150 Years of Jewish Emancipation in Austria.
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150 Years of Jewish Emancipation in Austria.

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The Jews of Austria are commemorating to-day the 150th. anniversary of the promulgation of the Toleration Decree by Emperor Josef II., the son and successor of the Empress Maria Theresa, which gave recognition to the non-Catholic religions in the Austrian Empire and opened a new era for the Austrian Jews by giving them their emancipation.

The Emperor Josef was an admirer of Voltaire, and a disciple of the school of enlightenment, so that when he came to the throne he adopted a liberal attitude towards the Jews of his country, differing from that of his mother, who had imposed many restrictions on them, considering it his duty to improve their condition.

The principle underlying the decree of toleration published on October 13th., 1781, was the guarantee to all religious bodies, recognised by law, of freedom of worship, the management of their own affairs, and the undisturbed possession and disposal of their property. A week later, on October 21st., 1781, Emperor Josef issued another order, abrogating all the laws which had required the Jews to wear a distinctive dress. The enlightenment of the Jews was one of his cherished plans, and to this end he demanded that the Jews should assimilate themselves to their surroundings, adopt the language of the country and establish schools according to modern educational principles, that they should be allowed to enter all high schools and universities, to lease lands for agricultural purposes if they worked it with Jewish hands, and to engage in all mechanical trades, arts and wholesale commerce. This decree was issued on October 19th., 1781. On December 19th. of the same year, he abolished the poll-tax, directed the authorities to treat the Jews like fellowmen, and commanded that Jewish children in the public schools should receive proper consideration.

The toleration decree, the so-called Toleranzpatent, was introduced by the Emperor with a statement that it was his aim to permit all his subjects, without distinction of creed and nationality to participate in the welfare and freedom of his Government. The specific ecclesiastical restrictions against the Jews dating from the time of the Vienna Council, prohibiting Jews from being abroad before noon on Sundays and Catholic Holy Days and from visiting places of amusement, were abolished. He also compelled the Jews in 1787 to assume fixed family names and to serve in the army, in each case the first instance of the kind in Europe.


The improvement did not last long. When the Emperor Josef died, after reigning for ten years, the Bishops presented a petition to his successor, Leopold II., asking him to abrogate the laws relating to the Jews, who should be again declared crown vassals, with their position depending solely on the goodwill of the monarch. Leopold evaded the question, however, and during his short reign of less than two years no action was taken in this regard.

But his son, Francis II. was a man of narrow views, and under his rule the principle of improving the condition of the Jews by opening to them new ways of activity, as Josef II had intended, was given up. Agriculture, which Josef II had endeavoured to introduce among the Jews, was restricted. Jews were prohibited from farming rural property. Similarly a Jew could foreclose a mortgage on real estate only under the condition that he should not buy it or take it under his administration, and the Emperor wrote with great indignation to one of his Ministers, that he had heard that the Vienna Jews bought houses in the name of Christians and that this scandal would not be tolerated. A law of 1804 prohibited Jews dealing in saltpetre and another of 1814 prohibited them dealing in salt and grain. A law of 1818, which was repeated in 1829, prohibited Jews from being druggists. In 1802 it was decreed that no Jew should henceforth obtain permission to reside in Vienna, but this law was later amended in favour of the wealthier Jews. The law that Jews should not employ Christian servants in their houses was repeatedly renewed between 1803 and 1807. The ecclesiastical laws were also applied with regard to the internal affairs of the Jews. Nevertheless, under his reign, a Jew named Hoenig, a member of a family of famous financiers, was appointed in 1810 as an officer in the army, the first case in Europe outside France. Ferdinand I., his son, who succeeded him in 1835, was an invalid without much influence on the affairs of the Government, and he abdicated after the Revolution of 1848, being succeeded by his nephew, Francis Josef, who died during the Great War, and in whose reign the Jews obtained full rights. Ferdinand was very friendly to the Jews, and effected several improvements in their condition and after his abdication, when he went to live in Prague, he became a member of the Chevra Kadisha there, till his death in 1875, paying a special contribution that Kadish should be said for him for the whole year after his death.

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