On the afternoon of 21 July 1944, six Gestapo operatives descended on a stately home 60 kilometres south of Berlin - they had come to arrest its owner, Prince Friedrich zu Solms-Baruth III.
An ardent Nazi critic even before the party’s ruthless ascent to national omnipotence began in 1931, the prospect of a fateful rap on the door from Adolf Hitler’s secret police had been an ever-present peril for well-over a decade.
Nonetheless, the Prince was likely to have been expecting their visit that particular day. Mere hours earlier he had been informed Operation Valkyrie, the attempt to assassinate Hitler inside his Wolf's Lair headquarters near Rastenburg, East Prussia, had failed.
The bungled bomb attack, since immortalised in a panoply of films and books, was the culmination of years of formal and informal preparation by anti-Nazi elements within and without the German establishment – a motley assortment of landowners, military staff, intelligence operatives, diplomats, journalists and more, their motivations and persuasions differed, but they were bound by the common objective of ridding the country of its ruthless leader.
The specifics of Prince Friedrich’s role in the plot aren’t certain, but it’s known in the months prior to the planned day of reckoning he’d frequently convened secret meetings with key figures in the conspiracy – among others, chief General Ludwig Beck, proposed head of the post-Hitler provisional government, General Paul von Hase, and Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben.
They’d ride into the sprawling parkland surrounding the Solms-Baruth ancestral home, discussing developments and the potential shape of post-Nazi Germany on horseback, away from prying eyes and ears.
To say the least, the stakes were high, and the cost of failure well-understood - in the weeks leading up to July 20th, the Prince took to sleeping with two luger pistols in his bed.
However, despite meticulous planning, in the event the Fuhrer escaped with only singed trousers and a perforated eardrum, and the planned military coup scheduled to follow failed to materialise.
Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, who’d planted the bomb, his aide-de-camp Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, and General Friedrich Olbricht and Colonel Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim – who’d attempted to instigate the military coup - were all executed within hours in the courtyard of Bendlerblock, the plotters’ effective headquarters.
As night was rapidly becoming day, the makeshift firing squad was lit by the headlights of a truck. General Beck was allowed to commit suicide, but despite shooting himself in the head he only succeeded in severely wounding himself. An obliging military staffer finished the job by blasting him in the back of the neck.
Sign or Die
In all, 7,000 people were arrested by the Gestapo in the immediate aftermath of Operation Valkyrie’s miscarriage on suspicion of playing some role or other in the conspiracy. Prince Friedrich was one of just 2,000 who wasn’t ultimately executed, but his life certainly wasn’t spared on humanitarian grounds.
After his arrest, he was dispatched to the Gestapo’s infamous Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse headquarters, the site of which hosts Berlin’s Topography of Terror museum today. It served as a way-station for prisoners awaiting transportation to concentration camps and other hellish Nazi terror structures.
Untold thousands of victims of National Socialism – Jews, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, democrats, trade unionists and more - had passed through the building over its 11 years of existence and been subjected to “intensified interrogation”, an Orwellian euphemism for torture of the most brutal sort.
Such was the ferocity of the punishment, some resorted to suicide to cut short their ordeals.
There, Prince Friedrich became the personal prisoner of Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler.
The chief architect of the Holocaust wanted Solms-Baruth kept alive, for he’d hatched an elaborate conspiracy of his own. For one, keenly aware the end of the Third Reich was inescapably near, he wished to initiate ceasefire negotiations with the British and Americans, and hoped neutral Sweden could facilitate them.
As the uncle of the heir to the Swedish throne, Himmler considered Friedrich an ideal advocate-cum-hostage for facilitating dialogue.
He also wished to expropriate the Solms Baruth family’s enterprises, houses, buildings and forestry land. Typically, resources stolen by the Nazi state would be divided among all National Socialist organisations – Himmler’s scheme would mean the SS reaped the bounty in full and off the books.
To achieve this end, the Prince had to be coerced into signing a notarised irrevocable document in which he transferred all powers of disposal over his properties and assets and accepted banishment from them, in the process terminating his ownership rights over all enterprises, properties and land.
It would take nine months of solitary confinement, during which torture and interrogation were a daily staple, for Friedrich to eventually sign the diabolical document - in return, the lives of he and his family were spared.
Himmler wouldn’t bask in his success for long – his other gamble, to use the Prince as a bargaining chip to advance ceasefire negotiations, backfired spectacularly not long after.
