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The Junkers: Hostages to the Past

ISSUE:  Summer 1943

When the time comes—as it will come, out of sheer military necessity—for the United Nations to spell out their peace aims to the German people, whom shall they address? Who are the German people? No one would think of seriously advocating a policy in American national politics without first appraising its effects on each of the principal social, occupational, and sectional groups whose interests it touched. Yet in planning the future of Germany we tend to lump all Germans together in a vast monolith, as false and mythical as the Nazi Volkstum that Hitler tried so desperately to forge.

This is a common failing in international affairs. The far-off hills are always green, the problems of other nations much simpler than our own. But it is no less a failing because it is common. Racially, socially, economically, the Germans are one of the most heterogeneous national groups in Europe, Nazi propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding, and German political society is at very least as complex as our own. It has its radicals and conservatives; its east, west, north, and south; its capital and labor; Protestants and Catholics; commerce, agriculture, and industry. If a policy for Germany is to achieve its purposes, no matter what these purposes may be, its authors must know the dynamic elements of German society as intimately, and understand them as thoroughly, as they do their counterparts at home. We do ourselves no credit honoring Hitler by imitating his futile attempt to indict a whole people. If the totalitarian monolith is false, if democracy is government by the people and you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, then there must be some hope for responsible self-government by the German people and there must be some particular forces in German political society that have obstructed and thwarted it. To assume that all Germans are alike, all Nazis and all doomed, is to take a black view of the future of Europe. If the history of the past decade proves anything, it is that the peace aims comprehended in the four freedoms of democracy require as a condition to their secure establishment in Europe a German government that believes in them. Is the path to this achievement barred by the psychological monstrosity of the entire German people, or by certain empirical factors which can be found out and eliminated? A close scrutiny of German political society—such as would be made, say, of American political society by the campaign managers of a Presidential candidate—will produce sound evidence in support of the second, and far more optimistic hypothesis. It will disclose groups of human beings and concrete factual conditions that would have frustrated the most formidable American champions of democracy and that have shackled the German people to a feudal past.

Of the enemies of responsible popular sovereignty in Germany, the Nazis, of course, head the list. But there are others more difficult to dispose of because more subtle and complicated, and because their roots strike more deeply into German history and the German soil. Foremost among these are the Prussian Junkers, a feudal aristocracy that has survived in unbroken ascendancy all of the revolutions, including Hitler’s, that have swept Europe in modern times. Numbering not more than a few thousand families, this proud, medieval cult of virtue and the sword has largely dominated Prussian politics since the thirteenth century and, through Prussia, profoundly influenced the whole course of German history. Until its power is broken and it has been converted to the ways of the present century, the four freedoms will be smuggled into Germany with difficulty and that unhappy nation will continue to renounce the world as the Junkers’ ancestors, the Teutonic Knights, did before them. How to effect the conversion? We must first know the prospective convert.


Two Junkers are known, superficially, in the United States, the stiff-necked Prussian officer of the war cartoons, and the reactionary aristocrat who turned to Hitler to save his property from Bolshevism. Both are caricatures. The I true Junker is a member of the landed gentry of East Prussia and the Prussian provinces that lie east of the Elbe River: Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, Pomerania, West Prussia, and Silesia. The word Junker originated in a contraction of jung and Herr (Jungherr, “young gentleman”) and was applied in medieval times to the sons of the nobility who had not yet themselves been dubbed knights. When the supply of candidates began to outnumber the supply of titles, Junker gradually acquired the attributes of a title in itself. Its geographical application may be accounted for by the concentration of large landed estates in the region east of the Elbe, as well as by the fact that this region was to a great extent colonized and settled by the sons (junge Herren) of the nobility from other parts of Germany, chosen for their knightly discipline and prowess at arms. Not until the middle of the nineteenth century did the word Junker gain currency in politics as a term of disparagement for members of the Conservative Party in Prussia. It is still used in this sense in Germany, but its proper meaning, and the one of significance to us here, is that of a landed aristocrat from east of the Elbe.

