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The House of Bismarck Part I

The House of Bismarck is a German noble family that rose to prominence in the 19th century, largely through the achievements of the statesman Otto von Bismarck. He was granted a hereditary comital title in 1865, the hereditary title of Prince of Bismarck in 1871, and the non-hereditary title of Duke of Lauenburg in 1890. Several of Otto von Bismarck’s descendants, notably his elder son Herbert, Prince von Bismarck, were also politicians.


Before I delve into the history of the The House of Bismarck I would like address the complex subject of the German Nobility. It will be simplified here.

The German nobility (German: deutscher Adel) and royalty were status groups which until 1919 enjoyed certain privileges relative to other people under the laws and customs in the German-speaking area.

Historically German entities which recognized or conferred nobility included the Holy Roman Empire (962–1806), the German Confederation (1814–1866) and the German Empire (1871–1918). All legal privileges and immunities of the royalty and nobility (appertaining to an individual, a family or any heirs) were officially abolished in 1919 by the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), and nobility is no longer conferred or recognized by the Federal Republic of Germany.

In Germany, nobility and titles pertaining to it were recognised or bestowed upon individuals by emperors, kings and lesser ruling Royals, and were then inherited by the legitimate, male-line descendants of the ennobled person. Families that had been considered noble as early as pre-1400s Germany (i.e., the Uradel or ancient nobility) were usually eventually recognised by a sovereign, confirming their entitlement to whatever legal privileges nobles enjoyed in that sovereign’s realm.

In the evolution of noble titles in Germany two separate classes of nobles developed. Uradel (German for ancient nobility) is a genealogical term introduced in late 18th-century Germany to distinguish those families whose noble rank can be traced to the 14th century or earlier. The term is in juxtaposition of the word Briefadel, a term used for titles of nobility created in the early modern period or modern history by letters patent. Uradel and Briefadel families are generally further divided into the categories adlig (untitled and titled nobility), freiherrlich (baronial), gräflich (comital), and fürstlich (royal, princely and ducal) houses.


The Uradel were further divided into the Hochadel (“upper nobility”, or “high nobility”) and the Niederer Adel (“lower nobility”). here is a definition of each class.


The Hochadel were those noble houses which ruled sovereign states within the Holy Roman Empire and later, in the German Confederation and the German Empire. They were considered Royalty; the heads of these families were entitled to be addressed by some form of “Majesty” or “Highness”. These were the families of kings (Bavaria, Hanover, Prussia, Saxony, and Württemberg), grand dukes (Baden, Hesse and by Rhine, Luxembourg, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Oldenburg and Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach), reigning dukes (Anhalt, Brunswick, Schleswig-Holstein, Nassau, Saxe-Altenburg, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Saxe-Meiningen), and reigning princes (Hohenzollern-Hechingen, Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Liechtenstein, Lippe, Reuss, Schaumburg-Lippe, Schwarzburg, and Waldeck-Pyrmont).

The Hochadel also included the Empire’s formerly quasi-sovereign families whose domains had been mediatised#(see below) within the German Confederation by 1815, yet preserved the legal right to continue royal intermarriage with still-reigning dynasties (Ebenbürtigkeit). These quasi-sovereign families comprised mostly princely and comital families, but included a few dukes also of Belgian and Dutch origin (Arenberg, Croÿ, Looz-Corswarem). Information on these families constituted the second section of Justus Perthes’ entries on reigning, princely, and ducal families in the Almanach de Gotha.

During the unification of Germany, mainly from 1866 to 1871, the states of Hanover, Hesse-Cassel, Hohenzollern-Hechingen, Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (in 1850), Schleswig-Holstein and Nassau were absorbed into Prussia.

In addition, the ruling families of Hohenzollern-Hechingen and Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen were accorded the dynastic rights of a cadet branch of the Royal House of Prussia after yielding sovereignty to their royal kinsmen. The exiled heirs to Hanover and Nassau eventually regained sovereignty by being allowed to inherit, respectively, the crowns of Brunswick (1914) and Luxembourg (1890).

Niederer Adel

Nobility that held legal privileges until 1918 greater than those enjoyed by commoners, but less than those enjoyed by the Hochadel, were considered part of the lower nobility or Niederer Adel. Most were untitled, only making use of the particle von in their surnames. Higher-ranking noble families of the Niederer Adel bore such hereditary titles as Ritter (knight), Freiherr (or baron) and Graf. Although most German counts belonged officially to the lower nobility, those who were mediatised belonged to the Hochadel, the heads of their families being entitled to be addressed as Erlaucht (“Illustrious Highness”), rather than simply as Hochgeboren (“High-born”).

There were also some German noble families, especially in Austria, Prussia and Bavaria, whose head bore the titles of Fürst (prince) or Herzog (duke); however, never having exercised a degree of sovereignty, they were accounted members of the lower nobility (e.g., Blücher, Pless, Wrede). Bismarck is such an example of a House belonging to the Lower Nobility and never exercised a degree of sovereignty.

# German mediatisation was the major territorial restructuring that took place between 1802 and 1814 in Germany and the surrounding region by means of the mass mediatisation and secularization of a large number of Imperial Estates. Most ecclesiastical principalities, free imperial cities, secular principalities, and other minor self-ruling entities of the Holy Roman Empire lost their independent status and were absorbed into the remaining states. By the end of the mediatisation process, the number of German states had been reduced from almost 300 to just 39. Despite losing sovereignty the former ruling houses of these states were still considered Hochadel under laws adopted by the German Empire.