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A personal union is a combination of two or more states that have the same monarch while their boundaries, laws, and interests remain distinct. A real union, by contrast, involves the constituent states being to some extent interlinked, such as by sharing some limited governmental institutions. Unlike a personal union, in a federation or a unitary state, a central (federal) government spanning all member states exists, with the degree of self-governance distinguishing the two. The ruler in a personal union does not need to be a hereditary monarch.
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The term was coined by German jurist Johann Stephan Pütter, introducing it into Elementa iuris publici germanici (Elements of German Public Law) of 1760.
Personal unions can arise for several reasons, such as:
- inheritance through a dynastic union, e.g. Louis X of France inherited France from his father and Navarre from his mother
- decolonization, where ex-colonies install the monarch of the former colonizing power as their own upon becoming independent, e.g. several former members of the British Empire (then becoming Commonwealth realms)
- autonomization, e.g. instead of annexing Finland into the Russian Empire, Alexander I of Russia organized Finland as an autonomous grand duchy and acted as its head of state
They can also be codified (i.e., the constitutions of the states clearly express that they shall share the same person as head of state) or non-codified, in which case they can easily be broken (e.g., by the death of the monarch when the two states have different succession laws).
The concept of a personal union has only very rarely crossed over from monarchies into republics.
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