History shows us that aristocrats have plenty to teach us

The late Duke of Westminster (PA/Toby Melville)

I once read that the saint sets the standard for holiness, the genius for intellectual creativity and the aristocrat for good manners. By “good manners” I don’t mean how you hold your knife and fork, but the refinement and courtesy with which you treat your fellow men.

The French phrase “noblesse oblige” emphasises the obligation of noble birth to act responsibly towards the other classes.

In our egalitarian society this notion now seems archaic. Nonetheless, reading the Telegraph obituary earlier this month of Gerald Grosvenor, the sixth Duke of Westminster, I was reminded of it.

Unlike his arrogant and extravagant ancestor, the second Duke, known as “Bend Or”, after a race horse, the sixth Duke took his responsibilities very seriously, supported many worthy charities and donated a great deal of money to good causes.

Adrian Tinniswood’s The Long Weekend, describing the life of the British aristocracy between the wars, paints a picture in which eccentricity and leisurely pursuits played a large part: clearly more “noblesse” than “oblige”.

This was in contrast to the Prussian aristocracy at a similar time, which was characterised by duty, tradition and conservatism.

I have just finished reading Matriarch of Conspiracy: Ruth von Kleist 1867-1945 by Jane Pejsa. Ruth had been born into the West Prussian (Pomeranian) Junker aristocracy, with all the strengths and weaknesses of her class.

Kissed by Bismarck, the most famous of the Junkers, on her christening day, she grew up a devout Lutheran with an “unerring sense of what was right and wrong”.

The three Junker ideas were “God, fatherland and family”. Ruth was to write her own interpretation of them: “Hand in hand with the land goes a veritable sea of responsibility that must be shared by all those who live on it, including the pastor, the teacher and the peasants.”

The word ‘peasants’ reminds us that Prussia was still a semi-feudal society; unlike the British aristocracy it had not faced a 19th century industrial revolution that had changed forever the relationship between master and servant.

During the last war, which was to destroy her Prussian homeland and its ancient squirearchy for good, Ruth von Kleist befriended the German Lutheran pastor and martyr, Dietrich von Bonhoeffer, never wavering in her rejection of the anti-Christian Nazi Party.

I wonder if a similarly impressive English aristocratic ‘matriarch’ would have arisen if our own wartime history had been reversed.