Made for Each Other | Bosnians and Vienna

If you go to Sarajevo, you’ll most likely feel right at home. Not only are there some fine examples of Habsburg architecture, but the best way to get around is on one of the 1970s Viennese trams that found a new home in the Bosnian capital. Every day they pass the place whereon 28 June 1914 Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie were assassinated. This tragic act triggered the start of one of the darkest chapters in the history of mankind, the Great War. 

At the time, the territory we know today as Bosnia & Herzegovina belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Bosnien and Herzegowina as part of the Donaumonarchie 1878 – 1918.

On July 31, 1878, advance units of the Habsburg Imperial Army crossed the Great Powers, Under the resulting Treaty of Berlin, Bosnia and Herzegovina remained nominally under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire but was de facto ceded to Austria-Hungary. Thirty years later, on October 6, 1908, the Dual Monarchy formally annexed the former Ottoman province. 

“Little Vienna”

The arrival of the Austrians brought a renaissance to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since the takeover by the Turks in 1465, Bosnia had been little more than a buffer zone between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Seeing how neglected the territory was, the Austrians started to invest – primarily into infrastructure. Engineers from all over the Dual Monarchy were sent to Bosnia and Herzegovina to build railways, theaters and factories. 

Sarajevo, in particular, benefited from all this, and the traces of Austrian architecture are still visible today across the city today. Legend has it that travelers visiting to Sarajevo would call it “Little Vienna.” In fact, the Empire’s first trams – built in Graz, by a company called Weitzer – had been tested in Sarajevo in 1895, as a trial run, two years before Vienna. 

“Franz-Josef-Park” in Sarajevo.

The exchange between Austria and Bosnia, though, went both ways. Shortly after the occupation in 1878 many Bosnians set off to Austria. Many were soldiers, and not only the Christians (Orthodox and Catholics) – but Muslims too accepted the new government very quickly after the occupation. Bosnian Muslims, contrary to other Muslims who were predominantly on the move, decided to stay in Bosnia. 

Many of them became men-at-arms, something they turned out to be very good at, and in a short period of time, they became some of the most reliable troops of the Imperial army. A military march called Die Bosniaken kommen (The Bosniaks are coming) written by Austrian composer Eduard Wagnes is musical evidence of the outstanding reputation those troops enjoyed. 

Less glorious was the final “divorce.” The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which had been carried out by a young Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, set off the conflict that escalated into one of the ugliest wars in history. Bosnia suffered terrible human losses. Some statistics say that almost a fifth of the whole population, some 360,000 people, died in the war, which resulted in the dissolution of the monarchy. In 1918, Bosnia and Herzegovina were incorporated into the South Slav Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes soon renamed Yugoslavia, and the paths of Austria and Bosnia separated. 

But only temporarily. Five decades later, Bosnians were again on their way to Austria – the majority headed to the capital city of their ancestors, Vienna. 

The Big Deal

Niko Kegelj was one of them. On July 4, 1971 – he can still remember the exact date – Kegelj arrived at Südbahnhof (Vienna’s former southern train station), the last stop for all the trains and busses from Eastern or Southeastern Europe. “On one hand, it was very interesting,” he remembered, “on the other hand difficult.” It was a “big deal” to come to Vienna, he remembers.  Born in the small town Busovača, 90 km from Sarajevo, he described the great respect Bosnians always had for Vienna. In everyday speech, the term “The Viennese school” (“Bečka škola”) is still used to describe decency and politeness.

Upon his arrival, Kegelj lived with his sister, who had settled in Vienna shortly through a recruitment agreement concluded between Austria and Yugoslavia in 1966. The agreement brought guest workers in large numbers from across Yugoslavia, and thus also Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Austria.

Kegelj’s brother-in-law wrangled him a job as an electrician. Then a few years later, he returned to working as a waiter traditional Viennese restaurant, the profession he had trained for in his home country and where he would stay for ten years. In his free time, Kegelj would meet his countrymen in parks, as cafés and restaurants owned by Bosnians were rare at the time. 

“In the parks in the 15th district, I met some other guys who were mad about football – like me – and we founded the football club Čelik in 1977.”  Now in his late 60s, Kegelj is still involved with the club, the majority of whose members were born in central Bosnia, the region he comes from.

