From 1453, the Archduke of Austria had the right to bestow titles and ranks upon non-nobles, as did the Archbishop of Salzburg, as Salzburg remained an independent territory. Besides the Holy Roman Emperor (an office which was almost uninterruptedly held by the Archduke (of the House of Habsburg) from 1438 to 1806), only a few territorial rulers within the Empire had this right. In an era of Absolutism, the nobility residing in the cities slowly turned itself into the court nobility (Hofadel). Service at the court became the primary goal of the nobility. This in turn initiated an interest in education and the interests of the court. Within the court, a close inner circle, called the 100 Familien (100 families), possessed enormous riches and lands. They also had great influence at the court and thus played an important role in politics and diplomacy.
After the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the Habsburg rulers, who were Emperors of Austria from 1804 onwards, continued to elevate individuals to nobility until the end of the monarchy in 1918. Some of the noble families even obtained the right to be seated in the Herrenhaus (House of Lords), the upper house of the Reichsrat (Imperial Council). Nobles from previously sovereign states such as those in northern Italy (Venice, Mantua, Milan) were also recognized by the authorities and were allowed to keep their titles and rights.
On the former status of nobility in Burgenland, which was part of the Kingdom of Hungary until 1921, see Hungarian nobility.
A few very wealthy Jewish families were ennobled after the Toleranzedikt vom 1782 ("1782 Edict of Tolerance") decreed by Emperor Joseph II. Under this Edict, very wealthy Jewish bankers, and later entrepreneurs and industrialists—some of them court Jews—could also be ennobled for their services. Jews had been ennobled mostly with no title or lower-ranking titles, such as Freiherr (Baron) or Ritter (Knight). The few Jewish families elevated into the nobility were not required to forswear their faith, but some of these families converted to Christianity in order to become more accepted. Although elevation into the nobility meant recognition for civic contributions and services, and entailed a rise in social status, it did not alter the fact that Jews were, for the most part, still only "tolerated" at best. Jews could not freely choose the place and duration of their stay and had to regularly ask for permission from the authorities. This placed a huge burden on Jewish families; if the head of the family died, all his relatives had to leave the city. The right to purchase real estate was forbidden to Jews, even if they belonged to the nobility. This regulation stayed in place until 1860, when it was abolished by Emperor Franz Joseph I and Jewish citizens were given equal rights. When the banker and protector of arts Raymund Karl Wetzlar von Plankenstern was created a Reichsfreiherr (Baron of the Empire) by Empress Maria Theresia, he converted to Catholicism while still young. His mansion in Vienna was a center of the fine arts and he was a close friend of Mozart, as his son Alexander was of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Despite these difficulties, by 1821 there were at least eleven ennobled Jewish families living in Vienna alone: the Rothschild, Arnstein, Eskeles, Gomperz, Kuffner, Lieben, Auspitz, Schey von Koromla, Todesco, Wertheimstein, and Wiernes families. The elevation into the nobility of wealthy Jews also started the process of assimilation of Jewish families into the Austrian upper class.
Following the Habsburgergesetz of 1919 ("Habsburg Law"), which legally dethroned, exiled and confiscated the properties of the Imperial House of Habsburg, the Adelsaufhebungsgesetz of 1919 ("Law on the Abolition of Nobility") abolished nobility as well as all noble privileges, titles and names in Austria. In other monarchies of Europe, Austrian noble families may use their noble titles as well as aristocratic particles such as von and zu in their names and they still retain noble status there. For example, the name of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne became in Austria simply Karl Habsburg-Lothringen instead of Karl von Habsburg; in Belgium, however, he is known as Archduke Karl of Austria.
This may sometimes be confusing, as descendants of nobles are sometimes referred to with noble names abroad. Also, members of noble families often hold multiple citizenships, as was the case for Otto von Habsburg (eldest son of the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary and father of Karl Habsburg-Lothringen), who was also a citizen of Germany. The Austrian law does not apply to artistic, performer or stage names, where von is sometimes used, as in the case of conductor Herbert von Karajan or the musician Hubert von Goisern. However, stage names are never recognized for official purposes.
