The Junkers (// YUUNG-kər; German: [ˈjʊŋkɐ]) were the members of the landed nobility in Prussia. They owned great estates that were maintained and worked by peasants with few rights. They were an important factor in Prussian and, after 1871, German military, political and diplomatic leadership. The most famous Junker was Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.
Those who lived in the eastern provinces that either were annexed by Poland or the Soviet Union or became East Germany fled or were expelled by the Soviet or the Polish or East German communist regime after 1944 and their lands were confiscated. In western and southern Germany, the land was often owned by small independent farmers or a mixture of small farmers and estate owners, and this system was often contrasted with the dominance of the large estate owners of the east.
Junker is derived from Middle High German Juncherre, meaning "young nobleman" or otherwise "young lord" (derivation of jung and Herr), and originally was the title of members of the higher edelfrei (immediate) nobility without or before the accolade. It evolved to a general denotation of a young or lesser noble, often poor and politically insignificant, understood as "country squire" (cf. Martin Luther's disguise as "Junker Jörg" at the Wartburg; he would later mock King Henry VIII of England as "Juncker Heintz"). As part of the nobility, many Junker families only had prepositions such as von or zu before their family names without further ranks. The abbreviation of Junker is Jkr., most often placed before the given name and titles, for example: Jkr. Heinrich von Hohenberg. The female equivalent Junkfrau (Jkfr.) was used only sporadically. In some cases, the honorific Jkr. was also used for Freiherren (Barons) and Grafen (Counts).
A good number of poorer Junkers took up careers as soldiers (Fahnenjunker), mercenaries and officials (Hofjunker, Kammerjunker) at the court of territorial princes. These families were mostly part of the German medieval Uradel and had carried on the colonization and Christianization of the northeastern European territories during the Ostsiedlung. Over the centuries, they had become influential commanders and landowners, especially in the lands east of the Elbe River in the Kingdom of Prussia.
As landed aristocrats, the Junkers owned most of the arable land in Prussia. Being the bulwark of the ruling House of Hohenzollern, the Junkers controlled the Prussian Army, leading in political influence and social status, and owning immense estates, especially in the north-eastern half of Germany (i.e. the Prussian provinces of Brandenburg, Pomerania, Silesia, West Prussia, East Prussia and Posen). This was in contrast to the predominantly Catholic southern states such as the kingdoms of Bavaria or the Grand Duchy of Baden, where land was owned by small farms, or the mixed agriculture of the western states like the Grand Duchy of Hesse or even the Prussian Rhine and Westphalia provinces.
The Junkers held a virtual monopoly on all agriculture in the East Elbian part of the German Reich. Since the Junker estates were necessarily inherited by the eldest son alone, younger sons, all well educated and with a sense of noble ancestry, turned to the civil and military services, and dominated all higher civil offices, as well as the officer corps. Around 1900 they modernized their farming operations to increase productivity. They sold off less productive land, invested more heavily in blooded cattle and hogs, used new fertilizers, increased grain production, and improved productivity per worker. They obtained high tariffs that reduced competition from American grain and meat.
Their political influence extended from the German Empire of 1871–1918 through the Weimar Republic of 1919–1933. It was said that "if Prussia ruled Germany, the Junkers ruled Prussia, and through it the Empire itself."
Supporting monarchism and military traditions, they were seen as reactionary, anti-democratic and protectionist by liberals and Socialists, as they had sided with the conservative monarchist forces during the Revolution of 1848. Their political interests were served by the German Conservative Party in the Reichstag and the extraparliamentary Agriculturists' League (Bund der Landwirte). This political class held tremendous power over industrial classes and government alike, especially by the Prussian three-class franchise. When the German chancellor Leo von Caprivi in the 1890s reduced the protective duties on imports of grain, these landed magnates demanded and obtained his dismissal; and in 1902, they brought about a restoration of such duties on foodstuffs as would keep the prices of their own products at a high level.
The expression descending from the disputes over the domestic policies of the German Empire was perpetuated as a general denotation by sociologists like Max Weber and even adopted by members of the landed class themselves. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was a noted Junker, though his family descended from the Altmark region west of the Elbe. After World War I many Prussian agriculturists gathered in the national conservative German National People's Party (DNVP), the term was also applied to Reich President Paul von Hindenburg, lord at Neudeck in West Prussia, and to the "camarilla" around him urging the appointment of Adolf Hitler as German chancellor, personified by men like Hindenburg's son Oskar and his West Prussian "neighbour" Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau, who played a vital role in the Eastern Aid (Osthilfe) scandal of 1932/33.
Landowners like Helmuth James Graf von Moltke and the members of the Kreisau Circle were part of the German resistance to Nazi Germany rule. As World War II turned against Nazi Germany several senior Junkers in the Army participated in Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg's assassination attempt of 20 July 1944.[clarification needed] Fifty-eight were executed when the plot failed, among them Erwin von Witzleben and Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort, or committed suicide like Henning von Tresckow. During the advancement of the Red Army in the closing months of the war and subsequent, most Junkers had to flee from the eastern territories that were turned over to the re-established Republic of Poland with the implementation of the Oder-Neisse line according to the Potsdam Agreement.
After World War II, during the communist Bodenreform (land reform) of September 1945 in the Soviet Occupation Zone, later East Germany, all private property exceeding an area of 100 hectares (250 acres) was expropriated, and then predominantly allocated to 'New Farmers' on condition that they continued farming them. As most of these large estates, especially in Brandenburg and Western Pomerania, had belonged to Junkers, the government promoted their plans with the slogan Junkerland in Bauernhand! ("Junker land into farmer's hand"). The former owners were reproached with war crimes and involvement into the Nazi regime by the Soviet Military Administration, many of them were interned in NKVD special camps (Speziallager), while their property was plundered and the manor houses demolished. From 1952 these individual farms were pressured by a variety of means to join together as collectives and incorporated into Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaften ("agricultural production comradeships", LPG) or nationalised as Volkseigene Güter ("publicly owned estates", VEG).
After German reunification, some Junkers tried to regain their former estates through civil lawsuits, but the German courts have upheld the land reforms and rebuffed claims to full compensation, confirming the legal validity of the terms within the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany (Two Plus Four Agreement) (and incorporated into the Basic Law of the Federal Republic), by which expropriations of land under Soviet Occupation were irreversible. The last decisive case was the unsuccessful lawsuit of Prince Ernst August of Hanover in September 2006, when the Federal Administrative Court decided that the prince had no right to compensation for the disseized estates of the House of Hanover around Blankenburg Castle in Saxony-Anhalt. Other families, however, have quietly purchased or leased back their ancestral homes from the current owners (often the German federal government in its role as trustee). A petition for official rehabilitation of the ousted landowners has been rejected by the German Bundestag in 2008.
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Last year [in] the east German state of Brandenburg... I came across half a dozen members of the Prussian diaspora—their parents had fled the communists in 1945 and settled in West Germany—who had become wealthy (an eye surgeon, a gallery owner, a banker) and returned to buy back and restore their crumbling ancestral homes.
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- Weber, Max. "National Character and the Junkers," in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (Routledge classics in sociology) (1991)