The man who would be kaiser
A century after Kaiser Wilhelm led Germany to war, his great-great-grandson is attempting to revive his family’s fortunes
Rebuilding the house of Hohenzollern: Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preussen at the €590 million reconstruction of his family’s former palace. Photograph: Adam Berry
Empire building: Kaiser Wilhelm II. Photograph: Library of Congress
To enter Berlin’s biggest building site the tall, rangy man puts on a blue hard hat and a high-visibility jacket emblazoned with Besucher – visitor. But the 38-year-old is no ordinary visitor; his liquid eyes and distinctive profile suggest as much. Here, in 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II announced Germany’s entry into the first World War. Exactly 100 years later, standing on the same spot, is Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preussen: the man who would be kaiser.
The war cost Wilhelm his crown and his palace, which was demolished in 1950. But today the Prussian palace is rising again from Berlin’s sandy soil, this time as a state museum. Standing on the rough concrete second floor, Prince Georg marvels at the sight, then shifts his gaze to Berlin’s cathedral, where his ancestors lie. It’s a strange moment of joy and pride, he says, to stand where everything began for his family.
“I have never let myself be stigmatised by my past,” he says. “We cannot choose our past; we have to live with Germany: the bad and the good.”
The royal house of Hohenzollern and Prussia have polarised European opinion even longer than they dominated its history. The kingdom of Prussia was the linchpin of the unified German Reich in 1871 but, in Winston Churchill’s damning 1943 verdict, the “source of recurring pestilence” in Europe.
Four years later, after Germany lost a second World War, the Allies in occupied Berlin passed a law stating: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany, has de facto ceased to exist.”
This view of Prussia as the bad seed in German history remains dominant among those who remember it. But many more have forgotten Prussia entirely. Visit Berlin’s district court in Schöneberg, the Prussian-built palace of justice, and you won’t even find a plaque marking its ignominious end here in 1947.
From character to culture, Prussia dominated Germany’s history for centuries. Mention Prussia to Germans today and they’ll trot out the “Prussian virtues” – discipline, punctuality, deference to hierarchy – that many outsiders consider utterly German traits. The Prussian phantom colours our understanding of today’s Germany, yet this influential empire was dumped into an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Prince Georg has no crown – and is not a prince under the law of the Federal Republic of Germany, which recognises the old title Prince of Prussia only as part of his surname – but has the calm energy of a man on a mission: to exhume and rehabilitate his family’s history, good and bad. His striking resemblance to Kaiser Wilhelm II, he jokes, makes it a delicate affair.
“Prussia has always polarised opinion, but I think we’re coming to a point where an objective view of things is finally possible,” he says. “We are not on the road to Prussia glorification – that would be counterproductive – but there is a new readiness to see things in another light, another context.”
Born in 1976 and raised in Fischerhude near Bremen, Prince Georg says he had an “unburdened childhood”, despite losing his father when he was just a year old.
In 1994 he lost his grandfather Louis Ferdinand snr, making the 18-year-old head of the house of Hohenzollern. It is a role that is both managerial and ambassadorial: representing the family at public events and administering family properties while ensuring the Prussia brand isn’t taken hostage by monarchists or far-right nationalists.
Although they lost their aristocratic titles in 1918, the Hohenzollerns and other former ruling houses live on around Germany. As in Ireland, Germany’s public apathy with aristocratic affairs belies a lingering private fascination and media interest.