The Queen of the United Kingdom is celebrating 70 years on the throne this weekend, making hers one of the longest reigns of any monarch in European history.
Elizabeth II’s popularity and the popularity of the monarchy in the UK might well be a point of jealousy for her distant relations, the Hohenzollern family, who ruled Germany up until the end of the First World War.
Who were the Hohenzollerns?
Originally hailing from the Württemberg region of southern Germany, members of the Hohenzollern dynasty reigned in various German princedoms in the early modern era. One branch of the family even sat on the throne of Romania up until 1947.
But the most influential branch of the family held sway in Brandenburg and later Prussia between the 17th and 19th centuries when Prussia, with Berlin as its capital, rose to become a major European power.
When Germany was united under Prussian leadership in 1871, the Hohenzollern kings took on the mantle of monarchs of Germany and its empire.
During the Kaiserreich era which ended with defeat in World War One, the Hohenzollern kings had immense power: they could hire and fire the German Chancellor and had large control over foreign policy.
While the Hohenzollern in the pre-war period are remembered in Germany today as being strictly conservative and resistant to societal progress, earlier generations were more liberal.
For instance, Berlin’s French flare – seen in places such as Gendarmenmarkt – is the result of the policies of the Hohenzollern family, who welcomed in tens of thousands of French Huguenots who were persecuted in their homeland due to their protestant faith.
The last Hohenzollern to sit on a German throne was a disaster though, both for his family and his country.
Wilhelm II, a grandson of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, was known for his bellicose foreign policy and his erratic public statements, which ultimately led Europe into war in 1914.
Wilhelm was forced to abdicate in 1918 after Germany’s defeat on the western front in the First World War.
Germany became a republic and Wilhelm lived out his final days in the Netherlands.
Where are they now?
Because the German royals were allowed to make a peaceful exit after Wilhelm’s abdication, his direct heirs are still alive today.
The current head of the family is Georg Friedrich Ferdinand, who was born in 1976 and is the great-great grandson of Wilhelm II.
On his paternal side, Georg Friedrich counts a number of European royal families among his ancestors. His great-great grandparents include several Russian Romanovs and a Duchess of Edinburgh.
The current “prince of Prussia” was educated at a Scottish boarding school before serving in the Bundeswehr and then studying business.
For years he was tied up in a lengthy legal battle with two uncles, who demanded a cut of his inheritance. But the family wealth, which is mainly in the form of valuable art, furniture and jewellery, doesn’t appear to have provided him with a life of luxury.
In 2012, Bild newspaper reported that he had to sell a precious diamond to stave off financial difficulty. At the time he was living in a rental property in Berlin.
His marriage to Princess Sophie of Isenburg in 2011 in Potsdam was attended by members of many of Germany’s former aristocratic elite and was considered a big enough event to receive a live television broadcast by local public broadcaster RBB.
He now lives as a private citizen in Potsdam, the city made famous by his family’s splendid palaces such as Sansouci.
Georg Friedrich runs a brewery called the Kgl. Preußischen Biermanufaktur which brews its beer in Braunschweig.
He is probably best known, though, for his attempts to regain some of his family’s palaces and art collections via the courts.
These attempts have been controversial to say the least.
Historians and museums have said that the claims are totally inappropriate given what they say is clear proof that Georg Friedrich’s great grandfather, Crown Prince Wilhelm, helped Hitler into power in the early 1930s.
Newspapers and several leading historians of the Kaiser period have accused Georg Friedrich of a campaign of intimidation, after his lawyers threatened to sue them over the publication of claims that Crown Prince Wilhelm was close to Hitler.
Among the properties that Georg Friedrich wants the right to use is Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, which is now part of a UNESCO world heritage site.
The property was seized by East Germany’s communist rulers after the Second World War. The Hohenzollern descendants say that they have just as much right to get their property back as all the other landowners who were expropriated under communism.
German law states, however, that a family has no right to compensation if they were substantially involved in Hitler’s rise to power.
Georg Friedrich’s energies have been taken up in recent years in trying to show that his great grandfather was only a peripheral figure in the rise to power of the Nazis.