Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Following Defeat: Crown Prince Wilhelm's Life After the War

Crown Prince Wilhelm Before the War

From August 1915 onward, 5th Army Commander, Crown Prince Wilhelm, was given the additional role as commander of the Crown Prince's Group. In 1916 his troops began the Verdun Offensive, a year long effort to destroy the French armies that would end in failure. Wilhelm relinquished command of the 5th Army in November of that year but remained commander of the Crown Prince's Group for the rest of the war.

After the outbreak of the German Revolution in 1918, both Emperor Wilhelm II and the crown prince signed the document of abdication. On 13 November, the former crown prince went into exile and was interned on the island of Wieringen (now part of the mainland), near Den Helder in the Netherlands. In the fall of 1921, Gustav Stresemann visited Wilhelm, and the crown prince voiced his interest in returning to Germany, even as a private citizen. After Stresemann became chancellor in August 1923, Wilhelm was allowed to return after giving assurances that he would no longer engage in politics. He chose 9 November 1923 for this, which infuriated his father, who had not been informed about the plans of his son and who felt the historic date to be inappropriate.

Cecilienhof in Potsdam, Wilhelm's Residence

In June 1926, a referendum on expropriating the former ruling princes of Germany without compensation failed, and as a consequence the financial situation of the Hohenzollern family improved considerably. A settlement between the state and the family made Cecilienhof property of the state but granted a right of residence to Wilhelm and Cecilie. This was limited in duration to three generations. The family also kept the ownership of Monbijou Palace in Berlin, Oels Castle in Silesia, and Rheinsberg Palace until 1945.

Wilhelm broke the promise he had made to Stresemann to stay out of politics. Adolf Hitler visited Wilhelm at Cecilienhof three times, in 1926, in 1933 (on the "Day of Potsdam"), and in 1935. Wilhelm joined the Stahlhelm, which merged in 1931 into the Harzburg Front, a right-wing organisation of those opposed to the democratic republic.

The former crown prince was reportedly interested in the idea of running for Reichspräsident as the right-wing candidate against Paul von Hindenburg in 1932, until his father forbade him from acting on the idea. After his plans to become president had been blocked by his father, Wilhelm supported the rise to power of Hitler.

Hitler and Wilhelm Meet in 1933

After the murder of his friend Kurt von Schleicher, the former Chancellor, in the Night of the Long Knives (1934), he withdrew from all political activities.

When Wilhelm realized that Hitler had no intention of restoring the monarchy, their relationship cooled. Upon his father's death in 1941, Wilhelm succeeded him as head of the House of Hohenzollern, the former German imperial dynasty. He was approached by those in the military and the diplomatic service who wanted to replace Hitler, but Wilhelm turned them down. After the ill-fated assassination attempt on 20 July 1944, Hitler nevertheless had Wilhelm placed under supervision by the Gestapo and had his home at Cecilienhof watched.

In January 1945, Wilhelm left Potsdam for Oberstdorf for a treatment of his gall and liver problems. His wife Cecilie fled in early February 1945 as the Red Army drew closer to Berlin, but they had been living apart, sometimes for a long time. At the end of the war, Cecilienhof was seized by the Soviets. The palace was subsequently used by the Allied Powers as the venue for the Potsdam Conference.

Crown Prince Wilhelm, 1882–1951

At the end of the war, Wilhelm was captured by French Moroccan troops in Baad, Austria, and was interned as a (World War I) war criminal. Transferred to Hechingen, Germany, he lived for a short time in Hohenzollern Castle under house arrest before moving to a small five-room house at Fürstenstraße 16 in Hechingen, where he died on 20 July 1951, of a heart attack. Three days later, his opponent in the Battle of Verdun, Marshal Philippe Pétain, died in prison in France.

Wilhelm and his wife are buried at Hohenzollern Castle.



  1. What a life of privilege. I can forgive being pulled into WW1. Can't forgive him for ever backing Hitler.

  2. There's a fascinating controversy going on in Germany now over whether or not the Hohenzollerns deserve compensation for what the Soviets took from them after 1945. Prominent historians have been enlisted by both sides, including Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers. There
    s a good introduction in English to the controversy in David Motadel, "What Do the Hohenzollerns Deserve? New York Review of Books, March 26, 2020, pp. 25-27.

  3. What a fascinating life with, as Bob says, connections to horror.
    So many unusual bits, like being interned after WWII for WWI.
    And the novelistic details: dying with Petain, returning to Germany on the abdication day.