LONDON — No moment in the story of the German resistance to Nazism has received greater attention — or been more mythologized — than the 1944 “July Plot” when Count Claus von Stauffenberg’s bomb came close to assassinating Adolf Hitler. The plotters, former German chancellor Helmut Kohl proclaimed in 1994, were “the most noble and greatest” individuals “that have ever been produced in the history of mankind.”
Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators’ bravery — and their aristocratic backgrounds — has cemented in the popular imagination the notion that the German nobility were at the forefront of the domestic opposition to National Socialism.
But, argues Dr. Stephan Malinowski in “Nazis & Nobles: The History of a Misalliance,” the real picture is somewhat more complex. Not only did the overwhelming majority of the plotters’ peers make a “substantial contribution to the rise of the Nazi dictatorship,” he writes, but many of those who attempted to kill Hitler in the summer of 1944 as Germany hurtled towards defeat had themselves previously had a deeply ambiguous relationship with the Third Reich.
The role of the upper echelons of German society in helping the Nazis to power is a largely overlooked and forgotten story.
“It’s fascinating that… we have books on the history of the peasantry and of women and shopkeepers, but very little has been written on the nobility and on these still very powerful, very influential families,” Malinowski tells The Times of Israel in an interview. “It’s difficult to explain.”
Malinowski’s book, which has recently been published in English for the first time, is well-timed. The German media is currently pouring over the details of a legal effort by the former German royal family to claim compensation for property confiscated from it by the Soviets after 1945. But, for its claim to be successful, the Hohenzollern family needs to prove that Crown Prince Wilhelm, the son of the Kaiser who fled into exile at the close of World War I, did not provide “substantial support” to the Nazis.
Malinowski — whose research has detailed “Little Willie’s” public support for the Nazis’ early measures against the Jews in Germany in March 1933 — is one of four experts asked to provide confidential opinions in the case.
“My personal feeling is that, by attracting the interest of historians, the family has opened a Pandora’s box which, in hindsight, it might regret. What historians are going to find out about the family after 1919 is not very pleasant,” Malinowski believes.
Of course, as Malinowski says, the German nobility was not a homogeneous group but divided along the fault lines of wealth, religion and geography. The southern Catholic aristocracy, for instance, proved far more immune to the Nazis’ appeal than the Prussian Protestant nobility. Similarly, the “minor nobility” — those on the aristocracy’s social and economic lower rungs — was more enthusiastic in its embrace of National Socialism than the old, landowning and still immensely rich “higher nobility.”
Nonetheless, shared hatreds — and the opportunity for personal gain which the Nazis dangled before them — helped to forge what Malinowski terms a “mesalliance,” which is aristocratic parlance for a scandalous marriage bringing together a member of the nobility and a person of inferior standing. Those hatreds — of Weimar and its democracy, liberalism, the left, the upper-middle class, intellectuals and the cities — were held together by the “symbolic glue” of rabid antisemitism.
In the aftermath of the 1918 revolution which overthrew the social and political order of Imperial Germany and ushered in the inter-war democratic republic, there was no “Red Terror” directed against the nobility akin to that then playing out in Russia.
But the revolution sparked a pivotal process of social decline and political radicalization among much of the aristocracy. The nobility suffered concrete losses in power and status.
The “old boys’ networks” at the highest levels of the civil service collapsed and, most importantly, the Treaty of Versailles decimated the German officer corps, hitting the minor nobility especially hard. Only around 900 of the 10,000 or so nobles who had served in the Kaiser’s army found themselves with jobs in the new Reichswehr.
At the same time, the flight of the Kaiser and the end of the monarchy left the nobility ideologically adrift, creating a fatal symbolic and political vacuum. That vacuum left the aristocracy increasingly open to the radical “New Right” thinking of middle-class intellectuals with whom they shared a desire to overturn what one of their number, the lawyer and journalist Edgar Julius Jung, labeled the democratic republic’s “rule of the inferior.”
The DAGs of war
Primarily although not exclusively drawn from the ranks of the minor nobility, the German Noble Society (DAG) — to which an estimated one-third of all adult aristocrats belonged at its 1925 peak — both exemplified and contributed to the process of radicalization. In 1919, the society was the first aristocratic organization to declare its desire to “cast off the Jewish spirit and its culture.”
A year later, as Weimar’s future president, Field Marshal General Paul von Hindenburg, took up the post of honorary chairman, the organization’s annual conference adopted an “Aryan clause” barring future members with Jewish ancestry. The clause was soon tightened to stop any aristocrat who “is or was” married to a person who was not “racially pure” from joining. (While Catholic noble societies held similar debates, leading organizations such as the Association of Catholic Aristocrats chose not to follow the DAG’s lead.)
