German nobility

The German nobility (German: deutscher Adel) was a class of persons who, until 1919, enjoyed certain privileges relative to other people under the laws and customs of various parts of what is now Germany. Governments which recognized or conferred nobility included the Holy Roman Empire (962–1806), the German Confederation (1814–1866) and the German Empire (1871–1918). All legal privileges and immunities of the nobility (appertaining to an individual, a family or any heirs) and were officially abolished in 1919 by the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), and nobility is no longer conferred or recognized by the Federal Republic of Germany. Former hereditary titles are permitted as part of the surname (e.g., the aristocratic particles von and zu). The nobility system of the German Empire was similar to nobility in the Austrian Empire, both having risen from the Holy Roman Empire and both ending in 1919, but Austria under the new First Austrian Republic completely abolished the Austrian nobility and banned the subsequent use of hereditary titles in any form, even of their legal recognition as aristocratic particles, and use as part of an individual's; or families' surname.


In Germany, nobility and titles pertaining to it were recognised or bestowed upon individuals by emperors, kings and rulers of lesser rank, and were then inherited by the legitimate, male-line descendants of the ennobled person. In cases where families had been deemed noble as far back as historical records could document (i.e., the Uradel), their nobility (generally pre-dating A.D. 1400) was usually eventually recognised by a sovereign, confirming their entitlement to whatever legal privileges nobles enjoyed in that sovereign's realm. Noble rank was usually granted to men by letters patent, whereas women were members of the nobility by descent or (sometimes) by marriage to a nobleman. Nobility was inherited equally by all legitimate descendants in the male line.

Most German titles of nobility were also inherited by all male-line descendants, although some descended by male primogeniture, especially in 19th and 20th century Prussia (e.g., Otto von Bismarck, although born a baronial Junker (not a title) and elevated twice, first to the hereditary title of count (Graf), and then to thein this case only personaltitle of prince (Fürst) in 1871, his children and future cadets of his family were counts). Upon promulgation of the Weimar Constitution on 11 August 1919, all Germans were declared equal before the law.[1] On 18 March 1919 the Landtag of the Free State of Bavaria enacted the Gesetz über die Aufhebung des Adels ("Act on the Abolition of the Nobility"), which eliminated (not nobility as a class or individual attribute per se, but) all noble privileges, and henceforth forbade Bavarians from accepting foreign ennoblement. Other German states enacted equivalent legislation.

The Bavarian constitution of 1998 also bans the transfer, by way of adoption, of surnames containing formally noble attributes (§ 118, section 3). This caused an exceptional practice regarding surnames borne by former members of the nobility: whereas the gender differentiation in German surnames, widespread until the 18th centurycolloquially retained in some German dialects, was abolished in Germany with the introduction of officially registered invariable surnames by the late 19th century, former noble titles transformed into parts of the surname in 1919 continue to appear in female and male forms.[2]

Altogether abolished were titles borne exclusively by German monarchs, such as emperor/empress, king/queen, grand duke/grand duchess, etc. However, former titles shared and inherited by all members of the family were retained but incorporated into the surname. For instance, members of the former royal families of Prussia and Bavaria were allowed use of Prinz/Prinzessin;[3] or Herzog/Herzogin. In the cases of the former kings/queens of Saxony and Württemberg, the ducal title borne by non-ruling cadets of their dynasties before 1919, or Herzog/Herzogin for the six deposed grand dukes (i.e., the former rulers of Baden, Hesse, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Oldenburg, and Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach) and their consorts were retained.

Any dynast who did not reign prior to 1918 but had held a specific title as heir to one of Germany's former thrones (e.g., Erbprinz ("hereditary prince"))along with any heir to a title of nobility inherited via primogeniture, and their wiveswere permitted to incorporate those titles into elements of the personal surname. However, these titles became extinct upon their deaths, not being heritable.[4] With the demise of all persons styled "crown prince" before 1918, the term Kronprinz no longer exists as a legal surname element. Traditional titles exclusively used for unmarried noblewomen, such as Baronesse, Freiin and Freifräulein, were also transformed into parts of the legal surname, subject to change at marriage or upon request.[5]

All other former titles and nobiliary particles are now inherited as part of the surname, and remain protected as private names under the laws. Whereas the title previously prefixed the given and surname (e.g., Graf Kasimir von der Recke), the legal usage moves the former title to the surname (i.e., Kasimir Graf von der Recke). However, the pre-1919 style sometimes continues in colloquial usage. In Austria, by contrast, not only were the privileges of the nobility abolished, but their titles and nobiliary particles as well.[6]

