with Germany's for almost a millennium, were kings of Prussia from 1701 and then ruled the German Empire from 1871 until Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate in 1918 and went into exile after Germany's defeat in World War I.

The Prussian royals were initially stripped of their properties without compensation, but a deal on the monarchy's assets was later worked out under a 1926 law.

The imperial family received millions of marks and kept dozens of castles, villas and properties, mainly in and around Berlin but also as far away as today's Namibia.

However, Soviet occupation following World War II and subsequent communist
rule led to additional expropriations, of the type which has generally entitled owners to compensation.

The Narcissus Fountain of the Cecilienhof Castle Palace after its renovation in 2019. Photo: DPA

Georg Friedrich Ferdinand, the great-great grandson of Wilhelm II, says that his family has since the collapse of the Soviet bloc insisted on getting back what it had been granted in the immediate post-WWI agreement.

At stake are the right to reside at Cecilienhof and many other properties, as well as the restitution of thousands of paintings, sculptures, furniture, books and coins, Der Spiegel has reported.

Most of these are now held by the state-run Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the German Historical Museum.

Nazi era role

Many critics have expressed anger that the Hohenzollerns are now trying to get these treasures back, depleting public collections.

“What nerve,” said the former speaker of the lower house of parliament, Wolfgang Thierse.

Brandenburg state's finance minister, Christian Görke, charged that “the Hohenzollerns have marginalised themselves with their unacceptable claims”.

Markus Hennig, the Hohenzollern's lawyer, however insisted to AFP that the “claims are based on law”.

The controversy comes as Germany builds a replica of the Berlin Palace, the principal residence of the Hohenzollern kings of Prussia, which was heavily
bombed in WWII and then levelled by the communist East German regime in 1950.

At the core of the ongoing fight is the question of what role the Hohenzollerns, whose Kaiser Wilhelm II was instrumental in causing the outbreak of World War I, played when the Nazis came to power.

Under a 1994 law, people whose property was expropriated by the Soviet Union have a right to claim compensation — but only if they did not “lend considerable support” to the Nazi regime.

University of Edinburgh historian Stephan Malinowski said that there was a debate among historians about the link between the son of the last kaiser and Nazism.

“Most of them have come to believe that there was a very strong link between the crown prince and the Nazi Party, although he was never a member of the party,” Malinowski told AFP.

In a newspaper in 1932, the crown prince called for people to vote for Adolf Hitler in the presidential election, he added.

The wrangle may go on for years but, as Der Spiegel pointed out, that's not much “after a century-long dispute and a millennium of family history”.

By Bruno Kalouaz

READ ALSO: Last German Kaiser's heirs seeking return of palace and art

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How a Potsdam rabbi school is bringing a ‘Jewish Renaissance’ to Central Europe

The Abraham Geiger College has become a centre of European Judaism, with Rabbis and cantors being trained in Potsdam and Berlin for 20 years.

How a Potsdam rabbi school is bringing a 'Jewish Renaissance' to Central Europe
Anita Kantor stands in front of a Torah Scroll in Abraham Geiger College. Photo: DPA

Anita Kantor wistfully holds a Torah scroll in her hands. The Hungarian is set to be ordained as a rabbi in the next few months.

Originally a religious studies teacher, she hopes to return to Budapest and open up a Jewish study centre there, a “Beth Midrash” (the Hebrew term for such an educational institution).

“This is more than a dream,” says Kantor.

The Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, where Kantor has been studying since 2014, has put their support behind her.

The college near Berlin has been training rabbis for 20 years, and Walter Homolka, its founder and principal, considers it part of a Jewish Renaissance in Central Europe, despite growing anti-Semitism and hostility towards Israel.

READ ALSO: Violent anti-Semitic attacks in Germany increase by 60 percent


Rabbis being ordained at the college. Photo: DPA

The college owes its existence to tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union who relocated to Germany in the 1990s. In 1989, only 25,000 Jews lived in Germany. But now, over 100,000 Jews are living in the Bundesrepublik again. The need for trained staff in synagogues, above all rabbis, has been increasing ever since.

Homolka says that he can hardly believe a centre for European Judaism has arisen from his idea to establish the first training centre in Germany for liberal clergy.

The College will soon be relocating to the Neues Palais (New Palace) in Potsdam, where historical buildings are being developed into Potsdam University’s new Training Centre for Jewish Theology.

In 2012, the German Council of Science and Humanities recommended in 2012 that Jewish theology be established as a university subject.

“It wasn’t well received everywhere,” says Homolka, “but if you introduce Muslim theology into university curriculum, you can’t ignore Jewish theology.”

Before Abraham Geiger College was founded, rabbis were primarily trained in the USA or UK, and would usually stay there afterwards.

According to Homolka, “when you become part of Jewish life in New York, you don’t necessarily want to come back to Germany”.

Students from around the world

However today, the institute near Berlin receives applications from all over the world, with students coming from Russia, Israel, Brazil and the USA. The College also has partnerships with educational institutions in both Budapest and Moscow. 

An rabbinical ordination at the Abraham Geigner College. Photo: DPA

By now, 35 graduates, 8 women and 27 men, have completed their training at the college and gone on to work in South Africa, the UK, Israel, as well as in Jewish communities around Germany.

The college is in close contact with communities, where they meet young people who could potentially become rabbis themselves. In 2010, Alina Traiger became the first woman in over 75 years to be ordained as a rabbi in Germany. “Our graduates are our success stories”, says Homolka.

Shut down by Nazis

The Abraham Geiger College is in the tradition of the College for the Study of Judaism in Berlin, which was founded in 1872 by Abraham Geiger, a theologian and rabbi (1810-1874), and later shut down in 1942 by the Nazis.

The liberal academic institution is rooted in connecting Jewish traditions and modern scientific issues. A key topic is whether tradition can be questioned. Liberal Jews say yes, though the Orthodox are sceptical.

“For an orthodox rabbi, it’s sinful for a man to even want to assess the value of tradition,” says Homolka.

The Orthodox community were initially sceptical about Abraham Geiger College. However, according to Homolka, the two denominations have grown closer. Though they hold different views on issues such as whether a woman should be educated as a rabbi, Homolka highlights that “the world is changing”.

Regina Jonas, the first ever female rabbi, came from Berlin and was ordained in 1935. Today, there are around 1,000 female rabbis worldwide.

As Anita Kantor makes her own mark on history, she says, “I’m trying to find my place in this male dominated tradition. Female rabbis have a place too,” arguing that the classic image of the rabbi must be rethought.