Succession Laws in Germany

First published February 2000. Under construction.


These pages are devoted to the laws governing the succession to various German states:

  • the succession laws of hereditary states (Reichsstände) of the Holy Roman Empire (until 1806)
  • the succession laws of the constituent states of the Deutsches Bund (1815-66), Norddeutsches Bund (1866-70) and Deutsches Reich (1871-1918).

See a general presentation of the Holy Roman Empire as background.

General remarks about German succession laws

Until 1806, the Holy Roman Empire nominally knew only one fully sovereign individual, the Emperor, whose position was elective. Under him, as explained in greater detail in the page on the Holy Roman Empire, the Empire was composed of hundreds of states, some of which were cities, some were ecclesiastical (governed by a bishop, abbot, or an ecclesiastical body), and the rest hereditary. The last group was ruled by the upper nobility (Hochadel). Many of those states disappeared in the period 1806-1815; those that survived went on to become fully sovereign entities inside the loose German Confederation (1815-1866) and the rather tighter Prussian-led confederation founded in 1866 that became the German Empire (1871-1918).

The upper nobility formed a special category of individuals in German law, governed by a particular set of rules which came to be known as "the private law of princes" (Privatfürstenrecht). Thus, anyone interested in understanding the succession laws that governed states like Prussia or Bavaria is led to study this particular area of German law, at the intersection of public law (since it determined many aspects of the exercise of public authority in those states) and private law (because, originally at least, the states ruled by those families were treated as a kind of private property of those families). Even by the late 19th century, when almost all German states had become constitutional monarchies, the elements of private law had not unambiguously removed.

Principles and Sources of Privatfürstenrecht

Within the German Privatfürstenrecht, certain general principles have been developped by jurists over several centuries (not always with unanimity), based on a mixture of ancient German law (as found in 12th-13th c. codes such as the Schwabenspiegel and the Sachsenspiegel), canon law, medieval Roman law (which became very influential from the 14th c.), Imperial laws and jurisprudence, and custom. These principles, however, were seen to apply only in the absence of specific provisions. The main source of law, for each family, was its "house laws" (Hausgesetze), an accumulation of documents from all time periods, including testaments, family compacts, treaties with other families, and house rules laid down by the head of the house.

The main textual source for the house laws of the reigning families of the 19th century is:

  • Schulze, Hermann (a.k.a. Hermann Johann Friedrich von Schulze-Gävernitz): Die hausgesetze der regierenden deutschen fürstenhäuser. 3 vol. Iena: F. Mauke (later G. Fischer), 1862, 1878, 1883.
    • 1. Anhalt, Baden, Bayern, Hannover and Braunschweig.
    • 2. Hessen, Lippe and Schaumburg-Lippe, Mecklenburg, Reuß, Oldenburg (Holstein-Gottorp).
    • 3. Sachsen, Schwarzburg, Waldeck, Württemberg, Hohenzollern. (Sachsen and Hohenzollern also published separately in 1881 and 1882).
An earlier source is the encyclopaedic:
  • Moser, Johann Jakob: Teutsches Staats-Recht. Nurnberg : Stein, 1737-53. (in volume 19). Also, by the same author: Neues Teutsches Staats-Recht, 1766-75 (reprint 1967), vol. 12.
A general overview is:
  • Rehm, Hermann. Modernes Fürstenrecht. Munich, 1904.  J. Schweitzer Verlag.
The house laws of mediatized families are discussed in relation to unequal marriages in:
  • Abt, Emil.  Mißheiraten in den deutschen Fürstenhäusern unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der standesherrlichen Familien.  Heidelberg, 1911.  Carl Winter.
Much useful information to be found in:
  • Zoepfl, Heinrich.  Grundsätze des gemeinen deutschen Staatsrecht. Leipzig & Heidelberg, 1863.  C. F. Winter.  5th and last edition.
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François Velde

Last Modified: Mar 04, 2005