Of Princes and Fortunes
The Prince of Prussia demands the return of his family’s riches. The Prince, Georg Friedrich, the great-great grandson of the last German monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm, II, sued the national and state governments of Germany to reclaim castles, artwork, jewels, and over 10,000 items deemed “family heirlooms”. The Prince asserts that all such property formerly belonged to the Royal House of Hohenzollern with Prince Georg the rightful heir to all such property. In vigorously pursuing these restitution claims in lawsuits initially filed decades ago, Prince Georg asserts: “I see it as my duty.” The story behind these lawsuits rests on actions which began over 100 years ago.
The Prince of Prussia carries much historic weight on his shoulders. The Hohenzollern dynasty traces its roots back to the 11th century. The first official reference to the Hohenzollerns ruling middle European areas could be found in 1601. With the unification of Germany into an empire in 1871, King Wilhelm I of Hohenzollern, then King of Prussia, was proclaimed (or proclaimed himself) German Emperor.
Wilhelm I served until his death in 1888. His son, Friedrich III took the throne but died 99 days later. Friedrich’s son, Wilhelm II, became the next and last emperor at age 29. Wilhelm served until 1918. Being on the losing side in World War I, Wilhelm II abdicated the throne in November 1918 literally days before the end of the war. Seeing the writing on the wall, Wilhelm II went into exile in the Netherlands.
The 1919 Weimar Constitution in Germany scrapped privileges and status of nobility in favor of a republic form of government. The nobility retained their titles and initially retained much of their wealth and possessions. With anti-monarchial sentiment running high in the Weimar Republic, many imperial possessions were confiscated in the years following World War I.
The Hohenzollerns who lost virtually all, turned to the courts and lobbied governments for relief. In 1926, the Hohenzollerns reached a compensation agreement with the Free State of Prussia (a short lived democratic state which emerged from the former Hohenzollern kingdom). A separate German law in 1926 provided for the return of confiscated Hohenzollern possessions, including the 176 room family palace. Perhaps appreciating that public sentiment still did not favor the royals, the Hohenzollerns chiefly remained in exile in the Netherlands, but now with the benefit of these decrees on their side.
Most of the Hohenzollern family property remained in the eastern regions of Germany. More specifically, the family fortune rested in what became Soviet-occupied East Germany after World War II. The new communist state seized ownership of the assets with the Hohenzollerns once more out of favor and out of luck.
Fast forward to 1990 with the Unification Treaty between East Germany and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This treaty acknowledged the unlawful expropriation of lands and buildings by East Germany and established a process to return property or compensate those with such losses. The Hohenzollerns were back in business seeking their family fortune lost (or more appropriately abandoned) in 1918.
It could not be that easy for the Hohenzollerns to simply file a claim as so many former Germans who lost their property, could it? Of course not! The post-reunification laws passed in the 1990s contained a very specific exception: if any claimant, or their family, “substantially supported” the Nazis, they would be ineligible for compensation or return of property.
Enter Crown Prince Wilhelm, son of Wilhelm II who abdicated the throne in 1918. Crown Prince Wilhelm did not remain exiled in the Netherlands, but rather returned to Germany during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power on the wave of nationalistic ideas. In 1933, the year Germany “elected” Hitler as Chancellor, the Crown Prince was photographed wearing a German military uniform with a Nazi armband while saluting at a rally for 80,000 SA troops. Another photograph depicts the Crown Prince and Hitler sharing a laugh while holding a private conversation.
Historic records further confirmed that Crown Prince Wilhelm congratulated Hitler on his birthdays and at New Years. In December 1936, Crown Prince Wilhelm sent Hitler his “sincerest wishes” for Hitler’s “beneficial actions for the well-being of our beloved people and fatherland.” BFFs for sure.
Actively engaging in military exercises proudly displaying a Nazi armband; cozy conversations with Hitler caught on camera; and confirmation of “best wishes” for Hitler’s domination: Crown Prince Wilhelm, a very public figure, appeared among the chief Nazi sympathizers. Relying on this type of evidence, the Hohenzollern’s initial claims for compensation and restitution were rejected in 1994. The authorities deemed Crown Prince Wilhelm to have “considerably abetted” the Nazi regime. The Hohenzollerns and German governments have been battling ever since.
How could Prince Georg overcome these photographs and historical records which confirmed the actions of his great-grandfather Crown Prince Wilhelm? In candidly discussing the photographs, Prince Georg himself stated it best:
“It’s very hard to look at. These pictures are very strong. Especially when you see the swastika on his arm. It always makes your breath stop, and you ask yourself, ‘Why is he wearing that?’”.
Of course, Prince Georg remained prepared to respond to his own rhetorical question. Prince Georg acknowledges that his great-grandfather wore a swastika, but the prime motivation of Crown Prince Wilhelm was to return the Hohenzollern monarchy to power. Crown Prince Wilhelm supposedly believed Hitler could so restore the Hohenzollerns to their rightful, royal place.
