- The region known as Prussia* had for centuries been dominated economically, socially, and politically by an East Elbian (ostelbische) landed nobility collectively known as Junkertum. Although the term "Junker, derived from "junger Herr," can technically be attributed only to the landed German elite with ancestral ties to those Rittergutsbesitzers (knight estate owners) who colonized Prussia s eastern domains in the twelfth through the fourteenth cen-turies, the term was more loosely applied by the 1920s. Indeed, Junkers were neither entirely noble nor exclusively German. Numerous Junker estates in Si-lesia, East Prussia, and western Prussia were held into the twentieth century by noble families of Polish origin (including Kleist and Donhoff). The eighteenth century saw a considerable expansion of Junkertum through both the immigra-tion of Polish and French nobles and the generous ennoblement of farmers* with large landholdings. Intermarried with German and non-German nobles, and with untitled Prussians, the Junkers hardly formed a true caste.Although the Junkers economic power peaked in the mid-nineteenth century, the agricultural depression that began in the mid-1870s—and was exacerbated by an exodus of peasants to Germany's more profitable industrial sector—led landowners to request state aid in the form of heavy tariffs. That the Junkers position in German society had not been eclipsed by 1900 was due largely to the failure in central Europe of the 1848 revolutions and to Germany's unifi-cation under Prussian leadership. Although Bismarck addressed the economic goals of the middle classes, he preserved the nobility s social and political status. To redress their loss of economic power, the Junkers formed an Agrarian League in 1893 for political leverage. By 1914 they commanded a large plurality of Prussia s administrative positions. Both the Junkers and the state bureaucracy (largely under Junker control) accepted the "natural relationship" of protection and dependence between the larger landowners and the small peasants, believing it useful to both small landowners and the state. Accustomed to limited rights, the peasantry generally acquiesced.Believing themselves indissolubly linked to the Prussian crown, the Junkers viewed the November Revolution* as a crushing blow. According to Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau,* owner of 8,576 hectares of land in East and West Prus-sia, "I felt a world was collapsing and burying under its ruins everything that had been the content of my life (Carsten). In fact, while the trappings certainly changed, their basic existence was untouched under the Republic. The structure of German agriculture was largely the same, with Prussia s large estates receiv-ing government subsidies to survive. During the Weimar era 41 percent of Prus-sian land belonged to estates of more than 200 hectares, while 1,155 landlords owned over 1,000 hectares each. Although only a fourth were owned by noble-men, the typical estate owner managed to maintain conditions much as they had been in the Kaiserreich. Still, the Junkers political position was imperiled after 1918. The Conservative Party (DKP), which had aspired to defend the interests of big agriculture, gave way to the new DNVP, a party that openly supported the Mittelstand* and was unwilling to bow to Junker demands. Threatened by such change, the Junkers redoubled their efforts to maintain power in the coun-tryside. Groups such as the Stahlhelm* and the Pan-German League were deemed a last line of defense against a new and threatening world. In 1921 the Junkers orchestrated a union of two large pressure groups to form the Reichs-landbund* Yet as the 1920s wore on, their economic position deteriorated. Although high import tariffs on rye and wheat helped protect these crops, by 1930 this proved insufficient to maintain a privileged elite locked in the nine-teenth century. The subsidies known as Osthilfe* were the Republic s last means for protecting a class long since unprofitable. Ironically, Junker demands brought emancipation from the free market in the Weimar era. The total nationalization of the agrarian market, finally achieved under Hitler,* was well advanced before 1933. But by fighting for their eco-nomic and political survival, the Junkers helped destroy Weimar democracy and thereby contributed to their own elimination as a class. The outcome had long been sought by liberal theorists such as Friedrich Naumann* and Max Weber.* Believing that the SPD would one day be transformed into a reformist party, such theorists, who revered Britain as their model, envisioned a day when the middle class would unite with the proletariat to neutralize the Junkers. While the Nazi revolution was not the anticipated formula, it accomplished their goal.Neither the Junkers nor the Reichslandbund were the chief initiators of the Republic s demise. German agriculture, even east of the Elbe, was badly divided on the eve of Hitler s triumph, and many conservative agrarians were distressed by the events leading to his victory. While Junkers were hostile to the Republic, few shared the aspirations of the radical Right; the conservative regeneration they sought had little in common with the violence and demagoguery of the NSDAP. But the nobility's effectiveness was undercut by the intrigues of DNVP chairman Alfred Hugenberg,* by a depression* that drove countless peasants and agricultural laborers into the Nazi camp, by the NSDAP's success at infil-trating the Reichslandbund, and by a neoconservatism that espoused a mythical new nobility presumed to commandeer many of the functions once performed by Junkers. Unable to communicate legitimacy, the Junkers learned too late that they were merely conduits for the transmission of disaffected rural voters from the traditional conservative parties to the NSDAP.REFERENCES:Baranowski, Sanctity ofRural Life; Berdahl, Politics ofthe Prussian No-bility; Carsten, History of the Prussian Junkers; Gerschenkron, Bread and Democracy; Larry Jones, "Crisis and Realignment"; Schissler, "Junkers"; Struve, Elites against Democracy; Max Weber, "National Character.
A Historical dictionary of Germany's Weimar Republic, 1918-1933. C. Paul Vincent.
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