The eastern orientation of the Junkers is of prime importance to an understanding of German politics. We habitually divide the Germans north and south, into heel-clicking Prussian martinets and hospitable, civilized Bavarians. The more accurate division is west and east, between the modern, industriahzed Germany of factories, railroad centers, vineyards, and small peasant farms, and the feudal, agrarian Germany of wide plains, grain fields, and large hereditary estates. Excluding the metropolitan island of Berlin and a few small districts in Mecklenburg, eastern Saxony, and Silesia, the population density of this great East Elbian region is less than half that of the rest of Germany. Forty per cent of its inhabitants are engaged in agriculture, as compared with 12 per cent for the Rhineland and 21 per cent for the entire Reich; and of these not more than 3 per cent own 40 per cent of the land. Such a predominance of large-scale farming and concentration of land ownership is to be found only in scattered instances elsewhere in the Reich, as is true of the grain, potatoes, and Junkers that are Eastern Germany’s staple crops. West of the Elbe lies a Germany that is part and parcel of western Europe; east of it a Germany, part Slavic itself, holding a precarious frontier against the Slavs and culturally as well as politically enmeshed in their fortunes. The sandy soil, the inhospitable climate, the sparse population, the staple crops, the great estates, the Polish frontier—these constitute the geographical foundations of Junkertum.

The Junkers first made their appearance in Eastern Germany as Knights of the Teutonic Order in 1226. Returning from the Holy Land they were invited to carry out a new crusade against the heathen Borussi (Prussians), a Slavic tribe that inhabited the territory of what is now East Prussia. The crusade turned into a German occupation and a colonizing effort that has continued to this day. Settling the wilderness with forts and walled towns including Konigs-berg (1255) and Marienburg (1309) which were to become sacred in Prussian lore as the coronation city of the early kings of Prussia and the shrine of the Teutonic Order, the Knights expanded their conversions (and conquests) westward until they included West Prussia and part of Brandenburg. They lost West Prussia to Poland in 1466, but Frederick the Great regained it (except Danzig) in the first partition of Poland in 1772. East Prussia they never lost, and when West Prussia reverted to Poland in 1919, East Prussia remained German. It is one of the major ironies of history that this crusade, which resulted in the virtual extermination of the indigenous Slavonic Prussians and the appropriation of their name as well as their land by their German conquerors, and which left their fellow Slavs, the Poles, cut off from the Baltic by German territory, began on the invitation of a Prince of Poland. Unable himself to subjugate the Prussians, he called the Knights to his assistance, and thus wrote the first page of the long and bloody history of the Polish Corridor.

From the Teutonic Knights the Junkers inherited an austere, almost ascetic, sense of duty, (Pflichtgefuhl) an acute consciousness of race and class, and the professions of arms, government, and husbandry. The Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order presided over an elaborate, quasi-monastic administration, which formed the earliest prototype of the Prussian bureaucracy that Frederick the Great founded, staffed with Junkers, and bequeathed to Bismarck and to Goering. The piety and stern devotion to duty with which the Knights spread the gospel of Christianity and pan-Germanism into eastern Germany were reflected in the careers of their descendants who colonized the region and governed it. The early Hohenzollerns had to subdue a defiant nobility before they could rule in Brandenburg-Prussia, and only made their throne secure by taking the Junkers into camp. Families named Schulenberg, Alvensleben, Knesebeck, and Bismarck, already established on their manors, considered the Hohenzollerns no better than themselves and demanded substantial concessions in return for their services to the crown. These they received in the form of perpetual entailment of their manorial estates, which carried with it seig-norial rights, including exemption from and usufruct of public taxes and jurisdiction over the peasants bound to the soil of the manors. For a long time the Junkers paid for these privileges with their own military levies, which they placed in the service of the crown in wartime, and the decentralized administrative system greatly facilitated the process of government over a large, thinly-populated area with poor communications.

