Review of 'Nazis and Nobles' by Stephan Malinowski

Review of Nazis and Nobles: The History of a Misalliance, by Stephan Malinowski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), in the American Historical Review 127 (4), December 2022, pp. 1942–1943.

The relationship between Nazism and the German aristocracy tends to be drawn in one of two ways, each verging on caricature – lionisation of the heroic, noble resistance fighters behind the July bomb plot, or caustic castigation of the be-monocled Junkers and the Cabinet of Barons who smoothed Hitler’s road to power. Stephan Malinowski’s Nazis and Nobles steers an admirably nuanced middle way between these simplistic poles of wholesale absolution or demonisation. The key question which Malinowski seeks to answer throughout the book runs as follows: How could a noble caste which valued tradition and aristocratic leadership so highly join forces socially and ideologically with a lower middle-class, ostensibly egalitarian far-right movement? Each of the work’s five chapters then addresses a different piece of this puzzle.

The first chapter, ‘Defining “Nobility”’, explores various aspects of German aristocratic habitus – concern for one’s land; leadership; bloodlines; praise of the countryside, and contempt for intellectualism, capitalism, and the toxicity of urban living, including middle-class wealth and ostentation. These latter bugbears were associated above all with antisemitic stereotypes and exaggerated distaste for nouveaux riches or so-called ‘clinking goats’ (Klirrziegen); bourgeois women who dared to adorn themselves with ostentatious jewellery. All of these ideological elements could potentially be redefined in völkisch vein, even if their roots lay in mainstream conservative rather than radical right-wing soil. Chapter 2, ‘The Apocalypse and Beyond’, then reveals the extent to which many aristocrats saw Germany’s ‘November Revolution’ in 1918 as heralding the utter collapse of their world of wealth and privilege, as well as rendering monarchism moot after Kaiser Wilhelm’s ‘shameful’ flight to the Netherlands. Many aristocrats even believed that Wilhelm should have been forced to die ‘honourably’ at the enemy’s hands, with plans having been made towards the war’s end to effect this very eventuality. The dissolution of royal courts, Upper Houses, the Army (a preferred haunt for lesser noble sons of little brain), and aristocratic bodies such as the Prussian Heraldry Office, along with the swift descent of many nobles into what they considered to be utter penury (some were ‘forced’ into work as tutors or taxi-drivers), led to increasing radicalisation, especially among the genuinely impoverished ranks of the Prussian minor nobility. For every noble who might frown at a small-ad such as ‘Stony-broke devil, aristocrat, seeks filthy rich angel for marriage’, vowing to cast its author into social darkness, there were others who might seek to follow its lead. The fates of female aristocrats are tellingly delineated too – a significant number became increasingly politicised in tandem with their enforced independence from familial expectations and the certainties of arranged marriage.

The central chapter, ‘The Nobility Reloaded’, paints a portrait of the gradual radicalisation and racialisation of noble associations such as the German Noble Society (DAG) and the German Gentlemen’s Club (DHK). The shared language of ‘Führertum’ and ‘New Nobility’ (Neuer Adel) made noble alliances with the far-right seem more plausible than ever before, while debates over the possibility of ‘breeding’ a new aristocracy led to a proto-Nazification of noble genealogical research under the watchword ‘Ahnenforschung macht frei’. Thus, the ostracism of individuals or families with supposedly racially inferior ancestry became commonplace, even before these organisations voluntarily ‘coordinated’ themselves once the Nazi regime had come to power in 1933.

The final two chapters, on ‘Conflicts’ and ‘Affinities’, investigate the range of responses with which nobles greeted Nazism, from the (infinitesimally few) socialist and pacifist aristocrats who gave their all for the Weimar Republic, to the Prussian royal family, with their misguided belief that they could use National Socialism as a vehicle for the restoration of the monarchy. Many of those who did indeed join the resistance around Stauffenberg and the Kreisau Circle had previously been deeply imbricated and implicated in the regime’s actions at the highest levels of the political hierarchy, and their subsequent revolt against the dictatorship can be read less as a revelation of the nobility’s innate ‘decency’ than as an ambivalent attempt to face up to the responsibility which they already bore for the regime’s evils. Ultimately, however, Nazism and the nobility shared enough perceived common enemies – democracy, capitalism, liberalism, Judaism, Bolshevism, and the left – that many aristocrats’ authoritarian and hardline conservative views were broadly compatible with those of their future Nazi masters. It was not for nothing that numerous nobles welcomed the idea of Lebensraum in Hitler’s putative Eastern empire as a way of restoring their estates to glory, even as they cavilled at the more ‘socialist’ elements of National Socialism.

One of this book’s most admirable features is its nuanced disaggregation and differentiation of aristocratic attitudes, making it abundantly clear that to speak of ‘the nobility’ en bloc is a complete misnomer. While the spectrum of aristocratic responses to Nazism was wide, however, three principal fault-lines can be discerned: between Bavarian Catholics and northern Protestants (particularly Prussians); between the still-wealthy ‘grandes seigneurs’ and the impecunious members of the minor nobility, and between older and younger generations. By and large, the latter of the two categories were generally more receptive to the allure of Nazism than the former.

All in all, Malinowski approaches his subjects with subtlety, and even at times with a modicum of empathy which helps the reader to understand the complex motives which might have led nobles to embrace fascism. Overall, the book continues to add much to the still under-researched topic of the aristocracy’s engagement with and responsibility for Nazism. For those readers who are already well-acquainted with Malinowski’s monograph Vom König zum Führer (2003), it remains to note that the original German text has been substantially updated with reference to new scholarship which has appeared in the intervening decades. Although the author’s conclusions remain broadly the same – they have scarcely been superseded by subsequent studies, merely refined – this book deserves to be assessed in its own right, rather than as a heavily abridged translation. The style is rich in anecdote; at times even comic, and Malinowski’s lively prose carries the reader through even the most detailed of prosopographical analyses. Overall, this is a tour de force which will repay close reading and rereading – and, in its new incarnation, it will be superbly accessible to interested lay readers and students alike.