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

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.

Once in power, the Nazis worked hard to attract the most compliant and enthusiastic elements of German high society. Of the 316 lunch guests at Göring’s wedding to the actress Emmy Sonneman in April 1935, for example, around 20 per cent were connected with noble families (the average for the population as a whole was about 1.5 per cent, not 0.2 per cent as the author claims). The key figures in the Nazi leadership vied to throw the biggest and most extravagant parties. During the 1936 Olympic Games, Ribbentrop held a party for more than seven hundred guests at his villa in Dahlem; Göring invited more than two thousand to a garden party at the Aviation Ministry; and Goebbels trumped them all with a lavish evening on Peacock Island on the River Havel, to which guests were ferried in motorboats manned by crews in immaculate livery.

The Nazi high society that began to take shape at these events included celebrities from the worlds of film, music, art, the theatre, politics and sport. The regime associated itself with the most prestigious spectator sports, especially those involving planes, horses and fast cars. Hitler was present, along with 300,000 other spectators, at the Grosser Preis von Deutschland on the Nürburgring in 1935, when Manfred von Brauchitsch pulled into the lead in a W25 Mercedes Benz ahead of Tazio Nuvolari’s ponderous Alfa Romeo. (Manfred von Brauchitsch was not, as d’Almeida claims, the chief of the Wehrmacht’s general staff: it was his uncle Walther who held a senior military post, not as CGS, but as commander of the First Division and later supreme commander.) Hitler shared the bitter disppointment of the German crowd when a rear tyre of the Mercedes burst only five miles from the finish and Nuvolari stormed past to take the prize. (So certain had the organisers been of a German victory that they had no recording of the Italian national anthem to play over the loudspeakers; happily, Nuvolari was able to lend them his own record of the ‘Marcia Reale’, which he carried as a good-luck charm.)

Horse-racing was especially favoured because of its use of selective breeding. Göring transformed the Berlin Grand Prix into the hugely hyped Grand Prix of the Capital of the Third Reich. The winner received 100,000 marks, the largest prize ever awarded at a racecourse, and the event was supported by a press campaign co-ordinated by Goebbels and his Propaganda Ministry. In March 1938, Hitler himself created a new grand prix, the Union Klub Prize of Honour, worth 40,000 marks and endowed with enough capital to last a century. At these glittering events the socialites of the Third Reich showed off their outfits and displayed their success before the cameras of the international press.

In the process of linking arms with the elites of birth, wealth and sporting accomplishment, the new leaders reinvented themselves as a privileged caste, defined by conspicuous luxury. Göring owned houses in Berlin, Munich and the Obersalzberg, as well as a sprawling country house called Karinhall, which was done up like an oversized hunting-lodge. Bormann and Speer also had extensive properties and Ribbentrop owned a large number of mansions, urban apartment buildings and country estates. Virtually all the big men in the party acquired substantial art collections. Göring had his art agents hunt down paintings all over Europe. There were several hundred pieces in his gallery at Karinhall, including works by Dürer, Cranach, Fragonard and Boucher. By the end of the war, he had collected 1375 paintings, 250 sculptures and 168 tapestries. Hitler, too, surrounded himself with paintings in all of his residences – including Cranachs, Dürers and Holbeins. The occupation of France enabled Ribbentrop to snap up paintings by Utrillo, Monet, Degas, Bonnard and Braque at bargain-basement prices. Even the relatively modest Himmler collected Etruscan bronzes and acquired a Brueghel masterpiece.

Ruling elites, of course, have often sought to distinguish themselves by the acquisition of prestigious cultural objects. But these collections had a political as well as a cultural function. This was the glitzy upside to the troglodytic philistinism that underlay the denigration and blacklisting of ‘degenerate art’. Art collections projected the cultural pretensions of the regime; all the Nazi leaders used them as propagandistic resources, inviting journalists and photographers whenever they made acquisitions or official donations. Collecting art, d’Almeida suggests, was ‘a public activity that was part of the courtly behaviour and sociability of the regime’.

