Integration and Identity – Who is a “Real” Austrian?

On the eve of the Vienna mayoral elections, questions of voting rights and dual citizenship – of Heritage and 'Heimat' – are again dominating the agenda.

My father believed you made your own luck: So if any of us complained about life being unfair, he was on it: “You should have picked better parents!”  This always got a laugh. Some things were a given. Heritage and Heimat were just a roll of the dice.  What you did with it was up to you.   

I was reminded of this one morning in late August, when I got a call from a market research company, measuring attitudes about integration and the economy in Austria.  I was curious – “only 10 minutes…” – so I agreed. 

The thrust of the survey, commissioned by the Integrationsfond, was to look into Austrian attitudes five years after the wave of refugees in 2015.  How had things turned out?  How did people feel their lives had been affected? And what could or should be done to support integration from here on?

The questions were interesting, and as well as I can remember, went like this:  With the integration of the refugees who arrived in 2015, was I: 

  • very worried (sehr besorgt)
  • somewhat worried  (ziemlich besorgt)
  • not very worried  (eher nicht
  • not at all worried  (gar nicht)

There was no neutral answer, no middle ground. (no weaseling out!) But there was also no way to say, “This is a big challenge, and important, but ‘worried’ is the wrong word.” 

Other questions were: 

Also easy: “Of course.” (Germany requires 660!)

  • How important was civics education in schools? Very.
  • Was I worried about parallel societies?  (This was one of the tricky ones) 

Yes, they are here. Yes, it matters; but “worry” is the wrong word. 

  • What about the influence of “political Islam”?  (as differentiated from Muslims in general). 

Here, worried was the right word. 

  • Whose responsibility is it the make integration successful – in percentages –the immigrants or the host country? 

I answered 60%-40%. I think we immigrants always carry the heavier responsibility to learn about and adapt to the host culture.

  • How important is it that immigrants be able to vote? 

Very!  

Yes, I said – which would, of course, also solve the problem of enabling new Austrians to vote. [Here, as elsewhere, the interviewer took a note.]

What seemed most encouraging to me was that they were asking a lot of the right questions. This is very promising. Integration was the first important job given to a young Sebastian Kurz – then 25 years old – as State Secretary, and he kept it in his portfolio as Foreign Minister. Since January, integration is back under the direct purview of the Bundeskanzleramt and has its own Minister, Susanne Raab.

So all this was on my mind when I grabbed a cab to make it to an event in early September. I like talking to cab drivers, so we chatted about the weather (“good to have such a nice day after all that rain.”) and the political scene. My head full of the numbers of non-voters, I wondered what my driver – an SPÖ voter from Ottakring, he told me – thought about this.

“They don’t want to make the effort, not my problem,” he grunted. But was that really the issue?  The Austrians don’t make it easy, I ventured. “Na und? Why should they?” he waved the question away.  Anyway, after five or six years, any of them can get citizenship if they want to, he insisted. “They don’t bother to learn the language. And then there’s that test.”  

I wasn’t so sure. So we talked about the different rules, the length of time, the required net income of €900/mo. after fixed costs, as well as a B1 level of German. The biggest stumbling block, it seemed to me, was giving up one’s original citizenship. 

His view: “You can’t be loyal to two countries.” His Turkish friends “still vote at home,” he told me. “Here they vote SPÖ, there they vote for that tyrant. It’s crazy.”

So I shared my situation, as an American with Ehrenstaatsbürgerschaft, Austrian Honorary Citizenship, which is one of the few ways to have both. I didn’t feel divided loyalties. “Only twice the responsibility,” I teased, only half-kidding. It was a question of education, he protested; “people like me” understood what it meant…” And others didn’t? 

Then it dawned on me. It shouldn’t be too easy, right? This got his attention. So what if it was five years and intermediate German (plus that test!) for Austrian citizenship. But if you wanted double citizenship, it would take more, say, 10 years, advanced German and a harder exam?

“Na dann! That shows it’s worth something!”  Suddenly, he was smiling. This made sense to him. It should be harder, something people have to earn.  And for children who grow up here, a right of passage they would be able to work for, but also to plan on, when the time came.  They would know that one day they, too, could be Austrian. 

None of us chose our parents, or the places we were born. “Every home is yours by chance,” wrote Bosnian-German novelist Saša Stanišić in 2019. “The lucky ones are those who can influence chance – who leave home not because they must, but because they choose.”

As Wahlwiener, we know our good fortune, and we also know it’s 60% to 40% up to us to adapt and make a place for ourselves here in Austria.  But we would also like to know that when we have done that, a clear path to citizenship is available to us without giving up what and who we also are.  

Chancellor Bruno Kreisky would have understood:  “Das Unvollendete – das ist der Sinn des Lebens.“To be unfinished – that is the meaning of life.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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