The German Nobility
The German Nobility in Law and Practice
The German system of nobility, as indeed the European system in general, is quite different from the English system with which most Americans are familiar. The English have a peerage system and not an extensive system of nobility, though their squires or landed gentry would tend to be the closest thing. In England only the eldest son usually inherits the title and the rest are considered commoners, though they may bear "courtesy titles" if their father has more than one, or may be called "Lord" or "Lady" without actually being one.
The German nobility is divided into two major divisions, that of the lower (niedriger Adel) and the high (hoher Adel). It is further divided into the ancient nobility (Uradel) and the newer nobility (commonly known as Briefadel, or literally nobility by letter-cachet, but also including other groups.) The Uradel may be of either the lower or high nobility, but the Briefadel is always of the lower.
In Germany, all legitimate children of a nobleman become nobles themselves, and most titles pass onto all the children with few exceptions. All the children of sovereigns did not, of course, become kings or electors, but did become princes or princesses. In the last decades of the German Empire, in imitation of the English system, a few families were ennobled with titles that passed on only to the eldest son, the remainder retaining either their father's former title (which he also still carried) or just untitled nobility.
The hereditary and legal privileges of the nobility as the first class of the realm ended in August of 1919 when the Constitution of the so-called Weimar Republic came into force. The laws that concerned the nobility for some one thousand years before 1919 stated that hereditary nobility could only be passed on through legitimate biological descent from a noble father but not through adoption and especially not through purchase. When non-nobles were adopted the family name could be carried by the adoptee, but none of the noble designations of the family (such as a title or the "von".) If such an adoptee wished to become noble, he or she had to apply to their sovereign for such status in the same manner as any other subject. An exemption to this was and is still made by the "legitimatio per matrimonium subsequens", which allowed the legitimation of children born out of wedlock after the marriage of their noble parents. By this the children became full hereditary nobles, though some social stigma still remained.
Since 1919, according to the German republican government, the nobility no longer exists as a legal entity. Nevertheless, the titles and noble designations of the nobility have not been abolished, as they have in Austria, and may still be carried. Legally they are now merely parts of the family name and in theory convey no status. Following this rule all children of, for example, a Count von Beust, whether male or female, would have the family name Count von Beust. Similarly your could find ladies named Elisabeth Duke of Saxony or Luise Prince of Prussia. A woman married to the Hereditary Grand Duke of Baden would, in law, also be named Hereditary Grand Duke of Baden, as would all their children. To avoid making all this seem too ridiculous the German government ignores much of its own law and allows the wives and children of nobles to take the gender-specific titles appropriate to their sex.
Another example of society ignoring the 1919 law and following traditional practice is that in all German telephone books a person named, for instance, Baron von Richthofen would be listed under a "R" for Richthofen rather than a "v" for "von" or a "B" for "Baron". The U.S. telephone books are (unwittingly) more compliant with current German legal writ by listing all persons with a "von" under "v".
The 1919 law also causes difficulties in the case of children inheriting senior titles of their fathers. For example, in certain families only the senior member is a count, and the rest are untitled nobles. For a child to use the inherited title of "count" upon his father's death would involve a court petition for a name change, which is not always granted when the judge or magistrate has an anti-noble bias.
Current law allows a person adopted by a noble to use the noble family name, and since the title is considered part of the name, that is also conveyed by adoption. It should be noted that the German nobility never acknowledges such persons to be noble, no matter what they call themselves.
Those persons who claim nobility through adoption or purchase, such as the notorious Claus von Bülow, the Nazi foreign minister von Ribbentrop, or Zsa-Zsa Gabor's husband who uses a Saxon princely title, are not recognized as part of the historical nobility and are no more members of that class than anyone else claiming a status to which they are not entitled. Most such persons are essentially deluding themselves while trying to fool others.