Above all, putting together and displaying such immense piles of loot demonstrated the personalisation of power that transformed German politics after 1933. In one of the most interesting passages of the book, d’Almeida examines the giving of gifts and the dispensing of favours by Nazi bigwigs. A customised policy of tax rebates was devised for the performing arts; the beneficiaries included the screen actor Hans Albers and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, but also many less prominent figures from provincial centres. Cultural administrators and the artists themselves were left in no doubt that these were individual settlements, through which each beneficiary entered into a personal relationship with the holders of power. This had little to do with formal party membership; it was a variety of clientelism that transcended the party and its ideological support base. The same mechanisms were at work in the German army, where Hitler used huge gifts of cash and real estate to co-opt senior officers. Many of those commanders (Manstein, Rundstedt, von Kluge and Guderian come to mind) who later claimed that they had been restrained from joining the resistance by moral compunctions about their oath of loyalty omitted to mention that they had also been bribed with large, secret monetary gifts from Hitler.

D’Almeida is interested not only in the co-option of elites outside the party, but also in the forms of gift exchange that helped to cement the internal structure of the party and its organs. Hitler was constantly giving presents: vases, tea sets, sweets, lamps, books, cigars, his own watercolours. In 1935, Goebbels got a stereophonic record player (at that time the acme of German sound technology) and Göring received a painting by Adolf Ziegler, lampooned as the Reich Painter of Pubic Hair for his ghastly depictions of eugenic nudes. Himmler, too, became an assiduous trafficker in gifts. His office kept a file on 80 senior members of the SS whose birthday and Christmas presents were all meticulously logged. On Christmas Day 1933, Obergruppenführer Prützmann received a portrait of Himmler: one can only imagine the expressions of pleasure on his family’s faces as the countenance of the Reichsführer-SS emerged from the wrapping paper. Like the princes of an earlier era, Nazi leaders dispensed hunting privileges to favoured subordinates. Göring, whose many titles included Reich Master of the Hunt, stalked stags with groups of dignitaries, and a hunting party led by Himmler went on a killing spree at Joachimshof in the autumn of 1938, shooting rabbits, hares, foxes, buzzards, deer, birds of prey and anything else they could set their sights on – miraculously, the beaters escaped unharmed.

Excluded from this dolce vita, of course, were the Jews of Weimar high society. D’Almeida writes about the millionaires’ colony on Schwanenwerder, an island in the River Havel favoured by the wealthiest Jewish families. Israels, Karstadts, Schlitters, Goldschmidts, Salomonsohns, Sobernheims and Monheims all built or bought villas in this charming spot. Schwanenwerder was the most expensive street in the interwar German version of Monopoly. After the elections of March 1933, the island was invaded by SA men from nearby Zehlendorf and a Nazi flag hoisted over the water tower. In the year or so that followed, Jewish families were forced to sell up and move out. Into their houses came the Nazis. Goebbels bought the villa owned by the banker Schlitter for a very modest sum; the Salomonsohns’ villa was purchased by the Reich Chancellery and reserved for Hitler’s use; Albert Speer snapped up Baroness Goldschmidt-Rothschild’s house in 1939 for only 150,000 marks and sold it at a huge profit only three years later. Nothing could better illustrate the intimate link between the hedonism of the new elite and the logic of theft, expropriation and exclusion that was central to the regime’s character.

D’Almeida’s study is really a collection of essays rather than a coherent analytical enterprise. The book never arrives at a definition of the ‘high society’ of its title, nor does it situate the activities of the regime within longer-term processes of social and cultural change. The bibliography is patchy and the relationship between political power-holders and their high society partners and collaborators is handled asymmetrically, from the viewpoint of the regime alone. But the best chapters fizz with arresting insights and brilliant observations, many of them generated by the clever idea of studying the upper echelons of the regime as an anthropological system. D’Almeida has mined some very recondite archival deposits to illuminating and sometimes comic effect. Not many scholars have trawled through the voluminous files of ‘Greetings and Good Wishes’ stored at Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde under classmark R61. This book reveals, among other things, the crucial importance of networks that connected the party with people who possessed various forms of authority or influence, but were not directly affiliated with National Socialism. These networks – in society, sport, the arts, and public life in general – made an important contribution towards stabilising, domesticating and normalising a regime whose ideological substance and political morality were in many respects exotic to mainstream Germany. Winning them over was an enterprise in which Hitler and his coterie of chieftains invested much effort and imagination. It may have been one of the cleverest things they did.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences