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Eugen Richter on the German Nobility (1898)

Eugen Richter (1838-1906), a liberal intellectual, writer, and politician, criticizes the advantages of noble titles in German society. He explores the origins of noblemen and questions their contributions to nineteenth-century Germany. Even in the opening decades of the twentieth century, nobles enjoyed special privileges and status. Many government positions were closed to those without a title, although, as Richter makes clear, anyone with the necessary financial means could certainly acquire one. There has been an active debate by historians over the extent to which Germany’s upwardly mobile middle classes were assimilated into the culture of nobility, with its retrograde attitudes and practices.

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Nobility. [p. 8] Nobody is responsible for his name, and no one has the right to infer from an old noble name that its bearer is arrogant and has a domineering personality. By the same token, it is equally unacceptable that any claim to social privilege be derived from a noble name. Should it prove possible, in this day and age, for aristocratic rule to re-emerge temporarily and to seek to assert itself, the blame would fall squarely on the diffidence of bourgeois circles, society’s spinelessness, a servile mentality, and thoughtlessness.

Our polity would be in a pitiful state if noble sentiment and the willingness to sacrifice were present most splendidly only in a number of families of noble name. Virtues are sometimes inherited, but so are vices. That applies to noble families as much as to common ones. Quite often, however, inherited vices are joined by individual, personal ones, especially in those who believe they can insist on the accomplishments and qualities of their ancestors. The temptation to do this is all the stronger if the polity or social attitudes grant any kind of privilege to those who bear an old noble name. Often such a name does not even demonstrate a service to the community by the ancestors, let alone by the current bearers of the name. Indeed, noble names of today are found in centuries past on the list of professional highwaymen and robbers. With many we do not know to this day how they acquired a noble name in the first place. Noble names are always handed down without restriction. Some names of the high nobility are found in such numbers that they are never absent from lists with thousands of names, even if they are merely ranking lists or registers of criminals.

Any preferential treatment on account of a noble name is a slight to those whose worth resides in their own person. The community will decline and decay to the same degree that such preferential treatment is generalized. In the years 1806 and 1807, the Prussian state, which rested chiefly on generals of the nobility, collapsed pitifully. The Prussian generals who ignominiously handed the Prussian strongholds over to the French were without exception from the nobility, some from old noble families, while the bourgeois Nettelbeck bravely defended his Kolberg until peace was concluded. The heroes of the Wars of Liberation were also for the most part of simple bourgeois background. Prince Bismarck and Field Marshall Moltke would likewise fail a test of their ancestry, since the mother of each man was a commoner.

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