The hohenzollerns and the nazis – history of a collaboration?

Historian Stephan Malinowski succeeded last year with his monograph on the collaboration of the House of Hohenzollern with the Nazis. But the book does not live up to the scientific authority attributed to its author. A critical interjection from a professional colleague who has also studied the role of the Hohenzollern during the Nazi era.

BY LOTHAR MACHTAN on 28. January 2022

Lothar Machtan is a historian who taught at the University of Bremen until 2015. In 2021, his book "The Crown Prince and the Nazis" was published. Hohenzollern’s blind spot".

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Since the publication of Stephan Malinowski’s book "The Hohenzollerns and the Nazis. History of a Collaboration", this monograph is being treated as the new gold standard by the historically interested public. But on sober reflection, does this book live up to the eloquence? From a purely analytical point of view, the author works with an ambitious methodological "approach", which, however, he neither systematically develops nor (theoretically) critically examines with regard to its applicability in the Hohenzollern Causa. According to this, the historically real representatives of the House of Prussia – as human beings with a biography – would have to take a back seat to the construct of their numinous figures as royals. "Myth", "charisma", "symbolic capital" are the categories that define this construct. With these metaphorical borrowings from Kantorowicz, Weber, Sartre, Bourdieu, and other thinkers, the book is put into a science-like form.

At the same time a second historical-political reality emerges from it. For the magic formula that Malinowski derives from his "theory" is: the monarchical-symbolic capital of the Hohenzollerns had not been exhausted despite the official abdication and desertion of the emperor and crown prince; rather, it had been available to "millions of Germans with monarchist sensibilities" (S. 121f.) nor possessed an auratically charged political surplus value that called for realization. Therefore, until the 1930s, a political leadership role for the crown prince or his son was "within the range of possibilities hoped for or feared in all political camps" (S. 95). Is this a valid assumption?

"Fears" perhaps – "hopes" certainly not. Too great and notorious remained the skepticism of the nationalist-conservative milieu against the failed imperial house – much greater than at the end against Hitler. Actually, Malinowski does not know anything illuminating about the concrete nature of the monarchist "sensibilities" in the nationalist segments of German society, because he did not penetrate deeper into the political camp of the German right. What he depicts, based on sources, are preferably preoccupations in which the left and (Germany-critical) foreign public at that time perhorresed a restoration of the monarchy. He cannot provide more substance for his central assumption. Thus it remains with his suggestion to be able to read historical-political moods. (By the way, the greatest fears that the monarchical idea could revive again in Germany plagued – until 1934 – Josef Goebbels.)

One-sided evaluation of sources

The book first impresses with its massive annotation apparatus, which fills almost 100 printed pages. If one now looks more closely at which primary sources were taken into account, one notices that more than 60% of them are press testimonies: Newspaper articles about the Hohenzollerns, not infrequently of an ephemeral nature, and this is where another problem begins: because Malinowski takes these articles, which at the time largely served a boulevardesque voyeuristic interest or the political (self-)agitation of left-wing milieus, at face value, as it were – as factual reports. The relevant press coverage of the Hohenzollern from the right, as can be seen – to cite only two examples – from the Stahlhelm. Organ of the Bund der Frontsoldaten or of the German nationalist Berlin Local Gazette He is not interested in the "myth", the "charisma", or the. And the central organ of the National Socialists, the Volkischer Beobachter, he also did not systematically evaluate. With this one-eyed point of view, the author preferably reproduces the phantasmagoria of the contemporary left, according to which the Hohenzollerns represented an acute danger to the existence of Weimar democracy. Malinowski’s study is thus not a critical – hermeneutically trained – analysis of a representative spectrum of sources, but rather a picture-postcard illustration of his own historical-political horizon, or rather, of his own political horizon. of his preconceived value judgments. Polemically, one could call what he presents a mixed reality show. In scientific German: eclecticism.

