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The German nobility (German: deutscher Adel) and royalty were status groups of the medieval society in Central Europe, which enjoyed certain privileges relative to other people under the laws and customs in the German-speaking area, until the beginning of the 20th century. Historically, German entities that recognized or conferred nobility included the Holy Roman Empire (962–1806), the German Confederation (1814–1866) and the German Empire (1871–1918). Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the German Empire had a policy of expanding his political base by ennobling rich businessmen who had no noble ancestors. The nobility flourished during the dramatic industrialization and urbanization of Germany after 1850. Landowners modernized their estates, and oriented their business to an international market. Many younger sons were positioned in the rapidly growing national and regional bureaucracies, as well as in the military. They acquired not only the technical skills but the necessary education in high prestige German universities that facilitated their success. Many became political leaders of new reform organizations such as agrarian leagues, and pressure groups. Catholic nobility played a major role in the new Centre party, while Protestant nobles were especially active in the Conservative party.
In August 1919, at the beginning of the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), Germany's new constitution officially abolished royalty and nobility, and the respective legal privileges and immunities appertaining to an individual, a family or any heirs.
Today, German nobility is no longer conferred by the Federal Republic of Germany (1949–present), and constitutionally the descendants of German noble families do not enjoy legal privileges. Former hereditary titles are permitted as part of the surname (e.g., the aristocratic particles von and zu), and these surnames can then be inherited by a person's children.
Later developments distinguished the Austrian nobility, which came to be associated with the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary. The nobility system of the German Empire was similar to nobility in the Austrian Empire; both developed during the Holy Roman Empire and both ended in 1919 when they were abolished, and legal status and privileges were revoked.
In April 1919, Austrian nobility was abolished under the First Austrian Republic (1919–1934) and, contrary to Germany, the subsequent use and legal recognition of hereditary titles and aristocratic particles and use as part of surnames was banned. Today, Austrian nobility is no longer conferred by the Republic of Austria (1945–present), and the public or official use of noble titles as title or part of the surname, is a minor offence under Austrian law for Austrian citizens.