On December 7, 2022, it was reported that law enforcement in Germany had arrested 25 people allegedly planning to overthrow the government. The alleged leader and possible future sovereign of Germany was a man the newspapers referred to as “Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss.” However, titles of nobility have been abolished in Germany. Were the newspapers wrong in calling him a prince?
Let us take a look at what the laws says. In 1919, the Weimar Constitution removed all “[p]ublic legal privileges or disadvantages of birth or of rank.” Additionally, it proclaimed that “[t]itles of nobility are valid only as part of a name and may no longer be conferred.” (Weimar Constitution, art. 109.) This provision remains in force under the German Basic Law, the country’s current constitution, and has the status of ordinary federal law. (Basic Law, art. 123, para. 1; BVerwGE 23, 344.) Going back to our example, it is therefore correct to refer to him as “Heinrich XIII (first name) Prince of Reuss (last name),” but not the other way around.
Titles of nobility, even when they are only part of a last name, still carry weight with the general population and may create the appearance of belonging to a supposed “upper social class.” Courts have to determine whether name changes to add a title of nobility, in particular from a foreign country, are recognized in Germany. Two of the most prominent cases are explained below.
CJEU, Case C-438/14
In 2016, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) had to decide whether the refusal of the German authorities to modify the first and last names entered on the German birth certificate of the applicant and to state the name acquired during habitual residence in the United Kingdom (UK) in the civil registry violated European Union (EU) law, in particular article 18 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (EU citizenship) and article 21 TFEU (freedom of movement). The applicant, a German national, was born in 1963 as “Nabiel Bagdadi.” Following a change of name proceeding and an adoption, his name in the German personal status register was amended to “Nabiel Peter” (first name) and “Bogendorff von Wolffersdorff” (last name). (The “von” (of) in the last name of the applicant indicates a noble origin.) In 2001, he moved to the UK and acquired British nationality in 2004 while retaining his German citizenship. By a deed poll of July 26, 2004, he changed his name to “Peter Mark Emanuel Graf von Wolffersdorff Freiherr von Bogendorff” (which translates to “Peter Mark Emanuel Count of Wolffersdorff Baron of Bogendorff.”). In 2005, he and his wife moved back to Germany. In 2013, the applicant instructed the civil registry in the city of Karlsruhe to enter in the civil status registry the first and last names he had acquired in the UK in accordance with section 48 of the Introductory Act of the Civil Code (Einführungsgesetz zum Bürgerlichen Gesetzbuche, EGBGB). (CJEU, paras. 11-16, 21.)
Article 48 of the EGBGB provides:
Where the name of a person is subject to German law, that person can, by declaration before the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths, choose a name that he or she obtained when he or she had habitual residence in another Member State of the European Union, where that name was registered in a register of civil status, unless this is manifestly incompatible with the fundamental principles of German law. The choice of name shall have retroactive effect from the date of the registration in the register of civil status of the other Member State, unless the person explicitly declares that the choice of name shall be effective for the future only. The declaration must be publicly certified or authenticated. Article 47 paragraphs 1 and 3 shall apply mutatis mutandis.
The civil registry denied his application and stated that the exception contained in article 48 applied (incompatibility with the essential principles of German law). The district court of Karlsruhe (Amtsgericht Karlsruhe), which the applicant had called upon to settle the dispute with the German authorities, stayed the proceedings and referred the question “whether reasons connected with the constitutional choice of the first Member State and the abolition of titles of nobility can authorise that Member State not to recognise a change of forenames and surname obtained” in a second member state to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling. (CJEU, paras. 23, 25, 27.)
The CJEU held that the German authorities were allowed to refuse the name change, because the “name which he has chosen freely and which contains a number of tokens of nobility […] are not accepted by the law of the first Member State, provided that it is established […] that a refusal of recognition is, in that context, justified on public policy grounds.” (CJEU, para. 84.) In this case at issue, German law “abolishes the privileges and titles of nobility as such and prohibits the creation of titles giving the appearance of noble origins, even in the form of part of a name, [which] constitutes the implementation of the more general principle of equality before the law of all German citizens. […] There can therefore be no doubt that the objective of observing the principle of equal treatment is compatible with EU law.” (Id. paras. 69, 71.)
German Federal Court of Justice, docket no. XII ZB 292/15
In 2018, the German Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof, BGH) had to decide a similar case. It held that a woman with dual German-British citizenship who changed her name by deed poll from “Silke Nicole Vo.” to “Silia Valentina Mariella Gräfin von Fürstenstein” (translated as “Silia Valentina Mariella Countesse of Fürstenstein”) at the British embassy in Bern could not be recognized under German law if it contained freely chosen German tokens of nobility. It stated that it violates the German public order if the name change is motivated by the desire to use it in Germany to create the appearance of noble origins and belonging to a supposed upper class. (BGH, paras. 31, 32.)
Petition to Abolish Titles of Nobility Completely
In 2018, the youth organization of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) (Jungsozialistinnen und Jungsozialisten in der SPD, Jusos) submitted a petition to completely abolish titles of nobility, even as part of a person’s last name. The Jusos argued that persons bearing a noble title in their last name are still awarded certain privileges and that some are using it as a title, despite the legal prohibition. Furthermore, they explain that the complete abolishment of noble titles and names as it has been done in Austria had been approved by the CJEU. However, the executive committee of the SPD rejected the motion stating that all noble privileges were already abolished by the Weimar Constitution.
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