Knights of Malta

How an ancient chivalric order went from conquests to compassion

knights of malta
The Knights of Malta enjoy a spot of dressing up. Source: AP

The Knights of Malta date to the 11th century, and at first blush, many of the German aristocrats recently gathered in a medieval castle outside of Cologne might have been founding members. There they were, some 50 graying, balding men — all men — decked out in evening dress with the ribbons, sashes and medals of a military order whose time would appear to have passed long ago. They included princes and counts, who happened also to be industrial magnates and bankers, and in any event moneyed. Which is good, because this gala dinner at Castle Ehreshoven was €5,000 a plate.

With this particular gala, the German Chapter of the Knights of Malta was raising money for an aid project in Lebanon. It is one of many charitable undertakings sponsored by the Knights of Malta. Unlike other honorary associations, these “knights” go beyond dress-up parties to organize and fund numerous projects for the sick, the handicapped and refugees. Underneath their conservative trappings, the latter-day Knights of Malta are a progressive, efficient private aid organization that is more about good works than good times.

It is a fitting permutation for an organization founded around 1048 to care for the sick and homeless in a hospital in Jerusalem. Over the centuries, the organization was known as the Order of Saint John, Knights Hospitallers, Knights of Cyprus and Rhodes (after they fled Jerusalem for those islands), and eventually as the Knights of Malta. They went from caring for the sick to defending the Holy Land alongside the Knights Templar and other military orders, to protecting Europe against the Ottomans and Barbary Pirates from their base in Malta.

Aristocratic heritage aside, all these knights work for a living.

The Knights of Malta are one of two chivalric orders, along with the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, to survive to the present day. Both are under the protection of the Holy See. But the Malteser are also officially recognized as a sovereign entity, complete with diplomatic relations with 107 states and extraterritorial status for their two headquarters buildings in Rome. The Maltese villa on the Aventine Hill is a famous tourist site for its view of St. Peter’s through the keyhole.

The 13,500 members of the order — knights, dames and chaplains — support 30,000 employees, mostly medical personnel, and 50,000 permanent volunteers in its social and humanitarian projects throughout the world. The German chapter comprises 350 knights, 250 dames and 100 chaplains.

All the same, there was a whiff of Old World mustiness at the Ehreshoven “Herrenabend” — a German term that novelist John Le Carré once translated as “a power dinner for male bores.” Officials with long-winded names like Nicolas Graf von Rosty-Forgách, Constantin Graf Droste zu Vischering and Erich Georg Prinz von Lobkowicz hosted the fundraiser.

Aristocratic heritage aside, all these knights work for a living. Mr. Rosty has made a career in executive development at ThyssenKrupp and Siemens and now heads the Spencer Stuart search firm in Germany. He is also the executive board chief for the Lebanon foundation. Mr. Droste works for HSBC in Frankfurt. Prinz Lobkowicz, who studied at Notre Dame University and holds a US passport, runs a brewery at the family’s Maxlrain estate in Bavaria. He has been president of the knights’ German association for the past 12 years.

These scions of nobility don’t need the Maltese knighthood for prestige. Rather, they say the charitable activity is a beneficial outlet for altruism. “Helping out the Malteser is the most wonderful offset for a Bavarian brew,” said Prinz Lobkowicz.

For centuries, the top ranks of the order were reserved for aristocratic heirs. But that changed in the 1990s, and the German association numbers many other prominent personalities. Reinhard Zinkmann, head of the Miele family company, is chairman of the trustees for the Lebanon foundation. Friedhelm Loh is the billionaire head of the manufacturing company bearing his name, which supplies hardware and software for IT. Michael Klett is board chairman for the Ernst Klett publishing company in Stuttgart.

knights of malta at the vatican
The Knights of Malta in Rome. Source: AP

The Knights often find genuine personal fulfillment in their membership, says Stefan Selke, a sociology professor at Furtwangen University. It can be a cultural anchor in a society that is confusing and complex. “They establish a stable framework to orient you, satisfy a yearning for order and belonging and provide, above and beyond the old rituals, a feel for the past,” he says.

Prince or not, Mr. Lobkowicz, for instance, is happy to receive guests dressed in corduroy trousers and checkered shirt and sit them down to a steak and beer from his own brewery. The head of the German knights has added to the family inheritance not only with brewery profits but with a series of successful real-estate investments.

His concern for refugees is more than lip service. He has opened the lodge and workers’ quarters on his estate to refugee families from Africa and the Near East, in a silent but eloquent refutation of the somewhat less Christian stance of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union (of which he is nonetheless a member).

It is this type of personal commitment that has spurred growth in the German chapter. Prestigious companies like Daimler, KPMG, Melitta, Merck Finck, SAP, Krombacher and WMF are donors. But the driving force remains the members, who may occasionally enjoy an evening of pomp and ceremony, but who are also expected to personally go to Lebanon and help out at the camps. “Ever since I visited Lebanon myself,” says the 80-year-old Mr. Klett, “I have a different view of need.”

Peter Brors is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt. Tanja Kewes is a senior reporter and columnist. Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. To contact the authors: brors@handelsblatt.com, kewes@handelsblatt.com, and d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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