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German and English Nobility Compared

Not only in its character, but in its very composition, the German aristocracy showed a marked contrast to that of England. In England many of the most eloquent panegyrists of aristocracy were to be found outside its own charmed circle ; in Germany it would have been difficult to find many sympathizers with the nobility among the middle classes or among the masses. And the explanation was not to be sought only in the difference of the two aristocracies themselves. Differences of evolution, of tradition, and of influence accounted for this and many other peculiarities of the German aristocracy. The English aristocracy still had a large following in the country, while in Germany the nobility had next to none. Weighty causes must be found to account for this, quite independent of any amount of servility in the English character, or any want of that amiable compound in the German ; both nations, to start with, may have little to reproach themselves with on that score.

The German aristocracy, notwithstanding its many strong points, was not only guilty of great class class selfishness - like privileged classes in other countries - but it was the victim of its own short-sighted and narrow class feeling. In England a far-sighted policy of sacrifice strengthened the power for good and for evil of an aristocratic caste. In Germany the anxiety of each to retain its shadowy advantages resulted in the loss of what was most valuable to retain, and in the retention of much which, though of small value, contributed not a little to reap for its holders that lack of sympathy of which the German aristocracy was the object in its own country.

In olden times a title meant more than a mere empty attribute of privileged birth ; it meant a position of power, either personal or inherited. Not so many centuries ago even the offspring of royal blood in England - not to mention the sons of the nobility - were commoners. Royalty adopted the fiction that every son of a king was born a prince. The main difference between the aristocracy of England and that of Germany was to be found in the fact that the German aristocracy slavishly adopted the example of royalty, whereas the English aristocracy held to the original idea that a title must represent power.

Primogeniture was the key-note of English aristocratic power ; the title is reserved to the eldest son, who inherited the bulk of the property. Thus an English title usually means a large landowner. A German title meant in most cases nothing more than an amiable descendant of one of many who once, perhaps, owned land and power. The English aristocracy lived on its estates in the country, and there formed centers of social and political life. The small percentage of the German aristocracy which lived in the country, even if rich, usually led a life of economy, solitude, and intellectual stagnation. It wielded neither great social nor political influence.

Not only in the transmission of titles had the Germans copied the example of royalty, but in other points intermarriage, of scarcely minor importance. The royal customs - even laws - of intermarrying only with equals, which were originally designed for political purposes only, found servile followers among the German aristocracy, without any excuse or pretense of policy. The consequences of such action have shown themselves to be disastrous in more senses than one. They resulted in the gradual erection of a barrier which may be said to have divided the aristocracy of birth from the aristocracy of intellect and the middle classes more than they were so divided in any other European country.

The Germans proved themselves essentially pedantic and doctrinaire in the constitution of their aristocracy. It was an unduly extended and yet a closed oligarchy with a weak action of the heart. In England the aristocracy was constantly strengthened by the admission of new blood. Not only that, but the younger branches of a great house pass un-titled and unnoticed back into the commonalty, and carried with them into the middle classes their sympathies for their powerful relations. The German system had the precisely opposite effect. Each scion of a noble family inherits the title, the social status, and the obligation to marry according to his station {standesgemass). This erected a barrier between him and the untitled which proved disastrous in its results all around.

What would a German petty baron think of the son of an English duke, whose ancestry might put half the "Almanach de Gotha" [annual publication containing among other data lists of the royal families and aristocracies of Europe] to shame, marrying a commoner's daughter, or entering a wine merchant's or a stockbroker's office? And yet the former very often happened, and the latter has happened, in England without lessening by one iota the prestige of the aristocracy. The well-connected English member of the middle classes may well look upon a peer as only his superior by chance of primogeniture ; he is of the same stock - of the same flesh and blood. The German untitled citizen is cut off from the aristocracy without even an imaginary connecting link. In Saxony, indeed, so distinct is the line that separates the aristocracy from the people that the former can even be seen to be of an entirely different race from the latter. The Saxon nobility is a tall, fair-haired race, with the true Germanic cast of features, whereas the mass of the population is rather short and thickset, with features bearing distinct traces of Slavonic blood.

It is well known that the German aristocracy had ever used its influence to ostracize the untitled, not only from its own society, but from that of its sovereign. And the smaller the state the more petty and pertinacious have been its efforts in that direction. And the poorer its representatives the higher the value they have set on their fictitious possessions of privilege. With the exception of the official world, only the titled were privileged to be received at court.

The English aristocracy was popular because its ranks are constantly recruited from the people, even if in a somewhat eccentric fashion. But, above all, the sources of its popularity must be sought in the extraordinary instances of strong characters it has always had the good fortune to produce. And not only this, but because the peculiarities of its constitution have ever allowed such characters to wield political power, and thus to attain great personal popularity. English nobles have dazzled the popular imagination by their liberal ideas, by their generosity, by their individual superiority to class selfishness. They have not weakened the power of their class by so doing, but strengthened its its hold on the hold on the feelings of their countrymen. And to what an extent they have been successful in so doing may be judged by those who fully realize what the power of a title is to-day in England in our democratic age of transition.

An unworthy subserviency of the middle classes, a base instinct of cringing and toadying to the fountain of many favors, may explain some, but it does not explain by any means all the hold the English aristocracy retained on the imagination of the people. Least of all does it explain the hold it had on the uneducated masses. That influence is partly due to many excellent qualities which the English privileged class had shown from time immemorial. English popular feeling rightly or wrongly looked upon the aristocracy as a curb on the pretension of royalty. The German people looked upon their aristocracy as the toadies of royalty. English nobles did not care to hang about a court like German nobles, for the German nobles, as a class, felt it their vocation to serve the crown. They had less sentiment for the country at large, less of a broader patriotism.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:18 ZULU