The early years of the republic also saw the decision to begin compiling a register of all racially eligible members of the nobility. To qualify for inclusion, a conference held in 1920 decided, an aristocrat needed to provide “a written statement that the applicant… has, to the best of their knowledge and belief, no or, at most, one Semite or colored individual among their or their spouse’s direct line of 32 paternal or maternal ancestors.”
“What struck me when I first looked at the topic some 20 years ago is the degree to which and the speed with which the German, and particularly Prussian nobility, had been adapting to the racial and biological parts [of antisemitism],” says Malinowski. These debates, he argues, in some respects “foreshadow the ‘logic’ which was used in the Nuremberg Laws.”
Nonetheless, as Malinowski details, National Socialist talk of a “revolution” and — for those who met its stringent racial criteria — an egalitarian “Volksgemeinschaft” (or “national community”) “must have sounded quite horrifying to noble ears” and the party’s occasionally “opaque” language on property ownership marked a point of real tension between the aristocracy and the Nazis.
Aware of the danger such sentiments posed as he sought to appeal to the upper-middle-class and aristocratic elites, Hitler repeatedly offered reassurance that he would “never ever” seek to break up or confiscate larger estates and that private property was safe in his hands.
Mutual mistrust, suspicion and resentment also underlay the relationship between an aristocracy which believed in its innate right to rule and the strident claim on power asserted by the Nazis’ predominantly lower-middle-class movement. In 1932, for instance, Hindenburg famously dismissed Hitler as a “Bohemian corporal” who he would never appoint as chancellor, while the Nazi leader himself publicly railed against “the high-born ladies and gentlemen who belong to a completely different humanity as a result of their birth.”
The enemy of my enemy…
But for all that, Malinowski believes, the affinities between the Nazis and nobles — primarily their common enemies — ultimately outweighed the differences. Hitler’s success in the 1930 and 1932 elections, moreover, made it clear that it was the Nazis who were best-placed to both fight those enemies and assist the aristocracy in its goal of replacing Weimar with an authoritarian state in which they would play the leading role.
Their attitudes were encapsulated by Franz von Papen, who, after his own short-lived spell in office in 1932, persuaded Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor. Von Papen — “the mightiest, the most pompous, and the most misguided of all the representatives of the German aristocracy,” in the author’s words — initially served as Hitler’s vice-chancellor in a cabinet in which there were only three Nazis. His belief that the old elites had hired the National Socialist leader to their bidding, and that he would soon have “pushed [him] so far into a corner that he’ll squeak,” turned out to be one of history’s most fatal and tragic errors.
The nobility applauded the Nazis’ destruction of the left — feeling relief that, as Grand Duke Friedrich Franz von Mecklenburg-Schwerin put it, Hitler had “promoted a nationalist mindset among broad swaths of the population that would otherwise have fallen into the Marxist or communist camp” — and showed few qualms about their persecution of the Jews. In fact, quite the contrary.
In 1933, for instance, the DAG strengthened its Aryan clause once again, bringing it into line with the SS’ racial purity strictures. This move triggered a wave of aristocratic expulsions — and anger in the organization’s southern Catholic branches — but impressed the Nazis sufficiently that it was allowed to continue to operate in the fast-emerging totalitarian state.
“The popular notion that the nobility cultivated ‘moderate’ forms of anti-Semitism and gave the most brutal strains of the ideology a wide berth,” writes Malinowski, “is not remotely backed up by the historical sources.”
Carrots, not sticks
These ideological affinities were buttressed by the material gains that Nazi rule offered to the nobility. Purges of the civil service and the vast expansion in the ranks of the Wehrmacht and SS provided career prospects which Weimar had stolen away.
Prince Otto von Bismarck (grandson of the German chancellor of the same name), for instance, excitedly wrote to his mother three days before Hitler took office about the new opportunities he believed would imminently open up. He soon found himself on the diplomatic fast track.
Nor was it simply the minor nobility which enthusiastically embraced the opportunities the Third Reich held out to it: Prince Christoph von Hessen, who had joined the Nazi party in 1931 but had never been to university, rose swiftly through the ranks of civil service, eventually finding himself as the Reich Air Ministry’s head of research.
The nobility also greedily embraced the Nazis’ imperialist ambitions in the East and, once war began, started lobbying for a share of the spoils. Occasionally, though, requests for land and estates without payment were dismissively rebuffed. “Your intention to retake possession of this property without a penny in exchange did not please me,” Himmler wrote to one Ludolf von Alvensleben in September 1940.
