- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006


By Jonathan Petropoulos

Oxford University Press, $37.50, 524 pages, illus.


It is right that there are many books that try to answer the big, difficult questions about Nazism: How could such a scurrilous ideology have taken root in a great, seemingly civilized nation? How could so many have embraced such evil and done the unspeakable deeds demanded of them? What was there in German or European or Christian culture that permitted people to be seduced into such darkness?

But there are also valuable books about Nazi Germany that concern themselves with narrower aspects of the sewer that was Hitlerite Germany and also manage to add to one’s understanding of how various types of Germans came to be Nazis.

“Royals and the Reich,” by Claremont McKenna College history professor Jonathan Petropoulos, is one of them. Mr. Petropoulos has chosen to concentrate on two German brothers, princes of a minor royal house, Hessen-Kassel, each of them prominent Nazis.

One, Prince Christoph — a brother-in-law of Britain’s current prince consort, the Duke of Edinburgh — was an early adherent of Nazism, rising in the ranks of the SS for many years before dying as a fighter pilot in World War II.

His older brother, Prince Philipp, opted for the equally sinister SA as his chosen branch of Nazi vileness, where he, too, did well by doing ill. Credited by most biographers of Hitler with being one of the Fuehrer’s closest confidants until he fell from grace in 1943, Philipp was rewarded with the post of Oberprasident (chief executive) of his very own Hessen province, where he was formally responsible for penalizing its Jewish community in the wake of Kristallnacht.

Here as elsewhere, not only was a punitive tax imposed on the victims to pay for the damage caused by their persecutors, but many of the more prominent Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps for brief periods. Among them was my grandfather Sigmund, a Hebrew teacher who was a pillar of the Jewish community in the bucolic Hessian town of Weilburg-an-der-Lahn and a decorated veteran of the German army in World War I.

After being ill-treated and terrorized for a while, he was released after my grandmother paid a fine she could ill-afford, to ransom a man who had committed no crime. They were fortunate enough to emigrate first to France and then to this country.

So I suppose that I might be said to have a personal animus against Prince Philipp, Oberprasident of Hessen, but in truth I find his brother at least equally rebarbative, as I do all those German royals whose disgraceful collaboration with the Nazi regime is so unflinchingly exposed in Mr. Petropoulos’ well-researched and right-minded book.

“Royals and the Reich” is a devastating portrait of how the highest social stratum in Germany enthusiastically embraced a movement that might truly be said to have come out of the gutter. Surely the demotic nature of Nazism should have kept these aristocrats from cleaving to it, even if its more arrogant, anti-democratic, and downright demonic aspects did not.

But just as those head honchos of the German General Staff, Field Marshals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, adopted the onetime corporal as their leader, so, apparently, did German royals have few if any qualms about entering the heart of Nazi darkness.

If the kind hearts that, according to his interview with Mr. Petropoulos, the Duke of Edinburgh would have us believe many of his coroneted relatives possessed, could not stop them from jumping into the Nazi cesspool, you might have thought that simple snobbery might have done the trick.

But more seriously, Mr. Petropoulos lays out the many reasons behind this disgraceful lemming-like leap: hopes for the restoration of the monarchy; disgust at and fear of communist revolutions, which had dethroned German royals, major and minor, and murdered their Russian relatives; as well as the desire to restore Germany’s military prowess. But he never so much as hints that he thinks these reasons in any way justify their embrace of Nazism.

When Mr. Petropolous came to talk to the Duke of Edinburgh in Buckingham Palace, the duke jumped right in to defend his late brother-in-law, Christoph of Hessen, and German royalty as a whole. Unwisely, as it turned out, since the author came armed with hard data about just how prevalent Nazism was among German princes and dukes.

And indeed although this book is full of facts and statistics, as befits a major piece of academic scholarship, it is no mere dry historical text. Mr. Petropoulos knows just how to find telling pieces of evidence and to frame them with excellent commentary like this:

“These were not the words of a passive onlooker, disinterested in politics. Indeed, one of the most stunning images of this history is Landgrave Friedrich Karl [the father of Princes Philipp and Christoph] lying on his deathbed, extending his arm in the ‘Heil Hitler!’ salute upon hearing the news of the German victories that came during the first phase of the war.”

And this particular stunning image of a dying prince’s Nazi salute comes from a letter written to Hitler by Landgrave Friedrich’s widow, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who might have been Queen of England if her grandmother’s marital plans for her had come off:

“…The ceaseless admiration and loyalty that he felt for you and for your work, as well as for the rise of the Fatherland, for which we are thankful, and [these feelings] remain strong in these hours of bitter suffering. Not a day passed when the deceased did not think of you. He followed until the very end the overpowering events that he had long sensed were coming…

“Time and again, when we came to him, he would use his hand to refer to you. Make God protect you henceforth my Fuhrer, and may he crown you with success in all the further great goals; that would be my own and my family’s lasting wish, as well as that of my beloved husband, in everlasting thanks.”

When you think that this sycophantic, nauseating document was written by the daughter of the philosemitic German Emperor and Empress Frederick (Queen Victoria’s beloved daughter Vicki) who had gone out of their way to visit a Berlin synagogue to demonstrate their feelings about Jews, you can only imagine them spinning in their graves at this blow struck so close to home, along with so much else that happened to their beloved country.

The nexus between German royalty and Hitler came to a bitter end in 1943, when the Fuehrer kicked them out of the German armed forces and Nazi paramilitary organizations. His pathological suspicion about their international connections saved the royals from participation in the most odious Nazi atrocities, but the fact remains that their jumping on the Nazi bandwagon brought them nothing in the way of monarchical restoration or even special privilege, but only shame.

The Hessian princes whose story forms the core of this book both fared ill. Christoph died in an air crash that may well have been staged by a Fuehrer descending ever-deeper into paranoia. Philipp’s connection to the Italian monarchy (he was married to a daughter of the King of Italy) exposed him to Hitler’s wrath following his father-in-law’s role in deposing Mussolini.

His wife, the hapless Princess Mafalda, fared even worse than he did, dying horribly in Buchenwald concentration camp, but Philipp had a fairly rough time himself as a guest in Hitler’s prisons. But ironically, as Mr. Petropoulos points out, his spell as an enemy of the Nazi state in its last years did not prevent him from having to answer to the occupation authorities after his country’s liberation: He went from a Nazi prison to an Allied one before eventually being released.

The dense text of “Royals and the Reich” is leavened by a large selection of well-chosen photographs, which make a significant contribution to the story being told. The one of a decorated ex-Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany and the bloated, over-decorated Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering is particularly telling: vulgarity personified.

Now compared to the awful horrors of Nazi Germany, it might seem that being vulgar is a rather insignificant fault. But such an image is powerful testimony to the fact that the upper-crust of German society ]joined forces with the scum of the earth in a shamefully ignoble chapter of history unflinchingly illuminated by this powerful book.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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