Principality of Reuss Elder Line – the smallest federal state

 In States, Uncategorized

We are in the year 1900 after Christ. All of Germany is dominated by the Prussians. All of Germany? No! An indomitable prince of a principality populated by Thuringians is still resisting Emperor Wilhelm II.

Well, not quite. Although the reigning Prince Heinrich XXII was forced to subordinate himself during the foundation of the German Reich, he remained an opponent of the unified Reich and adversary of the Prussian Emperor Wilhelm II until his death in 1902.

The irony of the story is that his daughter Hermione became the second wife of the emperor. They married in 1922 after his first wife, Empress Auguste Victoria, died in 1921.

In the little principality of the Reuss Elder Line everything has always been a bit different. Here, parliamentary meetings were held in inns, constitutions were adopted but never enforced and inclusion practiced since the early 20th century. For instance, a prince who became mentally handicapped through an accident (he was represented by the prince regent of the close relatives from Reuss Junior Line) was still popular in public life and respected by the people. Finally, it was the only state that was debt-free in the Empire (at least until 1914).

The smallest principality, presently located in Thuringia, was then enclosed by the former states of Prussia, Bavaria, Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt and Saxony.

The country had a total of 72,600 inhabitants. Of these about 23,000 lived in the royal town of Greiz and 10,400 in the second city, Zeulenroda (figures from 1910).

As manageable as the size of the capital Greiz was (and is), there was nonetheless an ‘Under Greiz’ and an ‘Upper Greiz’, sometimes governed by different rulers. The two well-preserved castles, a ‘lower’ and an ‘upper’ one, today function as museums.

However, as the name suggests, there must have been other Reus lines. Let us have a look at the history for a moment:

The earliest documented forefather of the Heinrichinger family, from which the ‘Reuss’ lines emerged, is Erkenbert, who was from Weida and whose line was granted extensive privileges by the Emperor Heinrich VI.

It is said that for this reason all male descendants have the first name ‘Heinrich’. Throughout the centuries this continued – until today! As far as the origin of the name ‘Reuss’ is concerned, it is assumed that it derives from the Old German name for ‘the Russian’ but which Russian connection this was exactly is unknown.

A bailiff was a kind of steward who was placed by the Emperor in a particular area. The governors of Weida, Plauen and Greiz rose quickly in imperial favor and were generously awarded privileges by the emperor at the beginning of the 14th century with the “Golden Bull of the Vogtland” (in German: ‘land of the bailiffs’). The county ‘Vogtland’ got its name from the land of the bailiffs.

In 1564, the land was  divided into three lines, Obergreiz got the Reuss Middle Line, Untergreiz the Elder Line and Gera the Junior Line..

To speak of all ruling ‘Heinrichs’ in the different centuries would go beyond the scope of this discussion. Therefore, we are focusing on some periods that were important for the development of this small princely state:

Prince Henry XI. (1722-1800): esthete & visionary

The lines ‘Obergreiz’ and ‘Untergreiz’ with their various rulers existed until 1768. Then the ‘Untergreizer’ line disappeared and the ‘Obergreizer’ Prince Henry XI took over this line with the associated Lower Castle. As a young man, he had enjoyed an excellent education at the pietistic Köstritzer court of his guardian, Count Heinrich XXIV at Reuss-Köstritz. He was also acquainted with the ideals of the Enlightenment. His cavalier trip took him through France, Switzerland, Italy and other German states.

What exactly was a ‘cavalier trip’ or a Grand Tour? They were trips designed to complete a gentleman’s education and they were obligatory for the nobility and later for the upper middle class. Mostly they went abroad, very often to Italy.

It was at the Köstritzer Hof, that Heinrich XI probably met his later wife Conradine, the daughter of his guardian. They married in 1743 and they had 11 children. In the same year, he took over the rule in ‘Obergreiz’. There he renovated the castle turning it into a sumptuous place of power that included a court library following the ideas of the Enlightenment.

In 1778, after the takeover of the ‘Untergreizer’ line and after several attempts, Heinrich XI finally succeeded to be raised to hereditary imperial princely status by the Roman-German Emperor Joseph II in Vienna.

This status meant a legal security for the ruling princes. This later became important for the sovereignty of the small state.

The progressive prince promoted a high school in his principality and founded a priest and school teacher seminary.

Even in 1793 after his 50-years in power, Heinrich XI was still celebrated as a ruler. In 1800 he passed away and was buried with great care by the people and nobility.

Prince Henry XIII. (1747-1817): strategist in military and politics

In the first years of his reign, two fires shook the city: In 1802 a large part of the city of Greiz, as well as the church and the lower castle were destroyed by a devastating fire. In 1804 more houses of the same town were destroyed in a second fire. Henry XIII reacted pragmatically in two ways. Firstly, in 1804, he issued a “provisional order of fire” to prevent future fires. This was rather unsuccessful as it did not prevent future devastating fires in Greiz.

