German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen


German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen on their way to Potsdam’s Garrison Church where, Christopher Browning writes, ‘a symbolic spectacle of noble support for the new regime was staged,’ attended by President Paul von Hindenburg and four sons of the kaiser, March 1933

In its March 26, 2020, issue, The New York Review published a fascinating article by David Motadel entitled “What Do the Hohenzollerns Deserve?” Motadel colorfully described the ongoing attempt of the Hohenzollern family (descendants of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was deposed in 1918) since German reunification to recover property and artworks seized by the Soviets when they occupied eastern Germany after World War II; the family also seeks the right to reside in one of its former palaces. Its efforts have run up against the legal problem that descendants of those who had given “significant support” to either the Third Reich or the German Democratic Republic were excluded from restitution in the Compensation and Corrective Payments Act of 1994.

A duel between conflicting expert reports on the family’s claims focused in particular on the kaiser’s son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, and the extent of his support for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The Cambridge historian Christopher Clark, engaged by the Hohenzollern lawyers, did not deny the pro-Nazi sympathies and activities of the crown prince but initially judged him too marginal a figure to meet the “significant support” threshold. (He has subsequently adopted a position less supportive of the Hohenzollern claim.) More bizarrely, the German historian Wolfram Pyta suggested, among other things, that the crown prince—aware of his own unpopularity—allegedly calculated that his endorsement would do Hitler more harm than good. Motadel concluded that the historians initially commissioned by the state—Stephan Malinowski and Peter Brandt—compiled “overwhelming evidence” for the significance of the crown prince’s support of the Nazis, to say nothing of the exiled kaiser’s viciously anti-democratic and anti-Semitic attitudes and the membership of his fourth son, Prince August Wilhelm, in the SA (the Brownshirts). Further expert reports and much commentary followed. (As incomprehensible as this may seem to American readers, German historians air their arguments for the wider public on the op-ed pages of mainstream newspapers.) Though the legal battle drags on, the verdict of historians has gone decidedly against the Hohenzollern claim.

Malinowski was engaged as one of the historical experts because he had written Vom König zum Führer: Deutscher Adel und Nationalsozialismus (From the King to the Leader: The German Nobility and National Socialism, 2003). A somewhat modified and much shortened version of it (despite additional materials on the crown prince), Nazis and Nobles: The History of a Misalliance, is at last available in English translation. This important book focuses not on the narrow issue of the complicity of one dynastic family but on the broad social and political history of a diverse class and its relationship to the Nazis during the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich.

First of all, what was the German nobility? It was a social class composed of numerous extended families or clans totaling some 80,000 people (a minuscule 0.12 percent of the population), who until the German Revolution of 1918 enjoyed legal status and privileges that separated them from the rest of society. The nobles were a heterogeneous group in some ways, stretching from the wealthy and prestigious high nobility, or grands seigneurs (including princely families), through minor nobility to economically ruined “proletarian” nobility. In addition to vast differences in wealth, there was a religious and geographical fault line. The core of the Protestant nobility was Prussian, while the core of the Catholic nobility was Bavarian. Despite such differences, the German nobles as a group were characterized by real advantages that made them more than an “imagined community.” Their manor houses, castles, and landed estates were real, as was their disproportionate presence in the officer corps and the higher ranks of the civil service (especially the diplomatic corps).

But above all, Malinowski argues, they remained distinguished by a separate social and cultural identity, a set of shared attitudes, assumptions, and self-perceptions. They had notions of familial time that extended over centuries, not generations, and notions of vast lineages that included hundreds of distant relatives, not just close and known family. Even if second and third sons did not inherit any share of entailed family estates, one bedrock of noble identity remained their sense of being rooted in the land and nature. Noble upbringing aimed at inculcating the proper bearing and code of conduct. The university was a place to experience dueling, drinking, fraternities, and masculine rituals, not to attain an education in the sense of knowledge and expertise. Taking the right to financial security for granted, nobles proclaimed that they lived by the ideals of austerity, frugality, toughness, discipline, and self-sacrifice. Innate noble superiority was assumed, especially the capacity for leadership.


One other feature of the German nobility, according to Malinowski, was the ability to favorably shape their collective memory. The undoubted qualities and achievements of a brilliant and exemplary few were appropriated to represent the qualities and achievements of the nobility as a whole, while the numerous reprobates and failures were conveniently forgotten. This selective memory was particularly useful after 1945, when the crucial involvement of the cluster of nobles around Count Claus von Stauffenberg in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler was cited as evidence of a widespread noble antipathy and resistance to the Nazis. In this account, an alleged irreconcilability between the values of the German nobility and National Socialism went beyond mere aristocratic disdain for the Nazi gutter or a belated conversion to opposition once the war was irretrievably lost and disaster loomed. A primary aim of Malinowski’s book is to refute the appropriation of the July plotters in support of this broader claim of irreconcilability between the Nazis and the nobles.