Despite making several concessions to Sweden, including releasing 20,000 Scandinavian concentration camp prisoners, the Western Allies weren’t interested in negotiating, balking at the suggestion of Nazi Germany surrendering only to them and continuing the war on the Eastern Front. Also, when Hitler learned of Himmler’s covert dealings on 28th April, he ordered his arrest – although by this time the Red Army were a mere 300 meters from the Reich Chancellery.
His captured estate ensconced in the Soviet occupation zone, Prince Friedrich emigrated to south west Africa with his family, their passage secured thanks to British intelligence assessments confirming his committed anti-Nazism, role in Operation Valkyrie, arrest and torture by the Gestapo, and confiscation of his properties. He died in 1951, in what is today Namibia.
As part of an ongoing effort to undo the many wrongs of the National Socialist period, in the 1950s the Federal Republic of Germany instituted a number of dedicated restitution laws during, which saw stolen property returned to its rightful owners – if confiscated assets had been damaged or destroyed, claimants received reparation payments.
After the fall of the German Democratic Republic and German reunification in 1990, it was reasonably assumed this legislation would be extended to the 10.8 million hectares of land which comprised the now-former East Germany.
The Prince’s son, Friedrich zu Solms-Baruth IV, duly made a formal legal request for the return of the properties and enterprises stolen by the Nazis, but soon found while the Berlin Wall may have fallen, a new barrier – insidious, invisible and inexplicable - had been erected in its place, preventing him and many others from securing justice.
Despite repeated stonewalling from authorities, he wouldn’t give up his battle for restitution until his dying day in 2006. In turn, his son Friedrich V took up the mantle, and significantly upped the stakes by launching a series of legal actions against the federal government.
In 2014, he lodged a case at the German constitutional court to reclaim his grandfather’s land and property.
Armed with substantial documentation supporting the notion his grandfather’s signature had been acquired by brutal coercion – including the contemporary British intelligence report confirming his grandfather’s arrest and subsequent confiscation of his properties resulted from the plot to kill Hitler - and the expert evidence of renowned Second World War historian Antony Beevor, he was initially confident of victory.
However, at a pre-trial hearing, both Beevor’s testimony and the ‘smoking gun’ evidence he’d accumulated were deemed inadmissible by the presiding judge, who perplexingly ruled it was for the court to adjudicate on the historical circumstances of the case. To this day, Prince Friedrich himself struggles to understand, much less explain, Berlin’s persistent intransigence, but he has his suspicions.
Prince Friedrich says: “Authorities act with a view to achieving fiscal results at the cost of historical facts. It’s been clearly established in German law all victims of Nazi persecution are to have their confiscated property returned – but the economic impact would be fiscally undesirable for the government. They stick to the link that properties taken by the state during Nazi times need to remain property of the State, in the process continuing to give legitimacy to the Nazi kleptocracy, and perpetuate Gestapo crimes. They surely intend to sell the properties at some point in the near future – they need the proceeds for free spending. Look at the way the government and courts treat looted art – it’s all about holding on to the money."
Peter Goldsmith, Attorney General for England and Wales 2001 – 2007, has been following the Solms-Baruth case for years, and is equally puzzled.
Mr Goldsmith says: “At the outset, I found it surprising that 75 years after the event, the descendant of one of the victims of Nazi expropriation was forced to resort to the courts to prove his right to recover his confiscated assets. Since then, the work of Friedrich and his legal team has unearthed new evidence that seems to strongly support his right to restitution under German law."
The new evidence is indeed highly compelling, and forms the basis of a new legal action in Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court. For one, Prince Friedrich’s team uncovered an ‘Oberfinanzprasident’ (OFP) file, which shows the description of his grandfather’s enterprises was legally changed to ‘state property’ by Nazi finance authorities.
The team also found a secret decree issued by Himmler in November 1943, which covered the administration of expropriated properties moving forward and effectively granted the SS carte blanche to cover their crimes with a veneer of legality, a clear model for the type of extra-judicial confiscation long claimed by Prince Friedrich III and his descendants has been established.
Prince Friedrich says: “Furthermore, my grandfather’s deed book, in which his properties were registered, contained the care-free remark ‘DESTROYED’ in reference to all entries. German authorities have always maintained this destruction occurred over the course of East German land reform instituted by the Communists 1945 – 1949, and this has been the sole basis on which we’ve been denied restitution. However, we commissioned a scientific expert to conduct a chemical analysis of the ink, which determined the notations to destroy could only have originated from the Nazi period."