Although it is indisputable that the failure of the emperor and crown prince in November 1918 caused the monarchical idea in Germany to suffer the most severe shipwreck, Malinowski claims that the performative presence of the Hohenzollern dynasty in the public consciousness alone would have allowed its representatives to continue to make political mischief, as charismatic potentials, or rather, as a "lion". Projection screens. But these are not measurable quantities, they are speculative playthings. At best, one can soften hard facts with them. For example, that the real-life Hohenzollerns were no longer of any use as political landmarks after 1918, that no charisma could be attributed to them because they had totally failed historically. The exiled emperor and his elder hung like millstones on the neck of Prussian-German monarchism, which had already run into heavy waters during the World War. After that, their return to the throne was as good as impossible, even for stubborn monarchists. (Quite different from Bavaria, for example.) For the republican left, the imperial son and his father functioned mainly as scarecrows. In other words, the "symbolic capital" of the Hohenzollerns was traded like a worthless share on the stock exchange of daily politics until 1931. Even Reich Chancellor Bruning’s attempt to make it a political security again failed as early as 1932 because of Hindenburg’s decisive veto and the anti-monarchical resentment of German right-wing radicalism. Thus, the Hohenzollerns were never able to emerge as a compelling political force – neither rationally nor emotionally.

The German crown prince had a rather deterrent effect on the right wing

Malinowski wants us to believe the opposite. In his historical reality, the Hohenzollerns figure as dangerous for the existence of the Weimar Republic simply because they were highly attractive figureheads of an ideological counter-design to the democratic system: the – autocratically conceived – monarchy. He overestimates the German crown prince to the maximum – especially as an "influencer" of a subversive network that ultimately brought down the democratic republic. But here we are suddenly back on the hard ground of real politics and the political qualities of an actor with intentional behavior. But here, on the level of political action, it can be shown with an overwhelming abundance of valid sources that Wilhelm Kronprinz was downright incapable of politics, never worked single-mindedly toward the seizure of power. Nor can he be said to have worked productively on the Hohenzollern myth. On the contrary, with his – to put it mildly – "unroyal" public appearances and his jet-set airs, he trivialized the monarchy and tarnished its image even more than the self-decoration of the House of Prussia in the fall of 1918 had already done. Even in the Prussian conservative milieu, very few were willing to accept Wilhelm’s personal shortcomings in favor of a charisma that was dragged along with him. His hedonistic lifestyle turned many conservative nationalists into republicans. Only as a political and moral authority, Wilhelm Crown Prince could have perhaps once again bundled the torn threads of German monarchism, could have helped it to a new charisma with an irreproachable and non-partisan attitude – but not as the erotomanic airhead that he once was.

Malinowski’s book states that the ex-crown prince’s key position in the right-wing network that brought down Weimar democracy was based above all on his omnipresence in the political public sphere. But: Why then does this figurehead shine by notorious absence, of all things, in the NS propaganda that is so effective in publicity?? Why was there not a single photo in the German press showing him together with Hitler, the superstar of right-wing radicalism at the time, until well into 1933?? Only such motifs could have fed the political imagination of the public, could have made new "power constellations" visible. Wilhelm is said to have become a practical political driving force of reaction; even more, a key figure of the right-wing camp: "His achievements as a mediator between the Reichswehr, Stahlhelm, SA, SS, NSDAP, DNVP, Herrenklub, right-wing publicists, large landowners, aristocratic associations, warrior associations, traditional associations and much more will have to be estimated as considerable" (S. 328). Only: In none of the organizations mentioned above did Wilhelm enjoy genuine trust or sincere respect – not to mention emotional esteem. At one point, Malinowski even senses this himself, writing: "In this field of force, the crown prince more clearly resembles a busybody whose vacillating tactics between the Reichswehr, the Stahlhelm and various factions from the first and second guard of National Socialism did considerable damage to a potential conservative position" (S. 283). Yes what? How can one become "one of the most important symbols, the advertising medium for the fusion of all anti-republican forces" (S. 320) become?

