Austria improves nationality law for descendants of Nazi victims

An amendment had to be passed to remedy "unacceptable differences in treatment" of the descendants of Holocaust victims.

austria parliament house flag
The Austrian National flag hovers on the Austrian Parliament on a clear day in Vienna on April 8, 2013. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN (Photo by ALEXANDER KLEIN / AFP)

The Austrian parliament has amended the 2019 Citizenship Act to correct “inequalities” faced by descendants of Nazi victims who fled the country under Hitler’s Third Reich.

The legislation came into effect last September allowing descendants of up to three generations of victims of Nazi persecution to reclaim an Austrian passport in a simplified process.

However, the amendment passed unanimously Thursday night had to be brought in to remedy “unacceptable differences in the treatment” of the descendants under the 2019 act, member of parliament Sabine Schatz said in a statement.

“When the act came into force, inequalities were noted that have been corrected,” she added.

Political expert Barbara Serloth, who was involved in the amendment project, told AFP that descendants of people “killed by the Nazis”, for example in Mauthausen concentration camp, were not eligible.

Nor were descendants of those who committed suicide or had citizenship of a country other than the nations of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

MP Martin Engelberg cited cases of people who could not meet the requirements because their grandmothers had lost their Austrian nationality when they married and moved to a different country.

READ ALSO: How descendants of victims of Nazism can apply for Austrian citizenship

The women may have lost their nationality “deliberately”, he said, but that was “to escape persecution”.

The amendment also takes into account descendants of survivors who decided not to return to Austria after Hitler took power in 1933, for fear of persecution.

The 2019 act saw 16,200 people take Austrian nationality in 2021, an 80 percent increase in the numbers compared to the previous year — and half of them were descendants of victims of the Nazis.

Some 16 percent of the naturalisations were Israelis, 10 percent Americans, and seven percent British.

Until 2019, only Holocaust survivors themselves could obtain Austrian nationality.

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Could Austria change the rules around citizenship?

Austria has some strict requirements on how and who can become an Austrian citizen, and the presidential elections have brought the debate back into the spotlight. Could the rules change?

Could Austria change the rules around citizenship?

Those who want to take up Austrian citizenship via naturalisation need to undergo an extensive and expensive process and fulfil specific criteria.

Generally, there needs to be at least 10 years of lawful and uninterrupted residence in Austria. However, there are exceptions for those with citizenship of an EU or EEA country, those born in Austria, or married to an Austrian, for example.

The main hurdles, however, include having to give up any other citizenships, as Austria doesn’t allow for dual citizenship in naturalisation cases with few exceptions, and the payment of a high fee, which depends on the municipality.

In Vienna, the application costs €130. If successful, the new Austrian citizen can expect to pay from €1,100 to € 1,500 just for the award – that doesn’t include costs with documentation, translation, and issuance of documents such as an Austrian passport.

But why are Austrians debating the issue again?

With just over 17 per cent of its 8.9 million residents immigrants and a quarter of people living in Austria having a “migration background”, the issue has never really not been discussed in the country.

However, it has been more recently brought again to the spotlight after statements by the current Federal President, Alexander Van der Bellen, who is running a reelection campaign. In an interview with local media, VdB said he believes the “hurdles” for citizenship are too high.

READ ALSO: Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

“Citizenship is a valuable asset. I think the hurdles for obtaining it are too high, ” he repeated on numerous occasions.

This sparked the debate once again, with several newspapers running stories on the naturalisation process in Austria and with politicians taking a stand on the issue.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer addresses a press conference in Berlin in March 2022.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer addresses a press conference in Berlin in March 2022. Photo: Stefanie Loos / POOL / AFP.
ÖVP: Chancellor Nehammer dismisses demands for changes

Most notably, Chancellor Karl Nehammer, from the conservative party ÖVP, has dismissed the requests entirely, saying that a “softening” of the process was “out of the question”.

The chancellor added that he sees no reason why the process should be changed.

Nehammer said on Sunday: “Let’s not pretend that everyone has to wait 20 years for naturalisation. Under certain conditions, naturalisation is possible for a large part of people after six to ten years.”

READ ALSO: ​​Why has naturalisation in Austria doubled in 2022 – and who are the new citizens?

The statements come as no surprise, as Austria’s People’s Party ÖVP often has already, on several occasions, said that any relaxation of the current naturalisation rules would “depreciate” Austrian citizenship.

Wiens Bürgermeister Michael Ludwig im Festsaal des Rathauses

SPÖ: Vienna’s SPÖ Mayor in favour of easing

Not all politicians are against changing, at least partially, the rules. During an SPÖ party congress, Vienna Mayor and SPÖ leader in the capital Michael Ludwig says “it makes sense” to make adjustments to the rules.

“I want easier access when it comes to reducing bureaucratic and financial barriers. It should be considered whether to make things easier for those who were already born here.”, he said on his social media.

Technically speaking, people born in Austria can apply for citizenship after six years of continuous residence, which makes the process a bit shorter, if not easier. However, they still need to pay high fees and give up their previous citizenship.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Austrian passport if born in Austria?

For example, a child born and raised in Austria to British parents could only become an Austrian citizen (and therefore vote) if they gave up their UK passport.

Austria’s Justice Minister Alma Zadic (© Parlamentsdirektion / Thomas Jantzen)
Greens: In favour of changes

“The Green position is very clear: We see it the same way as the Federal President,” stated the Green Minister of Justice Alma Zadic on Sunday evening in the ORF program ZiB2.

She said that the party could see not only changes in the process to make it less bureaucratic but also “financial changes”, adding that she has friends and acquaintances who simply “cannot afford to pay thousands of euros to get citizenship”.

However, the minister clarified that nothing would change in the current political setting, as the parties in favour of easing don’t hold a parliamentary majority. “We have a government agreement that does not provide for this point.”, she said.

Will Austria change its citizenship rules?

While junior partner Greens have been in favour of easing some rules, little is expected to happen with the ÖVP in power. The next parliamentary elections are set for 2024, though. If the SPÖ continues climbing in the polls, an SPÖ-Green coalition could push forward different rules.

Also, if the Red-Green-Yellow ruling coalition in Germany does succeed in easing naturalisation rules in the neighbouring country, Austria could see further pressure for domestic changes.

But that remains to be seen, mainly depending on the 2024 election results.