Austria extends citizenship to descendants of Nazi regime's victims in 'historic decision'

Jorg Luyken
Sigmund Freud and his family were among Austrian Jews who fled the Nazi regime for Britain  - Corbis Historical

The Austrian parliament unanimously ratified a law on Friday which for the first time extends citizenship to descendants of Nazi victims who fled during and after Hitler's Third Reich.

The move opened the way for the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of hundreds of thousands of Jews persecuted by the Nazis to apply for Austrian nationality. Previously, only Holocaust survivors themselves were eligible for citizenship.

The definition of a victim of Nazi persecution has also been extended to include people who left the country for up to ten years after the end of the Second World War, meaning those interned in concentration camps who did not leave immediately after the conflict's end can now finally regain their nationality.

After a lengthy session haggling over the details, all five parties in the parliament backed the bill, which also makes an exception to strict rules on dual nationality to grant passports without the need to reside in  Austria or give up a previous nationality.

The law won immediate praise from the country’s Jewish community, with Israeli Cultural Association head Oskar Deutsch calling it “a decision of historic proportions”.

“On behalf of the Jewish communities in Austria, which until 1938 still had more than 200,000 members, I would like to express my gratitude to the ÖVP, SPÖ and Neos,” he said, referencing the three parties that brought the bill forward.

Sabine Schatz, speaking for the Social Democrats, said the law was a long overdue gesture to show that Austria was taking on more responsibility for its role in the Nazi terror.

The new law applies to descendants of those who were Austrian when they fled, or the nationality of another country under the Austro-Hungarian empire that extended from what is now the Czech Republic to beyond Croatia until 1918.

Under the law’s provisions, only people convicted of violent crime or financial misdemeanours, or those “with a negative attitude towards Austrian democracy”, could be barred from receiving citizenship.

Austrian authorities have not released estimates for how many people they believe are likely to make use of the new law, but the legislation provides for extra funds and staff to deal with a significant uptick in citizenship applications.

During the debate, officials said that they had seen a particular rise in inquiries from descendants with British nationality as Brexit looms.

Among Austrian Jews to flee to Britain was the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who left with his family shortly after the Nazi occupation in March 1938 - though not before being forced to pay an extortionate “exile tax” for their departure. He settled in North London and died there the following year; his great-grandchildren include David Freud, the former Conservative minister, the fashion designer Bella Freud, and broadcaster Emma Freud.

The new legislation goes a long way to bring Austria in line with Germany’s treatment of the victims of Nazi persecution. 

The rights of offspring of Nazi victims to citizenship are enshrined in the German constitution, but Berlin has also felt it necessary to modify its laws in recent months, in part due to an uptick in interest from British Jews. The number of British nationals applying for passports under the citizenship restoration law has surged since the 2016 Brexit referendum.

In August the German interior ministry closed loopholes in the law that meant that people who left the country before the Nazis revoked their citizenship had no right to re-naturalisation. Another gap in the law mean that it was harder for the descendants of female victims to gain citizenship than those of males.