At the "Day of Potsdam" Wilhelm of Prussia played only a minor role

The reverse is true: this man had no political energy whatsoever that he could have brought into any decision-making processes as a driver. If only because his political-biographical ambition was limited. At no point in his short-lived involvement did he manage to win over the conservative-nationalist power resources of the Stahlhelm, the Vaterlandische Verbande, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei or other organizations in this camp for his special ambitions. Not at all for those of Hitler. The Hohenzollerns may have looked for the pressure point to make a political difference, but they never found it – least of all the crown prince. No one in conservative Germany wanted to serve this man and his family any longer.

Even the Kaiser’s great-great-grandson Georg Friedrich von
Prussia does not escape Malinowski’s wrath / dpa

By far the most influential player in the political power poker of the 1930s was also deeply imbued with this, Reich President Hindenburg – who consequently mustered all the power bundled in his myth to the end of his days to keep the Hohenzollerns away from the top of the state. The fact that Malinowski underestimates this most outstanding "Vorschubleister" of the Third Reich is a further consequence of his one-eyed view. With his appointment of Hitler as German Chancellor in January 1933, the Reich President executed the political will of an overwhelming majority of his right-wing conservative supporters. Their sympathies had already turned more and more to the "Fuhrer" in the preceding months. This did not require any election appeals or other acclamations on the part of the Hohenzollerns. Far more important contributions were made by political activists such as Franz Seldte (Stahlhelm), Alfred Hugenberg (Deutschnationale Volkspartei), ex-chancellor Franz von Papen or the Reichswehr officer Walter von Reichenau, to name just a few names. Even at the spectacle in the Garrison Church on the "Day of Potsdam" Wilhelm Kronprinz played only a supporting role. He remained an extra in the crowd of military celebrities who were brought there at that time to pay homage to Hindenburg. The Potsdam state ceremony was tailored solely to this political cult figure. He was supposed to enter the public consciousness as the patron of the "German change of destiny. Everyone knows the legendary handshake photo of Hitler with Hindenburg. With the Kaiser’s son, on the other hand, one does not see the Nazi leader even once in the flood of images that the media spread about this holiday at that time.

Intolerance of dissonant voices

The veto power of historical facts over the "narrative" is also striking in view of other topics that the book touches upon. The scientific authority ascribed to Malinowski by some quality media may be questioned. His ability to discourse especially. He does not want a real factual discussion that asks many questions and remains open-ended. He reveals this once again very forcefully in the "conclusion" of his book – a head-wash of all historians who have left the pack of Hohenzollern hunters. Here his intolerance of dissonant voices reveals almost obsessive traits. He calls for "orthodoxy," or at least the right attitude toward the guilt that the Hohenzollerns brought upon themselves.

We learn at the latest in the final chapter: The author writes as an avowed opponent, indeed as an enemy of his object of investigation – the Hohenzollern dynasty. His main interest aims less at knowledge than at a damnatio memoriae: From Kaiser Wilhelm II. The same spirit of evil, which has been the undoing of Germany’s political culture time and again, can be traced back to the great-great-grandson of Georg Friedrich, the current head of the House of Prussia, according to the ideological foundation. And – in view of the current restitution claims – would possibly continue to do so, if – as it says between the lines – the Hohenzollern legend is not now destroyed once and for all. Like John C.G Rohl in his monumental biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II. personally responsible for the primordial catastrophe of the First World War, even making it a "German trauma", Malinowski wants to hold the dethroned Hohenzollerns jointly responsible for the destruction of Weimar democracy, indeed for Hitler’s resounding success.

No question: the share of the Hohenzollerns in the political disasters of the Germans can be told and interpreted differently. After all, that’s what storytelling is for. Malinowski’s view is one of them. This is not the whole truth; probably not even half of it. And an answer to the Gretchen question: why the Germans handed over their state to the criminal of the century Hitler, the author does not give us either. But as a historian politician is quite up to date.

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