A Pleb by Any Other Name

A German-British dual national changed her name by deed poll to give herself the name Silia Valentina Mariella Gräfin von Fürstenstein. Armed with a passport and presumably enough ancillary documentation to cosh an elephant (or at least a German bureaucrat), the woman attempted to have her decision acknowledged back in Germany. She was rebuffed, however, on the grounds that the surname contained an aristocratic moniker, and this decision has now been upheld by the German Federal Court.

In Germany, even marginally unusual names can be a difficult prospect at times, decisions by the European courts occasionally drag the country into the past. Double-barrelled surnames are of particular contention, although some ten years ago the European Court of Justice indicated that Germany cannot reject the names of fellow Europeans as accepted in their country of birth.

Interestingly then, it seems the same doesn’t hold true for persons attempting to game the system by changing their names abroad. The court’s refusal to acknowledge Frau Gräfin von Fürstenstein’s name draws on a law dating from the Weimar Republic which, in the name of equality, abolished noble titles, at once turning them into regular surnames and preventing their being awarded in future.

So quite why it should be a problem for such surnames to be invented, rather than awarded, defies all logic. Surely acting in such a way is entirely counter to the whole purpose of the law. If your precious countess is no longer a countess, but no one else can call themselves countess, then that title becomes special again. If you really want to wipe out the nobility, then there’s no better weapon than the disdain of ubiquity. Florian König is no more a king than a flower, and I’m sure the courts wouldn’t have raised any objections had the fair lady changed her name to Silia König. But to call herself a countess? The cheek!

Although Silia would have recourse to defer the matter to the European Court, it would unlikely provide any succour in this instance, as Peter Mark Emanuel Graf von Wolffersdorff Freiherr von Bogendorff previously discovered. The German state’s sworn aim to provide equality for all German citizens before the law would apparently be endangered by allowing a pleb to change their name to look like it were an aristocratic title. This honourable goal, enshrined in Article 109 of the Weimar constitution, is fast approaching its hundredth anniversary. Using that as an excuse to prevent little people changing their names screams of hypocrisy writ large. If the alleged goal is to burn down the palace of prestige, couldn’t we find some more effective methods than matches? A compromise that lasts a century isn’t conciliatory, it’s a full-blown concession. In comparison, just over the border in Austria, the same noble goal was managed at a stroke by having all noble titles expunged. That decision has seen support at the level of the European Courts even today when trying to ‘import’ noble titles from Germany.

More than a century on and Germany is still ostensibly waiting for its noble titles to go extinct, while the courts effectively defend their right to be worn and not to be diluted. If we’re really to put an end to the stigma of nobility, Germany needs to progress beyond the compromises of a century ago and offer something recognisably approaching equality before the law. The law claims to be blind, but behind closed doors it seems it still wears a monocle.

[Photo by Cederic X on Unsplash]

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