Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Historians and national identity

There's a remarkable article, currently not paywalled, at the New York Review of Books website, on a debate in Germany about, of all things, the property entitlements of the Hohenzollern dynasty which abdicated the German throne in 1918.

The Weimar constitution of 1920s abolished aristocratic privilege but preserved aristocratic property.  In Soviet-bloc East Germany, however, aristocratic property became state property after 1945. Since 1990, Germany has entertained claims by old aristocratic families to restitution of their estates in the former East German. Including, astonishingly, claims by the descendants of the Hohenzollerns, who would regain some of Germany's major public palaces.

All that is weird enough. (There are Hohenzollerns? In 2020?)  But there is a public-interest escape hatch: the German constitution prohibits restitution to those who assisted the Nazis or the Communists.  

So now, both sides are rushing to hire prominent historians to write reports affirming that the Hohenzollerns were -- or were not -- Nazi sympathizers. (tl;dr: they were. Nazi supporters and facilitators and murderous anti-Semites to boot.) So commissioned briefs by professional historians become part of a national debate that is also an egregious attempt at a landgrab by some of the worst people in the world.   Yeesh.
Norbert Frei, another major expert on Nazi Germany, in an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, accused the Hohenzollern family of “a brute reinterpretation of history” that “distorts historical facts, blurs responsibilities, and destroys critical historical awareness.” In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor of History Emeritus at Cambridge, criticized his colleagues for not reflecting more carefully before accepting offers to produce expert reports.
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