- German nobility
Principles of German nobility
In Germany, nobility and titles pertaining to it were bestowed on a person by higher sovereigns and then passed down through legitimate children of a nobleman. Alternatively, unlike men, women could legally become members of nobility by marrying a noble, although they could not pass it on. Nobility and titles (except for most reigning titles) were always inherited equally by all legitimate descendants of a nobleman.
The German nobility as a legally defined class was abolished on August 11, 1919 with the Weimar Constitution, under which all Germans were made equal before the law, and the legal rights and privileges due to nobility ceased to exist.
The German nobility continues to play an important role in the various European nations that have not abolished the nobility. Most of the European royal families are descendants of the German nobility. Most famously, the British House of Windsor is itself of German origin, being until 1917 known under its original name Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha. Close family relations also existed with the Prussian Hohenzollern family, of which the last German emperor Wilhelm II was a member, he himself being a grandson of Queen Victoria.
Most, but not all, surnames of the German nobility were preceded by or at least contained the preposition von, meaning of, and sometimes by zu, which is usually translated as of when used alone or as in, at, or to. The two were occasionally combined into von und zu, meaning of and at approximately. In general, the "von" form indicates the place the family originated, while the "zu" form indicates that they are currently in possession of a certain place, therefore ''von und zu" indicates a family still in possession of their original feudal holding or residence. Other forms also exist as combinations with the definitive article: e.g. "von der" or von dem → "vom" ("of the"), zu der → "zur" or zu dem → "zum" ("of the", "in the", "at the"). An example is Count Kasimir von der Recke.
Although nobility as a class of privileged status has been abolished in Germany, nobles were allowed to keep their titles, a provision which is still in place today. Unlike before the Weimar Constitution, however, they have become part of a person's legal surname. Accordingly, the aforementioned Count Kasimir von der Recke would today legally be called Kasimir Count von der Recke.
Like nobles elsewhere, German nobles were acutely aware of and proud of their superior social position, and often had disdain for commoners. As shown in Theodor Fontane's novel Effi Briest, they referred to one another as Geborene, or "those who have been born", while commoners were called Geworfene, corresponding roughly to "whelped", "calved", or "foaled" in English, and properly referring only to non-human birth.
Many different states within Imperial Germany had sometimes very strict laws concerning conduct, lineage, and marriage of nobles. Failure to obey these provisions often resulted in Adelsverlust, or loss of the status of nobility. Until about the early 19th century, for example, it was commonly forbidden for nobles to marry people "of low birth", i.e. commoners. Some states exercised the punishment of Adelsverlust also on nobles sentenced to prison or convicted of serious felonies, on persons engaging in "lowly labor", or for otherwise grave and unbecoming misconduct. This punisment only affected individuals, not a noble family in its entirety.
Although nobility in its legal significance was abolished in 1919, various German organizations perpetuate the noble heritage to this day, and for example decide on matters of lineage as well as chronicling the history of noble families.
Divisions of nobility
- Uradel (ancient nobility): Nobility that dates back to at least the 16th century. This contrasts with:
- Briefadel (patent nobility): Nobility by letters patent. The first known such document is from September 30, 1360 for Wyker Frosch in Mainz.
- Hochadel (high nobility): Nobility that was sovereign or had a high degree of sovereignty. This contrasts with:
- Niederer Adel (lower nobility): Nobility that had a lower degree of sovereignty.
Titles and ranks
These titles were at one time used by various rulers. The titles Archduke, Duke, Prince, Margrave (and all other -graves), Count, Count Palatine and Lord were also used by non-sovereign members of some of these families or by noble non-reigning families.
Titles and territories Title (English) Title (German) Territory (English) Territory (German) Emperor/Empress Kaiser(in) Empire Kaiserreich, Kaisertum King/Queen König(in) Kingdom Königreich Elector/Electress Kurfürst(in) Electorate Kurfürstentum Archduke/Archduchess Erzherzog(in) Archduchy Erzherzogtum Grand Duke/Grand Duchess Großherzog(in) Grand Duchy Großherzogtum Duke/Duchess Herzog(in) Duchy Herzogtum Count(ess) Palatine Pfalzgraf/Pfalzgräfin County Palatine Pfalzgrafschaft Margrave/Margravine Markgraf/Markgräfin Margraviate, March Markgrafschaft Landgrave/Landgravine Landgraf/Landgräfin Landgraviate Landgrafschaft Prince(ss) Fürst(in) Principality Fürstentum Count(ess) of the Empire Reichsgraf*/Reichsgräfin County Grafschaft Burgrave/Burgravine Burggraf/Burggräfin Burgraviate Burggrafschaft Altgrave/Altgravine Altgraf/Altgräfin Altgraviate Altgrafschaft Baron(ess) Freiherr/Freifrau/Freiin* (Allodial) Barony Freiherrschaft Lord Herr Lordship Herrschaft Knight Reichsritter*
- The prefix Reichs- indicates a title originating from the Holy Roman Empire.
- Freiin indicates an unmarried daughter.
Titles for junior members of sovereign families and for non-sovereign families Title (English) Title (German) Crown Prince(ss) Kronprinz(essin) Grand Duke/Grand Duchess Großherzog(in) Grand Prince(ss) Großfürst(in) Archduke/Archduchess Erzherzog(in) Prince(ss) Prinz(essin) Duke/Duchess Herzog(in) Prince(ss) Fürst(in) Margrave/Margravine Markgraf/Markgräfin Landgrave/Landgravine Landgraf/Landgräfin Count(ess) Palatine Pfalzgraf/Pfalzgräfin Burgrave/Burgravine Burggraf/Burggräfin Altgrave/Altgravine Altgraf/Altgräfin Count(ess) of the Empire Reichsgraf/Reichsgräfin Baron(ess) of the Empire Reichsfreiherr/Reichsfreifrau/Reichsfreiin Count(ess) Graf/Gräfin Baron(ess) Freiherr/Freifrau/Freiin Lord / Noble Lord Herr /Edler Herr Knight (grouped with untitled nobles) Ritter Noble (Von Halffter) Edler/Edle Young Lord (grouped with untitled nobles) Junker
The heirs to some nobles or sovereigns had special titles of their own prefixed by Erb-, meaning Hereditary. For instance, the heir to a Grand Duke is titled Erbgroßherzog, meaning Hereditary Grand Duke. A sovereign duke's heir might be titled Erbherzog or Erbprinz (Hereditary Duke, Hereditary Prince) and a prince's heir might be titled Erbprinz or Erbgraf (Hereditary Prince, Hereditary Count), also Erbherr. The prefix distinguished the heir from similarly titled junior siblings.
- Neues allgemeines deutsches Adels-Lexicon 
Ernst Heinrich Kneschke: Vol. I - IX (1859–1870)
- Siebmachers Wappenbuch 
- Heinz Gollwitzer, Die Standesherren. Die politische und gesellschaftliche Stellung der Mediatisierten 1815-1918, Stuttgart 1957 (Göttingen ²1964). (deals with the social and political rank of the former sovereign nobles of the Holy Roman Empire who were mediatized from 1803 to 1815).
- Archive for Feudalism in Saxony 
- Institute for German Aristocratic Research 
- Castles and Palaces of Germany
Monarchies Former monarchies
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