Shortly before the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, Kegelj became the owner of a café, bearing the name of the Herzegovinian town Mostar, whose famous Stari Most (Old Bridge) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Mostar, whose famous Stari Most (Old Bridge) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

“People from all over Yugoslavia gathered in Mostar,” remembered Kegeli. This changed with the outbreak of the war. Similar to the divisions at home, Yugoslavs in Vienna began to separate, building their own separate, homogeneous ethnic groups. “At the end, only Bosnians kept meeting in my café,” said the restaurant owner, who soon should be welcoming a new generation from his native country. Unlike him, these had come to Vienna out of necessity. 

The Next Arrivals

One of these was Kemal Smajić who came with his family in 1992. A Muslim family, they had to leave Zvornik, one of the first Bosnian towns occupied by Serbian Armed Forces. “I remember well when we first arrived in Vienna. I was only twelve, but ahead of my age. Like most other guys my age who had to take the responsibility very early during those tough times,” said the 41-year-old Smajić today. In the beginning, the family lived in a sports hall in Vienna’s 22nd district which had been converted into a refugee center. After a few months, they moved to parish rooms where they spent the next two years.

[At first,] “the refugees hung out in shelter all over Vienna,” he remembered. “Then they started to organize futsal [a form of football that can be played indoors] tournaments which were sponsored by cafés and few Bosnian associations. My parents spent most of the time gathering with other Bosnians in ad hoc ‘clubs’ in basement spaces around town, that became meeting points for people from across Bosnia.”

“During the war years,” Smajić explained, “people visited those clubs to see each other, to fight nostalgia, and of course, to exchange information about jobs and flats, or about the developments in the conflict in Bosnia, missing relatives and so on.”

All in all, around 90,000 people from Bosnia-Herzegovina were welcomed as refugees in Austria – that’s over 1% of the Austrian population, in per capita terms more than any other country in the world. As a result of the Geneva Convention, most of them were considered “de facto refugees” and not genuine refugees. In consultation with the federal states, the Interior Ministry granted temporary residence permits. “Unlike Germany, Bosnian refugees in Austria did not have to leave the country after the war,” Smajić said. “Probably less than 10% of people I knew left Vienna.”

A Perfect Fit

Today, around 170,000 people who were born in Bosnia live in Austria, almost half of them arrived during the war of the 1990s. Nearly all oft them, “probably 95%” Smajić estimated, of are well-integrated in Austrian society, “especially the ones, who were under the 25 when they arrived here.” One of them is Alma Zadić, Minister of Justice in the ÖVP-Green governing coalition in power since early 2020. In 1994, at the age of ten, Zadić fled with her parents from Tuzla, Bosnia, to Vienna. On January 7, 2020, Zadić made history, as the first person born in Bosnia who reached such a high political function in the Austrian government.

Alma Zadić, Minister of Justice, one of the most popular Austrian politicians, at the age of ten fled with her parents from Bosnia to Vienna.

For Smajić, her inauguration was not a big surprise. 

“In almost every department of any Viennese hospital, you will find a doctor with Bosnian roots or at the management level of any larger company. Some statistics say that the children of Bosnians are even more successful at school than the children of native Austrians,” said Smajić, a father of two, also emphasizing the engagement of the Austrian teachers in the 1990s: 

“Some of them spent extra lessons with me and eight other refugee kids in my primary school and helped us improve our German. Today, every single one of us has a university or college degree or from some other higher education institution.”

Wanting to give something back to the society that had welcomed him, n 2010, Kemal Smajić started a humanitarian project called Futurebag. It supports children in need in Bosnia and Herzegovina by donating a fully-equipped school bag for their first day of school. 

“By the end of the project in 2016, we had handed over 17,500 bags to pupils all over Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he said  Financed by cultural events, the project grew. “Suddenly, concerts with the same aim were held in Germany, Denmark, or even Norway, where Bosnians took their Austrian, German, and Danish friends. At last, they were offered a chance to present their culture.”

With this project, Smajić recognized the longing of his countrymen for the culture of the country they were born in, “not only to combat the nostalgia but also to further integrate into the society they live in.”

The Bosnians had a long way to go, but they found their place in Vienna.