When it is used as a part of a German family name, it can indicate a member of the nobility, like the French, and Portuguese "de". At certain times and places, it has been illegal for anyone who was not a member of the nobility to use von before their family name. However, in the Middle Ages the "von" particle was still a common part of names and was widely used also by commoners, e.g. "Hans von Duisburg" meant Hans from [the city of] Duisburg. (The Dutch "Van", which is a cognate of "Von" but does not necessarily indicate nobility, can be said to have preserved this earlier meaning).
The abolition of the monarchies in Germany and Austria in 1919 meant that neither state had a privileged nobility, and both had exclusively republican governments. In Germany, this meant that in principle von simply became an ordinary part of the names of the people who used it. There were no longer any legal privileges or constraints associated with this naming convention, although in practice, many people with von in their names are still listed in telephone books and other files under the rest of their name. (e.g. Ludwig von Mises would be under M in the phone book rather than V). In Austria, in contrast, not only were the privileges of the nobility abolished, their titles and prepositions were abolished as well. Thus, for example, Friedrich von Hayek became Friedrich Hayek in 1919 when Austria abolished all indicators of nobility in family names. On this issue, also see Austrian nobility.
In the Nordic countries, von is common but not universal in the names of noble families of German origin and has occasionally been used as a part of names of ennobled families of native or foreign, but non-German, extraction, as with the family of the philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, which is of Scottish origin.
Not all members of families whose names begin with "von" are holders of a title of some kind, regardless of whether their parents are living or dead—while it can be said that almost all German nobles use von not all users of von are noble. (Some very old noble families, usually members of the Uradel, do not use von but are nevertheless still noble.) Also, a very few German families were elevated to the nobility without the use of the preposition von. Ancient families distinguish themselves from newly ennobled ones by abbreviating von to v. This is also the traditional practice of nobles in North Germany.
Outside the literary world, Lars von Trier, Kat Von D, Diane von Fürstenberg, Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg and Dita von Teese did the same, neither "von" being bestowed in a correct manner.