Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Royal Profile: Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia

Of all the children of the last German Kaiser, probably none is more controversial than his fourth son Prince August Wilhelm. Today, the few who remember him at all, usually dismiss him as ‘the Nazi’ one among the sons of the Kaiser. As with any person, Prince August Wilhelm was a more complicated individual than such a simplistic dismissal would have one believe. Nonetheless, the decisions he made in the course of his life ended up seeing him alienated from his father and finally from his country as a whole when the political cause he embraced became rather extremely unpopular after 1945. He was born in Potsdam on January 29, 1887, the fourth of what would eventually be the seven children of Kaiser Wilhelm II; six boys and one girl. He grew up at the New Palace in Potsdam, one among many of his siblings. For his education he attended university at Bonn, Berlin and Strasbourg but was not a very exceptional student. Nonetheless, he passed and obtained a doctorate in political science in 1907. In October of the following year he married his cousin Princess Alexandra Victoria of Schleswig-Holsetein-Sonderburg-Gluecksburg in Berlin. Like much of his life, Prince August Wilhelm’s marriage was not a happy one and it was not until 1912 that the Princess gave birth to his one and only son; Prince Alexander Ferdinand of Prussia.

Ironically enough, given his later political image, Prince August Wilhelm was definitely not a part of the right-wing, militaristic faction of German politics. He was not terribly comfortable in the military atmosphere and preferred more peaceful pursuits. His home, Villa Liegnitz, was a place where artists, musicians, intellectuals and the like tended to gather. It was a far cry from, for example, the circle that his eldest brother the Crown Prince moved in, surrounded by cavalry officers and athletic enthusiasts. Whereas most of his brothers found employment in the military, Prince August Wilhelm remained very much in the civilian sphere. When the First World War broke out the Crown Prince took command of the Fifth Army, Prince Eitel Fritz marched to the front as colonel of the First Prussian Foot Guards, Prince Adalbert went to sea with the navy, Prince Oskar commanded a grenadier regiment and Prince Joachim served as a junior officer in another grenadier regiment. Prince August Wilhelm, on the other hand, was the only brother not to serve at the front, having rank only as staff officer in minor roles, but rather was given the post of a district administrator.

During this time rumors began to swirl of an improper relationship between Prince August Wilhelm and his adjutant Hans Georg von Mackensen. According to the gossipmongers this was what drove the marriage of Prince August Wilhelm to ruin. How much of it is true; who can say? The two had been friends since childhood and it would not be the first time that a close friendship was blown out of proportion. On the other hand, accusations of homosexual relationships were not uncommon for that time and place. Similar accusations were made about Prince Joachim and even the Kaiser himself during his youth, which were ridiculous indeed, at least so far as Wilhelm II and his conduct were concerned. As for the failure of the marriage of Prince August Wilhelm, others at the time attributed it simply to being incompatible compounded with the loss of status for the House of Hohenzollern following the German defeat in 1918. Whatever the cause, the timing certainly raises suspicions as Prince August Wilhelm and Princess Alexandra separated as soon as the war was over and, to the disappointment of the Kaiser, divorced in 1920. It is also noteworthy that the Princess remarried within three years but later divorced that husband as well.

After the war, Prince August Wilhelm (or “Auwi” as he was known by his family) at first lived a rather solitary existence in Potsdam. Having been given custody of his son, Prince Alexander Ferdinand, he had few other close friends or regular visitors and employed himself as an artist. The war, or perhaps more the defeat, does seemed to have brought about a new sort of motivation to the life of Prince August Wilhelm. After a time of relatively melancholy isolation he began to get involved in politics and veterans affairs and to associate himself with more militaristic elements who (like most) wished to see the Versailles Treaty drastically readjusted or shaken off entirely and for Germany to rise again as a major power. Toward that end he joined the League of Frontline Soldiers, better known as “Stahlhelm” which was a paramilitary organization that was closely associated with the conservative National People’s Party (which originally had a very strong monarchist element).

As with many members of “Stahlhelm” however, it did not end there and soon many were looking with hope for the future at the rising power of the National Socialist German Workers Party, the NSDAP or Nazis. Eventually, as the Nazis came to dominate the political scene, “Stahlhelm” was absorbed into the SA, the brown-shirted storm troops of the Nazi Party. Although it thoroughly outraged his father, Prince August Wilhelm joined the Nazi Party on April 1, 1930 and because of his status was rewarded with the prestigiously low membership number of 24. At the time, a low membership number was considered impressive as it implied that someone was a “true believer”, a Nazi from the beginning and not someone who joined the party later only to benefit themselves or make life easier. Obviously, this was not the case with Prince August Wilhelm but Nazi leader Adolf Hitler did it because he intended to make use of the Prince as a symbol to win support from the monarchists and more traditional conservatives who might be reassured about the Nazi Party if they were to see one of the sons of their beloved Kaiser wearing the brown shirt. Similar efforts had been made to win the support of the Crown Prince and the Kaiser himself but it was to no avail.

