Of all the great and influential German families, descending from the mists of time, always involved in something – providing kings, making a nuisance of themselves, being or not being involved in charitable causes etc., the Hohenzollern top the list. There are still plenty of them around, but their power has waned.
The Hohenzollerns are princes, and have been since the eleventh century. They are Prussian, and took their name from a former Prussian province, now a part of the region of Baden-Württemberg.
From around 1415 they ruled the Electorate of Brandenburg. From the beginning of the sixteen century, however, the Hohenzollerns achieved the greatest upward mobility. It was the usual medieval process. The acquiring of land; the acquiring of the ‘right’ young wives’ (by ‘right’ I mean young women who were fertile – especially fertile in the case of male babies; the seeking out and destroying of enemies, or anyone who might become an enemy and so on.
The Margrave (German title ranking above a Count) Albert became Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights in 1511. In 1540 the Duchy of Cleves was acquired (Cleves was where Henry VIII’s fourth wife Anna came from), and in 1701 Elector Frederick of Brandenburg took to himself the title of Frederick I of Prussia. No-one objected.
Now things really started moving in a very grand way for the family Hohenzollern. William I of Prussia took the title of Emperor William I of the German Empire. It was his grandson William (or Wilhelm) II who helped cause the First World War – an entirely unnecessary war which cost millions of lives and was a result of the meddling in international affairs of Chancellor Bismarck and a series of misunderstandings and quarrels between cousins William II*, George V of England, and the Czar of Russia, all of whom shared a grandmother. The murder of the heir to Austria and his wife in Sarajevo (q.v.) was a lucky excuse, but it had not been planned.
A member of a minor branch of the family was elected Prince of Romania in 1866. He became King Carol in 1881. Carol’s brother Leopold was offered the throne of Spain in 1870 but refused it, a strange incident which Bismarck used to provoke war with France by altering the famous Ems telegram. Albert, the clever but slightly pompous young German prince who married Queen Victoria, was not a Hohenzollern. King George V of Great Britain originally had the surname Saxe-Coburg-Gotha but changed it to Windsor in 1917 to camouflage the family’s Germanic associations. It was one of the few occasions when Kaiser Wilhelm made a joke. He said he was looking forward to a production of The Merry Wives of Saxe–Coburg–Gotha.
Prince Philip who married Queen Elizabeth II had a grandfather who was King of Greece (George I) despite being born Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg in 1845 – and in Copenhagen to make things even simpler. But what’s in a name?