Austria shares a rich history and culture with its Central European brothers and sisters. Now that borders have disappeared, the region is once again thriving as one

Family relationships are always complex – layers of loyalty and long memory, instinct, identity and loss, so thick they can be hard to separate. And so it is with Austria and its family of neighbors. For all the terrible storms over Mitteleuropa in the last century, the kinship of its peoples has miraculously survived. And today, Central Europe may be set for a new beginning.

In Friedrich Torberg’s homage Tante Jolesch (or The Decline of the West in Anecdotes) on the bygone cultural bloom of n de siècle and interwar Vienna, it is the aunt’s delicious Kraut Fleckerl – a signature dish of Austrian and Central European cuisine, either sweet or salty – that never fails to summon the whole far-flung family, as they flock to her table from Brno to Prague, from Vienna to Budapest. As these countries were torn apart by decades of war, eviction and occupation, today their people are cautiously coming together again. They are rediscovering that, from Czech playwright president Václav Havel or foreign minister (and Austrian prince) Karl Schwarzenberg, to Austrian journalist Paul Lendvai (a Hungarian) or swimmer Mirna Jukić (a Croat), they have more in common than they might think.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who became the first president of Czechoslovakia in 1918, once called on his people to have sympathy for their neighbors who had just lost an empire, because, after all, “every one of us has an aunt in Austria.” And indeed, for the former communist states, four of which border the Alpine Republic from the north, east and south along 1,072 kilometers of shared borders, Austria today feels a bit like a rich cousin: Familiar, but with a tendency to patronize his poor relatives, whom he has no qualms to employ as inexpensive – but highly skilled – labor in the family factory. As a result, this rich cousin is considered indispensable, but also irritating, someone you respect, even admire, while grumbling about him sotto voce at the pub.

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It is only three kilometers from the Austrian border to the city of Mikulov in Southern Moravia. The region is cherished for its wines and beautiful landscape. // @ Creative Commons / Pxhere

Since the Eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004 stitched up the decades-long gash through the continent, contacts across Mitteleuropa have once again intensified, and by leaps and bounds. In Austria, there are now some 370,000 employees from the new member states – more than the entire population of Graz – and another 150,000 temporary workers. There are also more students and tourists than ever, (re)discovering the storied landscapes of Bohemia and Moravia, the Tatra Mountains and the Great Hungarian Plain, or the soaring Alps of the Salzburgerland. Yet, for all that, there are also sensitivities, new and old, that continue to matter.

All these relationships are laden with history. As the erstwhile Habsburg capital, Vienna has a special connection to these former crown lands – a legacy visible in the onion-domed churches and baroque façades of every town square – as they do with the city. Just check the old Viennese phone directories, as cabarettist Georg Kreisler crooned in his Telephonbuchpolka: “All my friends are there, you find them on page ‘V’ – Vondrak, Vortel, Viplaschi, Voytech, Vozzek, Vimladil…” and so he goes on, listing dozens of Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and Slovenian names – countries who often feel the same way about Austria. “The history of Slovene relations with Austria is different,” says Michael Lamprecht, a Czech PR manager who lives with his Slovenian family in Ljubljana. “But when Slovenes and Czechs meet, they make the same jokes about them.”

In the eyes of neighboring Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians or Slovenes, Austria went through a convoluted historical transformation from old Imperial beast to deeply troubled neighbor to, in the end, the lucky one. Austrians slid out from under the Soviet army with the Staatsvertrag in 1955 and later provided help and sanctuary to many refugees from communist countries. And along the way, it has become impressively rich and stable. For those Central Europeans who were lucky enough to visit Vienna during the communist decades, the gleaming shop windows of Mariahilfer Strasse were a powerful symbol of Austrian wealth and western abundance. Alpine ski resorts are now seen as role models for emerging resorts in the Slovak Tatra Mountains or the Czech Krkonoše and Šumava areas.

Rethinking Maria Theresia

With all that, this year’s 300th anniversary of the birth of Empress Maria Theresia has, particularly in Czechia, provided the impetus to reexamine the shared history. Regent of the Habsburg Empire for forty years (1740-1780), Maria Theresia is revered in Austria as the founder of Vienna’s general hospital and public education system. But with the end of the Empire and the founding of independent states in 1918/19, and even more during the communist era, Central Europeans were taught that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had suppressed their nations (the “prison of the peoples”). This year, however, we hear new tones in the Czech debate that the modern era in Central Europe began during Maria Theresia’s reign. The Czech magazine Respekt ran a headline “Mother of the Homeland? Why we should venerate Maria Theresia as we do Charles IV” – a very unusual angle for Czech readers.

Austria is also a popular tourist destination for Czechs, second only to Slovakia. With the economy growing briskly, ever more Czechs go to Austria in all seasons. And when some Southern Moravian wineries started to buy up their Austrian competitors, it seemed things were finally coming back into balance.