What’s more, the OFP file was actively withheld by the state, secretly collecting dust in the federal Restitution Archive, the governmental body responsible for his case. On top of regaining their lost property, the Solms-Baruth family are also now determined to discover who knew about the contents of the file, since when, and why they remained silent so long.
Reason and Regeneration
The Solms-Baruth campaign is about far more than an aristocrat being denied a birth-right. For one, the family has long-made clear they wish to return the area to its former glory, creating jobs for the local community, attracting industry and stemming the exodus of indigenous inhabitants, particularly the young.
These ambitions are far from empty pledges, and indeed have historical pedigree. Friedrich V’s great-grandfather was something of a social pioneer, the first German employer to introduce a private pension fund for his staff - after a certain period of employment, workers even qualified for ownership of their homes and adjoining gardens. All their residences were also equipped with electricity and a private telephone, quite revolutionary at the time.
Prince Friedrich says: “He set a great example for all my family. If we can rebuild a positive working relationship with authorities, I’d certainly promote regional development, particularly employment opportunities. Unfortunately, the local Mayor and the State Government are doing all they can to prevent me from doing so. We’ve repeatedly offered the Mayor a settlement in order to break the stalemate and allow the town to flourish once again, but they’ve been utterly resistant to negotiation."
The end of the GDR created mass unemployment, not least due to an en masse fire-sale of ‘uncompetitive’ former nationalised industries by the newly-reunified state – in turn, ‘Ossis’ used their newfound freedom of movement to take flight westwards.
In the two decades post-Wiedervereinigung, the five states that once comprised the GDR lost 1.8 million citizens in all – while the flow has fallen significantly since, East German wages remain on average 15 percent lower and unemployment three percentage points higher (nine percent) than the national average, despite numerous efforts by Berlin to correct the socioeconomic imbalances that still exist to this day between the country’s two ‘halves’.
These abortive struggles make the federal government’s stubborn refusal to consider with the Solms-Baruth family’s claim all the more perplexing – after all, their generational campaign has already produced tangible results for the region, with “considerable” investment flowing in from abroad.
The local timber industry was quickly regenerated, and a foreign mineral water company adopted the area as a local base of operations. After that, “one thing led to another” until a large industrial park was established around Baruth - “this stopped when we officially launched litigation against the Federal Republic…all authorities stopped working with us,” Prince Friedrich laments.
Still, he’s determined to push on despite the obstruction, having recently purchased 300 hectares of industrial land adjoining this park – he aims to attract modern, green industry in the region, and promote eco-friendly tourism. Naturally though, realising his ambitions is contingent on authorities’ cooperation.
Just as importantly though, the Prince wishes to act as lightning rod for the “hundreds, if not thousands” of other families of victims of the Gestapo and/or SS who had their properties taken in the same nefarious manner as his grandfather, and were either misled into thinking their expropriation occurred after the Nazi apparatus was destroyed, or lost their cases due to courts erroneously deciding their cases had no basis in law.
Shining a Light on Dark Nazi Past
He says: “If I can help shine a light on these other cases, which we estimate are between 10 – 20 percent of cases currently still kept in the federal Restitution Archives, the historical and moral perspective of the case will have taken on a far wider significance than simply vindicating my grandfather and having the properties which the current Federal Government is holding onto so desperately returned."
Moreover, Prince Friedrich believes if the “playing down” of inconvenient, unpleasant yet crucial facts is established as permissible in Germany, it could mark a toxic regression to a “darker period”, in which the country’s legal system as created by the crafters of its constitution is “corroded and corrupted” by the slow but steady reinterpretation of established law.
To say the least eagerly awaits his day at the Federal Constitutional Court, but should the action fail, the next step will be the European Court of Human Rights, where he’ll be represented by Lord Goldsmith. He and his team will also continue their investigation, until they unravel the “incredible effort” authorities have invested in the “massive cover up”, which has denied his family what is rightfully theirs for so long.
Should his litigation be successful, a wave of similar actions may erupt across Germany, brought by the heirs of Nazi victims, in turn raising serious questions about whether, and to what extent, the legitimacy of their restitution claims was know all along by authorities but actively ignored or even suppressed, and why. I’ll be following developments in the Solms-Baruth case with great interest.