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Soviet, Nazi and bureaucratic ghosts haunt legal battle around Berlin’s most famed hotel – the Adlon

Berlin Letter: Adlon heirs seek €120m compensation in case that could trigger cascade of similar hearings over postwar confiscations of Nazi-owned property

The world’s great hotels live and die by their fame – or infamy. Dubai’s seven-star Burj Al Arab, Leonard Cohen’s unmade bed at the Chelsea Hotel – and then there’s the Adlon.

It achieved worldwide notoriety 20 years ago when Michael Jackson demonstrated his fathering skills by dangling his baby son out of the third floor window to horrified fans, and photographers, below.

The Adlon has been a favourite with stars, and royalty, since it opened its doors in 1907. Kaiser Wilhelm II was a regular, allegedly for affairs and baths, because, unlike his nearby palace, the Adlon had discreet staff, central heating and hot running water.

Berlin’s most famed hotel has been through the wars – two, literally – before it was demolished and rebuilt, and it sits once more on Pariser Platz opposite the Brandenburg Gate.

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But on Thursday the future of the Adlon – and the past of its founding family – went before a Berlin court.

Felix Adlon, great-great-grandson of founder Lorenz Adlon, is suing the German state over a 1949 order by the Soviet occupying powers, stripping the family of ownership of the ruined hotel and site.

The Soviets’ justification for the expropriation: Lorenz’s son Louis, who ran the hotel with his second wife Hedda after his father’s death in 1921, were members of the National Socialist party (NSDAP).

The Adlon heirs insist this is nonsense: Lorenz Adlon, the founder, was a staunch monarchist and his son Louis kept the fascists at arm’s length. The big Nazi parties went to the nearby Hotel Kaiserhof and he and his wife joined the NSDAP only in 1941, under duress.

The damaged Adlon Hotel on the Unter Den Linden in Berlin, next to a vast picture of Stalin erected by the Russians in 1945. Photograph: Getty

Their hotel survived the war almost intact until a fire broke out on May 2nd, 1945 and devoured the building. Louis Adlon was picked up and interrogated by Red Army troops and died five days later of a heart attack.

What remained of the Adlon was demolished by East Germany in 1950 and the site remained clear from 1961 as part of the exclusion zone around the Berlin Wall.

Its fall in 1989 triggered a property gold rush in the unified capital. While the Adlon family were negotiating with Berlin to reclaim their hotel site, however, city officials sold it from under their noses to the Kempinski hotel group. It had owned the Adlon trademark rights since 1967 and, with no family involvement, rebuilt a new hotel with the same name on the prime site.

On Thursday at Berlin’s administrative court, the Adlon heirs launched a compensation claim with documents they say Berlin officials withheld from them in the 1990s. These documents, the family say, demonstrated not only that Louis and Hedda Adlon were not Nazis – but were, in fact, members of the resistance.

One document is an affidavit from the widow of Lieut Gen Paul von Hase, a member of the 1944 plot to murder Hitler.

In the document, she said her husband knew he could “always speak openly about National Socialism” with Louis Adlon, because he “belonged to enemies” of the fascists.

The widow added that the conspirators met “almost daily” in the Adlon and that the hotelier couple “frequently took part themselves”.

A second line of legal attack by Adlon family lawyer, Wolfgang Peters: long before the war ended, the assets of Louis and Hedda Adlon had effectively already been expropriated by the Nazis.

Year by year, the fascist government requisitioned Adlon space for its ministries: first the rear annex, then two floors in the main building. By 1945 the hotel was a field hospital, the phones were bugged and Hedda Adlon recalled in her memoir a decade later how “shadowy SS men in black uniforms shouted orders through the hall”.

“They were now the real masters of the luxury hotel,” she wrote.

So who is the real master of the Adlon today? In court on Thursday, the Adlon family lawyer accused Berlin officials of rejecting their previous restitution requests by misrepresenting the terms of the 1990 German unification agreement.

For 30 years Berlin officials have claimed that, during unification talks, Soviet negotiators insisted that Germany not reverse any of its postwar confiscations of Nazi-owned property.

According to Peters, the Adlon family lawyer, even ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev described this claim as “absurd”.

“There is nothing in any treaty or any document that this condition existed,” said Peters. “It’s just something the federal government claimed at the time.”

Berlin’s administrative court dismissed the €120 million compensation claim on Thursday but the Adlon family plans to appeal and, if succesful, they could trigger a cascade of similar, extremely expensive claims across the country.

Soon the favourite hotel of Garbo, Dietrich, Chaplin and Michael Jackson may have a new claim to infamy: as the source of many a German finance minister’s sleepless night.