Prince Friedrich zu Solms-Baruth III slept with two Luger pistols as he colluded to kill Adolf Hitler near the end of World War II.
Riding on horseback into the woods of his 17,000-hectare estate in eastern Germany, the anti-Nazi aristocrat hosted secret meetings to discuss the assassination plot, which was codenamed Operation Valkyrie.
The plan failed, with the German dictator walking away with only a burst eardrum and shredded clothes from the blast of a bomb that one of the conspirators had placed in a briefcase beneath an oak conference table. Though spared a death sentence, Solms-Baruth was imprisoned, tortured and eventually lost control of the land his family had owned for centuries.
Today, on the eve of Operation Valkyrie’s 75th anniversary, the timing of that land transfer has become the focus of a two-decade legal battle between the German government and Solms-Baruth’s descendants as they seek to reclaim the property. His namesake grandson has new evidence -- a chemical analysis of ink on paperwork related to the estate -- that he claims is proof the Nazi regime forced Solms-Baruth to sign over the land.
“I was brought up as a child with the aim and instruction by my father this litigation is what we should do if Germany ever reunified,” said the fifth and current Friedrich zu Solms-Baruth, 55. “He never thought he would ever see the day, and when he did he started litigation right away.”
While confiscations by the Nazis were generally overturned after 1989, the German unification treaty holds that seizures during the period immediately after the war remain unaffected. Solms-Baruth V claims the ink used on instructions to destroy any paperwork relating to his family’s estate predates that period.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig, which is hearing the case, declined to comment on pending litigation, while the finance ministry didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment.
The case underscores how Germany is still grappling with the fallout from the rise of Hitler, whose downfall led to the country’s postwar split and the creation of East Germany as a satellite of the Soviet Union. Since the end of the war, the state has paid out more than 2 billion euros ($2.24 billion) to Nazi victims who lost property in former East Germany, government data show, and that may climb if others follow the lead of the Solms-Baruths.
“The figures could be astronomical,” Solms-Baruth V said. “By now, it’s become much larger than vindicating my grandfather and not letting them get away with it in the case of our family.”
Aristocratic dynasties like the Solms-Baruths can pass down the titles they held in Germany’s monarchic age. Prince Friedrich V traces his clan’s origins back more than 500 years and counts the U.K.’s Duke of Edinburgh -- the husband of Queen Elizabeth II -- among his distant relations.
The Solms-Baruths aren’t the only German family probing for answers about their ancestors during the Nazi era. This year, the billionaire Reimann family -- whose JAB Holding Co. owns Keurig Dr Pepper Inc., Panera Bread and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts -- revealed that they have asked a historian to research the clan’s ties to the regime. A report on the findings is expected next year.
Chancellor Angela Merkel paid tribute to the plotters on Saturday, without delving into unresolved claims from the past.
“The women and men of the resistance acted out a deep moral conviction,” she said in a speech in Berlin. “By following their conscience, they proved to be true patriots. We have to ensure that history’s lessons do not fade away.”
Germany faced a surge of claims for lost real estate after its reunification in 1990. Before then, only West Germany had laws allowing the return of property seized by the Nazis. Along with lost property, the state has paid Jewish groups, conscientious objectors and homosexuals who became victims of the regime.
Four years after the Solms-Baruths started their litigation, they reached a partial settlement that excluded properties on the estate owned by local governments. Funds from that deal helped to pay legal and research costs incurred by Solms-Baruth V, who took over handling the case after his father’s 2006 death. It now consumes most of his time.
“Human greed” is the simple answer as to why the Nazis seized property, said German attorney Stephan Glantz, who represented local governments and families, including his own, in cases on East German property rights. “The confiscated assets somehow went to people who were friends of Nazi leaders,” he said, speaking generally. “They stole and gave to friends and allies to keep them good.”
Released from prison in the closing months of World War II, Solms-Baruth III stayed in Germany with the hope of convincing Russian forces of his anti-Nazi ideology. Yet he shortly learned of plans to arrest him at a town hall meeting with a Russian general, prompting him to flee the building through a restroom window.
He then led his family to a farm in former German colony Namibia, one of his few remaining assets, accompanied by his chauffeur and valet. En route, the Solms-Baruths stopped in Denmark to stay with a relative who had married the brother of the country’s king. They later traveled to Stockholm as guests of Swedish gentry until they could finally board a ship to Africa.
Solms-Baruth III died in 1951. His son eventually made a living farming animals for hunting -- a far different subsistence from the timber companies in the family’s former estate almost 8,000 miles away. Solms-Baruth V grew up expecting to become a farmer, too. Yet now he and his family have a chance to reclaim what they see as stolen property, and he doesn’t plan to give up the fight.
“There is too much at stake from a moral point of view,” he said. “Once you go in this direction, you don’t turn back.”