Book Review: Holding the Stirrup By Baroness Elisabeth von und zu Guttenberg

Book Review: Holding the Stirrup By Baroness Elisabeth von und zu Guttenberg

Dr. Peter E. Chojnowski

The very name of the author of the text Holding the Stirrup, Baroness Elisabeth von und zu Guttenberg is educative for English-speakers unfamiliar with the texture of traditional European culture. The “von” indicating, in the Baroness’s case, that her husband’s family was from the castle of Guttenberg, while the “und zu” or “and at,” indicate that they are still in possession of the castle from which their family originated. The Baroness Elisabeth herself was born Elisabeth von und zu der Tann-Rathsamhausen, a direct descendant of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and daughter to a baron who would come out of retirement to be the military commander of Munich during the First World War.

I have always thought that the most salient problem with most history texts and academic historians is their inability to “put themselves in the shoes” of the people living at the times they portray. What did it “feel” like, what was it like to grab the hands or look into the faces of the people “making” history by their free actions and concrete choices? Baroness Elizabeth von Guttenberg gives us a lived account of the tragic European drama as it “progressed” from her childhood visits to the “fairylike” Nymphenburg Castle as a guest of King Ludwig III of Bavaria, and her frequent excursions to see her uncle, Bishop Count John Mikes during the pre-World War I “long peace” in Hungary, through her romantic marriage to Baron George-Enoch von Guttenberg, a leading figure in the Monarchist movement to restore the Bavarian monarchy during the economic and political chaos of the pre-Hitler period, to, finally, her heart-rending account of the desperate attempt on the part of her sister-in-law’s brother-in-law Count Claus von Stauffenberg to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the attempted rising on July 20, 1944.

Besides the riveting account of the decades-long friendship between the Baroness and the Catholic mystic and stigmatist Theresa Neumann, the main benefit which American and other English-speaking readers can draw from this book is the historical fact, more or less unknown, that it was primarily the traditional Catholic elites of Germany, noblemen, who were normally Monarchists and Corporatists (i.e., “right-wingers”), who risked both their lives and those of their families to rid Germany of Adolf Hitler, whose ideology of National Socialism was another modern attempt to establish a civilization which was to be an anti-Christendom. If the almost dreamlike account of Baroness von Guttenberg’s childhood and early wedded life amidst the still flourishing aristocratic circles of Europe puts the reader off, wait. The conspiracy to end Germany’s nightmare by means of the death of Adolf Hitler will hold the reader in an agonizing grip. From the scene in which Elisabeth and Enoch hear a Nazi mob outside their window shouting “Enoch, we don’t want your king,” indicating that the final attempt to thwart Hitler’s take over in Bavaria in 1933 had failed, to the Baroness’s bold visits to Gestapo headquarters in order to try to locate and save members of the Stauffenberg family who had been set for execution under Hitler’s post-coup attempt “punishment of the tribe” decree, we are unable to disengage from the text. After being involved, through her husband, sons, and male in-laws, in the conspiracy, we are at a loss to describe our emotions when we hear on the radio, with her, Hitler himself speak the words “The bomb, which was planted by Colonel Count von Stauffenberg…injured several of my colleagues.…I, myself, am wholly unhurt.” The Noble Rising had completely failed.

It is, however, the Baroness’s abiding and sincere love for her husband Enoch and her fearless assumption of his chivalric cause, her “holding of his stirrup,” which presents to us an ideal of womanhood that is one of the finest fruits of our glorious Christian past.