Background: Modern Austrian identity

The Making of a post-imperial identity
Vienna - Schönbrunn
Vienna, Schönbrunn. Photo: Alan Grant

In spring 1943 a British Foreign Office diplomat wrote a memorandum on "The Future of Austria" in which he explored four possible solutions to the Austrian issue: linking Austria with Germany; Austria's inclusion in a South German confederation; restoring Austria as a free and autonomous state; and Austria's inclusion in a Central or Eastern European confederation. For a time Churchill's war cabinet prioritized the forth solution. In the end it was the third solution that prevailed, with support of the 4 allied powers who occupied Austria after 1945.

The development of Austrian national identity is a recent phenomenon. When the Austrian Fessel institute organized a poll in 1956 and asked "Do you personally think we are a group of the German people, or are we a distinct Austrian people?" 49 percent replied that Austrians were a distinct people, 46 percent opted for being a part of the German people and 5 percent remained undecided.

A poll in 1964 found 47 percent of Austrians agreeing that "Austrians constitute a nation" and another 23 percent arguing that "they are slowly beginning to feel that they are a nation." By 1973 62 percent of Austrians believed that Austria was a nation and only 7 percent rejected the notion (Pulzer, p.89-91). By 1993 it had grown to 80 percent.[1]

This relatively recent consensus on its identity explains a number of features of Austrian political culture. Few Austrians agree that a nation comprises a "community of origin/descent" (only 6 percent in a survey in 1984). Most Austrians feel that a nation is primarily "a consensual community based on the desire to live together economically and politically." Post-war Austrian identity was that of a small state, and had little in common with the identity of a vast multi-ethnic empire. Austria spends less than 1 percent of its GDP on defence. Having lived for decades on the iron curtain Austrians worry less about global politics than about "soft" threats such as illegal immigration or nuclear accidents.

It took until 1965 to establish an Austrian national holiday. Ernst Bruckmuller wrote that "there appears to be no unifying Austrian myth." (Pulzer, p. 85) and that there is "no historical consciousness that reaches back very far in time" (Pulzer p. 103). One study of Austrian identity found that ""with the exception of the Maria-Theresian and Josephinian periods, what happened before 1914 is lost in the midst of time." (Pulzer, p. 103).

Another Austrian particularity is intense localism (which translates into local debates and strong regional media in Lander such as Tyrol or Vorarlberg). In a 1987 investigation, people were asked whether their main identification was with their "native place", their federal "Land", the country "Austria", "Germany", "Europe" or indeed the "world". Only in 4 of 9 Lander did people identify first as Austrians. In Tyrol 58 percent were first Tyroleans versus 19 percent who were first Austrians.[2] The constitution of Vorarlberg includes a reference to its right to self-determination. It matters to the study of Austrian debates whether one looks at Tyrol, Salzburg or Vienna.

At the same time, Austrians are among the Europeans who are most proud about their nation, more so than Germans, Swiss or even French (Pulzer, p. 97). In 1989 53 percent of Austrians were "very proud" of their nation, compared to 42 percent of French and 21 percent Germans. The objects of modern Austrian pride tend to be non-political and have little to do with Austrian political history. There is little pride in Austrian political institutions, but huge pride in the beauty of the countryside! Austrians were most proud about their achievements in sport (1980) or their waltzes (1987).

Further reading:

European integration and the "island of the blessed"

From 1945 to 1955 the priority of Austrian politicians was to negotiate the withdrawal of foreign troops, while anchoring Austria in the West culturally and economically. From 1948 to 1952 Austria was one of the largest per capita recipients of Marshall Plan aid. In 1955 the last allied soldiers left and Austria regained its sovereignty as a neutral country. The Soviet invasion of neighbouring Hungary in autumn 1956 reminded it of its precarious position on the frontlines of the Cold War.

Austria did not join the Council of Europe when it was created in 1949 until 1956. It also did not participate in the creation of the European Community for Coal and Steel in 1950. It obviously did not join NATO. Austria did not even – unlike Greece in 1961 and Turkey in 1963 – sign an association agreement with the EU until the 1970s.

