Intercultural thinking in Austria


Gregor Schusterschitz,

Deputy Chief of Mission

Austrian Embassy The Hague



Comparing the public debate in Austria with that in the Netherlands on issues such as the treatment of foreigners, Christianity and Islam and ethnic self-determination, we can see striking differences. The whole concept of nation seems to differ, which is not surprising when taking into account the different historic experiences and  geopolitical circumstances of both countries.


So what are the differences in public perception?


In Austria the integration of immigrants has been a familiar issue for centuries, whereas it seems to be fairly recent  in the Netherlands. In addition to the time aspect, one can see that the intensity of the public debate is different.


Let me highlight this with a few outstanding examples:




How can these differences be explained? In order to understand them we have to dig deeply in the historic experiences of both countries. I would therefore like to briefly introduce you to historical aspects of intercultural relations in Austria before turning to the question of the role of Islam in Austria and the Netherlands.


History of intercultural relations in Austria


The main reason for the different quality of the public discourse lies in the past. The history of intercultural relations in Austria differs substantially from that in the the Netherlands. The Austrian society has tackled with the issue of migration and having “others” next door for centuries and is therefore more familiar with the phenomenon of “economic migration” than the Dutch society.


Today’s Austria lies in the midst of Central Europe with basically no natural boundaries to its neighbours. Austria is surrounded by different nations, that settled there in the 9th century at the latest (Hungarians). To the west are the Swiss and to the northeast the Germans, who share the language with today’s Austrians. The settlement of German-speaking people in the area of Austria took place only in the 10th century. Before that time, east of Kremsmünster (between Salzburg and Linz) and Innichen (South Tyrol), Slovene was spoken. So the population in Eastern Austria consists to a large extent of “Germanised Slavs”, something which  can also be seen in many  geographical names (e.g. Graz, Linz). The absence of natural boundaries led to shifting borders and close interaction with the inhabitants of the adjacent regions. Austria remained a “border region”  with Slavic and Hungarian neighbors in contrast to e.g. Brandenburg or Mecklenburg in Germany, who were totally incorporated into the German-speaking area and therefore lost - to a certain extent- their awareness of their Slavic origins.


From the beginning of the 13th century onwards, Austria was part of political entities, which encompassed people with different languages. The same can be said for the Netherlands, but in the latter case, this development ceased with the creation of the Dutch Republic in the 16th century. In the era of emerging national states, the state concept of Austria remained unaltered: Austria was the name of various countries, held together by the supra-national clamp of the ruling imperial Hapsburg family, and – later on – the bureaucracy and other state institutions. In that Hapsburg Empire, different nations and languages were brought together. The state of those days did not pay attention to national differences or to different languages. This attitude continued to a certain extent until the end of the Hapsburg monarchy. It is for example impossible to estimate, how many Czechs died in the First World War. The statistics merely show, how many inhabitants of Bohemia and Moravia fell, but not if they were German- or Czech-speaking.


The area of today’s Austria has been exposed to a constant flow of immigration over the centuries. Though that flow of non-German-speaking people had its peak in the 18th  and 19th  century and abruptly ceased in 1918, it can be seen even before that time. For instance the name of the 4th Viennese district “Wieden” can be derived from the Czech word for Vienna, “Vídeň“. Most Czech immigrants in the late 17th and early 18th century settled in Wieden.


The dramatically increasing immigration especially to Vienna between 1848 and 1918 made Vienna the largest Czech city in 1900. In the late 19th century two-thirds of the Viennese population spoke languages other than German at home. In the last decades before 1914, large quantities of Jews migrated from the eastern parts of the monarchy and from Russia to Vienna. This flow, however, was not not only directed towards Vienna and great industrial centres such as Budapest, Prague, Brno and Ostrava but also to other regions. Even today, thousands of names can be identified in the various successor states to the Hapsburg monarchy, which originally came from other parts of the monarchy. One of the most common names in Hungary is Kovacs, which is originally a Slovak name. A survey of the phonebook of Ljubjana of 1995 has shown that - among the most frequent names - names such as Novak (Czech), Hrovath (Hungarian, meaning “Croat”) and Veber (German) can be found.