Some states within the Holy Roman Empire had strict laws concerning proper conduct, employment, or marriage of individual nobles. Failure to comply with these laws could result in temporary or permanent Adelsverlust ("loss of the status of nobility"). Until about the early 19th century, for example, it was commonly forbidden for nobles, theoretically on pain of Adelsverlust, to marry persons "of low birth"i.e., commoners. Moreover, nobles employed in menial labour could, theoretically, lose their noble rank, as could nobles convicted of capital crimes. Adelsverlust only concerned the individual who was in violation of noble laws of conduct, meaning that their kin, spouse and living children were generally not affected.

Various organisations perpetuate the historical legacy of the former nobility, documenting genealogy, chronicling the history of noble families and sometimes declining to acknowledge persons who acquired noble surnames in ways impossible before 1919.

Nobiliary particles

Most, but not all, surnames of the German nobility were preceded by or contained the preposition von (meaning "of") or zu (meaning "at") as a nobiliary particle.[7] The two were occasionally combined into von und zu (meaning "of and at").[7] In general, the von form indicates the family's place of origin, while the zu form indicates the family's continued possession of the estate from which the surname is drawn. Therefore, von und zu indicates a family which is both named for and continues to own their original feudal holding or residence. However, the zu particle can also hint to the split of a dynasty, as providing information on the adopted new home of one split-off branch: For instance, a senior branch owning and maybe even still residing at the place of the dynasty's origin might have been called of A-Town [{and at} A-Town] furthermore, while a new, junior branch could then have adopted the style of, say, of A-town [and] at B-ville, sometimes even dropping [and] at, simply hyphenating the names of the two places. Other forms also exist as combinations with the definite article: e.g. "von der" or von dem → "vom" ("of the"), zu der → "zur" or zu dem → "zum" ("of the", "in the", "at the").[8] Particularly between the late 18th and early 20th century when an increasing number of unlanded commoners were ennobled, the "von" was typically simply put in front of a person's surname. When a person by the common occupational surname of "Meyer" received nobility, they would thus simply become "von Meyer".

When sorting nobleas well as non-noblenames in alphabetic sequence, any prepositions or (former) title are ignored.[9] Name elements which have developed from honorary functions, such as Schenk (short for Mundschenk, i.e., "cup-bearer"), are also overlooked.[10] Nobiliary particles are not capitalised unless they begin a sentence, and then they are usually skipped,[11] unless this creates confusion. In this, the German language practice differs from Dutch in the Netherlands, where the particle van is usually capitalised when mentioned without preceding given names or initials, or from Dutch in Belgium, where the name particle Van is always capitalised.


A family whose nobility dates back to at least the 14th century may be called Uradel, or Alter Adel ("ancient nobility",[12] or "old nobility"). This contrasts with Briefadel ("patent nobility"): nobility granted by letters patent. The first known such document is from September 30, 1360, for Wyker Frosch in Mainz.[13]


Hochadel ("upper nobility", or "high nobility") were those noble houses which ruled sovereign states within the Holy Roman Empire and later, in the German Confederation and the German Empire. They were royalty; the heads of these families were entitled to be addressed by some form of "Majesty" or "Highness". These were the families of kings (Bavaria, Hanover, Prussia, Saxony, and Württemberg), grand dukes (Baden, Hesse and by Rhine, Luxembourg, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Oldenburg and Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach), reigning dukes (Anhalt, Brunswick, Schleswig-Holstein, Nassau, Saxe-Altenburg, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Saxe-Meiningen), and reigning princes (Hohenzollern-Hechingen, Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Liechtenstein, Lippe, Reuss, Schaumburg-Lippe, Schwarzburg, and Waldeck-Pyrmont).

The Hochadel also included the Empire's formerly quasi-sovereign families whose domains had been mediatised within the German Confederation by 1815, yet preserved the legal right to continue royal intermarriage with still-reigning dynasties (Ebenbürtigkeit). These quasi-sovereign families comprised mostly princely and comital families, but included a few dukes also of Belgian and Dutch origin (Arenberg, Croÿ, Looz-Corswarem). Information on these families constituted the second section of Justus Perthes’ entries on reigning, princely, and ducal families in the Almanach de Gotha.

