LONDON — The grandson of a German aristocrat involved in the “July plot” to kill Adolf Hitler will this week embark on the next stage of his family’s 30-year legal battle to recover properties that it claims were seized by the Nazis in the closing weeks of World War II.
According to his descendants, Prince Friedrich zu Solms-Baruth III was jailed and tortured for nine months by the Gestapo after the failure of Operation Valkyrie — which included the plot to kill Hitler — in July 1944 before being forced by Heinrich Himmler to hand over his ancestral lands in order to save his life and those of his family.
The family’s fight to recover its estates — launched in the early 1990s in the wake of German reunification — has faced repeated legal setbacks amid allegations of hidden files stashed in government archives.
It has also exposed new evidence about the possible role of the British intelligence services in the “July plot.” Hitler narrowly escaped death after a bomb planted by Count Claus von Stauffenberg exploded under a table during a military briefing at his Wolf’s Lair field headquarters in East Prussia. In the wake of the failed plot, more than 7,000 people were arrested and nearly 5,000 executed.
“It is iniquitous that my family’s property remains sequestered by the German state who prefer to uphold torture, murder and theft by a regime widely accepted as one of the most evil and corrupt in modern history,” Prince Friedrich zu Solms-Baruth V told The Times of Israel ahead of a new ruling from the Cottbus Administrative Court expected later this week.
The German courts have previously ruled that Friedrich III freely handed over his 17,500-hectare lands in Brandenburg, eastern Germany, to the SS chief. They have also dismissed British intelligence reports, unearthed by the younger Friedrich in South Africa a decade ago, that show that his grandfather’s arrest and the confiscation of his estates followed his involvement in the famed plot.
Although a small amount of the estate was returned by the state to the family in a 2003 settlement, the majority of it remains in the possession of the German government.
The German government has also claimed that the land was taken from Friedrich III as part of a postwar East German land reform program and crucial land registry files were destroyed by the East German communist regime. Germany’s restitution laws do not apply to events that occurred after the Nazis’ defeat.
But those claims have been undermined by the discovery of new evidence that proves that it was the Nazis, not the East Germans, who stole his family’s property, says Friedrich, who currently splits his time between South Africa and the south of France.
The legal fight is being supported by former British attorney general Lord Goldsmith. He will lead the battle at the European Court of Human Rights if the German courts again find against the family and the legal process in the country is exhausted.
But, Friedrich argues, the case isn’t just about the return of his family’s estates. He believes it could “shine a light” on the obstacles faced by others — most especially, German Jews — who are trying to recover property stolen by the Third Reich. It will also demonstrate to what degree modern-day Germany has “really learned the lessons from its dark past.”
Friedrich, the Nazis and the July plot
At the heart of the family’s case has been a sustained effort to demonstrate that Friedrich III lost his lands because of his role in the July plot.
Friedrich says his grandfather’s antipathy to Hitler was longstanding. “My grandfather was completely against Hitler even before he came to power. He saw the threat and he predicted that he would run Germany into the ground,” he says. Friedrich III also told friends and relatives that “I’d shoot the bastard myself if I could only get close enough to him.”
Friedrich III withstood SS pressure to join the Nazi party on many occasions and wouldn’t employ on his estate those who were members. He also refused to give the Nazi salute and forbade those working for him from doing so. The Nazi press was certainly no fan of the prince, accusing him of “not showing sufficient joy on the occasion of the Fuhrer’s birthday” and “trying to form a state within a state” on his vast lands.
Indeed, Friedrich III, who left the German army in order to avoid swearing an oath of allegiance to Hitler, also resisted the Nazis’ attempts to take land from him for military purposes and attempted to fight off their demands for huge quantities of timber and resin. Extraordinarily, he took these efforts to the courts. Eventually, the prince was officially and publicly accused of “sabotaging the war effort” and a Nazi administrator was appointed to run his Silesian estates in 1943. Ordered to stay away, the prince was effectively banished to his Brandenburg estate.
That Brandenburg estate was soon to play a highly secret role in Operation Valkyrie. Situated just 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the Wehrmacht’s headquarters at Zossen, on the outskirts of Berlin, it provided, Friedrich says, “perfect cover” for the plotters to meet ostensibly for a day’s horse riding. To further burnish the subterfuge, Friedrich III had his children join the rides, although at a safe “four horse lengths” behind the adults so they wouldn’t overhear their discussions. Riding out into the woods, the anti-Nazi military top brass could be sure they would be safe from Gestapo eavesdropping.
