December 18, 2015

Sketches of the Eastern State

Migrants cross the Austrian-German border at the border bridge between Austria and Germany near the small Bavarian village of Simbach, southern Germany, on November 2, 2015.
Migrants cross the Austrian-German border at the border bridge between Austria and Germany near the small Bavarian village of Simbach, southern Germany, on November 2, 2015.

What is Austria’s historical experience and self-perception like in the context of the migration crisis?

Europe’s political and cultural borders put its heart in the historical region of Burgundy, the Netherlands and princely states of West Germany—the Western world as we are accustomed to perceiving it. This is West par excellence, a West without East, as its geographical east is also the West in essence, in the cultural and political sense. However, if we take into account the geographical dimension, the centre of Europe shifts a thousand kilometres to the east and southeast, into the domain of the Habsburgs, which later became the Austrian Empire. Instead of the self-empowering trio of Paris, Brussels and Strasbourg, Vienna stands there alone as the first (or last) true metropolis against the unpredictability of Eastern Europe. For the political and cultural West, Austria (Ostmark, Österreich) has always rather been the East, for geographical Eastern Europe it is obviously the West.
In the context of the aforementioned facts it is reasonable to ask how the country in question defines itself. Austria underwent the greatest breakthrough in its self-perception (probably the greatest in its history) after World War I, when the will of the victors reduced the great European power, an empire, to a mere stump. It was nearly impossible to answer the existential questions that were asked back then—how does a state survive when it seems to be facing demographic and economic suppression as its territory was slashed by those in the dominant position? Yet, Austria coped despite the period of National Socialism, World War II and Soviet occupation. Three generations later, after a deep change in its identity, a new understanding of Austria as a neutral, open and democratic citizens’ state balancing on the border of East and West emerged from the debris of the erstwhile shattered empire.
Due to cultural, geographic and political realities, relationships with the East are one of the cornerstones of Austria’s internal policy. I will not take the overwhelming task of analysing all aspects and will proceed with the topical subject of immigration, whereupon I shall try to analyse only some of the main points from Austria’s historical experience that have helped the state to solve the refugee question quite painlessly in the past.
After all, the second half of the 20th century offered plenty of “material” for Austria to solve – 100,000 Hungarians after the 1956 uprising had been suppressed – only a year after Austria itself was freed from Soviet occupation; 200,000 people after the Prague Spring was suppressed and the Soviet Union piled far too many troops and more military technology into Czechoslovakia than was necessary to quell the protests, so that the Austrian people lived in justified fear of a new invasion. Yet, borders were not closed for refugees. Then, one after another, refugees came from Vietnam, Soviet Afghanistan, the Gulf War, Eastern Germany, Sudan, Chechnya and Sri Lanka, and now, of course, also from Syria. In nearly every decade of the previous half century, the number of immigrants has been five or six figures.
At this point, it is appropriate to draw parallels with Estonia, as both of the countries represent East and West with their realities and mystifications. Let us first compare, as comparison is a sympathetic method like storytelling. Both Estonia and Austria are “small” (the latter is small next to its large linguistic next of kin, Germany) and culturally “endangered” owing to this, primarily because they perceive themselves to be endangered. The dominant ethos of both determines that unity and identity creation demand a serious and sustained effort since only through this can they define who is “kin” and perceive themselves in a meaningful way. In addition, population growth is headed in a downward curve both in Estonia and Austria, and there are potential economic consequences from this. More parallels could be found but as the aforementioned three broadly cover the main anti-immigration arguments, let us view these points.
The first common argument is that the identity of a nation state is based on ethnicity and local native culture, which immigrants will start to change, and according to dark predications, eventually even replace when they assimilate. This argument is based on an interest in preserving the favourable status of the initial ethnic group—something that should be obvious to every ethnic Estonian like the fact that the sky is above and the ground below.
It is not so simple for an Austrian. The collective conscious still holds traces of the keiserlich-und-köninglich dimension, yet not in the sense of an imperial delusion of grandeur but in the form of a special kind of tolerance. An empire is a melting pot, neutral and receiving, and its subjects have the joint obligation to pay taxes and live side by side without publicly hating one another. The nationality, religion and language people are born with are their own business; it is not the concern of the authorities.1 If we consider this in the context of Austria’s recent history, we can state that when such neutrality becomes part of the mentality and common identity, a meme within the definition of an Austrian and the image of the state, it will start to generate new qualities.