Secondly, for the reconstruction of the church, Henry XIII, who was also the regional bishop of the Protestant church, had the zinc coffins of his ancestors melted down to buy the bricks for the new church – of course they were made in the prince’s brickworks.

After the second fire, his wife Wilhelmine Louise donated 100 thaler from her private coffers to the victims – after all over 30 families lost their home.

The ‘Lower Castle’ was rebuilt in a late-Classicist style and from 1809 it became the residence of the royal family while the ‘Upper Castle’ became the official seat of the state government.

Heinrich was a skillful tactician in the armed conflicts in which the German states and other countries were involved in during this time. These conflicts threatened the security and sovereignty of each state’s territory. For this reason, he joined the Rhine Confederation in 1806 and fought on the side of France. In 1813, when the war was lost after the Battle of Leipzig (link to the report of the Battle of the Nations monument) the country was briefly placed under Saxon tutelage. However, this was reversed in 1814 and he became the regent of his country once again. He intensively cultivated good connections to the imperial court in Vienna. Henry XIII joined the imperial Austrian army as early as 1766 and was very successful during his time there, reaching the rank of lieutenant general.

At the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15, he participated as an observer. It was probably partly through his good relations with Austria and the Habsburgs that his princely state profited from the reorganisation of Europe – he gained 3 villages, a homestead and a forest area from Saxony!

In 1815, the ‘Reuss Elder Line’ joined the German Confederation. It was to be the last far-reaching political decision made by the prince, who died in 1817.

In between: a look at the country

Before we devote ourselves to the last reigning prince, let’s take a look at the country itself – what did it look like in the 19th century?

The main money earner was the wool trade – in 1850 there were at least 84 industrial companies processing wool and the trend was rising. The number of inhabitants of the country showed that the economy prospered: from 1837 to 1868, the population grew from around 31,500 to almost 44,000 – an increase of about 40%! The reason for this was not only more children but also internal migration from the surrounding countries such as the Kingdom of Saxony and Grand Duchy of Weimar-Eisenach. In the second half of the century, industrialization began to intensify. Hand-woven weaving was gradually replaced by textile factories based on the English model. In 1862 the first mechanical weaving loom was introduced and in 1868 there were already 200 of this type. With the construction of the railway connection Greiz – Brunn in 1865 and the  Gera – Greiz line in 1875, the corresponding transport infrastructure was created. The little country developed into a prospering industrial state.

The March Revolution of 1848 left its mark on all German states – even the Reuss Elder Line. The country had always been rather conservative –there was no constitution, peasants still had to provide Corvée labour and there was still censorship and patrimonial jurisdiction (which will be explained later).

Although the people of the small country were not known for their rebelliousness, after the 1848 revolution popular meetings were held and petitions with the people’s demands were presented. To de-escalate the situation, the prince (at that time, it was Henry XX) had to do something!

It was decided to create a constitution and found a state parliament. However, the first draft for the composition of the ‘Landtag’ showed that nobles and manor owners were in the majority. 12 members could be freely chosen, but the rest were determined by the prince, church or other authorities. That did not suit the people. To avoid an uprising it was suggested to form a ‘consulting country day’ parliament (in German: ‘Beratungslandtags’). It consisted of 12 deputes, nine of them were elected freely. The voter turnout for the new state legislature was low and it took some time before  the first session of the state parliament took place in June 1849 – in the inn “Zum Erbprinzen”. After further meetings (whether they took place in the inn or not is unknown) a draft constitution was adopted in 1851. It contained the basic rights catalogue of the ‘Paulskirchen’ constitution and a freely chosen parliament. Heinrich XX had only to approve this design but he never did. Thus, the country remained without a constitution for another 16 years until 1867. Only then did Prince Heinrich XXII issue a constitution (it remained in force until 1918) and created the Greizer ‘Landtag’. By the way, this was done with 12 deputies, of whom 3 were appointed by the prince, 2 were determined by manor owners and the most important farmers with the remainder being indirectly elected in three urban (Greiz, Zeulenroda, Burgk) and four rural constituencies.

So the Reuss Elder Line was the last country of Thuringia in which a constitutional monarchy was created – this form of government would later also characterize the German empire.

