+++ Update, September 19, 2019 +++
On September 19, the Austrian Parliament unanimously passed an amendment to the country’s citizenship law. It gives the descendants of former Austrian citizens who had to flee the country due to persecution, the Nazis and the Shoa the right to (re-)claim their Austrian citizenship, up to 100 years back in their family history.
Oskar Deutsch, chairman of the Vienna Israeli Community (IKG), called it a “decision of historic proportions.” Deutsch said: “In the name of the Jewish communities in Austria, which up until 1938 still counted more than 200,000 members, I want to express my explicit gratitude to the ÖVP, SPÖ and Neos.”
These three parties had pushed the law forward in recent weeks and made sure to pass it still before the parliamentary elections on September 29.
+++ Original story, September 12/14, 2019 +++
It was a promise that former Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) first formulated in an interview with The Jewish Chronicle on November 9, 2018. Kurz vowed to “give all children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims the opportunity to become Austrian citizens if they want to.”
So far, citizenship was available only to Holocaust victims and former Austrian citizens who fled the country due to Nazi persecution prior to or during World War II. Austria’s strict stance on dual citizenship complicated matters further. Kurz’s promise was welcomed by Jewish associations and civil society, yet for the first one-and-a-half years of the center-right government’s rule, it was put on the backburner.
An opposition motion to expedite the matter in February 2019 was voted down by MPs from the ruling Conservatives (ÖVP) and Freedom Party (FPÖ) – not an unusual occurrence per se, but perhaps an indication that the coalition had not quite found consensus on giving second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors the right to obtain Austrian passports. At the time, Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (FPÖ) promised a government proposal by the end of the year.
Interim Government Takes Charge
Three months later, the Ibiza video unleashed a firestorm in domestic politics, leading to the implosion of the government and its dismissal by Parliament. The Republic has since been led by a caretaker government headed by Brigitte Bierlein. But it is Parliament that has been in the driving seat when it comes to legislation, passing a raft of measures from an act to enshrine the right to clean water in Austria’s constitution, to a comprehensive smoking ban.
And now Parliament seems set to tackle the issue of citizenship for Holocaust victims’ descendants, even before the new elections on September 29. One of the architects behind the effort was Stephanie Krisper, MP for the liberal NEOS, who first tabled a draft citizenship law in November 2018. It was voted down in committee, as was an SPÖ motion in plenary the following February. Yet for Krisper, it also had unexpected consequences.
Support From Around the World
Letters of Holocaust victims’ children and grandchildren from around the world have been reaching Krisper since she stepped up her advocacy. One British woman wrote that her grandmother had to flee Austria in 1938, while her sister, who didn’t make it out, was killed in the Holocaust. The granddaughter lives in Austria today, but all her endeavors to get an Austrian passport in addition to her British one have been unsuccessful. The case has an additional twist: The emigrée’s daughter and granddaughter would have been entitled to Austrian citizenship (albeit single, not dual citizenship) if the grandmother had been a man or a single mother. The existing rules mean children born prior to 1983 and in wedlock of female emigrées and exiles cannot inherit their mother’s Austrian nationality.
Similar stories reached Krisper from Australia and the US. “For me, that underlined how important this issue is for many people out there,” said Krisper. While Germany already has a law allowing double citizenship in these cases in place, Austria lags behind, she criticized.
Not to be outdone, Kurz’s ÖVP, newly free from coalition discipline, also initiated their own legislation this July. As a result, three bills on the matter currently exist – the NEOS bill by Krisper, the SPÖ bill and the new ÖVP bill – while the other parties in the Nationalrat (National Assembly), the FPÖ and Liste Jetzt!, have also signaled their support.
One Step Away
In order to make sure that party tactics won’t triumph over substance this time, Interior Minister Wolfang Peschorn has invited all parties for talks to produce a unified draft. According to Marie-Theres Egyed from the Austrian daily Der Standard, an agreement seems likely, in which case the bill will probably still reach and pass Parliament this month – before the elections on September 29.
As Krisper put it: “Austria has a special responsibility toward the victims of National Socialism and their descendants.” Eight decades after the outbreak of World War II, this law would be a step toward living up to this responsibility.
This article was made possible by a donation from David Stein. If you would like to support our work, please subscribe or select an option from the donation box below. Thanks again, David Stein!
This story was updated on September 14 for greater accuracy upon feedback from one of the people quoted in the text. Thanks for reaching out. It was also updated on September 19 to reflect current events and developments.