Being Austrian

Austrians say the Viennese are the most unfriendly and ­Russians are very violent: Understanding a nation’s identity ­means confronting both its present and its past

News | Johanna Sebauer | September 2012

Political scientist and nationalism expert Dr. Stephan Grigat puzzles over the Austrian mind-set and takes apart the clichés (Photos: David Reali)

"To be honest, I think Austrians are quite lazy. Lazy and unfriendly," said Clemens L., lounging on the Donauinsel on a mid-week holiday afternoon. "At the same time they always believe that they are oh-so-great, which they are not." Born in Tyrol, the 21-year-old student’s judgment about his fellow citizens can be construed as harsh. "Also," he added "Austrians are not approachable. In Germany, it is easier to fall into conversations with strangers. Here, everyone is so reserved and sceptical towards people they don’t know."

Hardly news to foreigners living in Vienna. However according to a recent study, Clemens’ self-assessment seems to be an exception: Today, the majority of Austrians describe themselves as "friendly", "diligent" and "social". The study, conducted in May by the market Institut, an opinion research company based in Linz, surveyed 500 Austrians over the age of 16, asking them to describe their attitudes and those of their fellow Europeans.


Austrians on Austrians

Austrians realise they are not modest. Besides seeing themselves as nice, hard-working and amiable, natives also claim to be the most tolerant and least xenophobic of all nationalities represented in the survey.

Of the others, they are less forgiving. The French, for example, are seen as very patriotic, creative and modern, but not very friendly. And Russians are the most charmless of all, considered corrupt, brutal and patriotic. Germans are not likable either: They are labelled dutiful, punctual and diligent, and therefore very un-gemütlich. But of course more successful.

These attitudes follow common stereotypes, the clichéd images of the moustached French artist, the brutal bear-like Russian and the über-organised German. But are the Austrians any more accurate about themselves?

Dr. Stephan Grigat, political scientist and lecturer at the University of Vienna, specialises in research on nationalism, and for him this survey reflects two sides of the self-image coin: "On one hand, Austrians see themselves as the least xenophobic nation among all, but anybody who knows the Austrian reality realises this is simply whitewashing." One need only look at the recent rise in the far right parties, with the Freedom Party (FPÖ) joining the governing coalition from 2000 to 2006, running on a platform of Islamophobia and raising barriers to immigration.

Austrians do, however, admit to some faults. "We have some attitudes that correspond to reality," Grigat continued. "For example admitting that Germany is more successful. Clearly, this doesn’t mean that Germans are born with a diligence gene: It simply has politico-economical origins."

While perceptions of national characteristics can reflect reality, they can also be based on projections. "Sometimes these can be quite delusional," he explained, "as with racism or anti-Semitism." Still, these images must come from somewhere. National identity is closely linked to a nation’s history, confessions, constitutions, and cultural icons. Who would the British be without their Empire, the French without their Revolution, the Americans without the Founding Fathers, or the Italians without the Pope?

History of an identity

In the case of Austria, talking about identity is not always easy. It means talking not only about the centuries of the Empire, but also about two World Wars, Austro-Fascism, National Socialism and the tragedies of the Shoah.

The Austrian State – in today’s geographical form – has existed since the Treaty of St. Germain, or more precisely since 1921, when Burgenland joined the Austrian First Republic as a Bundesland (federal state). A monarchy of varying contours for over 600 years under the Habsburgs, its diverse population identified with the dynasty. When the monarchy collapsed after World War I, it first became the Republic of German-Austria, combining the predominately German speaking provinces of the former Empire. Reduced even more by the St. Germain Treaty in 1919, the tiny rump state seemed to most Austrians too small to survive on its own – a fact that is still seen as one reason for the Anschluss, in 1938.

After World War II, haltingly, a new national identity began to evolve. "The Second Republic was forced onto the Austrians by the Allied Forces," Grigat said, "and Austrians showed almost no inclination to free themselves from National Socialism" – a fact they then had to sugar-coat with the so-called Opferthese, that Austria was the Nazi’s first victim rather than a collaborator.

"Today, in fact, 37 per cent of all Austrians still believe this ‘Victim Theory’, leaving a consciously distorted image of Austria having no responsibility for the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. The Austrian identity can probably never be fully understood without the connection to National Socialism," Grigat said.

This even affects the image that Austrians have of other countries. "Take the Russians, for example," Grigat said. "The idea of Russians being brutal certainly reflects the memories of the occupation, the rapes and violent assaults of that time. At the same time, it glosses over the unimaginable brutality of Germans and Austrians in the Wehrmacht, who killed over 20 million people in the Soviet Union."

But it’s not always denial. Rita Racz, a 46-year-old Hungarian home healthcare worker, has experienced quite different attitudes living in Vienna for the last 22 years. She remembers watching a documentary about the Holocaust with an Austrian friend.

"All of a sudden, my friend got really sad and she felt so guilty about what happened," Racz said, "and I told her that she didn’t need to, because it’s a different generation now and it’s not this generation’s fault."


Vienna: nobody’s darling 

The second part of the survey, illustrating perceived attitudes by federal state (Bundesland), shows Vienna as particularly unpopular. The Viennese may be modern, but above all they are seen as xenophobic and hard to please.

Manuel Konrad, a 30-year-old waiter, thinks that these attributions are nothing more than clichés. Coming from Lower Austria, he said, "You can find very nice people in Vienna, as well as very unfriendly and rude ones. Just like everywhere else."

And aversion to the Big City is hardly confined to Austria. "In many countries we find similar resentment towards the capital, with its bureaucrats that don’t seem to have any idea about what life is like on the countryside," Grigat said. But in Austria, Vienna’s reputation has a special history.

"During the interwar period, there was a strong aversion to ‘Red Vienna’," he said. "That was seen as the modern, urban and liberal metropolis that eats up all the tax money. We must remember that Vienna was also criticised for being ‘verjudet’ (‘infested by Jews’), so the resentments also had an anti-Semitic overtone."


Big brother Germany

For Austrians, the Austrian-German relationship is a special one, which matters a lot to Austrians, but which Germans often care little about. "What separates Germans and Austrians is the language they share," essayist Friedrich Torberg once said, and much points to this conclusion: Austrians tend to find German pronunciation funny and nothing seems more hilarious than getting Germans to try to say words in Austrian dialect, like the time-honoured Oachkatzlschwoaf (a squirrel’s tail: Go ahead, try it!)

"Austrians often see Germany as a big brother that they even envy a bit for its powerful industry or successful football players," Grigat said. But they also kid: The word Piefke, a commonly used Austrian derogatory term for Germans, is still more affectionate than the Anglo-version, "Kraut".

So as the survey shows, Austrians don’t cosy up to their neighbours: They admit that both Germans and Swiss are more successful, but that is the full extent of self-deprecation. Relationships with neighbours, especially those a mere dialect away, inevitably breed a kind of rivalry, a drama of envy and spite, augmented by any conceivable difference that can be put to good use.

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