Members of the lower nobility especially (such as civil servants) found this radical step of abolition degrading and humiliating, since working towards and finally earning a noble title was a way for them and their families to rise within society. Members of the higher nobility were able to absorb the formal abolition more easily. They lost their titles and privileges, but kept their social manners, standing and riches. Federal President Michael Hainisch called the official abolition
The law abolishing nobility and titles was never repealed, even during the period of Austrofascism (1934–1938). Following the Anschluss to Nazi Germany (1938–1945), this law remained on the books, although it was not enforced, allowing Austrian nobles to use titles freely again.
Although noble titles and the particles von and zu are no longer legal, some persons are still unofficially referred to by their titles. For example, Karl Schwarzenberg will occasionally still be referred to as Fürst zu Schwarzenberg (Prince zu Schwarzenberg) in the media; he holds Czech and Swiss citizenship, not Austrian.
Unlike the nobility in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), Poland, Russia, or the former Prussian territories, the Austrian nobility never had its lands and riches confiscated in Austria (except the Imperial House of Habsburg, which had its properties legally confiscated by the Austrian republican government in 1919). Social measures were introduced by the republican government in order to create more equality amongst the citizens and finance public projects, which put a strain on the traditional land-holding gentry and aristocracy, resulting in the forced sale of many palaces and lands due to the expense of their upkeep. However, there was no measure by the government specifically to target nobility and take away their possessions.
Still, the nobility today are sometimes nonetheless treated slightly differently from other citizens. Austrian nobility still plays a large part in movies made after World War II (for example, Sissi and The Sound of Music), and is still featured regularly in the media and literature. The social events of nobles are still covered extensively in tabloids. Besides, the law is often broken on occasions when members of the nobility are addressed at various events: At the annual birthday celebration of Emperor Franz Joseph in Bad Ischl, for example, members of the former Imperial House of Habsburg are addressed as "Imperial and Royal Highness".
Apart from the prohibition of their titles, some former nobles still make up some of the richest families in Austria, such as the Esterházy, Mayr-Melnhof and Mautner-Markhof. Many members of the Austrian nobility today work in the traditional fields of diplomacy, politics, have business and financial interests, or are philanthropists or socialites.
It was estimated that there were about 20,000 Austrian nobles in 2005. That year, an association was founded, the Vereinigung der Edelleute in Österreich (Association of Austrian Nobles, or V.E.Ö.), which sees itself as the successor of the Vereinigung katholischer Edelleute in Österreich (Catholic Association of Austrian Nobles, or V.E.Ö.), founded in 1922 but banned under the Nazis in 1938. Until recently, all of the various attempts at revival were blocked by Austrian authorities.
Austria's nobility was divided into three categories: the mediatized nobility (standesherrlicht), the higher nobility (hoher Adel), and the lower nobility (niederer Adel):
Non-ruling members of the imperial family held various titles:The wife of the emperor (Kaiser) bore the title of empress (Kaiserin) and was styled Her Imperial Majesty.
Agnates of the imperial family and their authorized wives bore the title of archduke/archduchess (Erzherzog/Erzherzogin) and styled Imperial and Royal Highness (Kaiserliche und königliche Hoheit).
Legitimate but morganatic descendants of the imperial family were excluded from the line of succession, but might sometimes receive lesser titles with noble rather than royal prerogatives, e.g.:Prince von Hohenberg, later further created duke (Herzog) and styled Highness (Hoheit)
Prince von Montenuovo
Margrave von Burgau
Count von Meran
(English titles with German equivalents)Prince/Princess of the Holy Roman Empire (Reichsfürst/Reichsfürstin)1
Imperial Count/Countess (Reichsgraf/Reichsgräfin)
A title with the prefix Reichs-
indicates its being granted by a past Holy Roman Emperor, ranking above other titles of the same or higher nominal rank.
