[Marxism] LRB: Nazi Party's ties to the German upper crust

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri Apr 10 07:35:45 MDT 2009

LRB Vol. 31 No. 7·  9 April 2009  

Vases, Tea Sets, Cigars, His Own Watercolours
Christopher Clark 

High Society in the Third Reich by Fabrice d’Almeida. Polity,  294 pp.,
£17.99, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 7456 4312 0 

In a diary entry for 11 August 1936, the German writer and journalist
Friedrich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen recalled his first meeting with Adolf
Hitler. It was in 1920, at the Munich home of his friend, the composer and
conductor Clemens von Franckenstein. Among the Gobelin tapestries and the
marble panels (Franckenstein lived at the time in the Villa Lenbach) sat
Hitler in a pair of gaiters and a floppy wide-brimmed hat, clutching a
leather riding whip. He appeared – to Reck at least – uneasy in this opulent
setting, and perched uncomfortably on the edge of a chair, oblivious to the
nuances of his host’s conversation, ‘snatching hungrily at the words like a
dog at pieces of raw meat’. Eventually he rose to his feet and launched into
a long, ranting monologue, all the while thwacking his boot with the riding
whip. Franckenstein’s servants rushed in, thinking that their employer was
being attacked. After Hitler had said his piece and left, there was a long
and puzzled silence. Then Franckenstein stood up and opened one of the large
windows looking onto the garden.

It was not that our grim guest had been unclean, or fouled the room in the
way that so often happens in a Bavarian village. But the fresh air dispelled
the sense of oppression. It was not that an unclean body had been in the
room, but something else, the unclean essence of a monstrosity.

Whether or not this scene took place as described (Reck-Malleczewen was
given to fanciful embellishments), it would be a mistake to read the
vignette as emblematic of Hitler’s relationship with the old German elites.
>From the very beginning, as Fabrice d’Almeida shows in his fascinating
study, Hitler networked with considerable success among the great and the
good. His early sponsors included the Bechsteins, owners of the piano
company. They invited him to receptions at their house in Munich and
showered him with gifts, including his first luxury car, a red Mercedes
worth 26,000 marks. Elsa Bruckmann, who was born Princess Cantacuzene of
Romania, introduced Hitler to the wealthy industrialists who frequented the
‘salon Bruckmann’ and presented Hitler with his first riding whip (until
that point, he had carried a cane). Indeed, all three of Hitler’s prized
leather whips were presents from high society ladies. Throughout the 1920s,
his access to elite society steadily increased. There was no need for Hitler
to assimilate himself to the social norms of his hosts, for his
attractiveness lay precisely in his louche, somewhat uncouth manners and the
‘aroma of adventure’ that surrounded him. There was an undeniable frisson in
welcoming a guest who left his revolver and bodyguards at the door when he
entered a salon.

The Nazi movement acquired supporters as high up in the traditional social
elite as it was possible to go. Among Hermann Göring’s close associates was
Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia, son of the Kaiser, who became interested
in Nazism in 1926 and joined the Stormtroopers in 1930. Through August
Wilhelm, Göring gained access to his brother Crown Prince Wilhelm von
Preussen, and to the princes of Hessen, Christoph and Philipp. Göring was
renowned (and resented by some Nazis) for his sycophantic attraction to the
high-born, but he was not alone. Himmler, too, targeted the nobility, in the
firm belief that they embodied the principles of selective breeding espoused
by his SS. By 1938 nearly a fifth of all senior SS officers were titled
noblemen (the figure for the lower officer ranks was 10 per cent). From a
sample of 312 families of the old nobility, the Freiburg historian Stephan
Malinowski found 3592 individuals who joined the Nazi Party, including 962
who did so before the seizure of power in January 1933. These noble Nazis
included members of the oldest and most distinguished East Elbian families:
the Schwerins supplied 52 party members, the Hardenbergs 27, the Tresckows
30, and the Schulenburgs 41.

The very highest-born families, descendants of the ruling dynasties of the
German principalities, were especially susceptible to the party’s appeal.
Duke Ernst August of Braunschweig (who was married to one of the princesses
of Prussia) was a regular donor to the party and a close associate of
several Nazi leaders (though he never became a card-carrying Nazi); Duke
Carl Eduard von Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha (a grandson of Queen Victoria, born
Prince of Great Britain and Ireland, and known to his British friends as
Charlie Coburg) joined the party in 1933 and became an SA-Gruppenführer in
1936. Some princely families flocked to the party en masse – 14 from the
House of Hesse, ten from the Schaumburg-Lippes, 20 from the Hohenlohes and
so on. In all, it seems that between a third and half of the eligible
members of German princely families joined the party. As the American
scholar Jonathan Petropoulos observed in his study of the princes of Hessen,
if princes had constituted a profession, ‘they would have rivalled
physicians as the most Nazified in the Third Reich (doctors’ membership
peaked in 1937 at 43 per cent)’.[*] Reck-Malleczewen himself was confronted
with the extent of elite support when he visited a Berlin nightclub early in
1939 and found it heaving with ‘young men of the rural nobility, all of them
in SS uniforms’.

An interest in the relationship between the traditional elites of German
society and the National Socialist movement developed only quite recently.
There are various reasons for this: the celebration of German military
resistance as the moral foundation stone of the new Federal Republic created
an implicit linkage between high birth and principled opposition to Nazi
criminality; many of the relevant archival sources are still in the hands of
the families and some are less willing than others to support research; and
for a long time it was widely believed that Nazism was in essence a movement
of the downwardly mobile petite bourgeoisie – shopkeepers, clerks, tradesmen
and minor officials who saw in the movement’s authoritarian racist politics
a promise of rescue from déclassement and proletarianisation. Nobles were
too small a social group, of course, to make a significant contribution to
Nazi electoral success, but d’Almeida is surely right to suggest that the
closeness between parts of the Nazi leadership and parts of the upper social
stratum helps to explain why a coterie of senior German politicians of
mainly noble descent were prepared to entrust the Nazi leader with high
office in January 1933.

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