Baron Gotthard von Winterfeld hadn't seen his ancestors' feudal estate in nearly half a century. When he finally did so 12 years ago, after the fall of the Berlin wall, his eyes filled with tears. His forefathers first settled in the tiny village of Neuenfeld, on the plains of northern Brandenburg, in the 13th century. A hundred years ago they'd built a handsome manor house on the property. But all that remained was a low pile of stones, overgrown with birches and weeds. The brick outbuildings still stood, but their roofs leaked and the interiors were rotting. "Everything was gone," the now-73-year-old recalls thinking as he sat on an old gravestone with his son Jorn, but he knew what he had to do. "We owed it to the family to come back and rebuild."
Many other blue-blooded German families feel the same way. Driven off their agricultural estates in East Germany by the Soviet Army in 1945, their homesteads pillaged and lands expropriated, these rustic country squires were considered "class enemies" and banished. But since the communist regime collapsed, some 50 families of the old nobility have gone back, drawn to their ancient roots. With them, they've brought much-needed Western initiative to a backward and struggling region. But it's not been easy: most of the rural land in east Germany is owned by powerful, ex-communist officials known as "red barons." Most aren't very keen to see the blue bloods return, viewing them as traitors to the working class--and unwelcome competitors.
Before they can buy their old property, the former gentry must first persuade local officials to rent it to them. A dubious 1990 law forbids any purchase of land until it's been leased for 10 years. That's what Baron Winterfeld did, and he's only now starting to buy back his 400-hectare former property, parcel by parcel. He has fixed up the old outbuildings, cleared the grounds and turned the former estate into a modern farm, where he and his sons grow wheat, barley and rye. The manor house is still rubble, but the baron dreams of the day when his sons or grandchildren will be prosperous enough to rebuild it. Most of the blue bloods have sold their homes in western Germany and are using savings and pension money to start anew. "It will be a couple of generations before we can think of making money," Winterfeld says. "But we're here to stay."
The red barons are not making life easy for the old guard. In the village of Blankensee, where Count and Countess von Hahn found the remains of their manor house abandoned, a hostile mayor would not allow the family to fix the leaking roof to save the building from further damage. They waited him out, however, and eventually a less hard-line mayor was elected. He allowed the von Hahns to refurbish the house and grow sheep, cattle and grain on 400 leased hectares of the family's former land. Winterfeld says he had to go to court to fight for the public start-up loan he was entitled to by law, after ex-communist officials in the state capital, Potsdam, blocked his application.
Older villagers seem pleased to have the aristos back. They still recall the days when the entire village worked on the wealthy estates as farmhands, shepherds or coachmen. "We all think it's good that they're back," says Anneliese Arndt, 71, whose mother was a cook at Wilsickow Castle, an hour north of Berlin. "They belong here." Today she's best friends with Baroness Gudrun von Holtzendorff, a scrappy, energetic 75-year-old whose family has returned to Wilsickow after a 50-year absence. As it once did, the estate has become a welcome supplier of jobs: the Holtzendorffs have turned the castle into a boarding school that employs half a dozen locals.
Whether they want to or not, the aristocrats are re-establishing their position in the rural social order as well--an order that has somehow survived war and 50 years of stifling communism. At the Winterfeld's estate, the village council meets in the baron's living room. When the Holtzendorff family painted run-down Wilsickow Castle a fresh ochre, many of the villagers soon painted their houses the same color. "We've worked very hard, and that's brought us respect," Baroness von Holtzendorff explains. And the blue bloods are in turn bringing some economic vitality to a region that needs the help.