German nobility: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The German nobility (German: Adel) was the elite hereditary ruling class or aristocratic class in the Holy Roman Empire and what is now Germany.


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, close family relations exist between England's House of Windsor and the Prussian Hohenzollern family, of which the last German emperor Wilhelm II. was a member.

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 different 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.

German noble families were almost always armigerous, entitled to bear a coat of arms.

Divisions of nobility

  • Uradel (ancient nobility): Nobility that dates back to at least the 1500s, and originates from leadership positions during the Migration Period. 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


Reigning titles

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
Burgrave/Burgravine Burggraf/Burggräfin Burgraviate Burggrafschaft
Prince(ss) Fürst(in) Principality Fürstentum
Count(ess) of the Empire Reichsgraf*/Reichsgräfin County Grafschaft
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.

Non-reigning titles

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.

See also


External links


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