The House of Hohenzollern – The Rise and Fall of German Emperors
In the history of the European Middle Ages, noble families and powerful feudal lords always played a very important role. The wealthier, influential aristocratic families rose to great heights and directly involved themselves in the most decisive events of the unraveling European history. In our latest article we are heading to the very heart of early modern Europe, as we discuss the most famous German noble family, the House of Hohenzollern.
This noble house rose to all possible heights of the time, and has lent their men and women to some important positions – electors, princes, kings and even emperors. They were involved with Prussia, Romania, Germany and Brandenburg, where they acted as rulers and magnates – deciding on the future of Europe and thus the world. Join us as we retrace the steps of this noble family, and re-tell their long and abundant history – all the way to their downfall.
Getting to Know the Noble House of Hohenzollern
We begin our story of the Hohenzollerns from their earliest traces – but also from the origins of their name. The Hohenzollern family originally hails from Swabia, from the region of Baden-Wurttemberg. The original county of this family was known as Zollern, from 1218 known as Hohenzollern.
The capital of this county of the Holy Roman Empire was the town of Hechingen – a small town situated some 60 kilometers (37 mi) from Stuttgart. The noble family itself was based in the Hohenzollern Castle – an indomitable, monumental medieval castle situated on the Hohenzollern Mountain that rises for 855 meters (2805 ft) in Baden-Wurttemberg.
Hohenzollern Castle at night during the winter. (0711bilder / Adobe stock)
The Hohenzollern Castle ( Burg Hohenzollern) is thus the ancestral seat of this noble house, and remains in their ownership to this very day. A quarter of the castle is owned by Karl Friedrich, Prince of Hohenzollern, and the remaining three quarters is owned by Georg Friedrich, Prince of Prussia.
The castle is a typical hilltop medieval fortification much akin to the others in Germany, sitting snuggly on top of the Berg Hohenzollern, which itself is an isolated promontory of the Swabian Jura, that juts out into the air up to 855 meters (2,805 feet). Today it is one of the most visited castles in Germany, with up to 350,000 visitors per year. This is thanks to its idyllic setting, the charming architecture, and its truly splendid and rich design.
Today, the earliest mention of this noble dynasty can be dated with certainty to 1061. A nobleman was mentioned in the annals of a Benedictine monk, Berthold of Reichenau, and was named as Burkhard I, Count of Zollern. He was born sometime before 1025, and was killed in a feud in 1061. Now, while it is not proven with certainty, many scholars mention one Friedrich, Count of Süllichen as his possible father, and thus possibly the progenitor of the Hohenzollerns.
The next in line, and certainly much, much more documented, was the son of Burkhard I – Friedrich I, Count of Zollern. Much is known about this man. He was the overlord of the important Swabian Alpirsbach Abbey, and his wife, Udihild, came from one of the most important Swabian noble houses – House of Urach – which later became the widely famous House of Fürstenberg.
Friedrich I was a close supporter of Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and accompanied him on the Italian expeditions of 1110 and 1111. Technically speaking, he was the first truly well documented progenitor of the Hohenzollern dynasty, after Burkhard I.
The Emergence of Two Branches
The noble motto of the family is Nihil Sine Deo, which is Latin for “Nothing Without God”, a motto that was passed down from generations. Now, it is important for us to mention the fact that the House of Hohenzollern split into two distinct branches at one point in time.
This happened when a younger son of Friedrich II of Zollern, Count Friedrich III, was granted the Burgraviate of Nuremberg, through his marriage. He was granted this from Henry VI, in 1192. Thus he became the Burgrave Frederick I. Later on the branch acquired the Electorate of Brandenburg, in 1415, and was known as the Franconian Hohenzollern branch, or sometimes as the Kirschner Line. Later on this branch converted to Protestantism, while the original, Swabian Hohenzollern branch remained Catholic.
Arguably, the Franconian (later known as Brandernburg-Prussian) branch fared well in the long run. They supported the Habsburg and Hohenstaufen rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, and were thus given large territorial grants, which expanded their power and wealth. As the Holy Roman Empire at the time was filled with various states and counties, all vying for power and influence, the Franconian Hohenzollerns decided to pursue their expansion – mostly through marriages and purchasing of lands.
Step by step, this branch acquired more territories, culminating with the acquisition of Brandenburg Margraviate in 1417, and later on with the Duchy of Prussia in 1618. The Franconian branch was efficiently transformed from just a wealthy noble house into a highly influential European dynasty.
The Franconian branch was further split, with some of its members becoming Margraves of Brandenburg, and later on Dukes of Prussia. When these two Franconian lines were once again unified in 1618, the Kingdom of Prussia was able to emerge soon after, in 1701. And this event eventually led to the Unification of Germany and the emergence of the German Empire in 1871. And with that, Hohenzollerns became the hereditary Emperors and Kings of Prussia.
Arguably the most prominent period for the members of the Hohenzollern dynasty came when Germany became an empire.
The Fate of the Swabian Branch
But what about the Swabian branch of the house? This branch was founded by Frederick IV, Count of Zollern in 1218. They remained with titles of counts all the way until 1623, when they were elevated to princes. They ruled three territories with seats at Sigmaringen, Hechingen and Haigerloch. They were markedly less successful than the Franconian branch, as they were affected by many economic issues and internal feuds, as well as the constant growing pressure from neighboring noble houses of Wurttemberg and those cities of the Swabian League.
These conflicts culminated in 1423, when their seat of Hohenzollern Castle was besieged by the Swabian League and destroyed. Still, all their territories were retained as they received backing from their Franconian cousins, and from the Habsburg family. In 1576 though, the situation changed even further, with the death of Karl I, Count of Hohenzollern.
