Blue bloods and brownshirts

The intricate relationship between German aristocrats and Nazi Germany


This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The German aristocracy entered the twentieth century in several shapes and sizes. A whole slew of monarchs, grand dukes, mediatised princes and landgraves had survived Bismarck’s unification of the country. Prussian Protestant aristocrats remained loyal to a traditional code of honour and military service not found in their Bavarian Catholic counterparts. At the top, grands seigneurs — as this book defines them — had palaces, immense estates and a corresponding way of life, while at the bottom impoverished counts and barons might have little more than their titles.

Nazis and Nobles by Stephan Malinowski Oxford University Press, £35

Imperial Germany had come to an end in 1918 and Kaiser Wilhelm put it beyond repair by absconding to Holland. The Russian revolution and the summary execution of the Czar and his family seemed to some an advance notice of the Red Terror. Indeed, in an uprising from below, more than a thousand people fell victim to revolution in Berlin. In one incident, soldiers of the Munich Republic shot out of hand their prisoners, among them two barons, a young countess and Prince Gustav von Thurn und Taxis.

Throughout the Twenties, Adolf Hitler demonstrated that violence was instrumental, the favoured means for achieving his ends. Nazi party stormtroopers controlled the public arena. Hitler’s ideology of national community and racial supremacy — völkisch in the idiom of the day — had its element of bread and circuses and in any case it was what the crowds wanted to hear. They meant it when they roared “Heil Hitler!”

Resolute opponents ought to have been able to keep Hitler ranting away to like-minded primitives in beer cellars. But the future Führer was fortunate in that the conservative politicians who should have stopped him were so short-sighted and vain. President Paul von Hindenburg thought of Hitler as “the Bohemian corporal” but nonetheless appointed him as chancellor. “Now let’s see how the hare runs with God’s help” was the limit of Hindenburg’s imagination.

The leading politician of the day, Franz von Papen, boasted that he had hired Hitler and was pushing him so far into a corner that he’d squeak. But Stephan Malinowski finds that von Papen “probably did more than anyone to facilitate the rise of Nazism”. Grand seigneur though he was, the Grand Duke Friedrich von Mecklenburg-Schwerin spoke for the huge majority, the expectant as well as the fearful: “One can think what one likes about Hitler and his deeds and one must of course be extremely distressed by the movement’s aggressive tenor over the last few months, but one thing is certain: Hitler has the irrefutable virtue of having promoted a nationalist mindset among broad swathes of the population that would otherwise have fallen into the Marxist or communist camp.”

The aristocracy, an elite holding well-established noble images of itself, faced a new elite ambitious to take power. The Night of the Long Knives in 1934 showed what Nazis could do if they felt the need. Führertum, the völkisch concept of national leadership, was at stake. The subject lends itself to unprovable generalisations, but Malinowski makes a convincing argument that the two groups had affinities. This was what he terms a “misreading” that contributed greatly to the success of Nazism.

Malinowski makes a convincing argument that the two groups had affinities

Accommodation was more or less immediate. The army and the SS offered career opportunities. By September 1937, the army had 2,280 aristocratic officers, and by the following January aristocrats formed about ten per cent of the higher ranks of the SS and almost 20 per cent of the generals.

Baron Kurt Löffelholz von Colberg, a retired major, is a typical example of the rewards given to someone who did what was asked of him. He joined the Nazi party as early as 1922. After losing his fortune in a failed property venture, he was appointed to a senior position in the ministry of labour. In Malinowski’s opinion, the meteoric rise of this ageing, penniless family man can only be explained by his early membership of the party.

Count Dietlof von Arnim-Boitzenburg was an influential landowner from the Brandenburg region. Sceptical about Nazism, he refused to receive Hitler in his castle and went out of his way to misspell Hitler’s name. In 1930 he arranged for other landowners to hold a meeting with Hitler in order to show rejection and resistance to the extravagance of many of his ideas and leave him “banging his head against a brick wall”. Even so, he was to declare that Nazis and aristocrats had a shared perception of friends and enemies, and should fight shoulder to shoulder.