The immigration to Austria came to a halt in 1918 and was replaced by a vast emigration to the newly founded successor states of the Hapsburg monarchy. After 1945 immigration to Austria resumed, in the first years after the war by German-speaking persons from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia etc. and afterwards by political refugees: since 1945, 2 million refugees came to Austria, of which approximately 700.000 stayed in Austria. In 1956 200.000 Hungarians came to Austria, of which almost 50.000 stayed permanently, in 1968 162.000 Czechoslovaks and in 1980 150.000 Poles sought refuge in Austria. Over  12.000 Czechoslovaks and 30.000 Poles chose thereafter to settle down in Austria. In the 90ies the wars in Former Yugoslavia meant new waves of refugees. Over 100.000 came to Austria, where more than 60.000 found their new home.


During the long period of migration to and from Austria the Austrian approach remained similar: the groups were mostly assimilated. There was no pressure to assimilate, yet it was also almost impossible to create parallel societies. Since the 18th century the school system is run by the state, rendering religious schools a rare exception. All immigrants having to enroll their children at  public schools,  good German language skills were adopted in the second generation at the latest. The command of the language predominantly spoken in the area of settlement was necessary for economic success. That was not only true for German-speaking areas but also for other regions (e.g. in Trento the command of Italian was a non-negotiable requirement). Also the formation of priests or other religious leaders was provided by the state. As Austria took over today’s Western Ukraine in 1772, one of the first measures was the establishment of a greek-catholic seminary for priests with public funding. Thereby the creation of parallel structures in the society was avoided. This tradition was also kept by Austria after 1918, immigrant children having to go to Austrian public schools and religious leaders being educated in public institutions (e.g. imams are trained in a public Austrian institution).


Thus, immigrant groups were soon integrated  in the Austrian society. Whereas hundreds of thousands Czechs came to Vienna after 1860, today only several thousand persons in Austria say that their mother tongue is Czech.


Most immigrants that came to Austria in the last centuries were from regions with a similar cultural background, such as Czechs, Hungarians, Southern Slavs etc. The cultural proximity rendered their integration and assimilation easier. Only in 1972 the first immigrants from regions other than Europe arrived in Austria. They, however, were confronted with the traditional model of assimilation and so sent their children to Austrian schools.


Since Austria was no colonial power, the people migrating were normal citizens auf the Hapsburg Empire. Thus the feeling of being absolutely “superior” was rather restricted in comparison to migrant groups that came to their colonial mother countries.

Furthermore the groups that migrated to Austria came for economic reasons, as do most of today’s migrants.  So there is – in that regard – no big difference between the Czechs of the early 20th century and the Turks of the late 20th century.



Current intercultural relations in Austria


The above-mentioned reasons explain, why the public discourse in Austria differs substantially from that in the Netherlands. The Austrian nation is itself to a large extent the offspring of former immigrants who were assimilated decades if not centuries ago. Thus the very concept of immigration, of living together with people from different backgrounds, of listening to foreign languages in the daily life (even of having to communicate in different languages) is quite familiar to Austrian society. The Austrians perceive themselves as lying at the crossroads of different cultures, the role of Austria as bridge between the West and the East in the Cold War and now as a gateway to Central and South-eastern Europe but also the Austrian intention to host international conferences and organizations illustrates this self-perception. Another result of that unclear and fragile national composition of the Austrian population is the fact that for a long time the inhabitants were not sure, where they belonged. Before 1918, their identity was moulded by the ruling Hapsburgs and after 1918, that identity posed a big problem. Austrians regarded themselves mostly as Germans (because of their mother tongue), e.g. Chancellor Schuschnigg called Austria in 1937 the “better Germany”. Only after the 2nd World War a “real” Austrian identity emerged. That uncertainty is often felt, when historic figures have to be attributed to a specific country (e.g. Mozart, Liszt, Kafka).


