Firstly it has to be clarified: what is Austrian nobility, or better: who belongs to the Austrian nobility? Starting from the Austrian nobiliary legal system in 1918 this would mean the whole nobility of the Austrian half of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Taking into consideration that portion of the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire which is today part of Poland or the Ukraine, it is hard to include noble families of such countries for merely historical reasons among the Austrian nobility. An other example would be families originating in former crown possessions which still belong to Austria, but of which portions belong today to other states: should a familiy whose origins lie in South Tyrol (today part of Italy) or in the former Lower Styria (today part of Slovenia) still belong to the Austrian nobility? A further problem is the Burgenland, which belonged always to Hungary and became part of Austria in 1920: noble families of the Burgenland should be included properly among the Hungarian nobility.
For my topic I have chosen a perhaps a little problematic but nevertheless very simple solution: I consider those persons as a part of the Austrian nobility who are noble and who are Austrian citizens, because the law on the abolition of nobility was applicable only to these persons. As one can see in the end this results in a very broad mixture.
2. Law on the abolition of nobility
With the proclamation of the republic on 12th November 1918 by the Provisional National Assembly, the legal status of the Austrian nobility did not change. But in the same year initial attempts to abolish the nobility were begun. After discussing different drafts, the new elected National Assembly on 3rd April 1919 passed the "Law on the abolition of the nobility, the secular orders of chivalry, male and female, and of certain titles and dignities". Art. 1 abolished the nobility and other honorary priorities of Austrian citizens, Art. 2 foresaw administrative penal fines for using nobiliary titles. Two weeks later the Ministry of the Interior and Education and the Ministry of Justice issued an instruction how this law should be executed in practice. This instruction went in parts further than it had been foreseen by the Constitutional Committee of the National Assembly and in one point even further than the clear legal text. It outlawed inter alia the use of the following titles and signs of rank: von, Durchlaucht, Erlaucht, Edler, Ritter, Freiherr, Graf, Fuerst, Herzog and foreign class designations. The law on the abolition of nobility has been elevated one year later to constitutional rank, as it was mentioned in Art. 149, para. 1 of the newly created Federal Constitution Act of 1920. Later attempts to abolish or to change this law were unsuccessful.
From a legal point of view there arose some problems from the new situation. The punishment: The maximum amount for a fine was expressed in crowns: because of inflation and the change of the currency this amount was amended a few times, but always on the same basis as "normal" as opposed to constitutional laws. This has never been contested at the Constitutional Court, but I believe a challenge would have had, and still would have, a very good chance of succeeding.
The prohibition against the use of foreign class designations: The Ministry of Interior interpreted it after 1945 to encompass German citizens who obtained Austrian citizenship, so that they had to forfeit their former noble titles. Following the German constitution of Weimar, however, those former titles had become part of the name and were no longer class designations. Therefore the law was applied erroneously by the Ministry of the Interior, as has been demonstrated several times in proceedings before the Administrative Court. One difference with Germany remained: in Germany the former title is used sex-specifically (i.e.. Graf/Graefin or Freiherr/Freifrau/Freiin); this is not the case in Austria, where the form is not changed. If I had chosen my - German - wife's name at the marriage, I would have had to call myself Georg Freiin von Uslar-Gleichen, alphabetically entered under F, as Freiin.
The lack of clarity in the expression "to make use". The Ministerial instruction had stated that it was under the phrase "make use" of a title by which the law on the abolition of the nobility was ignored. The famous conductor Herbert von Karajan - an Austrian - told Austrian officials that he would not conduct concerts in Austria if he would not be allowed to use his "von" on posters - in my eyes a clear case of ignoring the aforementioned law. As Austrian officials naturally were interested in Herbert von Karajan continuing to conduct in Austria, they found a brilliant solution: In Karajan's passport a note was made that his stage name was "von Karajan" - and the problem was solved. Another effect of this unclear meaning of the expression "to make use" is that in wedding announcements nobiliary titles are not normally used by those making the announcement, but are used by all others.