Former flying ace Herman Goering had taken the lead in trying to win over the exiled Kaiser, giving the impression that the Nazis would restore the old German Empire when the time was right. For just a time it seemed as though the tactic might have been working but the Kaiser, a veteran of many political deceptions and intrigues, was not so easily fooled. He held back long enough to determine that the Nazis were not being genuine, were not to be trusted and he firmly showed them the door. As such, he was quite outraged when Prince August Wilhelm defied his wishes and joined the Nazi Party. It alienated the prince from his father and, indeed, from that time on the old Kaiser had practically nothing to do with his fourth son. The Kaiser was thoroughly offended by not only Prince Auwi’s membership in the Nazi Party but his prominent position and willingness to even campaign for them and play the dutiful devotee of the former corporal Adolf Hitler. To have simply been a member of the NSDAP as a private citizen was one thing, to openly campaign for the Nazis, accept rank from them and all the while being addressed as a Prussian prince was something else entirely.

In 1931 Prince Auwi joined the brown shirts, becoming a colonel in the SA and in due course being promoted up to the equivalent of a major general in the organization. He traveled around Germany making speeches, oftentimes alongside Hitler, sometimes introducing him. This was all part of the effort of the Nazis to win the support of traditional conservatives or to at least convince them not to oppose the Nazis in their rise to power. In 1932 he stood as a Nazi Party candidate in elections for the Prussian Landtag and later in 1933 he was given a place in the Prussian government and a seat in the Reichstag. Not everyone in the Nazi hierarchy was happy about the presence of the Prince though. Joseph Goebbels, who came from the very left end of the party, was certainly the least friendly toward royals of any kind and Hitler himself tolerated them only so long as it served his interests to do so. Any hope that Prince Auwi maintained that he or his son might have been elevated to the throne by a victorious Nazi Party were soon dashed. Once Hitler decided he no longer needed the Prince, August Wilhelm was quickly sidelined. By 1934 he was being kept away from Hitler and after the purge of the SA and their being eclipsed by the SS, there was no doubt that Prince August Wilhelm was no longer in favor with the Nazi elites.

How could this have happened, especially given how opposed the Kaiser was to any non-monarchist politics in Germany and given how anti-royalist most of the top Nazis tended to be? The situation is further confused by the fact that Prince Auwi’s sister, Princess Viktoria Luise, maintained that her brother had always opposed the racial policies of the Nazi Party and Prince Auwi himself said that several of his best friends were Jews. If that were true it must be seen as being totally at odds with any hope he might have had of Hitler elevating him to the throne of a restored German Empire. It may, perhaps, have been the result of the fact that Prince August Wilhelm, even before joining the party, already felt somewhat alienated from his family whereas many of his friends had Nazi Party connections. His lifelong friend Hans Georg von Mackensen, for example, was married to the daughter of leading Nazi Konstantin von Neurath. His ex-sister-in-law, Princess Helena (who married into the Danish Royal Family) was a Nazi and the King exiled her and her husband for that after the war. Another sister-in-law, Princess Viktoria Adelaide, was married to the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha who was also a Nazi Party member. Whatever the case, it would be hard to argue that the Prince had simply been duped or misled as even after Hitler began to snub him, the Prince never left the party and even as late as 1939 was given a promotion to the equivalent of a lieutenant general, the second highest rank, in the by-then largely ceremonial SA.

He carried on as before with the outbreak of World War II but his former political friends soon turned on him. When it became known in 1942 that he had spoken out privately against Dr. Goebbels, Prince Auwi was officially denounced and forbidden to speak publicly again. He fled the approaching Red Army in 1944 with his sister-in-law Crown Princess Cecilie and was later arrested by the United States Army. He was judged to be an ‘unredeemed’ Nazi, was sentenced to time served and released. Another arrest warrant was issued for him from the authorities in East Germany but before anything could be done about it Prince August Wilhelm died in Stuttgart in 1949 at the age of 62. His decisions had caused a great deal of bitter feelings amongst his family, caused his father to practically disown him and finally he was blacklisted even by his former Nazi friends only to have the war end in their defeat and with the ruination of Germany that caused his own people to view him with nothing but contempt. It is certainly not fair that he should be singled out before others that did exactly the same, and there were oh-so many in those days, but the fact remains that no good came from his foray into politics.

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