Austria, the Many-Peopled Land

Can Vienna be enriched by the flood of migrants coming to Europe? History suggests that it will.

Suddenly, Vienna has become the point city of the European migration crisis. As refugees poured in by the thousands, the wave swept over the Greek island of Lesbos, to the Macedonian border, through Serbia to Budapest’s Keleti Station and on into Austria, thrusting the country into world headlines.

Over the space of a month, this summer, Amnesty International condemned inhumane conditions at Austria’s main refugee center. Police found 71 migrants dead of suffocation on a truck abandoned on a highway just outside the Austrian capital. Border controls were re-imposed to catch human traffickers and the populist Freedom Party surged in the polls, challenging Social Democratic rule in Vienna that has been uninterrupted since World War II.

A Crisis of ‘Biblical Proportions’

It was a refugee crisis of “biblical proportions”, claimed British far-right politician Nigel Farage, one he claimed the EU had “brought on itself”. Perhaps. But many others agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, she said, “then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.”

But in Austria as elsewhere in Europe, nerves were on edge as long-standing political principles collided with a migration crisis – over 340,000 already this year – of disaster scale. In Budapest, crowds clogged the streets, while desperate police resorted to pepper spray. In Prague, officials wrote ID numbers on people’s skin with indelible markers.

Then, just as fears were peaking – to the glee of the far right – and criticism of Hungarian hostility and European inaction widened, the mood shifted. Austria and Germany announced they would accept the Budapest refugees, while Hungary would set up transit zones with a promised eight-day turnaround on asylum applications. Free bus and train fares brought immigrants safely to the Austrian border where they were met by government-chartered busses, or welcomed at Vienna’s Westbahnhof with drinks and sandwiches. Coordinated over social media, hundreds of Viennese showed up to help, some even offering housing – as government initiatives were fleshed out by the good will of the public. As they had with Yugoslavs in the 1990s, Austrians were helping.

In Vienna, the mood has been mostly positive: Here refugees are nothing new. And if the past is any guide, the city might just come out better for the experience.

Foreigners Making History

The Vienna of today that is 25% foreign born – 40% in some districts – is not facing a new challenge, but carrying on a 500-year legacy of internationalism. Even with the debate, most Viennese recognize this era as an extension of what it has always been.

And well they should!  Foreigners have been Vienna’s best defense. It was the Polish King Jan Sobieski who fought back the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. It was a Frenchman, Prinz Eugen of Savoy who, as head of the Imperial army, defeated the Turks again at the Battle of Zenta in 1697, and the French at Blenheim and Malplaquet. And it was a Czech, Field Marshall Josef Radetzky, who orchestrated the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 and was made legend by Johann Strauss Sr. in The Radetzky March, after his victory at the Battle of Custoza in 1848.

Six decades later, on the eve of The Great War, 60% of Vienna’s residents were foreign born, and much of Europe’s future could be found in a Viennese Kaffeehaus. At Café Central, you might have met the Russians Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Trotsky) or Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), the Georgian Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (Stalin) or the Coratian Josip Broz (Tito). At the Landtmann, you might have found Sigmund Freud, born in Freiberg (Pribor), Moravia, or the Swiss Carl Jung. At the Griensteidl, Arthur Schnitzler (father Hungarian), the Croatian-born educator Rudolf Steiner, or writer Joseph Roth from Galicia in the Ukraine. At Café Sperl, regulars included the Hungarian composer Franz Lehàr, and Secession artists Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich, both from Czech Moravia. And at the salon of the distinguished Galician journalist Bertha Zuckerkandl, you might have met Prague-born writer Bertha von Suttner, winner of the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize.

migration austria
At the turn of the century, creative minds flocked to Vienna. Here, Josef Hoffmann (second from left), born in what is now the Czech Republic peruses a newspaper with Otto Wagner (left) at the Café Bristol in 1905. // © Imageo/Picturedesk

A City of Immigrants

In truth, Vienna has always been a city of immigrants, a mix of nationalities, languages and backgrounds, multi ethnic and multi cultural. It was the center of a massive empire – what Kaiser Franz Joseph called his Vielvölkerstaat, his “many-peopled land” – that covered about 20% of Europe. It was a loose affiliation of lands and peoples governed through agreement and tradition, that stretched all the way from the Ukraine to Switzerland, including much of today’s Poland, Czech Republic, and Bavaria, and to the east and south, Hungary, Slovenia, northern Italy and the long Croatian coastline.

While not exactly a “melting pot”, Vienna was its own kind of cultural soup, attracting the ambitious from across the Empire.

Many of these immigrants were Czechs, whose numbers had increased 10 fold since 1850.  “By 1910, one out of five residents was of Czech origin,” writes historian Brigitte Hamann, as cries of “Slavicization” increasingly coloured political debate, and not just by the far-right.  And while nationalists, then as now, fueled the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment, “there is no doubt” Hamann writes, “that in Vienna” – straining under housing shortages, unemployment and inflation – “the natives fear of additional immigrants, in particular the Czechs, was very real.”

But it was not only the Czechs. A majority, remember, were foreign-born, many who had come to work as domestics, serving the needs of the Austrian Bourgeoisie as footmen, housemaids, washerwomen and coach drivers, porters and night watchmen. These immigrants were from any of the dozen nationalities across the empire, so that officers in the Austro-Hungarian Army had to be able to give commands in 11 languages, each of which had an official translation of the National Hymn.

Culture: The Stuff of Life

Added to this creative mix was the surge of energy from the Jewish intelligentsia and new industrialist class, following the granting of full citizenship rights by Franz Josef in 1867. Culture was all-important in this benevolent autocracy, where limited political rights combined with social tolerance. It was a society of manners and protocol they made their own, where art, theatre, science and ideas, where literature and feuilleton journalism were the stuff of life.

It had happened very quickly. Between 1870 and 1910 the city’s population more than doubled from 900,000 to over two million, although the larger story was what happened over the whole of the 19th century:  From about 300,000 at the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1814, the city’s population grew seven fold to 2.1 million in 1913.

All this was mirrored on the newsstands, where a dozen publications in Czech, Hungarian, Polish, as well as Italian and French, stood along side the famed Neue Freie Presse, and Karl Kraus’ Die Fackel.  Similarly today, there are 14 magazines published in languages other than German, including English, Turkish, Russian and Serbo-Croatian.

It was the world made possible by immigration and by tolerance, in Franz Joseph’s many-peopled land.

And after the Great War, Vienna was swamped again, as people flooded into the capital following the dismantling of the Empire, bringing the population to its historic record high of 2.4 million by 1923. This was the era of Red Vienna, when the city, now an independent province, made real an experiment in public housing and socialist culture called Red Vienna, admired to this day.

The subsequent decades were dark, with four years of Austro-Fascism (1934-38), and seven years of Nazi tyranny (1938-45) – after which began the long slow road to recovery. Austria was devastated by the war, leaving the Viennese living on less than 1000 calories a day in 1945-46. Thousands emigrated. Others moved to the countryside. By 1950, the population had shrunk to 1.62 million, and continued to fall, to 1.53 by 1980.

But the 1970s had been the decade of Bruno Kreisky, Austria’s greatest post-war chancellor, who liberalized laws relating to women and the family, established national health care and free university education, and brought the UN to Vienna, laying the foundation for the city we know today.

Through a century of hope and horror – of astonishing advances in science and technology but also a retreat to ideology and fundamentalism – we have come back around to a dynamic, globalized city much like that of a century ago: Foreigners are pouring in and, yes, there is resistance. But ultimately Vienna will embrace them and be the better for it.

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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