Finally there is the problem of the double names. In many ennoblements there was conferred also a Praedikat, i.e. a second name, i.e. "Mayerhofer v. Grünbühel". After the abolition of the nobility many of these families called themselves with their full name and replaced only the "von" by a hyphen, in our example "Mayerhofer-Grünbühel". The Ministry of Interior fought against this practice and finally the Supreme Court stated that this practice was not legally correct. The public authorities were really "trained" concerning double names and consulted often the Common Administrative Archive which administers also the former Nobility Archive. I shall give a small example of an actual occurrence. One day the telephone rang in the archive and an official asked: "I have here a lady whose name is Habsburg-Lothringen; she is surely noble, isn’t she?"
A final note to the law on names. The opportunities which have arisen under the German law to choose ones name between many possibilities will mean that in Germany there will be many individuals with a noble name who will not be part of the nobility, and I can see no end to this development. The Austrian solution of abolishing titles has a great advantage over the German: when a name has no title the incentive to choose it in preference to a non noble name is much smaller; and also the danger of deception decreases.
What was the effect of the abolition of nobility on the nobility itself? The high nobility, which surely was the first object of the law, was not affected very much because its property was not touched. But the law had a much greater influence on the so called Zweite Gesellschaft (Second Society), to whom belonged inter alia the many ennobled officer - and civil servant-families: they did not have large financial backing, and their names were not well known - thus they became the real victims of the abolition of the nobility. Politically this was nonsense, because the republic created in this ways enemies for the new state who normally would have been loyal subjects. In practice it was still usual to refer to nobles with their titles for many years. After WW II this pattern began to change and it is now only common in rural areas to refer to old families by their titles.
A final comment on the legal situation: Art. 60 para. 3 of the Federal Constitution Act excludes members of reigning or formerly reigning houses for eligibility as Federal President of the Republic of Austria. This includes the entire Part I and II families of the Gotha. When Austria signed the international agreement to eliminate all kinds of racial discrimination it was forced to make a reservation because of this regulation.
3. Organization of the Austrian nobility
The Austrian nobility is not organized. But it still exists - where can it be found and how has it developed? The Tiroler Adelsmatrikel (Tyrolean Nobility Roll) has to be mentioned first. It is the only one of the old provincial representative bodies which survives in Austria and is probably the oldest extant organization of this kind in German speaking countries. It includes the whole of historic Tyrol, i.e. North- and East-Tyrol, today parts of Austria, South Tyrol and the Italian Tyrol (Trentino), today belonging to Italy.
Secondly the Vereinigung katholischer Edelleute in Oesterreich (Association of Catholic Nobles in Austria). It was founded before the beginning of WW I and started its work in 1922. Art. 1 of its statutes provided inter alia that it would create a roll of the Austrian nobility. In 1937 the Association had 2300 members (with many of them living at least for part of the year outside Austria) which was a large number considering then that 93% of the Austrians were Catholics, so the Association was truly representative of the Austrian nobility. When Austria lost its sovereignty in 1938 the Association was one of the first institutions which were dissolved by the new regime. After 1945 the Association was not re-erected.
There are also the chivalric Orders which are evidently not nobility associations but which had or have only noble members. The first is the (Austrian) Orden vom Goldenen Vliess (Order of the Golden Fleece) whose protecting power is the Republic of Austria. As second there is the Sternkreuzorden (Noble Order of the Starry Cross) which does not enjoy any public legal quality. And finally one might mention the Militaer-Maria-Theresien-Orden (Military Order of Maria Theresia) which promoted members up to 1931. The last knight died about a dozen years ago and from that moment on the Order ceased to exist.
