Toward the end of World War II, as the fighting between German and Soviet soldiers became increasingly fierce around Budapest, Colonel Ernest Pajtas, commandant of the Hungarian Royal Crown Guard, took several ancient leather boxes from a monastery at Kőszeg, near the Austrian border, to Zellhof, about 100 miles from Salzburg. As American troops closed in on him, he hid the boxes in an oil drum just before he was captured.
Two months later, now a prisoner of war, he asked U.S. Major Paul Kubala to accompany him to the hiding place and handed over the leather boxes, containing the ancient Crown of St. Stephen and royal regalia, into the hands of the Americans for safe keeping. It was placed in a vault in Fort Knox, where it stayed for the next three decades, until January 6, 1978, when the crown was formally returned to Hungary by U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, accompanied by distinguished Hungarian-Americans after more than 32 years in American hands.
Eyewitnesses described the scene as deeply emotional, many brushing away tears as the crown – a subject of reverence and awe for centuries – was handed over to the president of the National Assembly, Antal Apro, with senior Communist Party officials staying out of sight. This was the crown that, according to legend, had been given by Pope Sylvester II to Stephen I, the first King of Hungary, in the year 1000, for his defense of Christian lands from the infidels. In the centuries that followed, it came to embody the Hungarian nation, and the legitimacy of its rulers; Maria Theresa was crowned queen with it, and Franz Josef 1,000 crowned Emperor of Austria-Hungary.
Thus, the relationship between Austria and Hungary is an ancient one, stretching back several centuries, and the shadow of the Habsburg dynasty long, leaving its mark on Hungary past and present. Since late medieval times, Hungary enjoyed independence only sporadically – with some or all of the country under Habsburg rule. With the weakened position of Austria in the 1860s, a compromise was reached with the largest nation in the empire – the Hungarians.
The Ausgleich, signed in 1867, led to the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a time of unprecedented economic growth and vibrant cultural life. Among both peoples, things were going smoothly and efficiently, with shared power and self-determination in Budapest – at least until World War I. For Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Italians and South Slavs it was a different matter: They longed for nationhood and self-determination, too, but were not granted the autonomy they were looking for. If Franz Ferdinand had lived, if the Central Powers won the war…
The end of WWI meant not only the dismantling of the Empire, but also of historic Hungary, whose borders had reached from the Carpathians in what is today in the middle of Romania to the Leitha, which is now the border between Burgenland and Lower Austria. The beneficiaries were Czechoslovakia, Romania, and the state of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which later became Yugoslavia).
To this day, many Hungarians look back to the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 as the greatest tragedy in the country’s history: Hungary lost two- thirds of its territory and more than 60% of its inhabitants, including 3.3 million ethnic Hungarians, who became minorities in the newly established neighboring countries.
Several tens of thousands ended up as Hungarian-speaking Austrian citizens in what is now southern Burgenland. A romantic myth prevails to this day of a successful Hungarian Kingdom prospering alongside Austria, and only ruined at the end of WWI. This version of history ignores the long-standing policy of the disenfranchisement of other minorities, who did not get national parliaments or the use of their languages in many official settings. They sang the Hungarian anthem at school and learned the glorious deeds of Hungarians – often against their own people while Hungarians enjoyed more rights and privileges. As nationalism grew in the Empire at the turn of the century, minorities’ demands for basic political, linguistic and cultural rights were largely ignored.
What was a loss for Hungarians was thus, for the other nations, a victory of state-building.
So in 1920, Hungary became a much smaller, but also a fully independent country, finally out from under Austria’s shadow.
The 20th century was among the most turbulent in Hungarian history. A good illustration of this is a dialogue between the Hungarian ambassador to Washington and an official of the U.S. State Department, when Hungary declared war on the USA in December 13, 1941. It may be apocryphal, but it could have happened…
“So, the Hungarian Kingdom is going to declare war on us… Do you have a king?
“No sir, our head of state is Admiral Horthy.”
“Admiral? Have you got then a sea?”
“No, we used to have, but not anymore.”
“I see. do you claim any sea from the U.S.”
“No, we don’t have territorial claims against the U.S.A.”
“Well, then from which country do you want territory?”
“I understand. So, you have declared war on Romania as well?”
“No, Romania is our ally.”
Going It Alone – Coming to Vienna
Still many looked back to the final decades of the Empire with nostalgia, and Vienna became a draw for many Hungarians, a natural place for immigration between the wars – living abroad in a familiar history and yet remaining close to home. Then, between 1945 and 1990, it also meant the free world, and tens of thousands sought and received asylum in Austria, mostly in Vienna.
After WWII and before the borders were closed in 1948, between 40,000 and 50,000 Hungarians settled in Austria. Then, with the Uprising against the Communist regime in 1956, another 200,000 people left Hungary, of whom a significant part remained in Austria – welcomed as long- lost cousins, as did a few thousand more in the decades that followed.
With the fall of communism, with emigrating no longer an illegal act, this wave continued, although tempered by Austria’s selective opening of its labor market, finally lifted in 2011.
Since then, Hungarians and citizens of other EU member states in the CEE have been allowed to stay in Austria, provided they could find a job. Austria may not be the promised land, but opportunities have been much better than at home, especially in service sectors, like medicine, tourism, construction, transport, retail and home care. Although in Hungary the preferred second language in schools had become English, German is becoming popular again, with Vienna and its free university system providing new opportunities for students.
Coming & Commuting
Altogether, there are some 82,000 Hungarians in the Alpine Republic, according to Statistik Austria – a number that largely consists of newcomers, since the previous waves of immigrants have become citizens, so are no longer counted as Hungarians.
On top of this, there is a relatively large number of commuters, whose families stay behind while they come to work in Austria – mostly in health care and tourism. Their importance became particularly clear during lockdown this spring, when Austria loosened rules for commuters, particularly in the health care system, which might have collapsed without Hungarian workers. The same would have happened in tourism – had it not come to a halt altogether because of COVID-19.
The digital revolution has made the lives of newcomers easier – particularly for those under the age of 40. They can easily find practical information, as well as Hungarian-speaking tax advisers, babysitters or doctors. You need a temporary flat? Want to know where to buy Túró Rudi (a typical Hungarian sweet) or a cheap lift back home? It’s all just a click away.
A flashpoint in relationships between the two countries affecting the lives of ordinary Hungarians in Austria came in 2015, when Hungary abruptly closed its borders and forced about 150,000 asylum seekers to move on into Austria. Some Austrians weren’t happy about this and – according to news reports of the time – took their frustration out on ordinary Hungarians living here – wrongly blaming them for the policies of the Hungarian government. The argument was: How can Hungarians expect hospitality when they refused the asylum seekers? They even left messages on the windshields of cars with Hungarian license plates: Go home!
So how have immigrants from Hungary fared in Austria? The first generation after WWII successfully adopted to the cultural and commercial life of Austria – mostly in Vienna. They led a parallel, in a certain way schizophrenic, life, trying to assimilate as fast as they could in order to succeed professionally.
But at the same time, they paid special attention to their children’s education, to make sure they would not lose their roots (see also article on page 18). As is often the case, the second generation had an easier time, and there are people with Hungarian roots in prominent position in Austrian society. They include Professor Thomas Szekeres, head of the Austrian Medical Chamber and Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg – both sons of Hungarian parents.