In 1959 Austria participated in the setting up of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). When the UK decided in summer 1961 to apply for European Economic Community (EEC) membership, Austria sought an association agreement. However, negotiations between Austria and the Community failed despite support from Germany and a favourable report by the European Commission in June 1964.[3] There were bomb attacks in South Tyrol (Italy) at the time and serious diplomatic problems between Austria and Italy. As one historian noted:

"the Austrian desire to conclude an association treaty according to Article 238 of the EEC Treaty met serious objections from the very beginning that were initially underestimated in Vienna. … It was obvious that the Community would not treat the Austrian case as a political priority."[4]

Only after bilateral negotiations between Austria and Italy about South Tyrol removed this diplomatic obstacle did Austria and the European Economic Community (EEC) sign a free trade agreement in 1973.

Politically Austria now positioned itself as a neutral, pacifist mediator between East and West. Bruno Kreisky, foreign minister and then chancellor (1970-1982), advocated

"a progressively narrower interpretation of neutrality that included non-participation in economic organizations that might prevent Austria from taking independent action"

This was in part because of his fear that "to join the European Economic Community would indirectly mean to join Germany".[5] Austrians saw themselves as part of the West in cultural and economic terms but as an island in the confrontation between the two blocks of the Cold War. The formula of an "island of the blessed", first used by Pope Paul VI in November 1971, became one of the enduring post-war Austrian clichés.

Further reading:

Towards Austrian EU accession (1995)
Mountain reflection, Schwaz
Mountain reflection, Schwaz. Photo: Alan Grant

Things began to change in the second half of the 1980s. From 1983 Austria was faced with recession. Unemployment went up, while trust in the political system declined. There were numerous scandals, and Kurt Waldheim's controversial presidential election campaign in 1986. Suddenly, being small and isolated seemed a lot less attractive. In 1986 France even introduced visa-requirements for Austrians.

While Austrians questioned their splendid isolation, Europe also started to change fast. The European Economic Community under Jacques Delors launched its ambitious effort to complete its internal market by 1992 and turned into the European Union. Gorbachev's rise to power in the Soviet Union brought the cold war to an end. It was on the Austrian-Hungarian border that the iron curtain was first brought down in 1989. Now Austria's Eastern neighbours started to talk about their own desire to "join Europe." And in 1991 war erupted on the Austrian border, as the Yugoslav army fought with Slovenian forces.

In this context, the realisation gained ground that Austrian (self)-isolation had become too costly. The first party that called on Austria to join the EEC was the Freedom Party of Jorg Haider: In 1987 it urged the government to start accession negotiations at the earliest possible date. Austria's powerful corporate interest groups did the same: in May 1987 the Federation of Austrian Industry (IV) called for EEC membership, followed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Austrian Trade Union Confederation.

Then the two big parties embraced this agenda: in January 1988 the Austrian People's Party and, following a heated internal debate, in April 1989 the Social Democratic Party. In June 1989 the Austrian Parliament passed a resolution to apply for membership (the only opposition were seven Green Party deputies) and in July Austria submitted its application.

The first reaction of the EEC was cold. The European Commission proposed participation in the common market, without full membership, through participation in the European Economic Area (EEA). The resulting treaty was signed in May 1992. When Austria continued to insist full membership negotiations finally began in February 1993. They lasted until March 1994.

In the campaign before the referendum on accession the two main parties, Social Democrats and People's Party, all major interest groups and most media, including the most widely read Kronenzeitung, supported EU accession. On 12 June 1994 67 percent of Austrian voters voted in favour and Austria entered the EU on 1 January 1995.

Austrian Euro-fatigue today
Eurobarometer 2007: Are you optimistic (blue), pessimistic (red) or uncertain (grey) about the future of the European Union? Austria is at the pessimistic end (on the right), with a similar attitude to the EU as Turkey.

A clear majority of the Austrians had voted to join the EU. However, this did not turn Austrians into enthusiastic Europeans. In fact, "both absolutely and in comparison to other western European countries, the European identity of the Austian population is exceedingly weak"[6] This has changed little in recent years.

In fall 2005 only 34 percent of Austrians saw membership as a good thing (compared to 55 percent across the EU25). Franz Fischler, the former EU agricultural commissioner, noted in 2005 that:

"Austrian accession to the EU was amazingly positive, but this is not reflected in the overall atmosphere. … What is true is that neither European institutions, nor the Austrian government or social partners, nor the media, succeed in communicating what EU accession actually meant, and which are its positive aspects."[7]

In 2007, 38 percent of Austrians were very or rather pessimistic about the future of the EU.

One way to look at it is to say that very little changed. Asked whether Austria should leave the EU two thirds are opposed: the same percentage as voted for accession in 1994. Even in 2000, in the middle of the "sanctions" against Austria, 27 percent considered it a mistake to have joined the EU but only 19 percent were in favour of leaving the EU (OGEP, 2000).

