German nobility

German nobility

The German nobility (Adel) was the elite hereditary ruling class or aristocratic class in the Holy Roman Empire and what is now Germany.

In Germany, all legitimate children of a nobleman became nobles themselves, and most titles passed onto all the children with few exceptions. All the children of sovereigns did not, of course, become kings or electors, but did become princes or princesses, dukes or duchesses, etc.

The German nobility as a legally defined class was abolished on August 11 1919 with the Weimar constitution, when all Germans were made equal before the law, and any legal rights or privileges due to nobility ceased to exist.

The German nobility continues to play an important role in the various European nations that have not abolished the nobility. Most of the European royal families are descendants of the German nobility.

Most, but not all, surnames of the German nobility were preceded by or at least contained the preposition von, meaning of, and sometimes by zu, which usually is translated as of when used alone or as in, at, or to. The two were occasionally combined into von und zu, meaning of and in approximately. Other forms exist as well: von der (of the), vom (of the), zur (of the, in the, etc) and zum (of the, in the).

Like nobles elsewhere, German nobles were acutely aware and proud of their superior social position, and often had disdain for commoners. As shown in Theodor Fontane's novel Effi Briest, they referred to one another as Geborene, or "ones who have been born", while commoners were called Geworfene, corresponding roughly to "whelped", "calved", or "foaled" in English, and properly referring only to non-human birth.

German noble families almost always bore Coat of arms.

Divisions of nobility

  • Uradel (ancient Nobility): Nobility that dates back to at least the 1500s, and originates from leadership positions during the Migration Period.
  • Briefadel (patent nobility): Nobility by patent. The first known document is from September 30 1360 for Wyker Frosch in Mainz.
  • Hochadel (high nobility): Nobility that was sovereign or had a high degree of sovereignty.
  • Niederer Adel (lower nobility): Nobility that had a lower degree of sovereignty.

Titles and ranks

Reigning titles

These titles were at one time used by various rulers. The titles Archduke, Duke, Prince, Margrave (and all other -graves), Count, Count Palatine and Lord were also used by non-sovereign members some of these families or by noble non-reigning families.

Titles and territories
Title (English) Title (German) Territory (English) Territory (German)
Emperor/Empress Kaiser(in) Empire, Emperordom Kaiserreich, Kaisertum
King/Queen König(in) Kingdom Königreich
Grand Duke/Grand Duchess Großherzog(in) Grand Duchy Großherzogtum
Elector/Electress Kurfürst(in) Electorate Kurfürstentum
Archduke/Archduchess Erzherzog(in) Archduchy Erzherzogtum
Duke/Duchess Herzog(in) Duchy Herzogtum
Prince(ss) Fürst(in) Principality Fürstentum
Margrave/Margravine Markgraf/Markgräfin Margraviate, March Markgrafschaft
Landgrave/Landgravine Landgraf/Landgräfin Landgraviate Landgrafschaft
Count(ess) of the Empire Reichsgraf/Reichsgräfin County Grafschaft
Count(ess) Palatine Pfalzgraf/Pfalzgräfin County Palatine Pfalzgrafschaft
Burgrave/Burgravine Burggraf/Burggräfin Burgraviate Burggrafschaft
Altgrave/Altgravine Altgraf/Altgräfin Altgraviate Altgrafschaft
Count(ess) Graf/Gräfin County Grafschaft
Baron(ess) Freiherr/Freifrau/Freiin County Herrschaft

Non-reigning titles

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

The heirs to some nobles or sovereigns had special titles of their own prefixed by Erb-, meaning Hereditary. For instance, the heir to a Grand Duke is titled Erbgroßherzog, meaning Hereditary Grand Duke. A sovereign duke's heir might be titled Erbherzog or Erbprinz (Hereditary Duke, Hereditary Prince) and a prince's heir might be titled Erbprinz or Erbgraf (Hereditary Prince, Hereditary Count), also Erbherr.

See also


External links

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