Friedrich III also allowed the plotters to engage in even more dangerous activities on his estate. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the former Abwehr intelligence chief who was heavily involved in the resistance to Hitler and was an old World War I comrade of the prince, used the estate as a base for a “crack sabotage unit,” says Friedrich. Situated in the guest wing of Baruth Castle, and camouflaged as an officers’ mess, it was run by the longtime resistance member Colonel Georg Hansen, a Canaris ally.
Research by the British historian Nigel West (the pen name of former Conservative MP Rupert Allason) commissioned by the family recently “confirmed that this then became the headquarters of the preparations of the 20 July plot,” says Friedrich.
“My grandfather was completely complicit in this, of course. Canaris thought that the Nazis would never think that a really serious unit would be stationed in the house of a known anti-Nazi, so it was like a double deception typical of Canaris,” he says.
Friedrich says the German courts, however, have rejected various evidence provided by the family to substantiate its claims. In 2014, for instance, they dismissed a sworn statement attesting to the prince’s anti-Nazi activities provided by Count Carl-Hans von Hardenberg, one of the few plotters directly implicated in Operation Valkyrie to survive the war.
Written in 1948, it stated that Friedrich III “never allowed himself to deviate from the path he recognised as just, despite all the difficulties and hinderances the Nazis placed in his path” and “rejected every concession throughout all the years.” It also confirmed that the prince was “extremely closely connected” to the July plotters, and was arrested and subjected to “sadistic” torture by the Gestapo as a result.
The courts, Friedrich alleges, were similarly dismissive of a 1947 British intelligence report that noted that relations between the prince and local Nazi officials were “never cordial and were sometimes strained.” The report also stated that Friedrich III was arrested and his estates confiscated “as a result of the plot of the 20th July, 1944.” It added that the prince had fallen under suspicion because of his closeness to Canaris and another key figure in the plot, General Ludwig Beck. Beck, a former chief of the General Staff, committed suicide on the evening of July 20, while Canaris was hanged in April 1945, two weeks before the liberation of the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
The 1947 report was requested by the then-prime minister of South Africa, Jan Smuts, following an appeal from Friedrich III that a farm he owned in Namibia not be seized and sold off. The prince had purchased the land in the late 1930s on the advice of Canaris as a way of transferring money out of Germany due to his opposition to the regime. Like other Allied countries, South Africa was in the process of disposing of enemy-owned assets. On the basis of the report, the South African government allowed the prince to keep the farm and granted the family citizenship. Friedrich III died in Namibia in 1951.
When the younger Friedrich presented the German court with the document, however, it was labeled “a report of some foreign intelligence agency ineligible as proof.” Noting that the Allies occupied and governed Germany at the time the report was compiled, Friedrich says: “This is clear evidence of the confiscation because no one else had the authority in 1947 to make such an unbiased statement since there was no German government… and it really wouldn’t have been in the Allies’ interest to make a positive report on a German at that time if it hadn’t been correct.”
The Otto John discovery
During the course of his research, West also uncovered an intriguing clue hinting at the possible involvement of the British intelligence services in Operation Valkyrie. Historians have previously presumed the plot was solely the work of the German resistance.
But, by accessing declassified files belonging to the UK’s domestic spy agency, West found that one of the plotters, Dr. Otto John, had been a British agent since 1942. Codenamed “Whisky,” John was a lawyer for Lufthansa and was thus able to travel regularly to neutral Spain and Portugal. In the two years preceding the plot, John met with his British handlers, Rita Winsor and Graham Maingot, at least 12 times. “It is absurd to assume that they would have been talking about the weather,” jokes Friedrich. Instead, it appears, John was acting as a liaison between Hansen in Berlin and British intelligence in London.
“Based on this astonishing new evidence, it is completely inconceivable that the British did not know, have an opinion on, nor participate in such a momentous plot,” West said in a press statement. “We now know that Otto John was an MI6 asset, and has a large MI6 file. If this can be released, it will show the British involvement in Valkyrie and the role of Otto John as the ‘missing link.’”
Moreover, West’s findings prove that the British obtained the information about Friedrich III contained in the 1947 intelligence files thanks to the direct line of communication between Hansen and John.
Himmler’s cunning ploy
But why didn’t Himmler simply execute Friedrich III and seize his estates rather than attempting to make it appear as if he had consented to them being legally transferred?
The younger Friedrich says the reason is wrapped up in the SS chief’s race to build a financial war chest to fulfill his ambition to succeed Hitler.