What has changed has been the nature and tone of the debate. While the Green party came to support the EU, the Freedom Party – now again in opposition – has become its strongest critique. The largest daily paper, supportive in 1994, has also now become increasingly critical (Kronenzeitung).

Islam on the Danube
"Rational fears. We are we" – "The image of the wicked Muslim"

It is not the legacy of the Habsburg Empire as leader of a Catholic counter-revolution, fighting the Ottomans, but that of the Empire's Muslim citizens that continues to shape Austrian attitudes towards Islam.

Austria occupied Bosnia in 1878. In 1908 Bosnia was annexed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, having been occupied and administered from Vienna for some decades. Thus Bosnians became citizens of Austria-Hungary. Austria then developed a legal framework for Islam. While following the break-up of the monarchy it no longer had any Muslim inhabitants the laws remained in place. In spring 2005, the Viennese conference of Imams praised Austria as "a model in dealing with Islam."[8]

Further reading:

Austria's foreigners
"Vienna must not become Istanbul. He says what Vienna is thinking"

Of a population of 8.3 million 9.4 percent are foreigners.  Of these almost 88 percent are from outside the EU, especially the Balkans and Turkey.[9]

A Turkish embassy survey found that 52 percent of Austrians blame migrants in Austria for problems of integration.

What is the reason for this?

Refusal by immigrants to integrate

45 percent do not believe there is any solution to the integration problem of the Turkish community

Further reading:

National and foreign residents in Austria 1981-2001 (annual average)

Year

Total population  

Of these:

Austrian

Foreign

Of these:

Former Yugoslavia

Turkey 

Others

1981

7,568,710

7,265,026

303,684

126,601

60,277

116,806

1982

7,575,717

7,267,301

308,416

124,612

32,367

121,437

1983

7,567,016

7,270,364

296,652

121,523

62,247

112,882

1984

7,570,529

7,272,741

297,788

120,961

62,617

114,210

1985

7,578,261

7,273,879

304,382

122,977

64,837

116,568

1986

7,587,989

7,273,106

314,883

125,913

69,233

119,737

1987

7,598,154

7,271,907

326,247

128,952

74,081

123,214

1988

7,675,279

7,271,259

344,020

133,836

79,951

130,233

1989

7,658,801

7,271,618

387,183

146,203

91,733

149,247

1990

7,729,236

7,273,175

456,061

172,631

106,766

176,664

1991

7,812,971

7,280,225

532,746

207,693

120,493

204,560

1992

7,913,812

7,290,780

623,072

258,831

132,826

231,375

1993

7,991,485

7,301,881

689,603

305,452

139,781

244,370

1994

8,029,717

7,316,214

713,503

322,819

141,667

249,017

1995

8,046,535

7,323,052

723,483

329,541

142,766

251,176

1996

8,059,385

7,331,195

728,190

333,591

140,841

253,758

1997

8,072,182

7,339,511

732,671

335,800

138,505

258,366

1998

8,078,449

7,341,172

737,277

336,423

138,821

262,033

1999

8,092,254

7,344,082

748,172

340,862

136,334

270,976

2000

8,110,244

7,352,367

757,877

341,634

134,547

281,696

2001

8,131,953

7,367,639

764,314

341,730

133,435

289,149

Source: Statistik Österreich, Bevölkerungsfortschreibung

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Ernst Bruckmüller, The Development of Austrian National Identity, in: Austria 1945 – 95, p. 93.

[2] Ernst Bruckmüller, The Development of Austrian National Identity, in: Austria 1945 - 95

[3] Austria in the Twentieth Century, p. 311.

[4] Austria in the Twentieth Century, p. 312.

[5] Michael Gehler and Wolfram Kaiser, Austria and Europe, 1923-2000: A Study in Ambivalence, in R. Steininger, G.Bischof and M. Gehler ed., Austria in the Twentieth Century, p. 308.

[6] Plasser, Ulram, Sommer and Vretscha, 1993, quoted in Ernst Bruckmüller, The Development of Austrian National Identity, in: Austria 1945 – 95, p. 104.

[7] ORF TV, Hohes Haus, interview with Franz Fischler, 9 January 2005

[8] Kathpress, 24 April 2005

[9] Huber, Peter: The effects of enlargement on Austria: Long run perspectives and some first results. – quoted in ECAS Report, p. 29.

Turkey Debate in Austria