Hans-Arno von Arnim, a landowner and presumably a relation of Count Dietlof, was refused membership of the Nazi party because one of his employees had denounced him for making derogatory remarks about the Führer. All that the subsequent investigation could uncover was that he greeted his employees with the old-fashioned “Guten Tag” and “Mahlzeit” (Good morning and Enjoy your meal) instead of the compulsory “Heil Hitler!” Charged with “lordly arrogance” he was forced to defend himself before the Supreme Party Court where good conduct in the past was enough to exonerate him.

This apparent Uniformity of aristocratic views, of course, speaks to the arbitrary powers of the Gestapo. But moral surrender was no less expedient. A sample taken from party card indexes of 312 aristocratic families yielded a total of 3,592 men and women who joined the Nazi party. Families with more than 30 members in the party include some of the great names of German history, the Alvenslebens, the Bismarcks, the Maltzahns, with the Wedel family holding the record number of 78. Six princes from the house of Hesse joined the party before 1933 and another 13 by 1941. Prince August Wilhelm von Preussen, the fourth son of the Kaiser, joined the party in 1930 and his elder brother the Crown Prince declared his support for Hitler in 1932. The Hohenzollern princes wore Nazi uniforms.

A sample of 312 aristocratic families yielded 3,592 who joined the Nazi party

Walther Darré, the Nazi specialist in agriculture, published in 1930 a völkisch book, The New Nobility from Blood and Soil. Malinowski calls it “the most significant conceptual challenge ever mounted against the nobility’s traditional claims to leadership”. A new racially pure stock would be bred to replace the present landowners. Nazi socialism might mean outright dispossession. Hans F.K. Günther, a leading theorist of racism, held that those with “pure Nordic blood”, and only those, were true aristocrats. (After the war, incidentally, he continued his promotion of racism in East Germany.) The German Noble Society (DAG for short) and the Herrenklub (DHK for short) were only two among other lobbies that fought these unwelcome ideas from the inside, resolutely völkisch whenever possible. A skilful toady, Prince Adolf Bentheim, chairman of DAG, took advantage of his party membership to get on the statute books the property laws he wanted; in return he had to ostracise and persecute Jews.

Arnold Vieth von Golssenau is one of the tiny handful of aristocrats who were different. A frontline soldier, he had been decorated many times. Commanding a police battalion in postwar Berlin, he refused to fire on revolutionary workers and was dismissed from the army. Joining the Communist Party, he became a chief of staff for the International Brigade in the Spanish civil war. He wrote under the pseudonym of Ludwig Renn, was sent on secret missions and arrested a number of times, he too ending his life in a nomenklatura building in East Germany.

The seven children of Baron Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, a talented general staff officer, are equally exceptional. Opposing the party, all seven took risks including stealing their father’s military papers and handing them to Moscow. All survived concentration camp and the war.

The only co-ordinated attempt to be rid of Hitler was the 20 July 1944 bomb plot, and the officers who planned and executed it were mostly aristocrats. Malinowski does not question their courage but argues that they were acting out of Führertum. Count Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, considered a driving force of resistance to Hitler, joined the party in February 1932 and by the end of the war 41 of his family members were in the party as well. The elder brother of Count Peter Yorck joined the party in 1932 and turned his 3,000 hectares into a hub for local Nazis.

Books by such eminent intellectuals as Countess Marion Dönhoff and Hans Magnus Enzensberger “bind the words ‘nobility’ and ‘resistance’ together in the collective imagination”. What has become apparent in the context of the resistance is “the aristocracy’s masterful ability to frame the achievements of exceptional individuals as evidence of the merits of the nobility as a whole”. A legend is forming that the aristocracy was the real Germany and did not collaborate with Nazism, but was its victim and there are no grounds for shame or reproach. That’s another bad misreading, and Stephan Malinowski is much too conscientious a historian to let it pass.

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