During the unification of Germany from 1866 to 1871, the states of Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Hohenzollern-Hechingen, Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Schleswig-Holstein and Nassau were absorbed into Prussia. The former ruling houses of these states were still considered Hochadel under laws adopted by the German Empire.

In addition, the ruling families of Hohenzollern-Hechingen and Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen were accorded the dynastic rights of a cadet branch of the Royal House of Prussia after yielding sovereignty to their royal kinsmen. The exiled heirs to Hanover and Nassau eventually regained sovereignty by being allowed to inherit, respectively, the crowns of Brunswick (1914) and Luxembourg (1890).

Niederer Adel

Nobility that held legal privileges until 1918 greater than those enjoyed by commoners, but less than those enjoyed by the Hochadel, were considered part of the lower nobility or Niederer Adel. Most were untitled, only making use of the particle von in their surnames. Higher-ranking noble families of the Niederer Adel bore such hereditary titles as Ritter (knight), Freiherr (or baron) and Graf. Although most German counts belonged officially to the lower nobility, those who were mediatised belonged to the Hochadel, the heads of their families being entitled to be addressed as Erlaucht ("Illustrious Highness"), rather than simply as Hochgeboren ("High-born"). There were also some German noble families, especially in Austria, Prussia and Bavaria, whose head bore the titles of Fürst (prince) or Herzog (duke); however, never having exercised a degree of sovereignty, they were accounted members of the lower nobility (e.g., Bismarck, Blücher, Pless, Wrede).

Titles and ranks

Reigning titles

The titles of elector, grand duke, archduke, duke, landgrave, margrave, count palatine, prince and Reichsgraf were borne by rulers who belonged to Germany's Hochadel. Other counts, as well as barons (Freiherren), lords (Herren), knights (Ritter)[14] were borne by noble, non-reigning families. The vast majority of the German nobility, however, inherited no titles, and were usually distinguishable only by the nobiliary particle von in their surnames.

Titles and territories
Title (English) Title (German) Territory (English) Territory (German)
Emperor/Empress Kaiser(in) Empire Kaiserreich, Kaisertum
King/Queen König(in) Kingdom Königreich
Prince-elector/Electress Kurfürst(in) Electorate Kurfürstentum
Archduke/Archduchess Erzherzog(in) Archduchy Erzherzogtum
Grand Duke/Grand Duchess Großherzog(in) Grand Duchy Großherzogtum
Grand Prince(ss) Großfürst(in) Grand Principality Großfürstentum
Duke/Duchess Herzog(in) Duchy Herzogtum
Count(ess) Palatine Pfalzgraf/Pfalzgräfin County Palatine, Palatinate Pfalzgrafschaft
Margrave/Margravine Markgraf/Markgräfin Margraviate, March Markgrafschaft
Landgrave/Landgravine Landgraf/Landgräfin Landgraviate Landgrafschaft
Prince(ss) of the Empire Reichsfürst(in)1 Principality Fürstentum
Count(ess) of the Empire Reichsgraf1/Reichsgräfin County Grafschaft
Burgrave/Burgravine Burggraf/Burggräfin Burgraviate Burggrafschaft
Altgrave/Altgravine Altgraf/Altgräfin Altgraviate Altgrafschaft
Baron(ess) of the Empire Reichsfreiherr1/Reichsfreifrau/Reichsfreiin2 (Allodial) Barony Freiherrschaft
Lord Herr Lordship Herrschaft
Imperial Knight Reichsritter1
^1 The prefix Reichs- indicates a title granted by a past Holy Roman Emperor; these titles conferred higher precedence than that associated with other titles of the same nominal rank.
^2 Freiin indicates a baroness by birth.

Non-reigning titles

Titles for junior members of sovereign families and for non-sovereign families
Title (English) Title (German)
Crown Prince(ss) Kronprinz(essin)
Electoral Prince Kurprinz(essin)
Archduke/Archduchess Erzherzog(in)
Grand Duke/Grand Duchess Großherzog(in)
Grand Prince(ss) Großfürst(in)
Duke/Duchess Herzog(in)
Prince/Princess (royal) Prinz(essin)
Prince/Princess (noble) Fürst(in)
Margrave/Margravine Markgraf/Markgräfin
Landgrave/Landgravine Landgraf/Landgräfin
Count(ess) Palatine Pfalzgraf/Pfalzgräfin
Burgrave/Burgravine Burggraf/Burggräfin
Altgrave/Altgravine Altgraf/Altgräfin
Imperial Count(ess) Reichsgraf/Reichsgräfin
Imperial Baron(ess) Reichsfreiherr/Reichsfreifrau/Reichsfreiin
Count(ess) Graf/Gräfin
Baron(ess) Freiherr/Freifrau/Freiin
Lord / Noble Lord Herr /Edler Herr
Knight Ritter
Noble Edler/Edle
Young Lord (grouped with untitled nobles) Junker