(English titles with German equivalents)Prince/Princess (Fürst/Fürstin)
Baron/Baroness (Freiherr/Freifrau and Freiin)2
Knight (Ritter) (no female version existed)
In German, a distinction between baronesses exists, a Freifrau
being a baroness by marriage and Freiin
being a baroness by birth. The title of Ritter
is equivalent to the British baronet (i.e., hereditary knight), and Edler
Use of nobiliary particles, such as the prepositions "von", "zu", variations such as "vom", or combinations ("von und zu"), common until after World War I (non-German-speaking nobility preferred to use "de"), have also been banned.
Below is an incomplete list of Austrian noble families, listed by rank of title. Note that some members of a family were sometimes given higher titles by the emperor because of merit. Titles, styles, and rights could only be conferred by the monarch. In some cases, they could even be revoked because of fall from favour.
The style of address was usually "Serene Highness" (Durchlaucht) or the lower style of "Princely Grace" (Fürstliche Gnaden). Although Herzog ("duke") was officially a higher title than Fürst, the former was rare in Austria, except among royalty and mediatized houses. The princely title was the most prestigious of the Austrian nobility, usually borne by heads of families whose cadets were generally counts/countesses, although in some mediatized princely families (Reichsfürsten) members were allowed to bear the same title as cadets of royalty: prince/princess (Prinz/Prinzessin) with the style of Serene Highness.
Mediatized counts were often entitled to the style of "Illustrious Highness" (Erlaucht). Ranking below them were the comital families of ancient lineage, wealth and influence who were recognized as such in Austria, but had not been Counts of the Empire (Reichsgrafen) prior to 1806; these counts bore the lower style of "High-born" (Hochgeboren).
There was no official style, but "Gnädiger Herr" (Gracious Lord), "Gnädige Frau", or "Gnädiges Fräulein" (Gracious Lady) were common forms of address. Although strictly speaking the title was Freiherr, the usage of "Baron" in written and verbal communication was very common, even if incorrect. The title Freiin was also often replaced for "geborene (née) Baronin", which was strictly speaking also incorrect since a Baronin would have been married already.
There was no official style, but "Gnädiger Herr" was a common form of address. The title was for males only; no female version existed. Female members of a family with the title Ritter however were often addressed as "Edle von", which was incorrect unless the family already carried the Edler honour before being raised to the Ritter class.
The rank of Edler carried no official style, but "Gnädiger Herr" or "Gnädige Frau" were common forms of address.
This title belonged to the patricians of the free city of Werl, in Germany, who had the hereditary (erb-) right to exploit the nearby salt mines (salz). Thus this title was not granted in Austria, but merely recognized there.(von) Lilien
Binder-Krieglstein, Reinhard (2000). Österreichisches Adelsrecht 1868 – 1918/19: von der Ausgestaltung des Adelsrechts der cisleithanischen Reichshälfte bis zum Adelsaufhebungsgesetz der Republik unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des adeligen Namensrechts (in German). Frankfurt am Main [u.a.]: Peter Lang. ISBN 978-3-631-34833-8.
von Coudenhove-Kalergi, Richard. Adel. Vienna. 1923.
Frank-Döfering, Peter. Adelslexikon des österreichischen Kaisertums 1804–1918 (in German). Herder, Vienna 1989. ISBN 3-210-24925-3.
Lieven, Dominic (1993). The aristocracy in Europe: 1815–1914 (1st ed.). New York: Columbia Univ. Press. ISBN 0-231-08112-X. .
Siegert, Heinz. Adel in Österreich(in German). Vienna 1971.
Stekl, Hannes. Adel und Bürgertum in der Habsburgermonarchie 18. bis 20. Jahrhundert(in German). Oldenbourg, Vienna 2004. ISBN 3-486-56846-9
Walterskirchen, Gudula. Blaues Blut für Österreich (in German). Amalthea, Vienna 2000. ISBN 3-85002-452-0
Walterskirchen, Gudula. Der verborgene Stand. Adel in Österreich heute (in German). Amalthea, Vienna 2007. ISBN 3-85002-428-8
Der Gotha. Supplement. Der "Österreich-Gotha". Mit Ergänzungswerken zum deutschen Adel (in German). Saur, Munich 1997. ISBN 3-598-30359-9