The German titles Freiherr (Baron)and Freifrau and Freiin (Baroness) are titles of nobility. They are titles of lower peerage rank in the former Holy Roman Empire (in German Heiliges Römisches Reich, HRR), and in its various German successor states, including Prussia, Bavaria, Württemberg, Hessen and others. In Austria-Hungary and elsewhere, such as in the Baltic and Nordic countries, "Freiherr" (literally "free lord")was considered about equal to the title Baron. The original distinction from other barons was that a Freiherr's landed property was allodial instead of a fief. Barons who received their title from the Holy Roman Emperor are known as Barons of the Holy Roman Empire, Reichsfreiherr, although the title is sometimes shortened to Freiherr.
A German Freiherr is called "Baron" in English: the status was practically the same, although the title was derived separately in the English and German languages. The literal translation of the term from German to English is "free lord". Even when addressed in German, a Freiherr is sometimes styled and addressed as "Baron", although this is not the formal German title. In Germany, there also existed the foreign rank of "Baron", mostly used for Baltic barons created by the Tsar of Russia, but recognized in Germany.
The title Freiherr derives from the fact that the holder held free (allodial) title to his land, unlike ordinary barons, who were originally knights (Ritter), unlike peasants and serfs, and unlike medieval German ministerials as local lords. A Freiherr usually held hereditary administrative and judgeship rights (in some jurisdictions) in his barony instead of the territorial lord, who might be the duke (Herzog) or count (Graf).
All sons of a Freiherr are Freiherren (plural) and can be referred to as Baron. The wife of a Freiherr is called Freifrau (literally "free lady"), and a daughter of a Freiherr is called Freiin (short for Freiherrin). It is considered correct in some circles to address a Freifrau as "Baronin" or a Freiin as "Baroness". Female former titles have been legally accepted as part of the last name after 1919 by a still valid decision of the German former High Court, the Reichsgericht.
After the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire (1806), Reichsfreiherr (Freiherr of the Empire) had no particular title or rank other than Freiherr. Imperial titles might have come to an end, but by the decision of the Congress of Vienna (1815), they continued officially. Before the dissolution of the empire (1806), all German Freiherren were Freiherren of the Holy Roman Empire, in short Reichsfreiherren. However, nobody before 1806 used the word Reichsfreiherr for a Freiherr. After 1806 the new German kingdoms, like Bavaria or Württemberg, could create their own Freiherren. However, these Freiherren were not Freiherren of the Empire. They were, for example, Bavarian Freiherren. Thus some of the older baronial families (e.g. Reichsfreiherr von und zu Guttenberg; see Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg) began to style their titles as Reichsfreiherr to distinguish themselves from the new classes of barons. Today, the term Reichsfreiherr would only be used in the most formal contexts, such as on an engraved invitation.
The nobility was abolished in Germany in 1919 by the republican constitution (Weimar Constitution) and again in 1949 by the Bonn constitution (Grundgesetz); the titles are now legally considered to be simply part of the family name (with the former title following the first name, e.g. Georg Freiherr von Platz), and they may or may not be used. They do, however, have prestige in some circles of society, in which it is considered to be correct to address a Freiherr as "Baron" (e.g. Wernher Freiherr von Braun: "Baron von Braun") and a Freifrau as "Baroness". A Freiin, a daughter of a Freiherr, is also addressed as "Baroness".