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Nobility in Germany

August 27, 2011

When William and Kate said their vows, nearly a billion people watched on TV. On Saturday, two members of Germany's nobility wed - but the general public couldn't really get excited.

Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preußen and Princess Sophie
It's Germany's turn for a fancy weddingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

On Saturday, Prince Georg Friedrich von Preußen wed Princess Sophie von Isenburg. Despite efforts by the tabloid press to blow the event up to Will and Kate-sized proportions, most people haven't been able to muster much enthusiasm for the marriage of two business graduates.

The lack of enthusiasm is partly due to the increasingly troubled status of German nobility.

In 1919, the Weimar Constitution revoked all kinds of special privileges previously enjoyed by German royalty. Suddenly, all citizens were treated equally before the law, with the same civil rights and obligations. It also ended the tax exemption that German nobility had previously enjoyed. Stripped of the perks of their status, they were left only with their land and their titles.

But although nobility was abolished as an institution in Germany, it endures as a social class. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to weddings - a glance at the pedigrees of most nobles shows they still tend to marry amongst themselves.

Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam
The wedding party had a rehearsal Friday at Schloss Sanssouci in PotsdamImage: picture alliance/dpa

Take, for example, the wife of disgraced former Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg: She wasn't just not any old Stephanie, but rather one Stephanie von Bismarck-Schönhausen, the great-great-granddaughter of Otto von Bismarck, the architect of German unification in 1871.

Together, the pair managed to bring a bit of glamour to the otherwise drab German political scene. However, the scandal over Guttenberg's plagiarized doctoral thesis quickly cost the minister his credibility and his position. The family is now reportedly moving to the United States, where their names are likely to raise far fewer eyebrows.

The issue of scandals - and indeed, their seeming frequency amongst the upper classes - is yet another reason 'average' Germans may be reluctant to put their nobility on much of a pedestal.

Prince not-so-charming

Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt
Prince von Anhalt has a reputation as a party boyImage: picture-alliance / dpa

The stereotype of the playboy prince found its embodiment in Prince Ernst August of Hanover- full name Ernst August Albert Paul Otto Rupprecht Oskar Berthold Friedrich Ferdinand Christian-Ludwig.

Married to Princess Caroline of Monaco and a fixture of European aristocracy, his manners are nevertheless reminiscent of a British football hooligan. He has beaten up reporters, photographers, and cameramen (and women). At the World Exhibition Expo 2000, he was caught urinating against the Turkish pavilion. He's a speed demon, as well: French police once clocked him driving 211 km/h (131 m/ph) on a motorway with a speed limit of 130 km/h.

But Prince Ernst August is hardly an enigma. Take Prince Frederic von Anhalt, a man from a bourgeois family who paid a princess to adopt him, thus giving him the right to use a noble title. Paying for a title is, incidentally, not an uncommon occurrence in Germany, and there are many "fake" nobles.

Frederic von Anhalt married Hollywood legend Zsa Zsa Gabor, and then proceeded to float through high society, often with a thick cigar pressed between his lips. In addition to appearing on reality TV shows, he also bestowed his title on his 'adopted' children, many of whom are big names in the seedy nightlife underworld.

Gloria von Thurn und Taxis
After all these years, she still has a very individual fashion senseImage: AP

Racist princess

However, neither of these men could hold a candle to the tabloid exploits of Gloria von Thurn und Taxis. Born a countess, she became a princess after her marriage to Prince Johannes. Long before Lady Gaga debuted her Kermit the Frog dress, Gloria von Thurn und Taxis was wearing sweaters decorated with teddy bears. In the 1980s, no outfit was too shrill, no hairstyle too outrageous.

However, after the death of her husband, the countess fell on hard times and had to struggle to save the family fortune. Things got even worse for her when, in 2001, she commented during a talk show that Africa's AIDS problem was not due to lack of contraception, but the fact that blacks are overly fond of having sex.

With nobles like these, it's no wonder Germany has struggled with the proper way to celebrate a "royal" wedding - or at least, as royal as it gets in a parliamentary democracy, anyway.

The marriage of Prince Georg Friedrich of Prussia, a great-grandson of the last German Emperor, and his future wife, Princess Sophie of Isenburg, is not an official state wedding, though the ceremony was broadcast on TV. The program director of the transmitting station defended the decision, citing the "history lessons," that go hand in hand with the wedding. But license fee-payers were outraged, noting that it was an alliance of the Prussian nobility, the Church and Hitler's National Socialists that brought unimaginable suffering brought to Europe. Probably not what the happy couple wants to be reminded of on their wedding day

Author: Silke Wünsch, Sarah Harman
Editor: Rob Turner

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