German nobles, especially the Uradel, have a particular class consciousness and consider themselves interrelated and cousins even if they don't know exactly how. Often in the case of the ancient families this is correct due to centuries of intermarriage. All members of the Uradel are considered by themselves to be of the same status, whether they are untitled, barons, counts, or whatever else they may be. The particular title of a person is far less important among the nobility than the age and standing of the family. This is particularly true as a number of old families have branches of various levels. For instance, the Counts, Barons, and untitled von Bothmers are all part of the same family. The Uradel also tend to look down on the Briefadel as parvenus, even when the Briefadel may have been noble for centuries. I recall visiting a cousin on the Lüneburger Heath in Lower Saxony who had a brass plate on his front door stating "Lieferanten und Briefadel zur Hintertür", meaning "Deliveries and Briefadel to the rear entrance". Though meant as a joke, there was still a bit of seriousness behind it.
The Noble Designation
The basic designation of the nobility is the predicate "von", which the vast majority of German nobles carry. There are a small number of noble houses, almost exclusively of the Uradel, which have never used the "von" or any other noble predicate, but are nevertheless of fully equal standing with those that do.
In northern and eastern Germany there are a substantial number of families (such as the von Kranichfelds) that use the "von" as designations of the towns where they come from (as is the case with most older noble families) but have never been noble and make no pretense to be so.
A few noble houses use "von und zu", meaning they are not only from the place mentioned but still retain it. Another Uradel house is named "aus dem Winckel" instead of "von dem Winckel" but having the same meaning. Other noble predicates sometimes seen are "von dem", "von der", or "vom". "Van" is not used by German nobles but is Dutch or Flemish and does not usually connote nobility in those countries.
As a way of differentiating themselves from non-nobles, the aristocracy of northern Germany in most cases uses the abbreviation "v.", instead of writing out the "von", while still pronouncing the whole word. The southern Germans most often write out the "von". It is always spelled with a small "v" unless it would be grammatically incorrect, such as in the beginning of a sentence.
Notwithstanding regional preferences, the "Bible" of the nobility, the Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels (Genealogical Handbook of the Nobility), published by C. A. Starke in Limburg/Lahn, uses the "v." to designate nobles and spells out the "von" for non-noble families or individual non-nobles within aristocratic families. This handbook, colloquially known as the "Gotha" for its predecessor the Almanach de Gotha (in German, Gothaisches Hofkalendar) attempts a comprehensive listing of all German noble houses currently or recently in existence and comes out in several volumes on a yearly basis, listing all living members of a family and all those deceased since the last edition. The handbook is divided into several series with the binding in different colors: Royal and Princely houses, Counts, Barons, Untitled nobles, and Family histories. Within these series the families are, except since recently the Counts and Barons, divided into Uradel or Briefadel.
The advantage of having these books is obvious: there is a wealth of genealogical information, and as it lists addresses, many potential contacts can be found. It is also a way of being able to investigate people's claims to noble status, though this kind of checking is not considered "gentlemanly". The listing are thorough and are checked for accuracy, though they depend to a large degree on the individual's honesty in telling the truth about themselves.
Not every German noble family is included, as most often the family concerned must contribute financially to its inclusion, or the family may be too small, poor, or unwilling to warrant repeated updating. For instance, my own family, with some 70 members, appeared lastly in 1985 and will do so again in 1999, but that of my grandmother, von Bulmerincq, has not appeared since 1936. The current series of books has been published since 1951, and is available at a number of larger libraries.
Divisions of the German Nobility
This oldest level of the nobility is made up of those houses which by no later than 1400 were members of the knightly class, or patricians of a free Imperial city such as Frankfurt/Main. Most often these houses are counted as noble since "time immemorial" as at their first appearance in written records they were already noble. The families that make up this segment of the nobility usually descend from the knights or most important warriors of a sovereign that were the basis of his fighting force, or more rarely from a senior civil official of the time. The Uradel often had legal privileges over the newer nobility certifying their higher standing, such as in the Nobles Law of the Kingdom of Saxony of 1902. There are far fewer Uradel families still in existence than Briefadel due to the fact that families die out over the centuries and no Uradel has been created in almost 600 years.
This level of the nobility is made up of those houses which were ennobled since the beginning of the 15th Century through the end of the German or Austrian Empires in 1918. There were widely differing prerequisites for this level of the nobility, though most often military or civil service to the sovereign were the qualities most valued. The Briefadel includes houses ennobled or recognized as noble by the Emperor or one of the sovereigns of the high nobility. Also included are patricians of the free Imperial cities and non-German noble houses that immigrated over the centuries, such as the Counts von Polier from France or the Herren von Zerboni di Sposetti from Italy.