The heirs to sovereigns or to headship of mediatised families prefixed their title with Erb-, meaning "hereditary". For instance, the heir to a grand duke is titled Erbgroßherzog, meaning "hereditary grand duke". A sovereign duke's heir was titled Erbprinz ("hereditary prince"), and a prince's (Fürst) heir might be titled Erbprinz or Erbgraf ("hereditary count"). The prefix distinguished the heir from similarly-titled junior siblings and cadets. The heirs to emperors and kings were titled Kronprinz ("crown prince"), while the heirs to prince-electors were titled Kurprinz ("electoral prince").

See also


  1. Article 109 of the Weimar Constitution constitutes: Adelsbezeichnungen gelten nur als Teil des Namens und dürfen nicht mehr verliehen werden ("Noble names are only recognised as part of the surname and may no longer be granted").
  2. This practice was confirmed in a judgement by the Reichsgericht on 10 March 1926 (published: Reichsgesetzblatt (Reich's law gazette), No. 113 (1926), pp. 107seqq., cf. also Sebastian-Johannes von Spoenla-Metternich, Namenserwerb, Namensführung und Namensänderung unter Berücksichtigung von Namensbestandteilen, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1997, (=simultaneously: Wilhelmshaven, Fachhochsch., Diploma thesis), p. 137. ISBN 3-631-31779-4
  3. In the Free State of Prussia the Gesetz über die Aufhebung der Standesvorrechte des Adels und die Auflösung der Hausvermögen ("Act on the abolition of the privileges of rank of the nobility and the dissolution of dynastic estates") of 23 June 1920 stipulated this in § 22 (cf. Gesetzsammlung für Preußen {Statute for Prussia}, No. 32 (1920), 22 July 1920, pp. 367–382).
  4. Several heirs filed suits against this regulation, but on 11 March 1966 the supreme Federal Administrative Court of Germany ruled, based on Art. 109 of the Weimar Constitution and an earlier decision of the Reichsgericht, that German law on names does not recognise hereditary surname variants for heads of families distinct from the legal surname borne by other family members. (cf., N.N. Primogenitur – Nur eine Silbe (German) ("primogeniture – only a syllable"), in: Der Spiegel, No. 15 (1966), p. 61.
  5. Das Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Rechtsprechung des Reichsgerichts und des Bundesgerichtshofes; Kommentare (=Großkommentare der Praxis (German); "Civil Law Code with Special Attention to Jurisdiction of the Reichsgericht and the Bundesgerichtshof: Commentaries"), edited by members of the Bundesgerichthof, vol. 1: §§ 1–240, compiled by Kurt Herbert Johannsen, 12th, newly revised edition, Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1982, § 12 (p. 54). ISBN 3-11-008973-4.
  6. Thus, for example, Friedrich von Hayek became Friedrich Hayek in 1919 when Austria abolished all indicators of nobility in family names.
  7. 1 2 For example: Johannes Adam Ferdinand Alois Josef Maria Marco d'Aviano Pius von und zu Liechtenstein.
  8. However, the prepositions vom, von, zum, zur can also form part of non-noble family names.
  9. Cf. DIN standard # 5007, part 2.
  10. Thus, Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg is listed as: Stauffenberg, Claus Schenk Graf von.
  11. Humboldt said ..., rather than: Von Humboldt said ...
  12. Godsey 2004, p. 58.
  13. DFG Regesta Imperii, 1360, Moguntie: Karl IV. (HRR) erhebt den Wiker Frosch ... in Mainz ... in den adelsstand.
  14. In German, the meaning of Ritter is "rider", and likewise for the Dutch and Scandinavian title ridder. These words are cognates derived from Germanic rīdan, "to ride", from Proto-Indo-European reidh-. See reidh- from American Heritage Dictionary's Index of Indo-European Roots.
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