The last of the line: Prince Henry XII. “The naughty” –  struggle between tradition and modernity

The parents of the prince were Prince Heinrich XX (who never approved the 1st constitution) and Caroline von Hessen Homburg. They married in 1839 and Heinrich XXII, the second eldest son was born in 1846 (for those who counted along, the eldest son Heinrich XXI died in 1844 at birth). Since he was not of age when his father died in 1859, his mother Caroline took over the regency as his guardian. Like earlier ruling princes, Caroline was more attracted to Austria than to Prussia. The small principality was a member of the German Confederation, whose territory encompassed all German states from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea. The permanent Bundestag of the German Confederation met in Frankfurt am Main. Consequently, in 1866, during the war of the German Confederation against Prussia (also called the German War), the Reuss Elder Line fought on the side of Austria, the South German States, Saxony and the other allies of the German Confederation against Prussia. With the defeat of the Austrians and Saxons in the Battle of Königgrätz, Prussia established itself as a European superpower.

The Reuss Elder Line was therefore on the losing side. Prussia annexed the small princely state with 400 men and 50 guns. Only though much diplomacy and the interventions of the Reuss Junior Line and the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, who had fought on the victorious side, was Reuss Elder Line preserved as an independent princely state, otherwise it would have absorbed into Prussia. The conditions included the resignation of Caroline and the takeover by her son Heinrich XXII. In addition, there was a fine of 100,000 thaler to pay – 50,000 thaler of which the royal family paid from their private coffers.

Naturally, one of the first activities of Heinrich was to join the North German Confederation in 1867.

In addition to the change from state to constitutional monarchy, the young prince also introduced other innovations. Trade freedoms demanded by manufacturers replaced the hitherto prevailing guild system. Patrimonial jurisdiction was abolished, which meant the medieval courts consisting of nobles were replaced by an independent judiciary. This applied to all and was separate from the administration of the country. Even this decision was not made very early as in most other states patrimonial jurisdiction was abolished in the early to mid-19th century.

When it came to the foundation of the German Reich in 1871, the Reuss Elder Line was part of it, albeit as its smallest state. Only provisionally though! In a letter to his confidant King John of Saxony, Heinrich XXII expressed his discomfort concerning the supremacy of the Prussians and their dominance – he personally preferred the constellation of the (looser) German Confederation with federal structures. Of course, his main concern was his own power which was rather diminished under the new structures of the empire. Ultimately, he agreed to the foundation of the German Reich, as we know.

However, he proved repeatedly with his votes in the Bundesrat that even small states could have a say in matters – this sometimes annoyed the big states. In 1874 he voted against the laws known as ‘Kulturkampf’ (in Englisch: culture struggle), with which Prussia wanted to curb the power of the Catholic Church. In 1875, the Christian Heinrich XXII, who was also the regional bishop, voted against civil marriage, allowing the obligatory marriage ceremony to take place in the registry office. Like his own position as prince, marriage was for him ‘a divine institution’ exclusively determined by God. Of course, such questions were always about one’s own ‘God-given’ position and power.

A “coup” for him took place in 1877 when  his decisive nay vote determined the location of the kingdom’s tribunal as Leipzig in Saxony, (a state which was similar to him with equally conservative views) and not for Berlin, which was desired by Prussia. Furthermore, in 1878, the prince was the only one (!) who voted against the Socialist Laws – established to prevent the rise of the Social Democratic Party. His principality was (somewhat surprisingly) a stronghold of social democracy. Although the prince also found this development ‘dangerous’, he did not believe that it could be forbidden by repressive laws. Due to this Prussia broke off diplomatic relations with the Reuss Elder Line.

In the meantime (well more precisely in 1872) he married the princess Ida of Schaumburg-Lippe and their first child, Heinrich XXIV, was born in 1878. He was followed by five sisters! After the birth of the youngest daughter, Princess Ida died unexpectedly. According to sources, it was a marriage based on love and a happy marriage altogether. If you would like to know more about this royal family, the fate of the son disabled by an accident and his five sisters – who all married into various aristocratic houses – or what went on in the court, there will soon be an article on this. Even if we usually talk about the life of the citizens, looking at other aspects of life around this time is essential in creating an overview.

Until his very early death (at the age of 56) in 1902, Prince Heinrich XXII continued to oppose  Prussia and Kaiser Wilhelm II. He also voted against resolutions on foreign and armament policy and was therefore mockingly dubbed “Henry the Naughty” by the Prussian press.

Although his son was formally prince, his disability meant he was not able to govern. Therefore, until 1908 Prince Henry XXIV of the Reuss Junior Line took over the regency and then his son Heinrich XXVII until 1918. In the course of the November Revolution, he declared his renunciation of the throne and the Reuss Elder Line became a Free State, which was united in 1919 with the Free State Reuss Junior Line into the People’s State of Reuss. In 1920 this in turn was absorbed into in the state of Thuringia.

I would like to thank the museums of the city of Greiz, in particular the director of the museum, Mr. Koch, very much for supporting me with this article.

Of course, we will introduce the state “Reuss Junior Line” in following episodes, but the next state is Grand Duchy of Baden.

Here is an overview of the former states with respective links to the existing articles about individual states.

