A fortnight ago, Prince Ernst August, head of the House of Hanover, had every reason to be pleased with himself. Wealthy, stylish, donnish, the scion of Germany's oldest royal dynasty, cousin to the Queen and titled the Prince of Britain and Ireland, he quietly wed one of the most glamorous bluebloods in Europe, Princess Caroline of Monaco.
The press were dewy-eyed. Embarking on his second marriage, the bespectacled 43-year-old cut a dashing figure. The princess (for her part, making a third shot at matrimony) was radiant, as princesses are. But the honeymoon was to be short-lived. Bildzeitung, Germany's leading tabloid newspaper, dropped a bombshell: "Caroline's Prince - the Bitter Nazi Truth." Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the prince saw red.
Germany's foremost royal has seen red before. Indeed, he enjoys a reputation for being a bit of a bruiser: he has just shelled out $10,000 in damages to a television cameraman, Karsten Thuernau. The prince took exception last year to Thuernau loitering outside the gates of the ancestral pile on the fringe of Hanover, leapt from his car, attacked the camera with an umbrella and kicked and punched Mr Thuernau black-and-blue. The victim needed surgery on a broken nose.
The prince is litigious, too. Last year, he sued Bunte, the German version of Hello! magazine, for 500,000 deutschemarks after it published snapshots of himself and Princess Caroline sunning themselves on the beach. But his battle with Bildzeitung is undoubtedly his biggest yet. For the past several days, Germany's best-selling tabloid has been running an incendiary campaign against the country's oldest royal family, digging out skeletons from the closet of the Third Reich and boldly proclaiming that the Hanoverians' past is less than squeaky clean.
The allegations are as follows: Ernst August's grandfather (also called Ernst August) profited from the Nazis' plunder of Jewish businesses and banks in the 1930s, eventually gaining the majority share in what had been the biggest construction firm in Austria, Jewish-owned until 1938. The grandfather, it was alleged, applied to join the Nazi party in 1941, while as early as 1933 he encouraged his loyalists in northern Germany to "follow the Fuhrer, Chancellor Adolf Hitler". Meanwhile, Ernst August's father (also, confusingly, called Ernst August) joined the SS in 1933 and remained a member for one year. His official "denazification" certificate from 1949 vetting his Third Reich associations classified him as "a nominal Nazi supporter".
The prince is outraged by the claims. His lawyers have been instructed to "take all appropriate legal action to protect his family's reputation against the false allegations". "Most of what people have read in the papers over the last five days is rubbish," he declared. But Bild is not easily intimidated. "Royal Highness, don't you know the history of your own house?" the newspaper cheekily inquired.
The Prince versus the pop paper is shaping up to be an epic battle, pitting the most prestigious representative of old, elitist Germany against the vulgar voice of modern, plebeian Germany. A direct descendant of George III and great-grandson of the last German Kaiser, Ernst August has a British passport as well as a German one. He is equally at home at his Calenberg Schloss outside Hanover as at his Fulham villa.
Bild, meanwhile - with its daily diet of politics, sex, celebrity, and sport - claims both to reflect and influence the temper of Germany. Its 4.5 million circulation suggests it is doing something right. And in Paul Martin, the paper's deputy editor and leader writer, the Prince has made himself a formidable enemy. Martin has put an army of reporters and researchers on the Prince's case, combing the archives, digging the dirt, and coming up with explosive documentation.
Prince Ernst countered the allegations in a statement issued last week in London. The statement asserted that Ernst August's "grandfather, the Duke of Brunswick and Luneburg, Prince of Hanover, was in fact well-known as being anti-Nazi. Likewise his father." This is buttressed by the facts that the father was expelled from the Wehrmacht during the war and then jailed for six weeks by the Nazis in 1944.
After the war, in 1948, however, the British occupying forces in northern Germany refused to let the current Prince's father leave the country to visit his daughter in Switzerland, because "the Brunswicks are well-known for their Nazi connections", according to a Foreign Office record unearthed by Der Spiegel.