It is no coincidence that Vienna hosts the headquarters of many international organisations, that the parties to the world’s conflicts hold their negotiations there, that writers’ fantasy describes Vienna as a venue for spy stories or that actual organised crime from East or South tries to infiltrate the city. These are all the fruit of tolerance – some sweet, some bitter. Despite their efforts, even some right-wing Sturm und Drang movements (represented with greater or lesser success by the Freiheitspartei Österreich, FPÖ) have not managed to permanently perturb this impartial mentality (or, from a nationalist point of view, superficiality) characteristic of a great state. If a native Viennese, whose grandparents were from Croatia, Hungary, Bohemia and Slovenia (a representative selection of the nations in the empire), claims to be an Austrian by blood with calm certainty, they obviously know what they are talking about. This sounds wonderfully calming for someone from Estonia who has been deafened by the media-magnified strife over being the “right” kind of Estonian in terms of genetics, language and thinking.
The second anti-immigration argument often used includes the claim that we need to protect the national unity of a small state. This is endangered when immigrants are not able to adjust (contrary to the claim described above) or refuse to do so by conscious choice. In that case, visions of the future feature isolated communities, parallel languages and cultural ghettos. Yet again, this sounds unambiguous for Estonia but not for Austria.
The reason lies (at least partially) in the fact that Austria’s long-term political doctrine is based on consensus. The special term Proporz (from the word Proporzion) signifies a system in which politically significant positions are divided equally between the two main parties: Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ, and Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP. In addition, it is compulsory to involve stakeholders (workers, entrepreneurs, farmers, etc.) in legislation and determining its content, and their importance as the government’s partner in social affairs has increased over the decades. This system guarantees that a broadly unanimous decision is reached in passing nearly every more important piece of legislation. Applying the principle of Proporz is not strictly Austrian in itself. However, the post-war realisation this doctrine was based on is Austrian—that all political forces must be unanimous and truly cooperate to rebuild the country and compensate for the damage. This principle has been followed until recent times. Even between 1966–1983, when election results allowed either ÖVL or SPÖ to form governments on their own, they did not forsake the idea of social partnership and continued to practice it. This also illustrates the deep-rootedness of the idea of involvement and participation in the society. Everyone will be heard, most are taken into account, no one is left aside. It is clear without saying that a society that is capable of (and accustomed to) distilling unity out of a plurality of opinions is not easily frightened by potential linguistic and cultural differences. Most refugees are welcomed kindly, and this is, no doubt, the best precondition for their swift and full integration.
The economic argument also ranks high among anti-immigration claims, and this focuses on immigrants competing on the job market and the pressure they allegedly put on the social system. If we leave aside the obvious controversy of the argument (a person who works usually contributes to the social system, and does not rely on it), one can claim that there are a number of differences between Estonia and Austria in this issue. Although the natural increase of both states is by far below the baseline, Estonia is additionally under pressure due to its modest GDP and significant emigration, whereas the Austrian economy is slowly but surely moving forward with the immigrants.
It is agreed in economic theories and practices that the economy is all about people. Not ideas, concepts and regimes but actual flesh-and-blood people who are either present or absent. And there are people in Austria, despite the low birth rate. The population increases year by year, there are nine million of them today, and every one of them is statistically a little better off and their standard of living is slightly better than a year ago. That even without considering the tourists—two visitors for each Austrian, including babies. Notwithstanding the differences in calculation methods, Austria remains firmly among the twenty countries with the best GDP in the world. Such a position does not simply fall from the sky—it is the result of consistent and systematic efforts to develop market systems, increase competitive strength on an international level, attract investments, and reinforce social partnerships and trade unions. Approximately two-thirds of employed people belong to trade unions, which is important enough to be highlighted here. Austria also has a peaceful social climate, a mentality based on open communication and trust, which is also the general ethos of many generations.
Naturally, it sounds too good to be completely true. But, as I mentioned above, the aspects discussed here are not the full story about Austria but a small selection of facts that will hopefully help in understanding this wonderful country.
There is plenty of food for thought in this for an Estonian—for example, a sense of cultural endangerment may come from belonging to a large language community, not to a small population, a society is integrated organically through employing values in politics and economy, and in conclusion, Austria is healthily balancing on the line between East and West. How do they do this, these native and new Austrians? Do people contribute to society because Austria is prosperous, safe and tolerant? Or is Austria prosperous, safe and tolerant because it welcomes free potential? This is actually a matter of attitude, and as such, only a rhetorical question.
1 See, e.g., Michael Walzer, “On Toleration”.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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