The feeling of lying at a crossroads and of being object and subject to migration led to two contradictory developments. On the one hand, Austrians are familiar with the problems this entails, on the other, the sense of being the boundary of “Germanity” which has to defend the German culture (“Grenzlandtum”) has led to a strong emphasis on the German character of Austria predominantly until 1945 but, in a small minority, even till today. Interesting enough, a lot of germanised Slavs can be found among that group (a German-nationalistic politician in the monarchy had the typical Czech name “Bělohlavek“and one of the worst Nazi murderers was named Odilo Globocnig, hence combining a very Germanic first name with a truly Slovenian second name).


The relation to Islam


The “Austrian” perception of Islam differs substantially from the Dutch, historic experiences having given Islam a different role in society. Whereas in many European countries the appearance of Islam is quite a recent phenomenon, Austria has had relations with Islam for centuries. In the beginning, it posed - as it is still felt sometimes today - a threat to Christianity, as the Turks marched through the Balkans and Hungary towards Vienna and besieged it twice in 1529 and 1683. That perception changed, however, after large parts of Hungary and Croatia were occupied and a military borderline was erected vis-à-vis the Ottoman Empire. Turkish citizens had the right to trade freely in Austria. The first large group of Muslims (around 600.000) became subjects of the Hapsburg Empire, when - in 1878 - Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina. After first regulations were enacted shortly thereafter (ruling on the usage of the Fez in the army and the celebration of the Ramadan in the armed forces), a full-fledged law on Islam was enacted in 1912, granting the Islam all rights of other religions in the empire. The emperor granted a large sum to build a mosque in Vienna, which could then – due to the break-out of the 1st World war – not be realised. In 1979 all sections of Islam were officially recognized in Austria (before the 70ies most Muslims were from Bosnia-Herzegovina).


Furthermore, the Muslims Austria dealt with, where on an equal footing: They were feared opponents (Ottoman empire) or citizens as all others (Bosnians). Therefore no sense of superiority characterized the Austrian behaviour.


Muslims in Austria do also encounter resistance or scepticism, but the general thrust is that Muslims are feeling well-received. Currently around 450.000 Muslims live in Austria (total population 8 million), of which 80.000 are Austrian citizens (mostly Bosnians and Turks). The reason for this positive relationship, characterized by manyexperts (including the Director of the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia) as a case model  lies predominantly in the long period of familiarity with Islam.


Comparison to the Netherlands


From the creation of the Dutch republic onwards, the Netherlands were also the target of various groups, be it the Hugenottes, Jews from Portugal or others. These groups were politically persecuted and sought refuge in the liberal Netherlands. Thus, the very reason why these groups came to the Netherlands, was the possibility to live in a way, it was not possible in the respective countries of origin. Therefore the treatment of those groups differed fundamentally from the treatment of migrant groups in Austria, where the reasons for migration predominantly lay in the economic realm. Migrant groups, who were also smaller than the groups in Austria, were allowed to create their own sub-societies. This creation of sub-societies corresponds to the traditional Dutch column model.


The new migrant groups - coming in the last decades to the Netherlands -, came mostly for economic reasons and not to seek refuge from political persecution, hence a fundamental change in the motive of immigrants. They were not interested in the religious and political liberal conditions but to improve their standard of living. Since the column model favoured the creation of separate social institutions, the migrant groups abided by that model and built up their own schools and social life. This development hindered to a certain extent their integration into the Dutch society.


Thus the Dutch society, when being faced with tensions among national and religious groups today, seems unsure of how to react. It lacks the familiarity with the phenomenon of large-scale immigration and, through the tradition of the column model, the creation of sub-societies which are only loosely connected to the Dutch society, was encouraged.