With the establishment of a truly centralized national government and a standing army in Prussia, the Junkers were taken into both as ministers and officers. No matter how centralized the government became, or how absolute the monarchy, they remained the civil administrators and military guardians of the Prussian state. Frederick William the First complained of their “officiousness” when they refused to pay his taxes or permit him to interfere with their control over the peasants. Frederick the Great made the Prussian civil service and officer corps Junker monopolies. During his entire reign he appointed only one minister who was not a Junker or who did not become one by virtue of the appointment. Bismarck, a Junker himself, found it politically expedient to boast of the fact. Hindenburg carried their standards to the Presidency of the Weimar Republic and connived with them to overthrow Schleicher and put Hitler into power. In their minds the Teutonic Order never was dissolved; it merged imperceptibly into the Prussian state and elicited from them the same public careers, the same stern conception and performance of duty that their crusading ancestors had pledged to the Order.

The Junkers’ control of the Prussian — since 1871 the German—army, has been even more conspicuous and uninterrupted, and has formed both the source and the instrument of their political power. Studies that have been made of the official army lists disclose that of the seven to eight thousand Prussian officers of all ranks in 1806 only 695— less than 10 per cent—were not nobles. Even after the liberalizing reforms of Stein, the lists of 1861 showed 997 nobles with the rank of Major or higher as compared with 198 com-moners, and of the 33 generals of the highest command all were nobles. The needs of a mass army forced the late Kaiser both to recruit officers wholesale from the bourgeoisie and, as is well known, to encourage the impecunious aristocrats in his officer corps to marry into prosperous commercial families. This process substantially altered the proportions of Junkers to commoners, as did the great blood-letting and blood-mixing of the First World War. Even so, although the Nazi political machine has brought some commoners (like Rommel) to the top, the high command has remained a Junker stronghold. Von Brauchitsch, von Bock, von Rundstedt, von Reichenau, von Arnim, von Kleist, von Mannstein, first families of East Elbian Germany, fight Hitler’s war against Russia, a nation which they know only too well got rid of its Junkers in 1917, a nation of Slavs, their enemies since 1226. With the Reich bureaucracy filled with Nazi come-ups the high command has proved a secure refuge for the Junkers and still preserves a disproportionately large measure of their power.

How the Junkers survived the democratic revolution of 1919, retained control of the Reichswehr, and conspired with Hindenburg to make Hitler Chancellor of the Reich has been recounted in many of the contemporary writings on German politics. But these leave unexplained the reasons for this remarkable survival of a feudal, agrarian group in the most modern and industrialized nation in Europe. Some of the reasons must be found in the character of the Junkers, of whom Bismarck and Hindenburg were perfect types, proud, fearless, puritanical defenders of their class and country; characters which fill the pages of Prussian history and are portrayed, for example, in the dour Doleschal of Clara Viebig’s novel Das Schlafende Heer. These qualities, and the very evident willingness of the Junkers to die in defense of Prussia—especially against the Slavic foe-have won them the influence that determination bordering on selflessness and fanaticism always wins. But there are other, more circumstantial, reasons for their survival.


The soil, climate, and geographical situation of Eastern Germany have all made things easier for the Junkers. They have thrived on a type of extensive, large-scale farming and a staple crop economy that would be neither profitable nor possible in the fertile, overcrowded valleys of the west. Rye, wheat, oats, barley, and potatoes, all hardy staples and all capable of mass production by relatively unskilled labor, were the crops best suited to the sandy soil, freezing winters, and short, hot summers east of the Elbe. They were also precisely the crops that are cultivated extensively, in large holdings, all over the world.

The geographical position of the region assured the Junkers of an abundant supply of cheap labor. The earliest Teutonic colonists found a Slavonic peasant population which by a method known as “putting down the peasants” (Bauernlegen) they easily reduced to indentured farm laborers. From this status the peasants did not win legal emancipation until late in the nineteenth century. When they did, and began to drift westward into industrial employment, the absence of any natural frontiers facilitated the constant immigration of cheap Polish labor to replace them on the great estates. Thus the Junkers, who from time immemorial based their claim to privilege on the grounds that they were necessary to guard the dikes against a Slavic infiltration of German soil, became the very instruments of that infiltration. All of these conditions played into the hands of an aristocracy that measured its wealth as well as its influence at court by the size of its landed property.

