The Serbian King Milan Obrenović was a close friend of Emperor Franz Joseph and his son, the Crown Prince Rudolf. Their friendship was so strong that King Milan was granted special privileges at the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. And when the king fell ill in 1901, Franz Joseph invited him to stay in one of the Imperial residences in Vienna attended by his best doctors and sent the Hungarian Count Zichy to be with him until his last breath.
The Emperor then went to the requiem at the Serbian Orthodox Church in Veithgasse, a sumptuous house of worship behind the discrete façade the Emperor had financed, and followed the procession on foot from the church to the station, where the coffin was loaded onto a special train to be sent to Serbia.
King Milan was, of course, far from the first: Another friend of the Austrian court was Prince Miloš Obrenović, who lived in Vienna for two decades from 1839 to 1858, become close to Emperor Ferdinand and gifting him a saber that is exhibited to this day in the Hofburg Weapons Museum.
But there had been many prominent Serbs in Vienna working at the Habsburg court, some of them being court advisers, and about a hundred generals and sub marshals. The good relations had begun in the 16th century, when the Serbs fought together with the Austrians against the same enemy – the Ottoman Empire.
In the 17th century, Serbs started settling in Vienna. Most of them were merchants, who transported goods from the Ottoman to the Habsburg Empire, following the Emperor Leopold I’s approval of freedom of trade. After the second Ottoman siege in 1683, about 37,000 Serbs moved to Austria. In 1690, the Serbian patriarch Arsenije III Čarnojević saved the lives of about 80,000 Serbian people by taking them to the Habsburg monarchy, after Leopold I granted them religious and national autonomy.
From the end of the 18th century until the beginning of the 20th century, Serbian shops prospered in Vienna, at times a hundred or more. Many were in the Altstadt, now the 1st district, at and near Fleischmarkt, an important trade center, where every building had a Serbian store inside. One shop is still there today – the fur store Jovanović on Weiburggasse, founded in 1901 by Nikola Jovanović, an official fur supplier of the Serbian royal court and still owned by his descendants.
Historian Zlatan Stojadinović set out to discover this history in Vienna, conducting interviews with Serbian families whose ancestors came to Vienna in the 18th century. “They are quite aware of their origins,” he said.
“They are proud of this, and some have even kept their Serbian last names.” The majority, however, no longer speak the language. “Most of them have mixed with the Austrians, and their children speak only German,” Stojadinović reported.
Birth of a Nation
In the Austrian-Hungarian Empire (1867 – 1918), there were more than a million Serbs. At that time, Vienna was the cultural and political center for the Serbian people. Since Serbia was trapped under the Ottoman rule, the first Serbian newspapers were, in fact, printed in Vienna. By the end of the 19th century, there had been more than 1,150 books printed in Vienna in the Serbian language, and it was through the scholarship of Vuk Karadžić, who lived and worked in Vienna for 50 years, that the modern Serbian language was born.
But others in Vienna also contributed, like Dositej Obradović, who founded the first university in Belgrade, and poets like Jovan Jovanović Zmaj, Laza Kostić and Branko Radičević. Known for their eloquence, they often spoke at formal dinners organized by the Serbian student organization Zora, dedicated to the preservation of Serbian identity. Among these were future scientists such as Milutin Milanković, and Franz Joseph’s favorite painter – Paja Jovanović.
After World War II, many more Serbs came to Austria, primarily in three important waves. Beginning in 1966, a treaty between Belgrade and Vienna brought tens of thousands from Yugoslavia to work in Austria; by 1971 there were some 93,000 people from Yugoslavia living and working in Austria. Most came from rural areas with little education, so they found jobs in industry or construction, building roads, buildings and the Viennese U-Bahn system that opened in 1978.
Some of these Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, stayed only for a few years, others until retirement. As a result, many Serbian families were separated for years. Sometimes, the grandparents took the jobs, in others, parents had to undertake this difficult task, leaving their children with grandparents. Many of the sad notes that five-year-olds sent to their parents, pleading, “Mama come quickly,” were wishes that never came true. In rural areas, many children grew up with their grandparents, while their parents supported them financially from afar.
The initial idea behind the Gastarbeiter program was to work for a while and return home. And for some, this was true. However, life often writes its own story. Believing they would go back after a few years, many brought their families and, in the end, settled permanently. Austria became their new home and their children and grandchildren today speak German better than Serbian, if they speak Serbian at all. They have assimilated.
The second wave was in the 1990s, during the Yugoslav war period. Because of international sanctions, the Yugoslavia economy suffered immensely, leading to widespread poverty. Hence, many fled and came to live in Austria with the intention of staying. Contrary to the first wave Gastarbeiter, most of these people were well-educated, and included doctors, nurses and other professionals who found long-term employment in Austria.
After the sanctions were lifted in 2000, Serbia re-opened to the world, which led to the third wave. This time, many of the immigrants were students along with others holding university degrees. In 2001, an Austro-Serbian treaty offered free education to Serbian students at Viennese universities. Today, workers, intellectuals, artists, students and sportsmen are all part of the Serbian community in Austria, over 100,00 in Vienna alone, making up the largest Serbian community outside of Serbia.
Still, many keep to themselves. In fact, researcher Ljubomir Bratić does not see many integrated Serbs. A philosopher and migration expert, Bratić has studied the migration of Serbs to Austria for 20 years.
“Vienna is a multinational city,” he agrees. “However, the society is quite segregated, with parts of the city dominated by Serbs, Africans, Turks or other groups.” It is also clear in which context individual Serbs belong: Whether they were part of the first guest worker immigration, the war refugees of the 1990s or newer migrants. “Personally, I believe assimilation is a long-term process,” Bratić concludes, “and even if someone wants to assimilate, it is not that simple, because the structure of society does not allow it.”
Still, as the largest immigrant group, Serbs are a powerful cultural influence. Will today’s students follow in the footsteps of famous predecessors like Milutin Milanković? “Perhaps among these students a new Paja Jovanović will appear, we still do not know.” Bratić says. “What is certain is that today in Vienna, we have Bogdan Roščić, director of the Vienna Opera House, but also people working as engineers, curators, artists, directors, software developers, journalists, translators and university professors.” With them, the glorious past of the Serbian intellectual elite is making its way back to Vienna.
History of the Serbs in Austrian Lands
17th century – The permanent settlement
1670 – Freedom of Trade granted by Emperor Leopold I
1690 – Arsenije Carnojevic III saves 80,000 Serbian people by guiding them into Habsburg territory
1860 – The Viennese Serbs are granted permission to erect the Serbian Orthodox Church in Vienna
1893 – The church is finished and consecrated to Saint Sava in the presence of the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph I
1914 – First World War
1966 – First wave of immigration from Serbia in modern times – “Gastarbeiter” come to Austria based on a treaty between Belgrade and Vienna
1990s – Second wave of immigration, taking place during the Yugoslav wars
2000s – Third wave of immigrations: students, intellectuals and other higher educated Serbs move to Vienna
A good introduction to Serbs in Austria is the book Auf den Spuren den Serben Wiens by Wolfgang Rohrbach, and Serben in Wien by Dejan Medakovic, both available at the Austrian National Library.
To find out more about important Serbs and their life in Austria, contact the historian Zlatan Stojadinović: [email protected]
Or check out the online geoportal about the history of the Serbs in Vienna, created by history professor Mihajlo Popović and historian Zlatan Stojadinović. Only a click away! orthodoxes-wien.oeaw.ac.at