The title of Holding the Stirrup refers to the practice of a medieval lady upon her husband’s departure for battle. She would literally hold the stirrup of her husband’s saddle as he mounted his horse, symbolizing her promise of support and fidelity while the knight was gone.
Baroness Elisabeth von Guttenberg was a lady of the old German aristocracy, descended from the knights of Holy Roman Empire, and this book is her memoirs as told to an American author in the 1950s.
Elisabeth lived from 1900-1998 and grew up in a fairytale world of castles and emperors, a world that was shattered as she came of age during the first and second world wars. She is from the same generation as Mary Crawley of Downton Abbey or Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
As devout Catholics, Baroness Elisabeth and her husband were opposed to Hitler and heavily involved in the Nazi resistance movement. Her cousin Claus von Stauffenberg was the man who planted the bomb to assassinate Hitler, and she details what led up to those events and what happened to Stauffenberg’s pregnant wife and young children after his execution. Elisabeth put herself in danger attempting to track them while they were moved from concentration camp to concentration camp.
The prose was plainly written; this was a book to read for the plot, not the style, and the insight into what life was like in Germany during the war, especially for those who did not join in Hitler’s mania.
I generally think of the European aristocracy as a bunch of selfish barons who took whatever they could get from the poor. This book provides a very different perspective on political leadership and the responsibility at least some wealthy felt to care for the people under their lordship. It’s something completely outside the American experience but well worth contemplating.
Another aspect of the book I found fascinating was the perspective Baroness Elisabeth gave on the invading Allied troops. Her husband and sons, all members of the Nazi military while still part of the resistance, were relieved when they were sent to the Russian front because at least they would be fighting people they considered real enemies. They believed the other Allies were fighting for the good. This was not in the book (I read it on Wikipedia), but one of her sons defied Nazi orders to shoot Jews, saying he would shoot SS members instead.
When the war was ending, they prayed daily that the Americans would reach them before the Russians. The Russians burned and destroyed, while the Americans had a reputation for being friendly and respectful. The Americans did reach them first, and Elisabeth risked execution by the SS by raising the flag of surrender over Guttenberg Castle against Hitler’s orders.
Highly recommended! I found the book used on Amazon, but it can also be purchased here.
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