The medieval Eltz castle nestled in the hills above the Moselle River in west Germany has belonged to the Eltz family for more than 850 years.
Its iconic, towering edifice was once engraved on the former 500 Deutsche Mark note and its seasonal tourist visits allow the family to share the history of 33 generations in the castle.
But while one of the younger members of the Eltz family, Jakob Eltz, 35, assured The Local that he would “absolutely” take on responsibility for maintaining the family home, others are not so confident about the future of such historic buildings.
Last week, Alexander, Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn in Germany's Rhineland region, made a plea for more public funding to support family castles, arguing that financial hurdles are making it harder for younger generations to keep up their ancestral homes.
“From generation to generation, more and more historical castles are being lost in the private sector,” he told DPA.
Prince Alexander with wife Countess Gabriela outside Schloss Sayn in 2000. Photo: DPA
The would-be heirs often live in cities across Europe and work in interesting fields, he explained, so are reluctant to return to family provinces to take on the castles.
“It would mean tightening their belts, rolling up their sleeves and working hard to preserve this historical building with all its economic complications,” he said.
The prince and former president of the German Castle Association called for special regulations on sewage charges and insulation for the buildings.
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Hohenzollern Castle in Baden-Württemberg is still in the hands of the former German imperial family. Photo: DPA
Especially given the great age and size of many castles, these homes often need constant maintenance to improve water, heating, electric and other modern systems that didn’t exist when the castles were first built.
“A home like this carries with it enormous costs,” Eltz explained. “It constantly has to be renovated and repaired, while there are also running costs such as electricity, heating and taxes.”
It's also tricky “to move with the times whilst also doing justice to a building which is over 800 years old,” Eltz said.
“You have a responsibility towards your family and ancestors, towards the building and its history,” he explained, “but also towards the public, for whom you're preserving this cultural relic and piece of German history.
“There aren't many people who are prepared to take on the high costs and efforts needed to maintain these buildings when they don't have a personal connection to them.”
Eltz Castle has been home to the Eltz family for more than 850 years ago. Photo: DPA
Family tradition, at a cost
Turning the castle into a tourist spot, like the Eltz family did, can help provide the revenue needed to foot the bills.
“The cost depends heavily on the state of the building,” Gerhard Wagner, chief executive at the German Castle Association, told The Local.
“And then there's always the question of how the castle is going to be used,” he added.
“If a building is being put to use as a tourist spot, for example a show home or restaurant, owners can generate an income which helps towards the maintenance costs,” he explained.
“But if it's just being used as a personal home, it's difficult – you've just got the costs, and no income.”
Matthias Helzel from Germany's Historical Real Estate Agency explained that many renovations and modernization efforts can be tax-deductible, “which eases the burden a lot”, he told The Local.
Eltz said the biggest challenge is definitely a financial one.
“None of this would be possible for us to cover without our visitors,” he said.
A ‘danger for cultural heritage’
The burden of costs and inconvenience of travelling to these country castles is what has Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn and others concerned about whether younger generations will be willing to care for them.
“It's a massive danger for our cultural heritage, when heirs to properties can't be persuaded to take them on,” Hartmut Dorgerloh, general director of the Foundation of Prussian Castles and Gardens in Berlin-Brandenburg, told DPA.
And then there can be the added burden of regularly visiting the castles, which are often miles away from the nearest city.
“The best way to protect a historical building is to use it appropriately,” Eltz said, “and in most cases, that means living in it.”
It can be damaging when these buildings fall into the hands of people who can't afford to sustain them, Eltz noted.
“But the same goes for anyone who owns such a landmark, not just descendants of noble families.”
If no investors are found to take on the land, properties often fall into decay, Dorgerloh explained.
“Public funding already provides a lot of support, and we're very grateful for that,” he said. But incentives are needed to ensure these properties have a future.
Still, Eltz said he was “somewhat surprised” that younger generations of noble families would decline to take on their family homes.
“This is something I've not witnessed at all in my circle of family and friends,” he told The Local. “In contrary, everyone I know fights through adversities and financial hurdles to keep hold of their family homes.”
And he said he is prepared to play his part.
“Whether this will also be the case for future generations, I wouldn't like to second guess,” he admitted. “But I hope so, and I'll do everything I can to ensure our ancestral castle remains in the family.”