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The Habsburg Law (in full, the Law concerning the Expulsion and the Takeover of the Assets of the House Habsburg-Lorraine) was a law originally passed by the Constitutional Assembly (Konstituierende Nationalversammlung) of German Austria, one of the successor states of dismantled Austria-Hungary, on 3 April 1919, which legally dethroned the House of Habsburg-Lorraine as rulers of the country which had declared itself a republic on 12 November 1918 and confiscated their property. The Habsburg Law was repealed in 1935 and the Habsburg family was given back its property. However, in 1938, following the Anschluss, the Nazis reintroduced the Habsburg Law and again confiscated the Habsburg family's property and banned the family from the country.
The law has been found to violate human rights, and for this reason, Austria was forced to repeal large parts of it, notably the ban on members of the Habsburg family entering Austria, before being admitted into the European Union in the 1990s. After a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) criticized Austria of denying members of the Habsburg family running for President of the country, this provision was also withdrawn in June 2011 by the Austrian parliament. Although the law still remains in force, it is considered largely obsolete, with the notable exception of the confiscation of the family's property in force since 1938.
On 11 November 1918, Emperor Charles I, counseled by ministers of his last Imperial Royal government as well as by ministers of German Austria, issued a proclamation relinquishing his right to take part in Austrian affairs of state. On the following day, the Provisional National Assembly (Provisorische Nationalversammlung) of German Austria, which claimed authority over the German-speaking portions of the western half of the Habsburg realm (mostly the Danubian and Alpine provinces) proclaimed Deutschösterreich a republic (and a part of the new German republic).
In the night after his abdication Charles I and his family left stately Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna and moved to Schloss Eckartsau east of the city, then belonging to the Habsburg Family Funds. There he was visited by a Hungarian delegation and on 13 November signed a similar proclamation for the Kingdom of Hungary. However, Charles did not formally abdicate, intending to retain his freedom of action in case the Austrian people recalled him. The new republican government, uncomfortable with this situation, gave Charles three options: (1) abdicate formally and remain in Austria as a private citizen, (2) leave the country or (3) be interned.
With the help of Lieutenant Colonel Edward Lisle Strutt, a British officer sent by George V of the United Kingdom, who was shocked by the fate of his Russian relatives, on 23 March Charles and his family departed from Eckartsau for Switzerland in the former Imperial train, Charles wearing a field marshal's uniform. Before crossing the border on the morning of 24 March 1919, and changing into civilian clothes, he revoked his waiver in the Feldkircher Manifest. Then on 3 April, the German-Austrian parliament, on the initiative of Chancellor Karl Renner, passed the Habsburg Law.
The law stripped the Habsburgs of their sovereign rights and banished all Habsburgs from Austrian territory. Charles was barred from ever returning to Austria again. Other Habsburgs were only allowed to return if they renounced all dynastic claims and accepted status as private citizens. Those assets of the state that had been under the administration of the imperial court, the so-called Hofärar, were placed under the government's management. The private funds and family funds of the House of Habsburg, common family property administered by the respective head of the house, were expropriated and transferred to the state property. Personal private property was preserved.
Also on 3 April, the nobility was abolished in German Austria, with the Law on the Abolition of Nobility.
The family demanded that various endowments and funds be placed at their disposal as personal private property; in response to this, and to clear up ambiguities related to this, the Habsburg Law was amended on 30 October 1919, retroactively from 3 April, expressly recording which of the claimed funds or endowments in particular were to count as expropriated.
When the Austrian Constitution came into force in 1920, the Habsburg Law was made a constitutional law. However, the provisions of the Habsburg Law concerning expropriation were expressly not brought into force in Burgenland in 1922 (as well as the Law on the Abolition of Nobility) when it became part of Austria. This was intended to turn the Burgenland aristocrats (who included members of the Habsburg family) more pro-Austrian, for pragmatic reasons. The oddity of a constitutional rule not applying to the whole republic was only "repaired" in 2008, when a federal constitutional law declared that by 1 January 2008 the Habsburg Law in total is valid wherever in Austria.
The state of Austria and the Nazi era
The Habsburg Law was downgraded under dictatorial Federal Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg on 13 July 1935 at the time of the Austrofascist Ständestaat (State of estates) from the status of constitutional law to that of normal law; the ban on certain Habsburgs from entering the country was lifted. The "Family-Provision Fund" of the Habsburg family was restored, and substantial property was returned to the fund.
After the "Anschluss", Reichsstatthalter Arthur Seyss-Inquart, head of the "Austrian State Government", enacted the "Law on the cancellation of the transfer of property to the House of Habsburg-Lorraine", on 14 March 1939, on the grounds of a personal Führer decree; thus, the property passed without compensation to the "Land Austria", part of the Third Reich.