But, in reality, this is still a dream. Austria was one of the earliest – and most high risk – investors in the region and remains one of the biggest. There have been rewards: Erste Bank’s Česká Spořitelna has generated a steady income stream, even in times of crisis. But there have also been losses, as when Erste and other Austrian investors were forced to swallow the nationalist economic policies of the Fidesz government in Hungary, which raised taxes on banks and required a partial sell off to locals. And there is, of course, the systemic risk. Outstanding loans in CEE countries exceeded 70 percent of the Austrian GDP at the height of the financial crisis, which led U.S. economist Paul Krugman in April 2009 to list Austria as a candidate for default. As a response, the Vienna Initiative was cobbled together, coordinating a private-public response that prevented banks from pulling billions out of CEE. Its success kept the region on a growth track.

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Croatia’s stunning coastline, a place Austrian’s love to visit // @ Connor Reed / Unsplash
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Slovenia has Alpine and Mediterranean climates, making it a top destination for Austrians // @ Natalie Sevilla / Unsplash

Go East, Young man

“At the beginning, we were the ‘bigger brother,’ helping our neighbors in their catch-up process,” explains Arnold Schuh from the Vienna University of Economics (WU). The transfer of technology, know-how and capital all contributed to the transformation. “Austrian firms were pioneers in heading east and used this situation to their advantage.” Schuh heads programs geared for CEE students who study companies and trends in the region. “Austria increased its export share to CEE from below 10 to 20 percent and became the leading foreign direct investor.” The euphoria cooled with the financial crisis in 2009. “Opportunities suddenly became risks.”

Still, Schuh doubts many companies from the east take Austrian counterparts as role models. “CEE firms are often more capitalistic than Austrian ones,” he says. “Austrian specialities like Sozialpartnerschaft [Austria’s time-honored social partnership], participation of employees in the decision-making process and a strong focus on employees and the environment, at the expense of short-term profitability, are not being copied right now.”

What has been copied is the dual education model, where apprentices are studying in parallel with employment at a company. “This has become an inspiration and the standard for these countries,” Schuh says, contributing to the exceptionally low youth unemployment rates in the region.

Many also want stronger political relations. A recent poll by the Hungarian Nézőpont Institute among the citizens of the four Visegrád countries – Czechia, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary – showed Austria on top in approval, with strong majorities desiring closer ties (see graphic).

Business over Politics

The irony, of course, is that while Austrian companies are very active in the region, Austrian politicians have been wary of warmer relations. They seem to prefer shadow relations (i.e. at a ministerial level) over visible political partnerships. This may simply be habit, or a legacy of the Cold War, when Austria’s hard-won neutrality required giving the impression – at least officially – of not leaning toward either side. While not a member of NATO, for example, Austria participates in a range of crisis and peacekeeping operations, and is part of the KFOR force in Kosovo, with some 500 active troops.

Recently, Austria has made some further steps: After first taking in tens of thousands of refugees and calling for a contentious EU-wide relocation scheme, then Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz took the lead in closing the Balkans migration route – in effect, doing “the dirty work” for Germany. And the Austerlitz Declaration of closer cooperation with Czechia and Slovakia has quietly morphed into something more substantial, reflecting widespread unease about the Visegrad Four being hijacked by populists from Hungary and Poland.

But there are other political partnerships developing as well, including a growing mutual admiration between Orbán’s government in Hungary and the populist right-wing FPÖ in Austria. According to Peter Kreko, executive director of the Hungarian think tank Political Capital, political relations between Hungary and Austria follow party lines reflected in the European Parliament. “Orbán is quite sympathetic toward the FPÖ, and this is mutual,” says Kreko. “I think Orbán really hopes for a coalition of ÖVP and FPÖ – vindication of his hard-line stance on the refugee issue.”

Magyar Musings

Indeed, Hungarians’ feelings about Austria are an interesting mixture of modern admiration and historical anxiety. Budapest was a vital but complicated partner for Vienna in the old Empire, with Hungarian nationalism running strong. Any visitor to Budapest today can see a capital designed for a bigger country, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Transleithania, a territory encompassing modern Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia and parts of Ukraine, Romania and Poland. The Dual Monarchy was the basis of a thriving era in Hungarian economic and political life – and the period still casts long shadows today.This historical bloom followed by the tragedy of the Trianon treaty in 1920, which stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory and one-third of its population, is still very much alive in the Hungarian historical memory. The trauma is skillfully exploited by Viktor Orbán, old tensions with Austria largely forgotten. “I think negative feelings due to the Habsburg legacy are gone – today, you will rather encounter nostalgia for the lost Empire,” says Kreko. “Otto Habsburg was a highly popular figure in Hungary.”

The opening of the Austro-Hungarian border after the Pan-European Picnic in August 1989 opened a new chapter, when Austria welcomed its “cousins” with open arms. The investment and work opportunities followed in a wake of good will. That is, until Viktor Orbán. To the horror of left and liberal circles in Hungary, Vienna Capital Partners, headed by Heinrich Pecina, bought the last major opposition media group and the daily Nepszabadsag and handed it over to Orbán, effectually shutting down the strongest critical voice in the country. Austria, like Hungary, works to maintain good relations with Russia and Sebastian Kurz, whose ÖVP swept the 2017 parliamentary elections, has expressed his sympathy for Orbán’s government, which may presage closer cooperation.

