Baron JOHANN-DIETER VON MALSEN-PONICKAU
‘Torn by each faction’s hatred and favour, his image wavers in history.’
(‘Von der Parteien Gunst und Hass verwirrt, schwankt sein Charakterbild in der Geschichte.’) – Friedrich Schiller, Wallenstein
Baron Johann-Dieter von Malsen-Ponickau has passed away. We mourn one of the most interesting and colorful personalities of our region of Germany and international high society. Those who truly knew him knew of and appreciated his big heart when it came to his fellow man, all God’s creatures and nature. They also knew of his impatience, which he could often express rather directly.
For many years the Baron and his second wife, the Italian princess Fiorenza Colonna di Stigliano, resided on Castle Osterberg and made the small village into a popular meeting place for prominent guests from all corners of the world. The legions of riders on horseback, decked out in the colors of decorated regiments from all countries, and the Baron’s hunting festivals were legendary. Members of cavalry units from France, England, Italy, the Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark and Belgium would mingle with guests representing international nobility and prominent members and celebrities of high society. All heard Dieter’s call and no one would want to miss the festive events in this small Bavarian village. His efforts to further and advance intra-European communication and harmony would bear his trademark charm, but also the efficiency of a well-practiced socialite and skilled event manager. Friendships extending beyond the borders of European countries and the continent itself, many of which would last a lifetime, were formed here.
Dieter had a pronounced sense of the aesthetic, always presenting himself as a complete picture of elegance, as one who admired beauty in all its forms. A man who deeply despised carelessness, neglect, and inattention to detail, which is why he would commonly not only organize, manage and direct, but also frequently lend a hand directly, hauling wood, clearing brush, or making repairs around the castle. Baron Dieter was often described as a mixture between crusading knight and an elegant gentleman – a Lionheart.
As with many of his generation, Dieter’s life was heavily influenced by the societal turbulence brought about by the Nazi dictatorship and the chaos and destruction wrought by WWII, which brought about despair, millions of refugees and constant danger. He belonged to the lost generation, who at the very end of a senseless and ill-conceived conflict, often became cannon-fodder, being sent as mere adolescents to die at the frontlines of a brutal war that was already lost and without purpose to begin with. The most fortunate of his contemporaries, those able to avoid direct exposure to the horrors of war, became witness to the nigh complete disintegration of a country and society, devolving into a land without traditions or social norms, but only chaos, destruction, despair and loss of homeland and property.
Baron Dieter was born in 1928 in Munich and grew up with two brothers, Witho and Achim. Their childhood was spent at Castle Niederraunau, an estate owned by the Ponickau family since the 18th century, when an ancestor wed the daughter of the wealthy patrician Von Jenish family in Kempten.
With the onset of the war, his parents separated. The mother, a member of the Prussian von Willich family, returned to her parents’ castle Caputh, located on an idyllic estate on the river Havel near Potsdam. Albert Einstein, an acquaintance of the family with whom Dieter would later take up contact again in America, would spend the summers in a house in the same town. For some time Dieter attended the Knight’s Academy in Templin and in 1944/45 the liberal arts grammar school (Viktoria Gymnasium) in Potsdam. In March of 1945 the family became refugees and Lady von Willich fled together with Dieter from the advancing Red Army, driving a horse-drawn carriage to her sister’s home in Illereichen, near the city of Ulm. Here, she lived together with her sons with relatives, the Hermann family, on castle Wain, since the estate in Osterberg was occupied by the second wife of Dieter’s father, along with countless refugees displaced by the turmoil of the war. Dieter von Malsen-Ponickau was enrolled at a boarding school in castle Salem, near Lake Constance.
Following boarding school, Dieter traveled without means to Paris, seeking work. His first job was hauling beef carcasses and cutting meat, hard physical work made easier only by determination, need, and his strong back and stature of nearly 6’6”. His fortunes soon changed for the better and, via connections of his family, Dieter was able to enter the steel business. This proved to be fortuitous timing, since the Korean war was underway and demand for steel surging. Dieter’s upbringing, education and fluency in several languages proved pivotal in his career, as he sold European steel to American industry and he steadily acquired wealth. Eventually, he emigrated from Germany to the United States. Together with his best friend Rudolf Duke of Fugger-Babenhausen, he would apprentice at the Hirsch Bank and Brokerage and eventually become a stockbroker, completing his certification and licensing as a securities trader and broker.
