In the closing scene of the film Valkyrie, Hitler’s would-be assassin Count Stauffenberg, played by Tom Cruise, is about to be shot by a firing squad when his adjutant, Werner von Haeften, suddenly throws himself in front of him. The adjutant takes the bullets and Stauffenberg utters his last words, ‘Long live the secret Germany!’
Stephan Malinowski evokes this scene in the introduction of Nazis and Nobles, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has no time for hero worship. He quotes the oath of the resistance group: ‘We want a New Order that makes all Germans supporters of the state and guarantees them law and justice, but we scorn the lie of equality and bow before the hierarchies established by nature.’
Stauffenberg was a member of the elitist George Circle (founded by the poet Stefan George). He was no democrat. But more important for Malinowski is how Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler was exploited after 1945. German aristocrats claimed that they had never had anything to do with those ‘vulgar’ Nazis. The Stauffenberg plot and the subsequent imprisonment of many nobles made this claim plausible.
But is that the whole story? Over twenty years ago, Malinowski set out to answer this question. In the course of this, he became the leading historian of the German nobility, but also a target of the former ruling house, the Hohenzollerns. Malinowski’s findings on Crown Prince Wilhelm, the son of the last Hohenzollern emperor, especially his cooperation with the Nazis, are currently headline news in Germany and are keeping several law firms busy. The present head of the Hohenzollern family is demanding compensation from the German state for property confiscated by the Soviet authorities after the Second World War. However, to receive this compensation he has to prove that Wilhelm, his great-grandfather, did not help the Nazis in a ‘substantial’ way. Malinowski and the majority of German historians inconveniently argue that Wilhelm did just that.
When Malinowski started his research, there were only a few books on the German nobility in the interwar years. While we had a great deal of scholarly literature on how many women, industrialists, farmers, middle-class or working-class people supported Hitler, the nobility’s dealings with the Nazi regime remained in the dark. The reason for this was obvious to Malinowski: the aristocracy and the Nazis were socially worlds apart, and it did not seem plausible that status-conscious German nobles would have allowed their belief in their innate ability to rule to be ‘subsumed by the lower-middle-class ideology of the racially defined Volksgemeinschaft – the egalitarian “national community” that the Nazis promised to create’. Yet had not the ‘Cabinet of Barons’, the government led by the nobleman Franz von Papen in 1932, played a decisive role in Hitler’s ascent to power? How did this relationship between the two groups come about? In his book, Malinowski does not give any simple answers.
Unlike in the British aristocracy, where the eldest son takes the title and the family fortune, the rules of inheritance among the German nobility are complex. Depending on region and religion, titles and money can pass down to several sons at once. This had grave consequences once aristocratic power dissipated.
Up to 1918, the radical right-wing element within the German nobility was small, but with the sudden loss of income, power and status, this changed dramatically. The organisation of the minor nobility, the German Noble Society, as well as the German Gentlemen’s Club, which included the ‘posher’ sections, despised the newly established Weimar Republic. Yet they had an ‘empty throne’ problem: Kaiser Wilhelm II had long lost everyone’s respect. During the war he had been eclipsed by Field Marshal von Hindenburg, and his ‘cowardly’ flight to the Netherlands in 1918 rendered him completely toxic. In 1925 Wilhelm von Oppen-Tornow expressed what many in his peer group thought: ‘That all the German princes abandoned their thrones without a fight was an unprecedented disgrace! The heaviest burden of guilt, however, lies with the Kaiser who went ahead of them all.’ Young nobles especially, Malinowski shows, turned to Hitler to fill the symbolic and political vacuum created by the Kaiser’s departure. Only in Catholic Bavaria were things different. The heir to the Bavarian throne, Crown Prince Rupprecht, was a widely respected war hero. Aristocrats in Bavaria, writes Malinowski, ‘possessed three things their Prussian counterparts had lost after 1918: namely, their wealth, their Pope, and their king’.
While the Bavarian nobility was immune to the Nazis, the majority of the German nobility caught the Hitler bug. Nazis and nobles hated the same things: ‘communists, socialists, democrats, modern art, department stores, nightclubs, the wealthy middle class, urban lifestyles, democracy’s culture of discussion and compromise, and, last but not least, the Jews – the symbolic glue that bound all their common dislikes together’.
Crown Prince Wilhelm (nickname ‘Little Willy’) joined the haters. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his long list of lovers included Jewish women, he blamed Jews for Germany’s demise and in 1933 accused them in newspaper articles of spreading lies about the ‘wonderful’ Nazis abroad. Willy admired the Italian model of Fascism and hoped to do a deal with Hitler similar to the lucrative arrangement King Victor Emmanuel of Italy had reached with Mussolini.
The average noble followed Willy’s lead, hoping for personal gain. After all, Hitler offered the nobility many new job opportunities. He expanded the army, cleansed the civil service and provided places for nobles in the upper levels of the SA, the SS, the Reich Main Security Office, the Race and Settlement Main Office, the Office of Foreign Affairs, the secret service, the Agrarian Apparatus and, following the start of the war, the ministries that dealt with the colonisation of eastern Europe.
The hunt for Lebensraum in the east created a decisive ideological and political bond between the Nazis and the nobility. Germanic noblemen had colonised the Baltic region in the medieval era. We know them as the Teutonic Knights, with the motto ‘We want to ride towards the East!’ In the 1920s and 1930s their descendants looked forward to ‘unlimited settlement opportunities’. Of course, this would necessitate the invasion and occupation of Poland and the Baltic States. After Hitler’s invasion of Poland, a member of the Bismarck family asked the authorities ‘whether there would also be an opportunity for us … to acquire a hereditary farm or similar, preferably among our fellow citizens’ in the regions that had been conquered. By 1941, the Nazis were being inundated with letters like this one from Grand Duke Nikolaus von Oldenburg: ‘As I have 6 sons in total, I would very much like to apply for yet more major landholdings for the younger sons. I would be very grateful if you could briefly let me know whether, in principle, I will be given the opportunity to buy larger estates in the east after the end of the war.’
Not all such wishes could be met, of course. As in many unequal relationships, the weaker partner had to swallow insults. Heinrich Himmler wished for a ‘new racial aristocracy’ drawn from the peasantry to manage the conquered lands in the east and Hitler ridiculed the aristocracy in Mein Kampf. But he knew how to keep them on board and only dropped them for good after the assassination attempt of 1944.
Nazis and Nobles is not merely a translation of the prize-winning German original. It also includes incorporates many new sources. Malinowski looks at his subjects through an anthropological eye, showing them as great masters at self-portrayal. He provides fascinating biographical sketches of renegades too. The most entertaining involves the gutsy daughters of General von Hammerstein-Equord, who in 1933 broke into their father’s office and stole military and political secrets, which they passed on to the Russians. Such extreme measures would not have been necessary had the nobility formed a conservative opposition to Hitler. But with the exception of a few Bavarians, German nobles instead hailed Hitler’s progress. Crown Prince Wilhelm was among the enablers, as this excellent book proves. Its publication could come as bad news for the Hohenzollerns.