More interesting in this context is the Souveraener Malteser-Ritter-Orden (Sovereign Military Order of Malta), more precisely the Grosspriorat von Oesterreich (Grand Priory of Austria). The Grand Priory has now 420 knights and dames with 68% of them being noble. Looking at the data of the Malteser Hospitaldienst Austria (Maltese Hospitally Service), from which a good portion of the new members of the Order are recruited, one sees that this Service has 1170 members of which 39% are noble; and including the 380 active members of the service, of which only 24% are noble. Therefore it is probable that the percentage of nobles in the Grand Priory will diminish. Nevertheless the Order is one of the main centers for the Austrian nobility and this will not change.
Finally there are two gentlemen’s clubs in Austria. First the once important Jockey Club für Oesterreich (Jockey Club for Austria), which was founded in 1867. It was never limited exclusively to the nobility, but the aristocratic element has always played a decisive role in its history. Its aim is to be authority for the turf and to be a social club. Because of the changes of the last 80 years the latter is the main aim today. The Jockey Club has 195 members of whom 60% are noble.
The second gentlemen’s club is the St. Johanns Club which unites the highest number of noblemen in Austria. It was founded 1954 by a group of gentlemen aged between 25 and 35 years old and is under the protection of the Order of Malta. The founders were children and grandchildren of those who had been leading members in the Association of Catholic Nobles. When the Club was founded there were also discussions about founding a club for the nobility; this was finally abandoned, inter alia perhaps because the Allied Control Commission (at that time Austria was still an occupied country!) probably would not have allowed it. Nevertheless the Club intensively discussed in its first years the role of the nobility and its tasks in the changed world. Members of the St. Johanns Club also took part at the foundation of the CILANE, the European Nobiliary Commission and the Club organized in 1960 the congress of CILANE in Vienna. The St. Johanns Club is a social club whose members have to belong to a Christian denomination. This is an ovious parallel with the Association of Catholic Nobles. The St. Johanns Club has 760 members, and 67%, i.e. more than 500, are noble.
Thus there is no organization in Austria today which exclusively represents the nobility other than the Tyrolean Nobility Roll. I have been asked sometimes if there is any possibility of founding an association of the Austrian nobility, and I would advise against this for two reasons: On the one hand it is - at least in my eyes - very doubtful whether the authority for societies would allow it, for constitutional reasons. On the other hand - and this is a much more valid argument - there is no need for such an association and it probably would not be accepted by society. This decision was made in 1954 and I do not sympathize with the idea of turning the wheel back.
4. Austrian nobility today
Members of the Austrian nobility have to work like everyone else. Examining the occupations of the nobility there are some concentrations in certain activities: Agriculture and forestry are still an important area; but civil and military service which traditionally attracted nobles do so no longer; the only exception in this field is the diplomatic service. Many nobles have entered the financial services industry, especially banking. Some nobles have become lawyers or accountants, and also entered the advertising industry. Finally it is worth noting that a higher proportion of nobles are becoming Catholic priests.
In the introduction I examined the problem of defining who belongs to the Austrian nobility. When I prepared this speech I considered which noblemen have worked their way up in public life. It should be noted that not one of those I mention originates from a family which is exclusively Austrian and was born in Austria - an unexpected example of the historic international character of the Austrian nobility. I have to add that I did not exclude someone because he did not fit in this example.
The Minister for Science and Traffic is Caspar (von) Einem, nobility of Lower Saxony. His father was the very famous composer Gottfried von Einem and his mother was a born von Bismarck, a Prussian family. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party.
The president of the Constitutional Court is Ludwig Adamovich (de Csepin). The family is originally Croatian.
The leader of the parliamentary members of Austrian Peoples Party (Christian Democrats) is Andreas (von) Khol, a Tyrolean who has been born in the south of the Brenner pass, i.e. in Italy.
The archbishop of Vienna and newly created cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church is Christoph Schoenborn originated in the familiy of the counts of Schoenborn, who was born in 1945 in Bohemia.
The Secretary General of the Austrian Ministry for Foreign Affairs is (Prinz) Albert Rohan; after the family escaped the French Revolution of 1789 they became Bohemian princes.
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