Even today estates of from 1250 to 2500 acres are common in the realm of the Junkers, and of the 183 agricultural estates in the entire Reich larger than 2500 acres, 175 lie east of the Elbe, for the most part in northern Brandenburg, Pomerania, and East Prussia. Size, of course, is no indication of prosperity, either for the owners and managers of the estates or for the region in which they are found. If anything, it is probably the reverse: witness the fact that East Elbian Germany has suffered more acutely from the recent agricultural depression than any other part of Germany. Figures published by the German Central Agricultural Bank for 1937 show that the farms of this region, both medium and large, were twice as heavily indebted as those in the west. The whole history of the region during the past half century, and especially since the First World War, is one of desperate, though futile, efforts to bolster up the rickety economic structure that had once been the principal asset of the Junkers and had now become their principal liability. Whereas Frederick the Great had protected, and increased, their estates as a means of ensuring himself of their services as generals and ministers of state, they now used their political and military offices as a means of preserving their estates. Ends and means became hopelessly confused as they struggled behind the scenes in the Weimar Government and in the Reichswehr to save their economic skins. Some of the estates were efficient and prosperous. But in general their size meant a steady aggrandizement at the expense of small farmers forced to sell out for lack of capital, a steady influx of Polish labor to take their places, and no real prosperity or independence for either.

Nothing demonstrates both the survival and the anachronism of the Junkers so well as the economic policies of which they have been conspicuous supporters and beneficiaries. Of these the practice of entailment, the protective tariff, and the Prussian agricultural credit system, particularly the east* ern agricultural relief, will suffice as examples.

The entailment of estates, which was abolished in the United States soon after the Revolution and in most of western Germany by the code Napoleon, still persists in East E1-bian Germany to this very day. Not only does it persist, but it has recently been given a new lease on life by hypocritical Nazi legislation purporting to abolish it. The practice of entailing estates, that is, settling them inalienably on a man and his heirs, stems straight from the middle ages. Frederick the Great made extensive use of it to create new Junker ministers for his government and generals for his army. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though voices were repeatedly raised and laws proposed against it, the practice continued and the entailed estates (Fideikommisse) of Eastern Germany actually increased, both in number and in total acreage. In 1919 there were 2,314 in the Reich, most of them east of the Elbe, comprising a total area of over eight million acres. The next year a law went into effect which prohibited the creation of new entailed estates and in 1933 the Nazis promulgated their own hereditary freehold law (Reichserbhofgesetz) which was supposed finally to supersede them. That it did not is proved by the facts that in 1938 there were still 910 Fideikommisse with a total area of 3,593,300 acres in existence and that the Nazis found it expedient in that year to pass a new edict expressly providing for their dissolution.

Even this contained Junker loopholes. In the first place, the law extended the practice of entailment to all peasant landholdings up to 312 acres the owners of which complied with certain standards, including “Aryanism” and party loyalty. In the second place, the law dissolving the Fideikommisse discreetly provided that in exceptional cases estates larger than 312 acres could also qualify as Erbhofet With the Junkers legally entitled to qualify their estates, somewhat larger than 312 acres though they may be, as Erbhofe, it is scarcely necessary to look elsewhere for evidence of the survival of their influence.

The point stands out more glaringly in the light of what the sponsors of the new hereditary freehold law had to say of the Fideikommisse. Referring to their feudal character, the official publication of the Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture for 1938 is at pains to explain of the new Erb-hofgesetz, that its “superficial similarities” to the Fideikom-missc should not blind .any one to the fact that the aim of the latter “was to preserve the power and prestige of a very small circle of families.” It was a charmed circle thus to receive a new charter of “power and prestige” from those who professed to be abolishing it. The avowed purpose of the Erbhofgesetz was to stop the flight from the land and populate agrarian Germany with “a new nobility of blood and soil.” Surely it should not be difficult for the old members of this clan to establish their identity with the new. If the Reichserbhofgesetz is not a new lease on life for the Junkers, it is at very least no barrier to the continuation of their existence. More than that, it spreads their social influence more widely than ever by creating a legion of little Junkers in their own image. About 700,000 of these had made the grade by 1939, and it seems reasonable to assume that they will be no more progressive in politics and social outlook than the original models, whose manners they copy.