Malinowski assesses that only a minority of the aristocracy — mainly, but not exclusively, members of the minor nobility who had felt themselves socially and economically disadvantaged under Weimar — joined the Nazi party.
However, a “large majority” backed the regime. He uses the term “collaboration” to describe the nobility’s support for the conservative-Nazi coalition which came together in 1933. But, he notes, unlike the French government in 1940, the noble collaborators were not pressured into anything — they volunteered.
Legend of resistance
As Malinowski outlines, there were some members of the nobility who served Weimar loyally and opposed the Nazis from the outset. The left-wing Count Albrecht von Bernstorff-Stintenburg, for instance, was fired from his post at the German embassy in London in 1933 and subsequently helped to organize aid for Jewish emigrants and refugees. Arrested in 1940, he was murdered by the SS days before the end of the war. However, such examples were, he notes, “extremely atypical” of the nobility as a whole.
Nor, argues Malinowski, is it possible to trace a “resolute, unbroken thread” of aristocratic resistance to the Nazis stretching back to Weimar and culminating in Stauffenberg’s bomb. While the plotters are deserving of “the utmost respect,” he says, a majority of the noble conspirators had themselves backed Hitler coming to power in 1933.
Count Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, a key player in the July plot, had, for instance, joined the Nazi party in 1932, as had, by the following January, 16 other members of his family. (By 1945, in a manner typical of some noble “clans,” 41 Schulenbergs were members.) Stauffenberg himself had trained members of the SA from 1930-32 and is believed to have addressed a crowd of Hitler’s supporters on the night he became chancellor.
Of course, given the manner in which the Nazis had so successfully snuffed out all other opposition, by 1944 a plot to kill Hitler and overthrow the regime could only have come from within the institutions of the Third Reich itself, in particular the Wehrmacht.
The “legend of resistance” which attaches to the nobility has proved remarkably enduring. It was sown soon after the war: in a 1954 speech to mark the 10th anniversary of the July plot, then-president Theodor Heuss identified the “Christian aristocracy of the German nation” as a vital component.
The legend was moreover “one of the most important tales on which the entire political identity of the West German state was based,” writes Malinowski. He understands that postwar German guilt — the sense that everything in the past was “little more than horror” — fueled the desire for positive role models, “a railing to hold on to” as the nation sought to construct a new, positive identity.
In this context, Malinowski recognizes, many would rather not enquire too closely into the background and actions of some of the plotters before they turned on the regime.
Unfortunately for the Hohenzollerns and their long-running effort to attain compensation for royal treasures seized in eastern Germany in 1945, there appears little ambiguity about the actions of the Crown Prince.
An early enthusiast for the “ingenious brutality” of fascist Italy, he urged Hindenburg to use “ruthless energy” to “eliminate” political troublemakers and, in a letter to Hitler, praised his “wonderful movement.”
In 1932, the Crown Prince publicly endorsed Hitler over Hindenburg in the presidential election and, once the Nazis had taken power, he participated in the March 1933 “Day of Potsdam” ceremonies. Also attended by Hindenburg, this event, writes Malinowski, represented “a successful piece of propaganda for the regime” which, by convincing them that the Third Reich would “continue the very best of Prussian traditions,” helped to persuade conservative members of the Reichstag to vote for the legislation which ultimately destroyed German democracy.
Nor was the Crown Prince — who appeared in public on other occasions wearing a swastika armband and in 1933 wrote to American friends denying the Nazis were harming the Jews — the only member of the family who offered Hitler support. His brother Prince August Wilhelm von Preussen joined the party and appeared at its rallies.
Such support, like that offered by other members of the high nobility, helped to make the Nazis appear more acceptable — and respectable — in conservative circles.
Do the Crown Prince’s actions constitute “substantial support”? His great-grandson, Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preussen told the New York Times in March that the Crown Prince had lacked “moral fortitude, or courage” but questioned if this actually amounted to “substantial support.”
Historians themselves largely disagree with the family. Judges — who have wrestled with thousands of other cases over the past two decades — will ultimately decide.
Malinowski is in little doubt. “If this is not considered to be substantial support, then I wouldn’t know how to define this formula,” he says.
If this is not considered to be substantial support, then I wouldn’t know how to define this formula
The case may ultimately, however, have a wider significance than the Hohenzollerns and their paintings, books and porcelain, Malinowski believes.
“I think it is the chance to reread the constellation of 1933 — the coalition between conservatives and Nazis and the political responsibility for the making of the Third Reich — in very interesting ways through this family and through their peers from a perspective which has very rarely been taken,” he says.