CastleTalk #2: The German Royal- and Nobility, the Third Reich and July 20

Today is July 20, one of the most famous dates in German history. 71 years ago, a group of conspirators around Claus Schenk Graf (Count) von Stauffenberg tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Many of those surrounding Stauffenberg were also of noble descent and mainly based on their actions, there has long been the underlying assumption that much of the German nobility was against the Nazis, which they weren't.

Well, first off: There wasn't the German nobility. Looking back, there are two main indicators for a noble family - or, as you'll see later, members of a noble family - to either be supporters of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) or to be against them. On the one hand, the wealth of the family seems to have played a role; on the other hand, their faith. The staunchly Catholic well-off royal and noble families from western and especially southern Germany often weren't closely associated with the Nazis. Members of the former royal family of Bavaria, the Wittelsbach, were imprisoned in concentration camps, for example.

On the contrary the Protestant noble families of the German north and east. The landed gentry of Prussia had suffered most under the end of the monarchy. Many weren't as wealthy as their Bavarian, for example, counterparts to begin with, but had lost even more in consequence of 1918. Also, the Bavarian nobles still tended to see the Wittelsbach family in a leading role while the Kaiser had long left his country for exile in the Netherlands and many nobles felt abandoned. It didn't help either that the last emperor's sons were also somehow involved with the Nazis in one way or the other. To sum it up: If you were a Protestant noble from Prussia, chances were much higher for you to be involved with the Nazi party than if you were a Catholic noble from Bavaria.

[Note: The following numbers are taken from Stephan Malinowski's Vom König zum Führer. Sozialer Niedergang und politische Radikalisierung im deutschen Adel zwischen Kaiserreich und NS-Staat (2003).]

In 312 Prussian noble families, Malinowski counted 3,592 members of the Nazi party. On January 30, 1933, the fateful day Hitler came to power, already 17 members of the Schulenburgs were members of the NSDAP - until the end of the war, the number grew to 41. 20 Bernstorffs, 27 Hardenbergs, 52 Schwerins, 30 Tresckows/Treskows, 43 Kleists, 34 Bismarcks, 53 Arnims, 78 Wedels, 43 Bredows and 14 Stülpnagels became members of Hitler's party, about a forth of them prior to 1933, others after. (Not all of these noble families are originally Prussian but served Prussian rulers at one point or the other.) 

Interestingly, some of these names would today be most associated with the German resistance: The Gestapo labelled Henning von Tresckow a "prime mover" and the "evil spirit" of the group surrounding Stauffenberg. Many of the meetings of the conspirators took place at Schloss Neuhardenberg near Berlin owned by Carl-Hans Graf (Count) von Hardenberg. Just as it was common to point out that one cousin (or those three) that had been a member of the Nazi party prior to 1933 during the Third Reich, it became fashionable to point out that one cousin (or those three) that had been members of the resistance after the war.

However, it wasn't just the lower nobility that got involved with the Nazis: The NSDAP counted nine members of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha among its members, 10 Schaumburg-Lippes and 20 Hohenlohes. The last Hereditary Prince of Waldeck und Pyrmont, Josias, joined the Nazi party in 1929 and became a General in the SS (and later sentenced to life imprisonment but released after three years due to ill health). Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia was an election speaker for Hitler before later being sidelined when the NSDAP didn't have any use for him anymore. (Especially prior to 1933, the NSDAP very deliberately used the royals to gather support in the population but Hitler soon dropped many of them once he had reached his goal and realised just how popular some of them still were.) Duke Carl Eduard of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, maternal grandfather of Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf, firstly met Hitler as early as 1922. All in all, about 70 members of formerly ruling families joined the Nazi party prior to 1933; their number grew to about 270 by 1945.

What they all saw in Hitler and his party? Well, they could probably agree on a few things: There was the anti-semitism that was ever-present also in the German nobility; just as they could agree with the Nazis on being against democracy, parliamentarism, a multiple-party state, social democracy, and so on. In the end, the relationship between the Nazis and the nobility might have been just one big misunderstanding. The nobility believed that they could use the Nazis to come back into power (because apparently no one of them had read Mein Kampf). After all it was nobleman Franz von Papen (Chancellor of Germany in 1932) who exclaimed, "Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far in the corner that he'll squeak."

But it wasn't just their agreement on a number of policies that endeared the National Socialists to the nobles. As I pointed out earlier, the Prussian landed gentry wasn't wealthy per se. Many of those nobles in the Nazi party didn't have any possessions to speak of. The younger sons of a Prussian noble family had long served in the military as there was nothing to inherit for them but a famous name (as all possessions went to the oldest son).

In 1918, about 10,000 nobles had served in the Prussian military as officers. After the end of the monarchy, the much smaller Reichswehr had only 900 officers. The Nazis were seen as a way to change that. Until 1935, the number of officers rose again to 2,300. In addition, there were chances to serve as a diplomat or in the SS. About a fifth of the SS-Obergruppenführer, the second highest rank in the SS, were nobles, many of them with famous names such as Alvensleben, Bülow, Pückler, Steuben, Uslar, Westphalen or Henckel-Donnersmarck. After all, the new 'elite' of Germany was the SS and thus attractive to join for young nobles without an estate. Others probably hoped for an enlargement of their estates. In June 1941, the Grand Duke of Oldenburg wrote to Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, asking him about the possibilities of purchasing estates in the occupied eastern territories as some of his sons would be interested.

This is not to say that those actions surrounding July 20, 1944, by both people from the nobility and non-nobles were anything but noble. Maybe their change of mind is even more admirable when you see what a long way many of them had to come (though one should always keep in mind that those trying to kill Hitler that day 71 years ago weren't democrats themselves). Without the nobility (keeping in mind what I said early on), there wouldn't have been the famous July 20, 1944, but also not the January 30, 1933, the day Hitler came to power (at least in my opinion).

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