The history of the German tariff on agricultural imports need not detain us long. It is comparable, in many respects, to our own. When, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Russian, Argentine, Australian, Canadian, and especially American grain began to invade Europe, the Junker grain producers allied themselves with the big industrialists of the Ruhr and turned to protectionism to save their domestic market. A German farm bloc (Bund der Landtvirte) was formed under Junker leadership, and in 1879 the combined pressure of the two forces, Eisen und Roggen (iron and rye) forced Bismarck, himself a Junker, to institute an agricultural tariff. All of the stock protectionist arguments were brought out, including military necessity, defense of the German wage scale and standard of living, maintenance of the rural population, et cetera, but as the tariffs rose, the prosperity of Eastern Germany declined.

At the same time the full impact of the industrial revolution made itself felt in a prolonged flight from the land. From 1895 to 1933, while the total population of the Reich increased from 45,925,000 to 65,218,000, the agricultural population declined from 15,446,000 to 13,661,000, or from 33.6 per cent to 21 per cent of the total population. In this nation-wide decline of the agricultural population the share of East Elbian Germany was disproportionately high. Hundreds of thousands of small peasant farmers migrated into the industrial centers of the west and thence, in a not much smaller stream, overseas, until the population density of the region, as we have already observed, sank well below that of the rest of the Reich. In comparison with these figures the 74,000 new families that had been settled on the land (56,000 east of the Elbe) up to 1937 were a handful of pebbles thrown in a mill race.

The agricultural tariff, itself a symptom, was no remedy for these other effects of the industrial revolution. It was merely an economic defense of the Junkers’ status quo. None of them left the land. Every vacated peasant holding meant an annex to one of their estates. An inexhaustible supply of cheap Polish labor stood ready to hand, and their Pan-German scruples did not deter them from using it. They simply sat tight and let the winds blow, winds which brought no general good and much harm to East Elbian Germany but no immediate harm to them. For the time being the tariff sheltered them. But not for long. Instead of taking advantage of the breathing spell to reorganize and modernize the economy of their region, they merely consolidated and tended their estates. The tariff did not stop the flight from the land. It did not make Germany self-sufficient in foodstuffs. It did not promote the general prosperity of Eastern Germany. But it did help the Junkers to survive a few years longer.

That it brought them no lasting security is proved beyond a doubt by the blanket of indebtedness with which they began to cover themselves soon after the turn of the century.

From 1900 to 1913 annual mortgage loans in Prussia increased from 400 to 800 million marks, and on the eve of the First World War the total agricultural indebtedness of the Reich stood at 17,500,000,000 marks. The post-war inflation wiped the slate clean, and in 1925 after a revaluation of mortgages at 25 per cent of their gold mark value, the total indebtedness was four billion marks. From this it rose steadily (while prices and income fell) to a peak of 12,400,000,000 marks in 1931, and the interest burden from about 5 per cent to 13.6 per cent of gross cash income in 1988. The Nazis have been able to reduce it somewhat by debt moratoria and lowered interest rates, but the mortgage debt has continued to climb and stands today somewhere in the neighborhood of nine billion marks.

Indebtedness is in itself no proof of distress, but combined with the uninterrupted flight from the land and illuminated by the testimony of Germany’s leading agricultural economists, these figures indicate an unsettled and unhealthy situation in German agriculture. Most significantly of all, they have been broken down to show that acute distress has prevailed in certain areas, worst of all east of the Elbe, and Dr. Max Sering, the dean of German agricultural economists, is authority for the statement that the heaviest indebtedness in that region rested on the large peasant and Junker estates. He bases this statement on figures published in 1988 by the Rentenbank-Kreditanstalt which show that 69 per cent of the farms of over 250 acres in East Elbian Germany were indebted up to from 61 per cent to 100 per cent of their unit value as compared with 31 per cent of the same size farms in western Germany; and no less than 40 per cent of the large East Elbian farms were indebted over 100 per cent of unit value as compared with 11 per cent in the west. Studies carried out in 1938 by the Reichsverband fur Land-wirtschaftliche Buchfuhrung und Betreuung bear out these conclusions with further evidence showing that an average income of 13,880 marks for the large farms during the years 1925-1934 dwindled to minus 3,380 marks after payment of interest on debt.

