Are you a native English speaker? Did you try to speak the name “Der Alte Fritz” in the headline? If so, we would love to hear it! The name “Fritz” is one of the most iconic German names from the point of view of many English speakers, and they do fantastic things to its pronunciation. Send us an audio-file, if you like!
Fritz, however, is the short form of Friedrich (in English usually spelled Frederik), and when it comes to German nobility, this is a name of high reputation, coming with plenty of chances to be confused.
Did you know that Frederick the Great (the infamous “old Fritz” of the headline), was actually Frederick II, son to Frederick the I, who was himself the son of Frederick William III, the duke who turned his duchy into the Kingdom of Prussia in the 17th century. Do these numbers seem out of order? Frederick William the third was actually succeeded by Frederick the first and Frederick the second, while the emperors William the first and William the second came quite a bit later and were the first and the last German Emperors after the end of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The whole issue of names and numbers is highly messed up from an outsider’s point of view, and researching aristocratic dynasties, it seems impossible not to get confused.
Either way: Frederick William, Frederick, Frederick, William and William all belong to the probably most important German royal house of all: The Hohenzollern. The House of Hohenzollern ruled the Duchy of Brandenburg, the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Empire that unified the highly splintered German nation in 1871, after a glorious victory over France. In the South of Germany, the House of Habsburg ruled the Empire of Austria-Hungary – a competitor as well as a close ally to the Hohenzollerns.
Whether the Habsburger dynasty can be called German, given that Austria is a very own nation, could be discussed, but it would probably be pointless. In fact, many of the higher nobility of Europe does not really belong to one modern nation only.
The most established and most beloved German aristocratic family of contemporary times is the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. In 1946, this famous noble house married into the House of Battenberg, itself a branch of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, itself a branch of the House of Oldenburg, all of which are in the North of Germany. This house, however, was the Royal Family of Greece and Denmark, and the lucky groom in 1946 was Prince Philipp of Greece and Denmark, afterwards known as The Duke of Edinburgh. His wife is today Queen Elizabeth II. The English royalty is German to the core, and Queen Victoria was not only married to a leader of the House of Hanover, she was also closely related to the Emperor William of Germany.
So here we go: The most famous German noble family of today is the Royal Family of England, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. They are closely followed by the Swedish Royal Family, but the Swedish queen isn’t from noble descent, she is a commoner from Germany. The mother of King Gustav of Sweden, however, belonged to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha – and if that sounds familiar: Yes, in England this house is known as Windsor since the name was changed during World War I for obvious reasons.
The close connections between the European aristocracy happened for two reasons: The nobility was a small, exclusive class of people, far removed from the common people and convinced that they should keep their bloodlines pure. Today we know that this kind of inbreeding creates genetic issues and health problems. But even so, the second reason was just as important: Intertwining noble families that ruled most of Europe meant reducing conflict and work. The House of Habsburg was infamous for building an empire around the globe by wedding off their daughters.
When the Russian Empire collapsed in the Communist revolution 1917, the Baltic nations and Finland gained independence looked to Germany, trying to install own monarchs. For a few months in 1918, a member of the House of Hohenzollern was Finnish king. Hard to believe, but his name was Frederick: Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse, the king-elect of Finland, did not really take his noble office, since the German Empire collapsed at an untimely moment, effectively ending aristocracy in Germany for good.
In 1919, the newly founded German republic ended the monarchy, and with it all privileges and rights of the noble class. While they did loss their official power, German aristocracy bounced back, keeping their sounding names, their status and their enormous wealth. Throughout the Nazi rule just two decades later, noble families gained a lot of influence back. Among those in leadership positions under Hitler were the siblings of Prince Philipp, later the Duke of Edinburgh, who himself went to school in Hitler’s Germany, at the elitist school of Schloss Salem.
After the German reunification in 1990, the noble families of Germany had a warm rain of income again. Huge parts of their historical wealth had been confiscated by the socialist government in East Germany. With reunification, this wealth was “given back” to the “original owners”. Landmark buildings, real estate and huge swaths of land changed form public hands to private ownership.
Since it was stripped of its official privileges, the German aristocracy has organized in official unions that take care of the proper use and entitlement of titles and names. The reputation and the power of the noble class might have been reduced further during the last decades, but education, connections and wealth go a long way.
When it comes to media appearance, the German nobility is definitely less successful than their English counterparts (although Randy Andy might have cleared this score a little). Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, shooting star of the conservative party and for a short while a minister of state, caused a major scandal when it turned out that most of his CV was nothing but bluster and lies. Compared to the current British Prime Minister, he still leaves a pretty good impression, but 10 years ago times were still different.
The current head of the House of Hanover, Prince Ernst August, made headlines because he married Caroline of Monaco – but since then is only known for beating up papparazzi and urinating on the Turkish Pavilion at the World Expo in Hannover in 2003.
If this doesn’t seem to be very aristocratic behaviour: This is nothing new. Emperor William II (Wilhelm der Zweite) who lost both WW1 and then his crown, was well known to be gaffe-prone and show intellect of Trumpian proportions. His insecurities, paired with narcissism, led to the downfall of Germany. Ruining the work of both his father and grandfather – and generations of Prussian rulers before them – he also dishonoured the legacy also of a German statesman of Churchill-like proportions: Otto von Bismarck. The Prince of Bismarck and Duke of Lauenburg was arguably the most talented German politician of the 19th century. As the most senior advisor to King William of Prussia it was his achievement to reunite Germany as an Empire – that it had ceased to be when The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation ended in 1806. In a string of very successful war campaigns and with a huge amount of sophisticated diplomacy he forged a union of “equal” states under the leadership of Prussia and became its first chancellor.
Less well known: Otto von Bismarck was, as authoritarian and conservative he might have been, also a great reformer. The idea of modern health insurance was his, and he introduced it in Germany in close cooperation with the Social Democrat Party. At the same time he persecuted socialists and workers rights activists – the Iron Chancellor wasn’t an easy man to deal with. The comparison to Winston Churchill isn’t too far fetched.
Bismarck lost his position when Emperor William I died – quickly followed by his son, who took office and died just 99 days later of cancer. Emperor William II did not value expertise and wisdom of Otto von Bismarck. He went for the imperialist ideas that were so fashionable in England, France and other European nations as well. His aggressive nationalist positions led to World War I in the end… and ended aristocracy in Germany.
The last Emperor lived in the Netherlands until his death of old age in 1941. He missed the final downfall of Hitler’s empire. He also missed the recovery after World War II and the development of Germany into a thriving republic, mostly free of militarism and the imperialist dream of an imperial past.