Malinowski’s examination revolves around two central questions. First, what was the reaction of the nobility to the German Revolution, the Weimar Republic, parliamentary democracy, and the emergence of a radical and racist New Right (of which the Nazis initially were just one small strand) as an alternative to traditional conservatism? Second, what was their reaction to National Socialism, and the Third Reich in particular? The nobility did suffer real losses in World War I and afterward. They were vastly overrepresented in the officer corps, as a result of which more than 4,500 noble officers lost their lives in the war. With the restrictions on the German military imposed by the Versailles Treaty, only 900 out of some 10,000 surviving noble officers remained in the officer corps in the 1920s. Though retaining their domination in the diplomatic corps, the nobility now had to share other high civil service positions with commoners.

Noble estates were not confiscated after 1918, and nobles retained ownership of some 13 percent of German agricultural land, but the end of entail and the agricultural crisis of the mid-1920s struck at their economic foundation. The Weimar Constitution ended the notorious three-class voting system in Prussia (which apportioned representation according to property holding) as well as other undemocratic features of the previous regime. And the flight of the kaiser along with the deposing of eighteen princely houses meant the termination of numerous court positions reserved for nobility.

Just as important was the psychological trauma. The nobility viewed the defeat and revolution of 1918–1919 through a “lens of fear,” in which they imagined that they would be the victims of a bloodbath similar to the French Revolutionary Terror and the Bolshevik Revolution. When no such bloodbath transpired, fear gave way to rage and contempt for the “rule of the inferior” that displaced them. Nobles in disproportionate numbers joined the plethora of paramilitary units that sprang up, first the Freikorps and then the conservative veterans’ Stahlhelm and even the Nazi Party’s SA.

Nobles also participated in the wave of political murders that swept Germany, following the example of Count Anton von Arco-Valley, whose assassination of Bavarian prime minister Kurt Eisner in February 1919 set off the very escalation into violent revolution (and counterrevolution) in Bavaria that they allegedly feared. The nobility professed outward loyalty to the kaiser and support for a restoration of the monarchy but in reality resented the kaiser’s choice of a coward’s exile over heroic death. The lack of a plausible monarch crippled the cause of royal restoration but not the nobility’s yearning for a return to an authoritarian ruler. Experiencing Mussolini envy, they were open to a political reorientation “from the king to the leader.”

While maintaining their traditional anti-democratic, anti-middle-class, anti- capitalist, anti-modernist, and anti- Semitic views, many nobles (the declining minor nobility more than either the Bavarian Catholic or high nobility) began to shift toward the New Right in the 1920s on two new issues. First, a magical belief in the redemptive powers of a charismatic leader and a new elite was shared by radicalizing nobles and New Right intellectuals. Second and more fatefully, the noble belief in “blood purity” began what Malinowski deems a “self-destructive” transformation into a notion of blood free of contamination by non-Aryans rather than commoners. One important noble organization and the “noble registry” (Adelsmatrikel) adopted an “Aryan clause”—ostracizing noble families more than one quarter non-Aryan—as early as 1920.

The Great Depression brought economic collapse and political gridlock to Germany. The Nazi and Communist Parties surged, the moderate Social Democrats declined, and the Catholic Center Party barely held its own, while the other mainstream parties collapsed (with most of their voters turning to the Nazis). No government with a parliamentary majority could be formed. In May 1932 President Paul von Hindenburg, on the advice of his closest adviser, Kurt von Schleicher, appointed a “cabinet of barons” under Franz von Papen, with the hope of harnessing the popularity of the Nazi Party in support of a conservative authoritarian regime otherwise devoid of such support. (As Schleicher notoriously proclaimed, if the Nazis had not existed, he would have had to invent them.) Instead, in the election of July 1932, Hitler’s Nazis had their greatest electoral success, winning 37.5 percent of the vote. The Stalinist German Communist Party received 14.5 percent, meaning that more than half of German voters were opting for one totalitarian alternative or another, which spelled the doom of both German democracy and the possibility of a conservative coup.


The noble cabal around Hindenburg persisted in its delusions, “hiring” Hitler in January 1933 as chancellor in a cabinet that it thought it could control. A symbolic spectacle of noble support for the new regime was staged at the Potsdam Garrison Church, the gravesite of Prussian kings, with four sons of the kaiser in attendance. Thereafter, it took Hitler just a few months to brush his noble partners aside and establish total control over a one-party dictatorship. Hindenburg died a natural death in 1934, but Schleicher was murdered by the SS and Papen was dispatched into exile as ambassador to Turkey.

How did the German nobility respond to this shattering development? Ultimately, Malinowski concludes, the relationship between nobles and Nazis was a misalliance in which attraction prevailed over repulsion. Social and cultural tensions within it were strong, as nobles looked down on the Nazi riffraff with condescension and disdain, and Nazis—especially the more revolutionary among them—viewed nobles as arrogant and reactionary, destined to be replaced by a new elite emerging from a racially pure peasantry. Theoretically, the traditional concept of a nobility atop the social hierarchy and the Nazis’ concept of an egalitarian Volksgemeinschaft, or “racial community,” were incompatible, but the Nazis’ simultaneous pursuit of egalitarianism and elitism left these terms sufficiently fluid that different expectations could coexist.