Soon afterwards he moved westward, still in the employ of Hirsch, seeking oil in Oklahoma and Texas, at the time a still very rough business. But the risks and hardship paid off, business was good and demand for oil growing. From here, Dieter continued westward to Hollywood where, still in the employ of Hirsch, he would produce several films based on the writings of Mark Twain. While the commercial success was modest, he would make many friends among the glitterati of the time, including Bing Crosby, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Jane Russel.
In 1956 Dieter received word of his father’s passing and the urgent request to return home to take over castle Osterberg. His elder brother, Witho, had been killed six years earlier in 1950 during a hunting accident on the estate of Prince Hohenzollern in Sigmaringen, leaving Dieter next in line for succession. The most pressing first step here was to pay off the old debt of 400,000 Goldmark under which the small estate was mortgaged.
Dieter von Malsen-Ponickau returned home from America as a wealthy man. The responsibilities of owning a centuries-old castle, however, seemed all-consuming, a veritable bottomless pit. From the start, he would lend a hand himself to restore and maintain the old castle in an effort to contain costs.
In 1962 he founded a large industrial bakery in Paris, wagering correctly that the French would take to hearty Bavarian Rye bread as a welcome alternative to baguette. Dieter’s Boulangerie de Baviere would soon also become a center of Parisian society however, due to the large parties that would draw “tout Paris”, including his prominent friends Salvatore Dalí, the Maharani of Baroda and Princess Soraya of Iran.
But the obligations in connection with his estate in Osterberg would soon require his increasing presence there. In 1973 he wed Princess Fiorenza Colonna di Stigliano, his second wife. The Roman Colonna family is of particular distinction among European aristocracy, with a rich history dating back many centuries. The selection of a Colonna as Pope Martin V in 1417 by the Council of Constance ended the lengthy Western Schism of the Catholic Church. The line has also produced countless cardinals, statesmen, military leaders, intellectuals, writers, poets and other artists. A female poet from this family was Michelangelo’s girlfriend for many years. In the Battle of Lepanto in 1517 the Mediterranean Christian forces referred to as the Holy League were lead by Admiral Mercantonio Colonna in their defeat of the invading Ottomans.
The years with Fiorenza were marked by a happy and vibrant family and social life, enjoyed in the wonderful and refined ambience of large equestrian and hunting events that would draw hundreds of well-known guests from the most esteemed and respected circles of international society. In recognition of the many European cavalry meets organized and held by Dieter he was recognized with numerous awards and distinctions, while also being named an honorary officer of several cavalry regiments. The governor of Kentucky made him an honorary Colonel in recognition for his efforts to promote horsemanship and riding. All the while he was also an active and ardent supporter of many of the local clubs and civic organizations. He sponsored trips to America and Malta for the brass bands from nearby Illerzell and Ruderatshofen and even marched them into the famed Lido in Paris. During his years baking bread in Paris he invited the Illerzell brass band – 30+ members in all – to the French capital and marched with them along the Champs Elysées and straight into the Lido. All without prior police permission or even advance notice, mind you, much to the delight of the Parisians who had never observed such a brazen spectacle.
And, of course, the Baron was always a welcomed and well-regarded guest at all local village and club festivals. He enjoyed a deep bond with his community and felt an innate responsibility for all that took place within his region and areas under his patronage and could always be counted on to assist and support wherever he could and with whatever means he could muster.
Nonetheless, the struggles to maintain the estate in Osterberg remained and seemed to grow each year. In the end, they would force an end to the idyllic life on castle Osterberg, much to his personal regret, as well as that of his family and the entire region. In the end Baron Dieter became a man without a homeland, and remained that way tragically until the day of his death. Our sadness over the loss of the Baron is therefore also a sense of sadness over the loss of the unique sense of elegance and flair that he had brought to this small village in a quiet region of Bavaria. With the passing of Baron Dieter von Malsen-Ponickau, Osterberg has lost not only a great supporter and citizen but, indeed, a piece of itself and of the region’s history. We will forever miss the warm sense of tradition and humanity that Dieter emanated when he opened his heart and his home to interesting people, be they members of the international jet-set or common friends and neighbors from the surrounding villages.
In a day and age when our traditions and unique cultural identity are increasingly at risk of getting lost or becoming unrecognizably blended into the same pop-culture the world over, we have lost a man who spent much of his life and fortune trying to preserve those customs and traditions that make us who we are. A man who, while certainly not without faults, reminded us of our common humanity, of our shared history, and who worked tirelessly to impart a sparkle of tradition, honor and elegance to everyone he encountered.
Written by Christl Zepp
Translated into English by Daniel Backhaus