The documentary evidence against grandfather Ernst August, meanwhile, shows that the family profited from the expropriation of Germany's and Austria's Jews, taking large shares in a Jewish-owned Munich bank and an Austrian building firm, as well as several other companies. One owner was taken to Dachau concentration camp; another committed suicide.
In 1938 after Hitler annexed Austria, the country's biggest construction company, Porr, was taken over and the Jewish owners dispossessed. Ernst August's grandfather, whose wife was Viktoria Luise, daughter of the last Kaiser, became the biggest shareholder, increasing his ownership to almost 43 per cent. The family held on to the shares until the early 1990s when the present Prince disposed of them for tens of millions of pounds. When the private, Jewish-owned Aufhaeuser bank of Munich was taken over just before the war, grandfather Ernst August became a partner, while the head of the bank, Martin Aufhaeuser, was deported to Dachau, before later escaping to America where he died broke in 1944.
The explosive allegations about the House of Hanover come just as much of the German business elite is being forced to confront the role of its corporate ancestry in the Third Reich. Many of Germany's best-known companies are the targets of multi-billion dollar reparations claims from Jewish Holocaust victims and their heirs, and from non-Jewish slave labourers, mainly from eastern Europe.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroder will unveil details of a controversial government-backed compensation plan for the Nazis' victims later this month. But fresh and shaming evidence on the scale and extent of German industry's engagement with the Nazis is emerging almost every week, and the flood of disclosure shows no sign of letting up.
Local press reports from the 1930s of grandfather Ernst August's speeches have him lavishly praising Hitler and recommending that his armed followers join the SA, the Nazi party stormtroopers. "Today we will follow the Fuhrer, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, in serving the Reich and the homeland," he told his followers in May 1933, according to quotations from a Hanover newspaper at the time.
NEITHER the father nor the grandfather was a member of the Nazi party, but the Viennese historian, Oliver Rathkolb, has found documents showing that the grandfather applied to join in 1941.
In addition to threatening legal action, the present Prince has also just authorised a historian to examine the family archives in the "absolute conviction" that his grandfather had "no Nazi sympathies whatsoever". It is his duty, says Prince Ernst, to clear the family name.
But if reputations and pedigrees are at stake, there is also the matter of property, artworks, and antiques worth hundreds of millions of pounds. The spark that has ignited the current controversy is another court case the Prince is pursuing in eastern Germany in an attempt to recover estates, castles, paintings, and antiques the family lost to the communists at the end of the war.
Since German unification in 1990, the Hanovers have been bent on regaining the property that the Soviet occupying power expropriated and nationalised in 1946. Under post-unification restitution laws, the old owners are generally able to recover "mobile effects" such as furniture and artworks which were confiscated by the communists, but it is much more difficult to regain buildings or land.
There are two snags for the Hanovers which bear directly on the dispute with Bild. The first is that restitution is generally forbidden if those who lost property "supported the National Socialist system". The second is that land and buildings can be given back to the previous owners if they were "foreigners", not Germans.
To claim the estates and the buildings, Prince Ernst August argues that his grandfather was not a German, but a Briton, when the communists expropriated his property. This line of reasoning has already been rejected twice by courts in the east German town of Magdeburg, but the prince has not given up. On the other matter of 201 paintings, 148 pieces of antique furniture, and 46 precious tiled stoves collected by his grandfather - mobile effects which are more easily reclaimed - the Prince's case now rests on his being able to refute the Bild allegations. But even if he succeeds, will the mud stick nonetheless? "The Prince will have to bear the consequences if it's right that the family enriched itself from aryanised Jewish property," said the German Jewish leader, Michel Friedman.
The conservative Die Welt newspaper commented that previous generations of Hanovers "would stop at nothing when it came to money", while adding that in the Federal Republic, the family had never given up its claim to the Hanover throne. "His Royal Highness the Prince of Hanover has been concerned to learn that it has been falsely alleged by Bildzeitung . . . that his late grandfather and late father were linked to the Nazi regime," said the Prince's lawyers' statement last week. "He wishes to make clear immediately that this was not the case." That, it now appears, will be for the Prince to prove rather than assert, and for the courts to decide.