Restoration or No Restoration: A Question of Nazis or Communists

Schloss Stolberg was one of the castles expropriated
The 20th century in Germany was an eventful one to say the least. It started out with the final years of the monarchy and Europe's last great ball at the wedding of the Emperor's daughter in 1913 with the Kaiser's cousins King George V and Tsar Nicholas II among the guests. Just a year later, they all went to war and by 1918 Europe had changed forever. Several monarchies had fallen, among them the German Empire. On November 9, the republic was proclaimed not once but twice. It was a foreshadowing of the struggles to come. 

The first German attempt at a republic swallowed up no less than 20 governments in 14 years and ended in the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. What followed were not just the darkest days of German but some of the world's history. By 1945, the allies had finally won the Second World War and occupied the country. Germany was divided into four occupation zones, governed by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union. It became obvious pretty soon that they didn't share a common vision for Germany, something that ultimately led to the founding of two German states. The Federal Republic compromising of the three Western zones and the German Democratic Republic, formerly the Soviet zone, in the East.

In the process almost all noble families living it what later became the German Democratic Republic - the Emperor's descendants, untitled nobility and everyone in between alike - lost their possessions. During the years of the Third Reich, the royals and nobles of Germany stood in all kinds to relations to Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) - from admiration to resistance. In an interesting and possibly not entirely just turn of events, an expropriation by Nazis meant that a family received (parts of) their estates back after German reunification, while being dispossessed by the Communists meant that they were lost forever.

In 1945, the Communists introduced an agrarian reform, or Bodenreform in German, which expropriated all of East Germany's landowners with more than 100 hectares. Under the motto "Junkerland in Bauernhand" (nobleman's land in farmer's hand) many nobles as well as other mid-size and large landowners were dispossessed. The largest landowners in East Germany included the Princes of Stolberg-Wernigerode who owned 22,000 hectares, the Duke of Anhalt (20,000 hectares), Count Malte of Putbus (18,800 hectares) and the Counts of Arnim with 15,800 hectares. All in all there were 7,160 landowners who lost their properties solely based on the reason that they owned more than 100 hectares of land. In addition, some 4,500 landowners owning less than 100 hectares were expropriated due to alleged Nazi collaboration. While there surely were some who did support Hitler's efforts, there were never any legal proceedings against those who were disowned and so nobody could be proven guilty or innocent. 

Those who were disowned did not only lose their land but all other possessions including their homes, money, furniture and even clothes. They were expelled from their municipalities with oftentimes only being given an hour to pack their belongings. (Where do you start when packing your life...?!) No compensatory damages were paid and no exceptions made for members of the conservative resistance against Hitler, many of them connected in some way to the plot to kill the Führer by Claus Schenk Count of Stauffenberg. Some families were actually already expropriated by the Nazis and received their estates back in 1945, only to be disowned again by the Communists in the following three years. In the end, this fact would be crucial in some families reclaiming their estates back a few decades later. 

The idea behind the expropriations was to break the superior economic power of the nobles (and wealthy commoners) with the official one being given as to destroy "Prussian militarism". The estates were broken up in much smaller parts and given to the population though only a few years later, during the early years of the German Democratic Republic, collectivised, cause in a Socialist state there is no such thing as individual property. Quite a few smaller manor houses and castles were also destroyed in the late 1940's. In 1947, the Soviets gave the order to demolish them to use the material for homes for new farmers and Germans who fled or were expelled after World War II from former parts of Germany that became part of Poland and the Soviet Union. (Wikipedia has a list of some of the destroyed castles.) 

Many nobles thought that they would only need to leave their homes behind for a short period of time but with the foundation of the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, it became the status quo. The disowned nobles made a new life for themselves in West Germany or abroad. Some of them were lucky to own properties in the west as well, while others had to start from scratch with nothing but a (more or less) fancy name to themselves. The Federal Republic paid some compensations by introducing the Lastenausgleich, a programme to recompense Germans and ethnic Germans who fled their homelands for their lost properties. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and in 1990 Germany was reunified. For a short time, the hope of restorations rose but were only short-lived.

The "Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany", more commonly known as the "Two Plus Four Agreement", confirmed the expropriations that took place between the end of World War II and the founding of the GDR. The German government of the time stated that it was a condition by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to start negotiations. Mr Gorbachev later repeatedly denied those claims. Some say that the West-German government aimed to finance the reunification by selling the land which they had "inherited" from the East-German state. This meant that the great majority of those who were dispossessed had lost their estates forever. Only those who could prove that they were expropriated by the Nazis before they were by the Communists, had the chance to reclaim their possessions.

The descendants of Count Carl-Hans of Hardenberg, Count Wilhelm of Lynar as well as Count Ulrich-Wilhelm Schwerin of Schwanenfeld were some of the few who received their ancestors' respective properties back, at least in part. All three were arrested, two of them killed in connection to the 20 July plot. However, it wasn't just enough that your ancestors were involved in the resistance and stripped of their properties for you to reclaim them. You had to prove an actual change of the entry in the land registry during the times of the Third Reich, something not entirely easy in a country were many official records were lost forever because of the war. 

Two examples of this are the cases of the Putbus and Solms-Baruth families. Count Malte of Putbus, as you may recall from above, was one of the largest landowners in East Germany prior to 1945. He was also against Nazis, arrested several times and killed in a concentration camp. However, there is no official record in existence of him being expropriated prior to May 8, 1945, and thus his properties remained property of the German state even after reunification. Another example is Prince Friedrich III of Solms-Baruth. After several run-ins with the National Socialists, he was denied to manage his properties in early 1944. He was also forbidden by Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, to set foot on his family's properties. Like Putbus, he was arrested after the assassination attempt by Stauffenberg though survived and later moved to Namibia. Once again, as there are no official records of his expropriations, there was no chance to reclaim the properties.

Instead many nobles were offered by the state to buy back their former properties at a preferential price. Prince Jost-Christian of Stolberg-Stolberg received the proposal to buy Schloss Stolberg, which he fled with his family as a child, for two million Deutsche Mark. He declined saying that he is a realist and would have not been able to provide for the necessary renovation work and upkeep. Instead, he supports the efforts of the current owner, lends art and furniture to exhibitions and has bought another home in Stolberg. The Solms-Baruth family did buy back Schloss Baruth and moved in for a few years, though they apparently overstrained themselves and have left since. Some of the more successful stories of buying back properties can be found in the lower nobility - here is an example...

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