But as of now, Austrians have lost trust in the Hungarian government. “Before 2010, there were big projects between Austria and Hungary,” recalls Jan Sechter, former Czech ambassador to Austria. “But the erratic changes and the resulting uncertainty under Orbán have changed that substantively. Now, the Czech Republic – not Hungary – is the most trusted partner.”

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Budapest is one of Europe’s most beautiful and dynamic cities. // @ Daniel Olaf / Unsplash

The Bohemian Connection

Czechs, too, have found the path to Austria complicated since 1989 – mentally as well as literally. Austrians generously opened the borders and were soon awash with poor and surprised Czechs and Slovaks coming for the first time to “the West,” but were still suspicious of their neighbors. Popular campaigns against Czech nuclear power plants did not help bilateral relations.

But today, the situation is different, insists the former Czech ambassador. “We cooperated during the migrant crisis; Austria is interested in cooperating on all energy projects in the north-south direction; we have a constructive dialogue on the nuclear issue and on issues connected with WWII.”

For Czechs in Prague, and especially from Brno, the country’s second largest city, Vienna is close in attitude as well as geography. But as travellers by car continually complain – and rightly so – there is still no good highway connection, a problem ignored by sequential governments on both sides.

Still, there is a vivid exchange of tourists and ideas. Visitors to the region will report buying a “package” to visit both Prague and Vienna, mostly with Budapest. The modern Railjet trains cruising between Prague and Vienna are almost always packed, and train connections are set to become even more frequent. On this fascinating four-hour journey, the shared characteristics of the passing landscape are impossible to overlook, powerful evidence of how Austria and Czechia are slowly (and sometimes painfully) growing together again.

The Austrian Dream

Next door in Slovakia, Austria’s image is perhaps best of all, as locals have long been in close contact with everyday life in Austria. Hundreds of people from border towns commute daily to Vienna or Bratislava. The Slovak daily Dennik N recently wrote about Slovaks who got their break in Vienna. One was a brilliant biologist and the other a young IT expert who, despite finding well-paying jobs at home, chose to work in Austria where conditions were more reliable.

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Slovakia‘s Tatra Mountains have a diverse climate, hosting a rich variety of plant and animal life. // @ Stefan Stefanie / Unsplash

Croatia, though not a direct neighbor, has long seen Austria and Vienna as a role model and inspiration on a cultural level. The former Habsburg territory does not have the complex historical baggage of the other nations that made up the bygone Empire. For Croatians, Austria is mostly a land of wealth and opportunity, a place to build businesses, find work, or go shopping.

For Slovenes, the perspective is again different. For them, Vienna is not of central importance, but the southern Bundesländer of Carinthia and Styria are. Carinthia has a significant Slovene minority, with bilingual schools and place names: Klagenfurt/ Celovec, Villach/Beljak, Graz/Gradec. The Southern Styrian wine lands meld seamlessly into the vineyard landscape of northern Slovenia’s Podravje region. Who needs politics when you have wine?

Yet Austria does not use this soft power in its foreign policy, and perhaps it should. It mostly prefers to be the quiet, rich business partner – even though some cracks are showing. Corruption scandals involving Austrian companies, like Telekom Austria or the Hypo Alpe Adria bank, show the danger of a hands-off approach. And a new government, perhaps including the FPÖ, might harden perceptions, given the Freedom Party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.

But historical ties with Austria are less complicated for Slovenes than for Czechs or Hungarians. Twentieth century Slovenes have lived through so many changes that their relations with Austria are largely quiet and pragmatic. Slovenes go to Austria to shop, or to ski, or to work, feeling at ease. Their modern identity may have been formed in opposition to Imperial rule, but it was also the Habsburgs who helped promote the Slovenian language – a deeper tradition, perhaps, than the efforts of the late Jörg Haider and the regional FPÖ to suppress Slovenian identity in Carinthia.

austria central europeVienna Calling

Vienna is not Austria, of course, but it still has a special status in the minds of Central Europeans. Czechs, for example, built much of Vienna’s 19th century grandeur with their bare hands, reflected in Viennese words like Ziegelböhmen (brick-Bohemians), and the Böhmischer Prater amusement park. They also – along with Hungarians, Slovaks and Slovenes – influenced Austrian cuisine (see pp 74–75 “Acquired Tastes”). Throughout the Cold War, Vienna was a Western outpost, reaching far into the communist sphere, hosting dissidents and intellectuals – like Václav Havel, Paul Lendvai and a young Angela Merkel – and remains a crossroad of the nations of the former empire.

“Many cities in CEE want to take a leaf out of Vienna’s book,” says Schuh, “to administer a city well, make it more environmentally friendly, expand public transportation.”

Vienna inspired Prague’s public transport system, which is arguably as excellent today. Bratislava aims to connect to the Vienna airport – the de facto regional hub.

So today, Austria has become for its neighbors once more a part of the family. But after so long a separation, time and patience are needed to get used to each other again. This cousin may still be richer and a bit reserved, but much is shared, more than he himself and the rest of the family might think – and care to admit. That may make relations a bit difficult, but also alive and inspiring. Just like a real family.