In 1945, the Second Republic brought into force again the Constitution of 1920/1929 according to its version as of 1933, and with it automatically also the Habsburg Law of 1919. With the Constitution Transition Law, all constitutional laws enacted between 1933 and 1945, and all laws which were not compatible with the constitution that was in force until 1933, were repealed. Thus, the legal situation of the First Republic was restored.
The expropriation that occurred in 1939 could not be contested up to now, because the owner of the Habsburg property in 1938 (the fund) is not stated after 1945 in the Foundation and Fund Reorganization Law as a reestablishable fund, so that it could not be established again, and because according to various judgments of the Supreme Court individual members of the family have no claim. Only the not reestablishable fund would have a claim. In 1955, at the explicit request of the USSR the Habsburg law became part of the Austrian State Treaty.
The Republic of Austria made reservations to numerous international agreements after 1945 (convention of human rights, anti-discrimination arrangement, etc.), so that these agreements are not in full validity in relation on the members of the Habsburg family in Austria.
From 1960 many members of the House Habsburg-Lorraine signed the waiver. In 1961 it was also signed by the head of the family Archduke Otto von Habsburg. His entry was delayed until 1966 by the Habsburg crisis, in which the legal validity of his declaration was denied. In this connection the National Council decided to interpret the Habsburg Law authentically, with a majority of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). Permission to enter was granted to the last empress, Zita of Bourbon-Parma, without a waiver, in 1982, because she was a Habsburg only by marriage and could therefore make no claim to the imperial throne.
Members of the Habsburg family and other families, "that have ruled before", have according to article 60, paragraph 3 of the federal constitution, the same rights and possibilities as any other Austrians, except from being unable to serve as Federal President. In 2010, Ulrich Habsburg-Lothringen, living in Carinthia, unsuccessfully tried to be accepted as a candidate at the federal president's elections. The federal government has admitted the exclusion of Habsburgs from the passive voting rights is not needed any more and could be abandoned in 2011.
However, the family continues to pursue the fight against the Habsburg law: The financial claims (including castles, apartment buildings in Vienna and about 27,000 hectares of land with an estimated total value of 200 million euros) are substantial. Till present, however, they were dismissed for technical reasons or denied, due to the decisions of the Austrian Supreme Court.
From today's view the question stays juridically open whether the expropriation provisions enacted in 1919 have fulfilled their legal purpose with the expropriation of 1919, and therefore have no more validity for further events (juridically: are consumed), or whether they imply a permanent ban on restitution.
In the report of the historian's committee on the property denial during the Nazi era, which has been in office in 1998-2003, a return ban was denied, while the arbitral authority of the general compensation fund saw such a return ban as evident.
The Arbitration Panel of the General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism (decisions 5/2004, 6/2004, 7/2004) has declared that it lacks jurisdiction over applications of the Habsburg family, for reasons of constitutional and international law. In a subsequent complaint of the Habsburg family concerning decisions of the Arbitration Panel, the Austrian constitutional court has likewise declared that it lacks jurisdiction; the president of the constitutional court, Korinek, pointed out to the Habsburg family the possibility of a civil law claim - apparently under the fiction that the Family-Provision Fund did not cease to exist in 1938, did therefore not need to be reestablished, and still exists. The family has not sought the decision of an Austrian authority since then.
In the discussion on the subject, advocates of the expropriation point out that the Habsburgs were to blame for the First World War. The extracted property is only one symbolic compensation for the damage that resulted from the decision to go to war.
Advocates of the return of the family funds argue that the use of the proceeds of the property for war victims, as provided for by the Habsburg law, is out-dated, as no victims of the First World War are alive any more. In addition, they assert that the Habsburg-Lorraine family is not to blame for the war, as it was not a decision of the family. Emperor Franz Joseph I made this decision without consultation with or agreement of members of the family. Hence, it is a case of collective responsibility, making family members liable for their relatives' actions, something that is frowned upon nowadays; and extremely unequal treatment, since no other Austrian noble family has been expropriated.
- Habsburgergesetz vom 3.4.1919 (in German)
- Habsburgergesetz vom 30.10.1919 (in German)
- Ständestaatsgesetz vom 13.7.1935 zur Vermögensrückgabe (in German)
- NS-Gesetz vom 14.3.1939 zur neuerlichen Vermögensentziehung (in German)
- Authentische Auslegung des Habsburgergesetzes durch den Nationalrat vom 4.7.1963 (in German)
- Adelsaufhebungsgesetz (in German)
- Habsburg Law in the Aeiou Encyclopedia (German)
- Press Release on Decisions No. 5/2004, 6/2004 and 7/2004