This is when three new branches of the Swabian branch were created. These were: the House of Hohenzollern-Hechlingen, founded by Eitel Friedrich IV; the House of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, founded by Karl II; and the House of Hohenzollern-Haigerloch, founded by Christoph. Sadly, the latter’s branch died out soon after, in 1634.
Eitel Friedrich IV. (Dominicus Custos / Public domain)
Soon after their formation, the remaining two branches – Hohenzollern-Hechlingen, and Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, entered into a peculiar agreement with the Margraves of Brandenburg. This agreement stated that in case of their two lines becoming extinct, their lands would fall to Brandenburg. Further down the line, the princes of both branches decided to abdicate their positions, due to the 1848 Spring of Nations Revolution.
From that day onward, their territories were ruled by the Kings of Prussia (Franconian Branch), and the princes were considered as cadets of the Prussian royal line. The Hohenzollern-Hechingen line also became extinct – in 1869. One of the last descendants of this branch was the well-known Countess Sophie Chotek, Duchess of Hohenberg, wife of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, both of whom were assassinated in 1914, by the Serbian freedom fighter Gavrilo Princip (Гаврило Принцип).
Family portrait photo of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek with their daughters taken in 1908. (Atelier Adele / Public domain)
The Hohenzollerns were also the Kings of Romania. When the Ottoman vassal states of Wallachia and Moldavia were united in 1859, Alexandru Ioan Cuza became its prince. But after his deposition in 1866, it was Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen that was invited to rule as Prince of Romania. In 1881, he changed his name into a Romanian version, and was known as Carol I, King of Romania.
As Karl had no male offspring, and his only daughter died in youth, he was succeeded by his nephew, Prince Ferdinand of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. Their descendants would continue to rule as Kings of Romania, having also converted to Orthodox Christianity, all the way until 1947, when the last king, Michael I, abdicated, and Romania became a socialist republic the following year.
The Emperors of Germany
As German Emperors, the Hohenzollerns enjoyed their greatest heights. When William I ascended to the throne as the German Kaiser, in 1871, he became the emperor, alongside being King of Prussia, Duke of Prussia, and Electorate of Brandenburg. He wanted to be known as the Emperor of Germans, but was advised against it by Otto Von Bismarck, who stated that the South German princes and the Emperor of Austria would likely object to this. Thus he was known as the German Emperor.
William I (Wilhelm I), German Emperor. (Wilhelm Kuntzemüller / Public domain)
This line of emperors would cease soon after, when Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor, abdicated shortly before the end of the World War I. This was the result of the German Revolution of 1918, after which the royal family was abolished, and the emperor forced to abdicate. The empire was gone and was followed by the creation of the Weimar Republic in 1918, with which Germany was plunged into a whirlwind of instability, unemployment and the great depression – all of which was remedied in drastic fashion with the rise of Hitler as the new chancellor, in 1933.
What Happened to the Hohenzollerns?
So what did the modern times bring for the famous House of Hohenzollern? After a failed expropriation referendum in 1926, the Hohenzollern family managed to retain their good financial situation, and also retained ownership of several important estates, including the impressive rococo palace of Monbijou in Berlin, the Olesnica Castle in Silesia, Rheinsberg Palace, Schwedt Palace and so on.
Canvas painting of Monbijou Palace from 1739. (Dismar Degen / Public domain)
However, they only retained these until 1945, when they lost possession. In the Soviet Occupation Zone after the Second World War, the Communists took away (expropriated) all lands from landowners and industrialists, and thus, the Hohenzollerns lost almost all of their possessions and fortune.
After the German Reunification in 1990, the Hohenzollern family was finally able to seek the return of some of their possessions through legal means. This included many art pieces and some interior parts of their former palaces. These negotiations are still an active process.
The current head of the Prussian branch of the Hohenzollern family is Georg Friedrich Ferdinand, Prince of Prussia (b. 1976), who has two sons as heirs. The current head of the Catholic, Swabian branch of the house is Karl Friedrich, Prince of Hohenzollern. His heir is his son, Alexander.
Interestingly enough, Prince Karl Friedrich is also the singer and saxophonist in his music group Royal Groovin’. He is also the heir to the Romanian royal throne, but he stated that he has no interest in claiming it.
It was revealed in mid 2019 that HRH Georg Friedrich of Hohenzollern filed claims to be granted permanent right of residency for himself and his family, in the Cecilienhof Palace, or any of the two other Hohenzollern family palaces in Potsdam. He also requested the return of his family library, some 266 paintings, valuable letters of the Empress Auguste Victoria, and a priceless imperial crown and scepter, all of which belonged to the Hohenzollerns.
The seat of the family, Hohenzollern Castle, managed to remain in their private ownership, and remains so to this day, with the flag of Prussia still flying above it when the prince resides there.
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The Fate of Europe’s Aristocracy
The story of the Hohenzollern family is one of the most important insights into the glorious rise and tragic fall of European nobility and royalty. With the rise of Marxism and communism, and with that the fall of the monarchies of Europe, the latter’s future was thoroughly changed. Whether for better or for worse, let the readers decide.
Either way, the long history of these nobles is certainly fascinating, and the Hohenzollerns of today can certainly dwell upon the long history of all their ancestors, and surely learn a lot from its ups and downs. But whether the future will bring a return of nobility? That remains to be seen…
Jones, C. S. 2019. The Story of the Hohenzollern. Creative Media Partners, LLC.
Ludwig, E. 1927. Wilhelm Hohenzollern, the Last of the Kaisers. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Nelson, H. W. 1970. The Soldier Kings: The House of Hohenzollern. Putnam.