The High Nobility is made up of those families that had Reichsstandschaft, or had a seat in the Parliament of the Holy Roman Empire. These seats were reserved for sovereign houses. These families were also Reichsunmittelbar, or in a feudal sense holding their lands directly from the Holy Roman Emperor, who for four centuries, until the end of the empire in 1806, came from the house of Habsburg. In essence, these families were rulers of their own countries, often in times of a weak emperor paying only lip service to their subservience to him. Their relationship to the emperor was then much like that of today's Commonwealth rulers to the British Queen. Even in times of a strong emperor he was to them more like a chairman of the board rather than a ruler. Up to the early 19th Century, there were some baronial and untitled families that held lands directly of the emperor, so essentially being their own rulers, but had no seat in the Parliament, thus being members of the lower nobility. Many families of the high nobility have house laws applicable to their members. Often these laws do not allow marriage outside their ranks, even to the lower nobility which would be considered a morganatic alliance. Even today, the children of a member of the high nobility who marries morganatically become members of the lower nobility.
Ranks of the High Nobility
Within this division of the nobility the highest title is Emperor, or Kaiser, deriving from Caesar in Latin. Through most of German history, there was only one of these, the Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation, lasting from the crowning of Charlemagne in the year 800 through the renunciation of the last emperor, Franz II, in 1806 under the influence of Napoleon, who by then had proclaimed himself Emperor of the French. Kaiser Franz had already declared himself Emperor of Austria, as Franz I, in 1804. In essence, the emperor just changed his title so as to more accurately reflect the political realities of the time.
A second German empire was established in 1871 after the victory of the German states over Napoleon III, when King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor. He was never titled Emperor of Germany, as this nation was not a unitary state but a federation of monarchies and free city-states with quasi-republican governments. The title of German Emperor was always carried in conjunction with that of King of Prussia, and he was addressed as Kaiserliche und Königliche Majestät (Imperial and Royal Majesty). The Austrian Emperor, based to a large degree upon his position as King of Hungary, was addressed as Apostolic Majesty.
Both German and Austrian empires ceased to exist after World War I, and the imperial titles have not been carried since the last emperors died (Wilhelm II of Germany in 1941, Karl of Austria in 1922). The last empress, Zita of Austria, died in 1989.
The children of the German emperor were Prinzen von Preußen (Princes of Prussia, not Germany) and royal highnesses, except the eldest, who was German Kronprinz (Crown Prince) and addressed as Imperial and Royal Highness. The current heir to the throne is titled the, rather than a, Prince of Prussia, and is the only one in Germany still addressed as Imperial and Royal Highness. The children of the Austrian emperor were titled Archdukes or Archduchesses of Austria rather than princes, and called Imperial and Royal Highnesses.
Next we come to König and Königin, or King and Queen, which was carried by the rulers of the larger German states (Bavaria, Hanover, Prussia, Saxony, Württemberg, ). They were addressed as Majesty, and their children, princes or princesses, as Royal Highnesses.
After these came the Großherzog, or Grand Duke, who were styled royal highness, and were rulers of somewhat smaller states, such as the two Mecklenburgs or Luxemburg (which until 1918 was considered a German state). The heir to these thrones was known as an Erbgroßherzog, or hereditary grand duke, and the other children were princes or princesses. Additionally in the Saxon kingdom, grand duchy, and duchies, all the children of the ruler were also styled dukes or duchesses.
The next level is that of Herzog, or Duke, who was normally styled Highness.
Kurfürst, or Elector in English, ranked with a Duke. The electors were originally the greatest lords of the Holy Roman Empire, both temporal and spiritual, who elected the Emperor before the throne became hereditary. They later became sovereigns no different from the rest. The last ruling Elector, Hesse-Cassel, lost his throne to Prussia in 1866.