“He knew that his Gestapo and SS had to be completely financially independent when the time came. At that time, in 1944, timber was an extremely valuable raw source of material,” Friedrich says. But had Himmler opted to have the prince sent before the notorious People’s Court and hanged, his property would automatically have fallen into the hands of the state finance ministry and the SS chief would have lost control of it.
Himmler thus cooked up a “very clever scheme.” Delivered to Friedrich III in writing, it demanded that the prince hand over full control of his estates to Himmler, with the appointment of a manager concealing the SS’s control over the land. In return, the prince would be freed and his imperiled family saved. The “offer,” moreover, was nonnegotiable and not a word in the legal document transferring the property was to be changed.
“That was very clear coercion,” suggests Friedrich, who has also uncovered a secret decree issued by Himmler in late 1943 which, his team argues, provides “a step-by-step template for the theft by the SS/Gestapo of private property and the means to conceal this from competing Nazis groups.” The decree “effectively granted the SS/Gestapo carte blanche to cover their crimes with a veneer of legality,” outlining a “legal structure without revealing that Himmler was the new ‘owner’” similar to that used in the case of Friedrich III.
“Now, the German state are saying that was negotiated on an equal playing field with the Gestapo and my grandfather needn’t have signed. After all, the wording in the document was legal then and therefore it’s legal now and… it was notarized,” says Friedrich. “It’s extremely cynical and absurd.”
The courts, he adds, refused to hear from experts, such as the renowned British historian Sir Anthony Beevor, who backed the family’s case.
Nonetheless, Friedrich says he is “much more optimistic” about how the case may now unfold. “We have proven the case way beyond reasonable doubt. We have proven it 100 percent,” he says.
The source of that optimism is what Friedrich’s team describes as the “backbone” of their new claim — the discovery in 2019 of a “restitution file” in the “Restitution Archive” of the BADV, the state body responsible for unresolved property matters. The restitution file contained documents ordering the destruction of the deed book entries [28.50] pertaining to Friedrich III’s estates. These, Friedrich’s lawyer, Christian Linde, states, prove incontrovertibly the Nazis’ intent to conceal their theft of his grandfather’s property.
In 2014, the courts ruled that in order to qualify for restitution, orders to transfer Friedrich III’s land must be proved to have been issued before May 1945. Friedrich’s legal team argues that a chemical ink analysis he commissioned of the “destruction orders” shows the ink used in them dates from the Nazi period and thus meets the bar set by the courts seven years ago. He also alleges that the BADV withheld the “case-turning proof” despite having previously claimed under oath to have presented all documents relating to the claim.
Contacted by The Times of Israel, the BADV said it could not provide information on ongoing administrative proceedings.
The discovery of the files also proves, believes Friedrich, that the deeds and property were not lost, as the state has long maintained, during the course of land reforms carried out by the East German Communists. Indeed, he says, his team has also gained access to East German records where they found written instructions from top officials not to touch his grandfather’s property during the course of its land reforms. Those instructions, Friedrich argues, reflect the fact that, as far as the Communists were concerned, the estates were already state property having been previously seized by the Nazis and administered by them as “state property.” (Only private property could be confiscated under the Communists’ land reforms).
More restitution cases?
Friedrich believes that with the discovery of the allegedly withheld BADV restitution files, his legal battle has taken on a “much larger dimension” than simply his grandfather’s case. His lawyer, he says, estimates that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 similar cases “slumbering” in the state restitution archive that have also not been disclosed. The files, he believes, “might very well be to a great extent” related to property stolen from Jewish families toward whom the Gestapo mainly “directed its kleptomania.”
“If I could shine a light on that, that would be tremendous,” Friedrich says. While Germany has “made several high-profile and much-publicized institutions,” he says, “justice still remains to be done in this case and many other outstanding cases of clear Gestapo theft.” Friedrich also wants the case to show younger generations how the Nazis “invented these perfidious, very clever methods to cloak their crimes in a veneer of legality.”
Friedrich believes that the ruling may also answer a wider question about 21st century Germany’s relationship with the regime that plunged Europe into war, and presided over the murder of millions, 80 years ago.
“Germany repeatedly states that the Nazi guilt is immeasurable, but I believe that through this landmark case of Nazi crimes against one family — particularly the family of a man of the 20th July — Germany has a real chance now to demonstrate that it has really learned the lessons from its dark past,” Friedrich says.
“If the courts continue to ignore the evidence before them, and deliberately avoid the historical circumstances, and if the state continues to hide evidence — it’s doubtful that they would have done this only in our case — then yet another green light will be set for the perpetration of Nazi crimes when the fiscal interests of the state are at play, especially when they feel unobserved,” he says.
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