This theory even finds modest historic support. A 1932 British newspaper article opined that Hitler was secretly plotting to tear up the Weimar Constitution after his re-election and install a new form of government in Germany with Crown Prince Wilhelm as the head of state. Prince Georg grasps onto this theory asserting that Crown Prince Wilhelm was driven by the idea of returning the monarchy, but acknowledges that the Crown Prince was misled by the idea that it might be better to appease the Nazis, at least initially.
Prince Georg’s theories, as thin as they present, suffer from the realities of how events unfolded for Crown Prince Wilhelm. After the elections in 1933, Hitler made no move to restore the Hohenzollern monarchy. Quite the opposite took place with Hitler becoming Chancellor and effectively dictator with absolute power. There was no sharing of power, but instead consolidation of power in the tyrant. Any opposition or voice of dissent was removed or eliminated. Certainly by 1936, Hitler’s plans could not possibly include yielding power, even figure head power, to any monarch let alone a Hohenzollern with a potential legitimate claim to the throne. Yet, despite these fairly clear circumstances by 1936, Crown Prince Wilhelm continued to wish Hitler well in his efforts to cleanse the population. Tough images to overcome in any forum.
Prince Georg and the German governments continue on their quests for historic data and evidence to further shed light on the mindset and potential motives of Crown Prince Wilhelm and whether his actions benefitted the Nazis. Whether anything else may be unearthed at this stage is debatable. German procedural rules escape me and I cannot explain why or how these cases are still pending after decades of litigation. As a mediator and attorney who regularly evaluates strengths and weaknesses in cases and positions, these claims do present lessons.
Confront the Bad. There exist photographs of the Crown Prince undeniably engaged in military exercises on behalf of the Nazis. The Crown Prince wore a swastika. The Crown Prince held private discussions with Hitler and even laughed with him. Prince Georg did not dismiss the photographs. He did not claim them to be fake or doctored. He did not suggest that they were presented out of context. Prince Georg confronted them head on noting that they are disturbing and present a poor image contrary to his case.
Way too often, I confront lawyers and mediation participants who continue to deny the significance of evidence which so clearly runs counter to their positions and claims. With absolute denials as to the potential impact of adverse information, these participants begin to lose credibility on all matters, not simply the challenging evidence. Acknowledge the bad evidence and admit that it represents points in favor of the adversary. In doing so, you can move beyond the bad information and address other issues.
Embrace the Bad. Prince Georg found a way to use the photographs as illustrating his own theory that the Crown Prince was forced to remain in Hitler’s good graces in order to have an opportunity to reinstate the monarchy. Prince Georg would argue that each photograph illustrates the lengths to which his ancestor had to go in order to attempt to preserve the Hohenzollern monarchy. It would be claimed these actions were not merely distasteful, but also repugnant for Crown Prince Wilhelm. Nonetheless, the Crown Prince so acted for a more noble cause to return the Hohenzollern dynasty.
This position is a stretch and not readily supported by contemporaneous historical records. However, Prince Georg created a storyline which embraces each piece of bad information and uses these records to illustrate his point. When the governments assert: “Just look at the photographs”, Prince Georg responds: “Yes. Look at the photographs! They each show the dedication of the Crown Prince and the sacrifices he made time and time again”.
If confronted with critically adverse evidence, seek a method to use the data affirmatively. For example, in employment cases, plaintiffs often rely on the employer’s policies or procedures which have been so clearly violated. Crafty counsel for the employer may be forced to concede that actions failed to comply with policies, but the policies themselves demonstrate that the employer maintains a robust system designed for the protection of all employees. “Yes. Look at the policy. The policy proves that this employer cares about employees. The policy shows that the employer invests in the well-being of the employees. The policy confirms that the employer seeks to protect all employees.”
I do not know whether there has ever been the opportunity for Prince Wilhelm to have settled with the German governments. Perhaps media scrutiny, public pressures, politics, or parties’ greed and egos preclude such efforts. If such issues do not stand in the way, someone should be counseling Prince Georg to pursue an amicable resolution. Despite all attempts at spin, great-grandfather Crown Prince Wilhelm stood by and in support of the Nazis. The optics on that point alone may doom the current efforts of the Hohenzollerns.
Further, the only statements I could locate from Prince Georg all speak to his motivation as a family obligation seeking the return of riches to him and his family. Surprisingly, I found no statements indicating that heirlooms need to be returned so that they can then be donated to museums or universities in order to preserve history. I found no indiction that riches be returned so that the Hohenzollerns could then carry on with charitable missions or pursuits. I found nothing indicating that Prince Georg fights this battle for the people of Germany. Prince Georg himself could easily be portrayed as an unsympathetic, perhaps greed driven, character.
With another decade of litigation, perhaps Prince Georg can then take solace in surpassing Jarndyce v. Jarndyce for the lengthiest litigation on record. In the interim, Prince Georg provides us lessons in how to settle disputes.