Landgraf (Landgrave), Markgraf (Margrave), and Pfalzgraf (Palsgrave or Count Palatine) ranked somewhat with a Duke and are usually considered higher than a Fürst. All sovereigns of this rank were eventually "promoted" to higher titles, but the titles were sometimes used instead of crown prince for their states, and are currently used for the Heads of the Houses of Baden, Hesse and Saxony. Depending on circumstances, they could be styled Royal Highness or simply Highness. In the Middle Ages, some sovereigns were Burggrafs, or Burgraves, but all these took higher titles early on and Burggraf became a title and sometimes function, like Wildgraf, of the lower nobility.
Next follows Fürst (for which there is no good translation in English, but which is confusingly called Prince). These are styled Durchlaucht, translated as Serene Highness. Children of dukes, kurfürsts, and fürsts were all princes or princesses. In the third generation their descendants sometimes become counts, except for the ruling line, which retains the princely title.
The last category of the high nobility still in existence is that of Graf, or Count. The last sovereigns of this rank ceased ruling after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. They are styled Erlaucht, or Illustrious Highness. Their children are all counts or countesses. A former somewhat higher rank of gefürsteter Graf, or princely count, no longer exists.
Among all the higher nobility the idea of Ebenbürtigkeit exists, meaning all of them, no matter what the title, are considered of equal birth and standing.
Ranks of the Lower Nobility
Very often a certain level of income, wealth, or social standing was necessary for appointment to these ranks, so as to demonstrate the ability of the person ennobled to maintain himself at a proper level.
The highest rank of the non-sovereign nobility is Herzog or Duke, a title almost never given them and then only "ad personam", or much like an English life peer. An example is Otto von Bismarck as Duke of Lauenburg. He was styled Serene Highness.
The highest rank that normally was part of the lower nobility is Fürst. This title, like Duke, was given to them only in the last centuries of the monarchy. Their children were rarely princes, but more usually counts or barons, depending on what was the original title of the Fürst.
Next in rank is Graf or Count, which in modern times could be given primogeniture (inherited only by the eldest son), but was usually given to all the children of the new count. A very few houses also carry the title Burggraf which is approximately equivalent to Count.
Baron follows, which is almost always called Freiherr in Germany, but given as Baron to the Germans of the Baltic regions. For many years it was in dispute whether Baron was equivalent to Freiherr (which was deemed "better"), but this was settled in the last century in an affirmative manner. The wife of a Freiherr is a Freifrau, the daughter a Freiherrin. This last title is sometimes abbreviated Freiin. The wife of a Baron is a Baronin, the daughter a Baronesse. Another variant of this rank is called Edler Herr, or Edle Herrin for females, which is borne by only a few very old families (such as the Gans zu Putlitz).
The last level is that of the untitled nobility, which nevertheless includes some titled families. Normally an untitled noble is addressed as Herr, in this context meaning Lord.
In former times untitled nobles, especially those from the eastern regions, were addressed as Junker, a title still in usage in the Netherlands as Jonkheer. It is no longer normally used in Germany. In Bavaria and especially Austria, the hereditary title of Ritter (Knight) was given to families, but they were still considered part of the untitled nobility. Much the same applies to the title of Edler, which is mainly northern and central German. While the wife and daughters of an Edler were titled Edle, the wife of a Ritter was called a Frau (in this sense Lady) and not Ritterin.
Affiliations of the German Nobility
Though the formal power of the German nobility is gone, it still remains a considerable social force. After the debacle of World War II, the aristocracy gradually reformed in groups based on religious affiliation or province of origin. For well over 30 years, these groups have been affiliated as the "Vereinigung der Deutschen Adelsverbände" and published the monthly "Deutsches Adelsblatt" in the small town of Westerbrak (now part of Kirchbrak). The legalistic "Deutsches Adelsrechtsausschuß" was set up, composed of members from various noble and chivalric organizations, to determine in questionable cases who belongs to the nobility or if a person has a right to a noble title he claims. Only if there is a positive judgment by this organization can someone join one of the nobles' associations or have their family listed in the Gotha.
It has been estimated that there are some 40,000 nobles of all ranks in Germany today.
Copyright © (c) 1992 by Gilbert von Studnitz This is taken from an article written by Gilbert von Studnitz in "Der Blumenbaum", a publication of the Sacramento German Genealogy Society, Vol. 9, number 4, April-June 1992. This article, which also appears in the FAQ for the Usenet newsgroup alt.talk.royalty, is used by permission of the author.