The legal world has its stars, too. Like Hans Kelsen (1881 – 1973), a brilliant scholar whose claim to fame includes contributing significantly to the 1920 Austrian constitution. A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum explores the story of both man and law.
- Runs Oct 1, 2020 – September 12, 2021
- No special ticket required, just the normal entrance fee
- All text in English and German
- See also: Jewish Museum visitor & tickets info
The Elegance of the Austrian Constitution
Verfassungsgericht / Constitutional Court; photo © Provided by and used with permission of Anne Feder Lee, PhD, granddaughter of Hans Kelsen / Hans Kelsen Institut (Bundesstiftung).
If Austria was a football team, the constitution would be the unassuming chap at the back holding things together with diligence and reliability. Nobody cites this constitution maniacally at political gatherings. Yet its inherent robustness and suitability for service did bring it a brief moment of fame in 2019.
The coalition government had just collapsed in rather unflattering circumstances, which forced the President to step in. A government of experts then took over the country until elections could be held. All went unexpectedly smoothly, not least due to the clarity in the constitution. At the time, President Van der Bellen praised its elegance and beauty, later noting (my translation):
The federal constitution was like a map that showed me the way to the solution to the government crisis
(As quoted in the Salzburger Nachrichten)
Even so, few Austrians can probably reliably describe how the constitution first came to take form 100 years ago. Though the new Hans Kelsen exhibition at the Jewish Museum will certainly help redress this knowledge gap.
A professor at the University of Vienna (his bust graces the main inner courtyard today), Kelsen played a substantial role in drafting the original constitution at the request of the then Chancellor, Karl Renner. Austria was only just emerging from the ashes of WWI and the inglorious end of the Habsburg monarchy.
Kelsen also developed the model of constitutional review used by many countries in their own legal systems. As such, this Prague-born Jewish scholar can rightly claim a special place in both Austrian and world legal history.
Unfortunately, even such a man could not escape the anti-semitism and totalitarianism that permeated central Europe in the years following the establishment of that constitution. Kelsen eventually emigrated to the USA in 1940, where he continued his successful academic and writing career in various legal disciplines.
(Kelsen was a member of the court for many years)
The small exhibition, curated by Adina Seeger, offers a brief overview of Kelsen’s life and also gives a bit of museal love to the constitution itself.
A few photos, videos, and documents accompany the informative text displays, and we even get a look at the Silver Medal of Honour with Star awarded to Kelsen in 1967 for services to the Republic of Austria.
Dates and tickets
Admire the handiwork of our legal genius from October 1st, 2020 to September 12th, 2021. For much of that period, the same location has a larger exhibition entitled, Little Vienna in Shanghai.
How to get to the Kelsen exhibition
Use the travel tips for the Dorotheergasse location in the Jewish Museum article. The exhibition occupies the small one-room gallery off to the right as you emerge from the stairs or lift on the first floor.
NB: If you’re peckish afterwards, the museum has its own in-house café (Café Eskeles) offering vegetarian, vegan and fish dishes with a Mediterranean and Israeli touch. For more traditional fare, just walk up to Café Hawelka, one of Vienna’s traditional coffee houses.
Address: Dorotheergasse 11, 1010 Vienna