“Brunnenmarkt”, street market in Vienna’s 16th district

After the disasters of the first half of the 20th century, First World War, Great Depression, Second World War, disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austro-Fascism and Nazi regime, holocaust and ethnic cleansing, Vienna, the former 2-million multi-ethnic capital of a 50-million peoples’ empire, had turned into a provincial town, capital of a 7-million country, with a decreasing, rather homogenous population. Since the middle of the 1960s the lack of much needed workforce at the times of the economic boom years led to a change of attitude towards labour migration in Austria. The census of 1961 registered 7,074,000 inhabitants in Austria; 102,000 of them foreigners, most of them German citizens, the lowest number ever.

In 1961 the first recruitments abroad for the construction industry took place. Of the agreed 7,300 persons only 1,800 arrived, mostly from Italy. In 1962 a recruitment agreement with Spain under the fascist regime of Franco was unsuccessful. Between 1962 and 1964 37,000 “guest workers” were invited annually, but those numbers of migratory workers never arrived in Austria. Austria did not seem to be an attractive destination at that time. Finally in 1964 a recruitment agreement was signed with Turkey and an official Austrian recruitment office was opened in Istanbul, which was closed nearly 30 years later in 1993. In 1966 such a recruitment agreement was signed with Yugoslavia, too, together with a social agreement that regulated the claims of the workers with respect to health, accident and pension insurance. An official Austrian recruitment office was opened in Belgrade. In 1969 a similar social agreement was negotiated with Turkey. In general, recruitment offices were of minor importance because most migrants entered Austria via tourist visa and their stay was later legalised after they had worked here for some time. The status of these migratory workers was precarious, as the two following examples show: In 1965 Yugoslav workers at the company Iso-Span in Obertrum, Salzburg, went on strike because they received lower wages than agreed. As a consequence the strikers were taken in custody pending deportation. The same happened in 1966, when Yugoslav workers in a construction company in Admont, Styria, went on strike.

Political crises in neighbouring countries also had an effect on migratory movements in Austria. When the dissatisfaction of the Hungarian population with the Soviet domination culminated in the Hungarian revolution of 1956, approximately 180,000 Hungarians fled to Austria and took residence here temporarily. In 1968 160,000 Czech and Slovak refugees settled in Austria for some time due to the revolution in Prague that was crushed by the Soviets as well. After the military coup-d’état In Turkey in 1980 – one of several coup-d’ètats there – the Turkish refugees in Austria received “guest worker” status and that’s why their exact number is not known. When in 1980 martial law was imposed on Poland, more than 35,000 Polish refugees came to Austria, most of which remained here permanently. When in 1991 the war in Yugoslavia started Austria welcomed approximately 90,000 refugees from ex-Yugoslavia over the next four years.


Brno, Czech Republic

In the last years researchers of Central and Eastern Europe have revised the widespread assumptions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that comprised a large part of this area and ended in 1918. They no longer see it as an economically inefficient multi-national anachronism to the late 19th century nation states of Europe. New studies focus on the vibrant political cultures and the interesting attempts at interpreting local and regional phenomena in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire. General studies of Europe and modern history tend to treat the region of Central Europe as an exceptional corner of Europe due to the presence of several ethnic and religious groups in its societies, but also because of its economic development, often – unjustly – characterised as “backward”. Historians of self-styled nation states might have to think more creatively about cultural differences that may lurk just below the surface of assertions of national homogeneity. This is especially necessary at the time when the European Union is again facing new outbreaks of nationalism and even regions in the established nation states of Western Europe show serious tendencies of separation, e.g. Catalonia or Scotland.

Even some books written recently on the topic of World War I continued the tradition of portraying the Habsburg Empire as a state on the verge of collapse even before the outbreak of the war due to nationalist conflicts. Since the collapse of the empire narratives of nationhood have dominated its history. This interpretation ignores the fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was very similar to the other European states of the time, but at the same time pioneered new ideas of nationhood and new practices of governance thanks to its multi-ethnic population of 50 million. Some of the character, the developments and the enduring legacies of this Habsburg Empire are still visible in Central Europe. Therefore it is essential for once to abandon traditional presumptions about the primacy of nationhood in the region and to focus on the Austro-Hungarian institutions such as schools, the judicial system or the Austrian census that managed practical issues surrounding linguistic and ethnic diversity. This research undermines the notion that the existence of language differences dominated social relationships and institutional developments in Central Europe. On the contrary, imperial institutions and administrative practices helped shape nationalist efforts. Furthermore the surviving presumptions of economic backwardness or unbridgeable difference that allegedly made Central Europe different from the rest of Europe were revised in recent decades and historians have pointed out the remarkable creativity and innovation of the empire’s institutions in tackling diversity. Looking at the last decades of the Habsburg Empire might offer different views at subjects like nationhood, multilingualism and indifference to nationhood, especially at times of crisis of solidarity in the European Union.