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Searching for the Hohenzollern

Frederick the Great [1]

Frederick II.”The Great” (1712-1786)

By Fernando Dameto Zaforteza, Deputy Director of Humanities at IE Humanities Center. 

The aftermath of the Great War saw the removal from power of three major European ruling houses, namely the houses of Romanov, Habsburg and Hohenzollern. Of these three dynasties only the latter seems to have vanished from history.

Last summer I had the chance to travel to part of the former kingdom of Prussia, the northern lands over which the Hohenzollern used to reign and the cradle of their power. I was astonished when I realized that despite its lengthy reign, little reference to the German dynasty could be found. It was like the two South Africans who were looking for Sixto Rodríguez for years, but instead of a ‘70s US singer the goal here was to find some kind of historic evidence of the Hohenzollern reign. It is true that most of the territories we visited are no longer populated by Germans. At the Yalta Conference it was agreed to move populations in order to concentrate the different ethnicities, so Germans had to leave the lands of Prussia which were given to Poland and the USSR. It was a sort of testing ground for what was later done on a larger scale in states like Hindustan. The painful process was brilliantly described in the essay of Polish poet and philosopher Adam Zagajewski: Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination (University of Georgia Press, 2002), in which he writes about when Poland had to cede its eastern territories to the Soviet Union in order to occupy its current western and northern domains.

When you travel around Austria and Russia you can feel the influence of the Habsburgs or the Romanovs, particularly in the imperial capitals of Saint Petersburg and Vienna. There the presence of their former monarchic dynasties is strong, even if it does sometimes remind one of Disney World. Nor is the presence of the Hohenzollern strong in Berlin-Brandenburg, with Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci Palace probably offering the most significant legacy. In the hardcore lands of Prussia, mostly Poland and the Baltics, you don’t find any remarkable evidence at all.

Perhaps this oblivion is due to Germany’s 20th century history. As the British historian Christopher Clark states in his book Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (Penguin, 2007), after the Second World War, the victors saw Prussia as “the source of German Malaise that had afflicted Europe. It was the reason Germany had turned from the path of peace and political modernity”. Hence the allies focused their efforts on erasing all evidence of the existence of Prussia.

Things are changing. On the one hand, Germany has digested its past and is ready to deal with it, while curiosity about its history is on the increase. On the other hand, with the exception of Königsberg, that now belongs to Russia with a new name Kaliningrad, the rest of the former lands of Prussia now form part of the European Union. This means increasingly stronger relations and closer ties. Many Germans now go for holidays to neighboring Poland and their influence is quite evident. For example most signs on Polish motorways are written in German, and this also applies to many historic and artistic monuments, where German is more prevalent than English. So you never know, a surge in tourism could yet serve to revive the Hohenzollern legacy in the bygone kingdom of Prussia.