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Showing 7 comments
  • Vivit-Tours

    ) Heinrich XXIII (K stritz 9 Dec 1722-K stritz 3 Sep 1787); m.t K stritz 13 Feb 1754 Ernestine Gfn von Sch nburg-Wechselburg (Wechselburg 2 Dec 1736-K stritz 10 Dec 1768); m. P lzig 5 Feb 1780 Dorothee Frn von Brandenstein zu W hlsdorf (Ranis 7 Dec 1727-Eisenberg 6 Jul 1807)

  • Russel H Olson

    Dear Sir or Madame,

    It has been brought to my attention that I bear a striking (and I do mean striking) resemblance to Heinrich XXIV v. Reuss. I will include a link to my facebook page if there is interest on your end. Some of my ancestors are in fact from Germany, but finding a specific location from where whence has caused some difficulty. I doubt very seriously that there is a blood relation to Reuss line, however, out of simple human interest you might wish to have a look at my facebook page–or I would be happy to supply photos if, as aforementioned, there is any interest.


    Russel H. Olson
    Okemos, Michigan, USA

  • R. Norburn

    My thanks to you Grete and also to the Museum’s MD. I appreciate the time and thought you have both given to my enquiry. However, I don’t think the response does actually solve the puzzle, because this other Heinrich XXIV (Heinrich XXIV Reuss-Koestritz) died on 2nd October 1910, so COULD NOT POSSIBLY be the Heinrich XXIV who, according to Archbishop Mikhael’s website (, married a Princess Maria Obrenovic-Brankovic in a Serbian Orthodox church in Beograd on 27 May 1915.

  • R. Norburn

    26 Feb 2019. Heinrich Reuss-Obrenovic-Brankovic (born 1942) (claiming to be the First-Prince Heinrich of the Reuss-Greiz Elder Line) has a website According to the website, a family member from the Younger Line, a senior Nazi officer, Heinrich XXXVII Reuss von Kostritz attempted to suppress the “registers” of Heinrich R-O-B’s birth and ancestry so as to promote his own nobility status and/or that of his close family in the Younger Line. The website asserts that documents/records were deposited in 1987 with the German Nobility Archives (Deutsches Adelsarchive). Presumably they are documents upholding Heinrich R-O-B’s claims. What a fascinating situation. One wonders why it is that more than 70 years after end of WW2 these matters are not now fully investigated and the results of such research available on the Internet. I have found only Heinrich R-O-B’s own website (and material that seems to have been copied from it) asserting the claim that the disabled Heinrich XXIV who died 1927 had a child and has a living descendant.

    • Grete Otto

      In the meantime I have a feedback by the managing director of the Museum Greiz. He states the following: Prince Heinrich XXIV Reuss elder line did unfortunately neither have a wife nor children. He died quite young. Although he was handicapped he was very popular among the population and thousands of people paid their last respect at his funeral 1927. The director recommends for the identification of members of the Reuss line to check the biographical data (birth & death) and also to pay special attention to the lines which are very complex in the case of the Reuss line. There are also apanage lines, e.g. Reuss-Koestritz, which is still existing and represents the interest of the dynasty nowadays. He points out that Prince Heinrich XXIV is often mistaken for prince Heinrich XXIV (8.12.1855 – 2.10.1910) prince to Koestritz (also named prince Heinrich XXIV younger line). This prince Heinrich was a renowned composer – he did 1910 in Austria, castle Ernstbrunn. I hope this might to solve the issue.

  • R. Norburn

    23 February 2019. Thank you for your very interesting article about the Principality of Reuss Elder Line. I am pleased to note that you plan to write further concerning the disabled Heinrich XXIV (1878-1927). It seems to be generally accepted that this Heinrich died un-married and childless and that he was the last of the Reuss Elder Line. However, there is a “Heinrich” born 1942 and living in USA who claims to be a grandson of Heinrich XXIV. The claim he makes, apparently in all seriousness, on his Website is (if I have understood correctly) that Heinrich XXIV and a Princess Maria Obrenovic-Brankovic married at a Serbian Orthodox Church in Beograd (I think this is Belgrade, isn’t it) on 27 May 1915, the officiating minister being a Bishop Sava, and that a son Heinrich XXV was born on 25 Feb 1918 (baptised 28 Feb 1918) and that on 28 Feb 1918 Heinrich XXIV issued a written Declaration identifying this baby son as his heir. Are these claims ones you have thoroughly investigated and have you formed any conclusions concerning them ?

    • Grete Otto

      Thank you for your feedback! The story of this noble family is really fascinating and I might write another article about them. It will probably take while, since my plan is to introduce all former states of the Kaiserreich. For my research regarding this article I was especially in touch with the museums in Greiz who really supported me for this article. To be honest I did not come across this story. Maybe there are some other readers around with more or different information?
      Thanks again for your contribution!


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