View Full Version : German Aristocrats Return to Ancestral Lands

Monday, November 13th, 2006, 10:48 PM
I can't believe that the liberal Boston Globe would have such a story! ;)

By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff | November 13, 2006

KARWE, Germany -- A portrait of one illustrious forebear -- a field marshal who strategized against Napoleon -- glowers over the fireplace. A hunting dog snores on a sofa. There's a 17th-century armoire, shelves of leather-and-gilt bound volumes, mounted stag horns, and other trappings of nobility, including the proud unicorn-and-dragon-arm crest of the von dem Knesebeck family.
But space is tight. The family palace was destroyed by the communists who ruled East Germany after World War II. These days, the ancestral seat of the blue-blooded line is a modest bungalow at the edge of the village over which earlier von dem Knesebecks reigned as lords and masters.

"Not a proper castle," Baron Krafft von dem Knesebeck, 52, said a bit ruefully. "But it will have to do, for now."

Like other German aristocrats whose parents or grandparents fled the east in the chaotic closing days of the war for sanctuary in western Germany, von dem Knesebeck has finally come home.
He is part of a barely noticed trend. In the depressed hinterlands of eastern Germany, scores of gentry are quietly returning to hard-luck realms, buying back from governmental agencies and other quasi-public holders the lands, buildings, and, yes, castles that would have been their inheritances, had history not intervened.

These "rubber boot barons" -- as bemused locals call them, referring to the returnees' unaristocratic tendency to muck out stables and perform other dirty chores -- are pouring millions of dollars into restoring farms, fixing up historic structures, and starting small businesses. In the process, they are creating jobs and, perhaps more important, setting an entrepreneurial example for socialist-reared easterners, who still regard capitalism and self-reliance with a suspicious eye.

Von dem Knesebeck used savings and borrowed money to buy 1,600 acres of former family lands, half the original estate, from a dysfunctional collective farm. The former naval patrol boat commander and wholesale produce manager refurbished the huge 18th-century brick barns into "country getaway" apartments rented to well-heeled urbanites. The seasonal residents bring cash to this scenic but struggling village beside Lake Ruppiner. Von dem Knesebeck is also bringing long-neglected agricultural lands and timber stands back into production.

The motives of the returning barons, counts, and princelings are mixed. Some seek a rustic retirement. Others are pure profiteers. But most seem driven by something more complex: a sense of blood debt to places and people whose histories are intricately intertwined with their own.

"I have a profound obligation to this place and to these people," said Helmuth von Maltzahn, 57, baron of Ulrichshusen, a tiny village in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region, north of Berlin. In 1945, his family fled the invading Red Army with "whatever few things they could stuff into a knapsack," said von Maltzahn, who attended Harvard Business School in the 1970s.

A hard-charging former cosmetics executive, von Maltzahn, his wife Baroness Alla, and their two small daughters gave up comfortable lives in West Germany in 1993 for a barely heated mobile home parked beside the ruins of the former family schloss, or castle. The walls of Ulrichshusen castle date to 1592. But the renaissance structure stands on the foundations of a von Maltzahn stronghold built in the 1100s.

"The communists were here for 45 years," von Maltzahn said during an interview in the main keep. "What's that? The blink of an eye. My family had been here for 800 years. Guess who is gone? Guess who is back? This time to stay. The land is my past, present, and future -- it holds the graves of my ancestors and will be my daughters' inheritance."

The von Maltzahns have poured blood, sweat, and more than $4 million into restoring the gutted castle into a 30-room hotel. A main barn on the property, meanwhile, has been transformed into a classical music hall that hosts 25 summer concerts, part of an ambitious festival that already attracts tens of thousands of tourists to the area.

"It's becoming the Tanglewood of Germany," said the baron, referring to the music center in the Berkshires. The privileges and perquisites of Germany's noble class were abolished in 1919 with the birth of the Weimar Republic, which replaced the kaiser and the country's disgraced imperial system. But the old families were allowed to keep their properties and titles and to bequeath both to their offspring.

The republic gave way to the Nazis in 1933. Hitler mistrusted the conservative aristocrats, and for good reason. Although most served his war machine as soldiers and industrialists, many quietly despised the "little corporal" from Austria. The July 20, 944, bomb attempt that almost killed the Fü hrer was largely orchestrated by military officers of noble blood.

After World War II, the communists seized aristocratic estates in the east. Nobles who failed to escape were often killed or imprisoned by the Soviets. Their land became property of the state under the communist system. In West Germany, the gentry faded into the woodwork, socially irrelevant in a relentlessly egalitarian democracy. A few clung to vast family fortunes. But most ended up with humdrum day jobs. Today, European royalty watchers estimate, some 70,000 Germans hold inherited titles. They tend to marry one another, tend to socialize with one another, and gravitate to careers in military service or the diplomatic corps, in keeping with Prussian tradition.

"German nobles are very low-profile, not keen on publicity," said Rolf Seelmann-Eggebert, a journalist and authority on Europe's aristocracy. "The ones in the east lost everything. The ones in the west became rather ordinary -- businessmen, lawyers, or foreign service officers. Only a few still take their titles seriously and remember what it means to be noble: The duty to set an example, the duty to lead."

Under Germany's reunification law, owners who lost large holdings to the Soviet occupiers from 1945 to 1949 have no legal right to their properties, although the government will help negotiate the repurchase of lost lands. Baron von dem Knesebeck, raised in West Germany, had never so much as set foot in the east before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But he grew up with old photos and tales of what was lost. "I always knew that this place called Karwe was the family home and that I was supposed to be its baron," he said as he guided a visitor past the burial slab of an ancestor. "But it seemed distant and not quite real."

Until Easter 1990, when he accompanied his aging father on a visit. "I realized that this was the air I'd been meant to breathe all my life," he said. "The village was desolate, impoverished. I felt the desire to return, of course, but also a duty. My family has a special obligation to Karwe." There was tension at first. Some villagers occupy homes on "redistributed" plots seized from the von dem Knesebecks. The family pledged that it would not mount legal efforts to regain such property, as locals had feared.

Thanks, in part, to von dem Knesebeck's investment and leadership, Karwe these days has a spiff and sparkle lacking in most parts of eastern Germany. A new restaurant offers traditional cookery. The village's 14th-century church (adorned with the von dem Knesebeck coat of arms) has been lovingly restored. Von dem Knesebeck's wife, Baroness Annegret, served a recent term as mayor. The family regarded the vote as a singular honor. "It shows we are accepted, that we have regained a place in the life of the place we love," said von dem Knesebeck. "It shows the strength of tradition."

Petra Krischok of the Globe's Berlin bureau contributed to this report. http://cache.boston.com/bonzai-fba/File-Based_Image_Resource/dingbat_story_end_icon.gif

Source: http://www.boston.com/news/world/europe/articles/2006/11/13/returning_german_aristocrats_reinvigorat e_heritage/