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.
Prince Georg, married in 2011 and father to one-year-old twin boys, occasionally features in Germany’s gossip magazines. But mostly he enjoys going unrecognised through the capital his family built.
“I have no public function; nor does my family. We’re citizens with public recognition but no political function,” he says. “Prussia doesn’t exist any more as a state; nor does the aristocracy and monarchy. What remains for us is promoting a cultural understanding of Prussia.”
Promoting a nonexistent but nevertheless problematic brand has become easier lately thanks to the Cambridge historian Christopher Clark. After masterly volumes on Prussia and Kaiser Wilhelm II, Prof Clark's runaway bestseller, The Sleepwalkers, recasts the last kaiser as just one of many European leaders sleepwalking into the abyss. It has been widely, if not universally, welcomed in Germany.
“Until now we always had the Agatha Christie theory, that there was one perpetrator, but now we have a theory that [they] all had a pistol in their hand; it was overdue,” says Prince Georg. “He in no way absolves German guilt, but he breaks down thoroughly the notion of Germany’s singular guilt by showing the readiness for war on all sides.”
After half a century in abeyance, debate has flared up in Germany about the last Hohenzollern ruler. Was Wilhelm a clueless kaiser who learned more from the newspapers than from Berlin dispatches about his government’s rush to war as he sailed around Scandinavia in July 1914? Or had he already taken a fatal chance with his fateful “blank cheque” in the aftermath of Franz Ferdinand’s shooting in Sarajevo, promising his support if Vienna took “advantage of this fortuitous moment” and punished Serbia?
“I don’t dispute there was some foreign-policy damage resulting from Wilhelm II’s rule and from his rhetorically imperfect speeches,” says Prince Georg. “But, viewed in the context of the time, it’s important to remember leaders were expected to act a certain way, and he was no exception.”
The shadow of the Reich
The Hohenzollerns’ unhappy role in German history continued after 1918. Before Kaiser Wilhelm died in exile, in the Netherlands, in 1941, his son August Wilhelm flirted with the Nazis in the hope of taking back the throne. The relationship cooled after Hitler took office. According to Prince Georg, his family was “prostituted” by the Nazis on their way to power. “In 1933 the monarchy wasn’t long past,” he says, “so it was a good idea to include the Hohenzollern family in their political marketing.”
The exiled kaiser and empty throne offered something for everyone and no one to defend Prussia’s legacy. For Hitler, political legitimacy. For the Allies, a historical aggressor. East Germany felt obliged to blow up the palace, it said, to exorcise the evils of Prussian imperialism.
“What I find a shame,” says Prince Georg, “is how, to this day, many historians swallow the Nazi propaganda and see a straight line from Frederick the Great to the Third Reich.”
After seven decades in the Third Reich’s shadow, Prussia is emerging again as a new generation of Germans shuffle the historical hand they have been dealt. Looking on, its neighbours have Germany in their sights like never before, with old apathy yielding to polarised opinion, from World Cup hero to euro-crisis villain.
Berlin is back on the political map and Germany’s role in Europe is shifting before our eyes. Understanding this country, and how it sees itself, means taking Prussia out of historical quarantine.
Prince Georg sees Germany’s role in Europe differently from previous generations. He dismisses as absurd the former chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s recent remark that Third Reich crimes exclude Germany from a leading role in Europe for centuries to come. “I think it is clear to all that Germany should assume a leading role in Europe,” he says.
And what does he think about the leader shaping this new role, Chancellor Angela Merkel? “She represents the positive Prussian virtues of modesty, conscientiousness and sense of duty.”
Is such generous praise a sign that Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preussen, the man who would be kaiser, is happy to remain in the conditional tense? “The question of a return of the monarchy is not relevant at the moment,” he says. “I don’t think I’d be taken seriously if I said I thought it would be nice or that I could envisage it. If the facts change, I am a free person who can adjust to anything.”
As the Prussian palace rises again in Berlin the door, tantalisingly, hangs ajar.
Prussian blues – The rise and fall of a great power
Prussia’s rise began in 1417 when the Hohenzollern dynasty bought the margravate, or principality, of Brandenburg. Wars and advantageous marriages helped the ambitious family acquire scattered territories, including the duchy of Prussia, leading to the founding of the kingdom of Prussia in 1701.
Two monarchs secured the new kingdom’s fame. Friedrich Wilhelm, who ruled from 1713 to 1740 and was dubbed the Soldier King, developed Prussia’s admired and feared military machine. His son Friedrich the Great reigned from 1740 to 1786. He was known as the Philosopher King but pushed his way to Europe’s top table thanks to his military skill and talent for land grabs. If war was work, the arts were Friedrich’s pleasure. Voltaire, a regular guest at court, remarked: “It was Sparta in the morning, Athens in the afternoon . . .”
Friedrich’s life motto, “Everyone should be free to pursue their own happiness,” coloured his tolerant, enlightened reign. He offered refuge for persecuted Huguenots and backed far-reaching social, educational and civil reform that abolished torture and rolled back royal interference in judicial affairs.
Prussia steadily grew in size and influence, and, after leading the defeat of France in 1870, Kaiser Wilhelm I was proclaimed emperor of a united German Reich in Versailles a year later.
This was not the fulfilment of Prussia’s historical destiny, the historian Christopher Clark suggests, but its downfall. Its weakness was its strength: while Bavarians or Saxons had deep historical roots and cultural identity, Prussia operated more like a franchise, offering religious and cultural diversity while imposing efficient administration and military systems.
Prussia was less an organism, argues the author Sebastian Haffner, than a machine. And no sooner had it become the main cog in a united Germany, he argues, than the mechanism began to stall. “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, the architect of German unity, was deposed. Prussia lost its chief mechanic in government affairs.
Ambitious industrialists and aristocrats moved in on Kaiser Wilhelm II, pushing his foreign policy on to a more aggressive, imperial path that German historians say had little to do with Prussian tradition.
Legally, Prussia lived on until 1947, but its history effectively ended with Wilhelm II’s abdication, in 1918. The last Prussian king to become German kaiser was helpless as the tide went out on the Hohenzollerns’ 500-year reign.