And in one vital regard, the nobles proved no different from the rest of German society. The mass murders of the Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934—including the assassinations of two generals (Schleicher and Ferdinand von Bredow) and Papen’s closest adviser (Edgar Jung) along with the top ranks of the SA who had been demanding a “second revolution”—elicited more relief and gratitude that the Nazi revolutionaries had been repressed than horror over Nazi brutality and lawlessness and the murder of fellow nobles.

Despite the social chasm that separated the German nobility from the Nazi mass movement, common enemies and shared aversions provided one foundation for the misalliance. Most nobles welcomed the Nazi smashing of the Communist and Social Democratic Parties and the effective abolition of the Reichstag and the Weimar Constitution. They perceived the Nazis as an “iron broom” sweeping out democratic and Marxist filth. Some nobles, like the kaiser’s son August Wilhelm, had such a loathing for the middle-class ethos of materialism, rationalism, bureaucracy, and science that they accepted officer status in the SA.

Malinowski argues that the post-1945 claim that the nobility as a class had eschewed the vulgar anti-Semitism of the Nazis and confined themselves to a moderate and genteel anti-Semitism was not remotely true. For Malinowski, modern anti-Semitism was “a futile, knee-jerk response to the comprehensive transformations that had been triggered by modern industrial capitalism.” Anti-Semitism became—to use Shulamit Volkov’s memorable phrase1—a “cultural code” that encompassed and gave concrete form to everything in the modern world that so many people, including the German nobility, found both threatening and incomprehensible. Thus, Malinowski writes:

Aristocrats came to view the figure of “the Jew” as the symbol of everything the minor nobility despised, including democracy, liberalism, the metropolis, “uprootedness,” “asphalt culture,” intellectualism, modern art, revolutions, social democracy, Bolshevism, free trade, financial capitalism, the stock market, opulent wealth, excessive education, and—last but not least—a certain strain of sophisticated, distinctly non-military, middle-class way of life.

In short, he concludes, “It is difficult to overstate how important anti-Semitic codes were for facilitating the nobility’s rapprochement with the National Socialist movement.”

In addition to common enemies and shared aversions, another factor in the noble–Nazi misalliance was the degree to which nobles became “Hitler’s beneficiaries.”2 The vast expansion of the military reopened positions in the officer corps. Two years after the reintroduction of conscription in 1935, nobles held 15 percent of officer commissions—more than one hundred times their percentage of the population. In January 1938 nobles made up nearly 19 percent of all generals in the SS. And Hitler’s promise of conquering Lebensraum in the east raised expectations of vast landed estates that would come their way.

Malinowski is careful to insist upon the heterogeneity of the German nobility and recognizes that there were exceptions to all of his generalizations. While some noble clans claimed an “astonishingly high” number of Nazi Party members, others remained entirely aloof. Quantitative data are difficult to come by, but some numbers still have the capacity to shock. For instance, the von Wedel clan alone had seventy-eight party members, the von Schulenbergs forty-one. One sample of 312 East Elbian noble families found 3,592 Nazis; another sample of fifty-three such families found 1,595. Even more surprising was the disproportionate membership of noblewomen. At the end of 1934, 147 members of princely houses held party membership, of which forty-seven (32 percent) were women. Another sample of noble membership revealed that 35 percent were women. These figures would indicate that noblewomen joined the Nazi Party at nearly six times the rate of non-noble women.

For Malinowski this high percentage of female party membership reflects “noblewomen’s uncommon intellectual independence, and, above all, the unusual levels of politicization that aristocratic families encouraged in their daughters.” I would speculate that this phenomenon reflected Nazi attitudes as well. The party welcomed the high percentage of female votes it received but was probably more suspicious of female members, whose political activism implied a lesser commitment to the Nazi expectation that women should devote themselves to child-rearing, cooking, and cleaning. Aristocratic women would have been relatively free of that expectation. Moreover, I suspect, Nazis who believed that noblemen members were true reactionaries at heart found the presence of noblewomen in the party a glamorous affirmation of their own masculinity. In short, in daily interactions the Nazis may have been more welcoming of noblewomen as party members than of either noblemen or non-noblewomen.

Malinowski’s conclusion is emphatic. There was no broad, unified, organized noble resistance to National Socialism. On the contrary, noble opposition to democracy and the Weimar Republic was nearly universal, and the “overwhelming majority” of nobles made “a substantial contribution” to the Nazi dictatorship. Only a tiny handful, like Helmuth James von Moltke and Adam von Trott zu Solz, were uncompromising opponents of the Nazis from the beginning. By 1944 a somewhat larger (but still tiny) group of nobles around Stauffenberg organized the attempt to assassinate Hitler in July of that year. Their noble habitus provided them with self-assurance, a network of connections, and a frondeur spirit that undergirded their effort, but it was precisely their participation in the Third Reich that gave them the inside positions that made their coup attempt possible. Their example cannot sustain the “idealized” image of an unsullied nobility that was propagated after 1945.