On September 24, Austria celebrated the Day of St. Rupert. Residents of Salzburg on this occasion don traditional costumes, as if implying that there is such a country on the world map. Meanwhile, the process of gaining its own identity was (and remains) extremely difficult for Austria. The reason is the great past of the multinational Austrian Empire and a failed union with the brothers in the language from Germany.
Who are we – the Austrians or the Germans? This question has been fundamental for generations of Austrians. On the one hand, the country speaks German, and Goethe and Schiller are considered their own, while Adolf Hitler was born in the Austrian town of Braunau. On the other hand, nearly one in three natives of Austria have a Czech, Hungarian or Slovenian last name. A typical Viennese meal consists of Hungarian soup goulash, Czech dumplings, a Milanese schnitzel, and a German cake. This fact makes one doubt that the Austrians are only part of the great German nation.
Modern Austria has always been a crossroads in terms of both roads and people. In ancient times it was inhabited by the Celts, and for centuries it belonged to the Roman Empire. In the mid-first millennium AD, German and Slavic tribes came here. In 7th – 8th centuries the future Austrian lands were part of the Slavic states Samo and Carantania (the latter is considered their own State by Slovenes). Periodically, one or another Austrian region in the Middle Ages fell under the rule of Great Moravia and Bohemia. Other tribes also left their mark on the history of the country. In 6th – 7th centuries there was the Avar Khanate. But the Avars did not give their language to anyone – unlike the Hungarians that have emerged in Central Europe in the early tenth century. Hungarians for decades subjugated nearly the entire territory of Austria. A modern Austrian federal land of Burgenland was part of the Kingdom of Hungary until 1918. The Hungarians, much as Slavs, may consider Austria their own, too.
However, history has made Austria predominantly German. Back in the 6th – 8th centuries its land gradually became part of the duchy of Bavaria, then – the Frankish empire, after – the Holy Roman Empire (later the German Nation). The actual (largely notional) rulers of future Austria were German emperors. German feudal lords grew stronger and displaced the Germanized Slavic population.
This year, Austria celebrated a momentous date – 1,015 years since the first mention of its name (in German – Österreich – Eastern Empire). It was in the tenth century when the Eastern brand appeared in the Holy Roman Empire. It gradually strengthened its credibility and weight. Another memorable date is the creation of a separate duchy of Austria that happened 855 years ago. It gradually annexed once independent state of Styria, Carinthia and Tirol that are now Austrian federal states.
Yet, of particular importance is another memorable date. 735 years ago, the ruler of the Duchy Rudolf I of Habsburg stepped to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, and soon became an Austrian archduke. Representatives of the famous dynasty occupied the imperial throne (with interruptions) until the beginning of the 19th century, when, during the Napoleonic Wars, the empire dissolved. (Strictly speaking, through the centuries it was a loose formation, where the emperor was nominal and the real reins of power belonged to the rulers of separate principalities, counties, and duchies. One of them was Austria).
The strengthening of the Habsburg Empire did not succeed, yet there was a considerable growth of the power of “small” ownership. Gradually, its borders moved outside the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire, and Austria became a separate empire. During the 16th – 18th centuries it was joined by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, northern Serbia, a part of modern Romania, north-east of Italy, south-east of Poland, and today’s western region of Ukraine. An enormous patchwork empire was formed. There could have been a multi-ethnic community, “the Austrian people,” speaking German.
If there was a community, it was very small. On the one hand, representatives of various nations of Austria moved to Vienna, (since 1867 – Austria-Hungary). They adopted German and gradually merged with officially state-forming Austro-German nation. However, the majority of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Slovenes and other nations did not intend to become Germans or German-speaking Austrians. The multinational empire ripped apart at the seams and eventually disbanded in 1918. A German-speaking Republic of Austria formed on its ruins, but were its residents Austrians? This is a big question. In the 19th century, many German-speaking inhabitants of the Austrian Empire increasingly turned their eyes toward Prussia, and later the German Empire. They felt German and wanted to reunite the Austrian crown lands and Germany. Incidentally, the first pan-German Congress was held in 1882, not just anywhere but in the Austrian Linz. Until the 20th century the Austrian nation as such did not exist.
In 1918, the Government of the Republic of Austria decided to annex a new country to Germany. However, both countries were in the camp of losers in the First World War. Despite numerous referendums in support of the unification, the winners in the Entente (France, Britain and others) banned Austria from joining Germany. The first Republic of Austria that existed before the 1938 was reluctantly accepted by many of its residents. Even those politicians who did not want the reunification of Germany recognized the relationship of the two nations and called the Austrians “best of the Germans.”
However, there was still a difference between those and other Germans. The vast majority of the Austrian Germans are Catholics, while the bulk of the Germans in Germany are Protestants (except in Bavaria and a number of lands in the south and west of the country). For Germans, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was not their composer, and for the Austrians Johann Sebastian Bach was not their own. The hero of the Germans in Germany, Chancellor-unifier Otto von Bismarck was at war with Austria, and therefore for many of its residents he was an “executor.” Finally, the Austrian Germans lived as part of other states for a long time, and the blood flowing in their veins was more Slavic and Hungarian.
The plan for the unification of Germany and Austria was carried out in 1938 by Hitler. His homeland became a part of the Third Reich, and there was no mass uprising against the Nazis. But as soon as Nazism was defeated, Austria in 1945 was revived as an independent republic. The victorious powers in World War II banned it from re-uniting with Germany. This was the beginning of the new Austrian government. The remaining task was to create a nation.
Surveys carried out immediately after the war showed that the number of residents of Austria who regarded themselves as Austrians and Germans was roughly equal. Subsequently, separate existence from Germany, and the education based on the history of the multinational Austrian Empire did the trick. By the beginning of the 21st century 85 percent of the country residents considered themselves Austrians, not Germans. Many people of Slavic or Hungarian descent fairly quickly forgot about their ancestors, learning the German language and customs of Austria.
However, there were still those who considered themselves Germans in the post-war period. Among them was, for example, notorious for his nationalist statements late leader of the Freedom Party Joerg Haider. When in school, he wrote an essay on “Why the Austrians are the Germans.” He often appealed to the German values, drew attention of the former Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klim to his Czech name, and juxtaposed the Austrians and Slavs. In the best years his party gained 27 percent of votes.
Today, Austria is an established country where the bulk of the population feels that they are Austrians. Some of them believe they are rooted in this land, and are separate from the immigrants from Asia and Africa. Yet, many still contrast themselves, the German-speaking people, to the Slavs. Polls show that the Austrians’ attitude towards the Czechs or Slovenes leaves much to be desired. For some (mainly people of mixed origin) the term “Austrian” is opposed to the concept of “German German”.
Austria is still the country with varying self-determination of its indigenous peoples. That does not prevent it from living richly and playing on the European political arena. However, this is a topic for another conversation.
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