From this predicament the Junkers tried desperately to extricate themselves by means of emergency credit legislation known as the Osthilfe, or eastern relief. In 1929 conditions were so bad in East Prussia that the Prussian Government was forced to enact the first of this legislation for that province alone, the Ostpreussenhilfe. But the wholesale mortgage foreclosures and tense relations between debtors and creditors, so well depicted in Hans Fallada’s agrarian novel Bauern, Bomben, und Bonzen (“Peasants, Bombs, and Bosses”), spread westward so rapidly that the Bruening Ministry was compelled to make East Elbian agricultural relief the responsibility of the entire Reich. This it did in the form of the elaborate debt conversion and refinancing legislation known as the Osthilfe, enacted in 1931, subsequently amplified in 1932 and again, by the Nazis, in 1933.

Although the Osthilfe was conceived and executed in the interests of small farmers as well as large, it contained special provisions and was administered in a way particularly solicitous of the Junkers’ welfare. It afforded them the same opportunities to convert, refinance, and scale down their debts that it offered to small farmers. At the same time, it gave them a means of cancelling part of their obligations at public expense by permitting them to sell portions of their enormous estates to government-financed farm settlements. This and other practices, which enabled them to weather yet another storm in which hundreds of thousands of their less-favored countrymen were foundering, led to the suspicion that the Osthilfe funds were being mismanaged in their interests. An investigation was demanded and carried out during the feverish months of the von Papen and von Schleicher ministries. When the Budget Commission of the Reichstag turned up evidence of collusion between the administrators of the Osthilfe and the Junkers, and Schleicher threatened to make this public, the Junkers turned against him and urged Hindenburg to appoint Hitler. The President required little urging. In 1927 he had been presented with his ancestral Junker estate at Neudeck in East Prussia, tax-free and entailed in the name of his son, as a gift from the Reich. He needed no prompting to perceive in the investigations of the Budget Commission and the rectitude of Schleicher an “agrarian Bolshevism” which threatened the German spirit and, incidentally, his own and his fellow-Junkers’ medieval domain. Hitler came to power and the Osthilfe, though twice “abolished” by Nazi decrees of 1986 and 1939, continues through the Reich Industrial Bank to transfuse the life-blood of public credit into the blue-blooded veins of the Junkers. Like the Fideikommisse and the tariff, it has kept them alive long past their generation and their century.


Here, then, is a tangible barrier to responsible self-government in Germany, a specific source of ideas and habits inimical to the peace aims of the United Nations, the welfare of Europe, and the best interests of the German people themselves. German agricultural economists, even those persona grata with the Nazis, have repeatedly testified that the great entailed estates have no possible justification other than the maintenance, for political reasons, of a small, privileged caste. It is a caste imprisoned in its own archaic economy and social system, a caste not lacking in stern virtues and paternalistic enlightenment, but which, for all of that, forms the source of a spirit that holds the German people down and back. This is the spirit of feudalism; and feudalism and economic democracy and responsible self-government can not exist side by side. The German agricultural population has known legal freedom for only a short time. In East Elbian Germany it has never known economic freedom. In the full knowledge of these facts, how can we say that it is predestined to a life of war and crime?

The emancipation of this population should be made a conspicuous peace aim of the United Nations. A long unfulfilled promise in German politics, it is a peace aim which, once it could be made clear to them, should enlist the wholehearted support of the German people. But the aim, to be realized, requires a policy that must reach far beyond revenge on the persons of the Junkers. It must plan in concrete detail the reorganization of the East Elbian economy. “With the dissolution of all entailed estates, the gradual removal of the grain tariffs, a progressive tax on landed property and a very much more vigorous internal colonisation,” wrote the German economist Max Weber in 1904, “there would still be, a hundred years hence, a great enough surplus of Counts, Barons and Junkers in the east to fill to overflowing the cup of the most sentimental romanticist.” Add to this program the soil conservation, diversification of crops, intensification of agriculture, public works, and decentralized industrial projects that Weber would undoubtedly have included in it today, and it would give these Junkers something to do besides playing politics with the army and army officers with the government. It would bring general prosperity to the region, independence and self-government to its people, and restore them to membership in modern European society. The Connecticut Yankee must once more work his magic in King Arthur’s Court.


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