Vienna- the Balkan connection

Article published on May 23, 2011
Article published on May 23, 2011
Although you won’t hear many born and bred Viennese say it out loud, but Vienna without the Balkans would be like…. well an English city without Saturday night violence and chip shops. Vienna’s Balkan connection goes back to the days when it was the capital of the Habsburg empire, and it is this connection that makes a Vienna a little different from the rest of Austria.

It is important to remember that, from roughly the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century, Vienna as the capital of the multi-ethnic Hapsburg empire, an empire which (according to its fortunes) once stretched as far as Lvov in the west, to Bosnia in the south. Because Vienna was the capital of this vast region, it was peopled by people from many different ethnic groups, who came there as workers, as part of the administration and, most importantly, as part of the Habsburg army.

Anybody who wants to form a picture of the Empire, particularly in its last years, can do worse than read Joseph Roth’s books, particularly ‘The Radetzysky March’ and ‘Weights and measures’, both of which paint an interesting picture of life in the monarchy and particularly in the army. Although the empire considered itself to be ‘all inclusive’ regarding ethnic groups (there was even a special Bosnian-Muslim infantry unit, with its own imam), the German speakers where always at the top of the pile, and tended to look down on Slavic groups as backward. One interesting explanation put forward for the failure of the imperial army was that all soldiers were given a vocabulary of 200 German words to communicate with, which greatly hindered communication between officers (invariably German-Austrians) and the lower ranks (usually from other ethnic groups). This lack of communication made the army extremely inefficient and, fatally, unable to carry out complex manoeuvres. This disdaining attitude can still be seen and heard in Vienna, where many Austrians feel superior to their Balkan neighbours, tend to speak to them in ‘baby-German’ (you go, you see, you do) and classify everything east and south of Vienna as ‘in the south’, a phrase which seems to carry a whiff of backwardness and a lack of sophistication.

Also of interest is Ivo Andric’s ‘The Bridge over the Drina’, which describes life ina small Bosnian town, and in particular the upheavals that the arrival of the Austrian army brought with it. The book provides an interesting view of the Austrians as the ‘in-comers’ who occupy Bosnia-Hercegovina and take over the administration of the small town (Visegrad) on the Drina river. The Austrian army bring various innovations with them, such as a railway, house numbering and a banking system, but they also increase tensions between the resident Serbs and Bosniaks, who suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of an international conflict. The novel can be read as a critique of the way in which the Habsburg empire rode roughshod over ethnic sensibilities by bringing innovations and changes without interesting itself for the local conditions.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Roth’s books describe how the Empire’s lack of borders allowed people to move around freely within its borders, increasing their ability to do business. A look in the Vienna telephone book confirms that many of them settled down in Vienna and the surrounding area, as evidenced by the sheer number of names ending with -ic,- its and -ich. Although many people whose grand and great parents settled in Vienna now consider themselves to be Austrian, their presence still adds to Vienna’s ‘Balkan identity’, with many traditional Viennese recipes coming from the Balkans (Cevapcici anyone?) and also many Viennese dialects words have Slavic roots. The character of Vienna is definitely different from other cities and, in a way which is somewhat hard to define, more ‘Balkan’ than other cities. It’s the way in which you’re are almost guaranteed to hear someone speaking BCS (Bosnian-Croat-Serbian) on the streets, or the fact that certain parts of Vienna, particularly those in the 16th district, are known as ‘little Croatia’.

In the end, Vienna without a Balkan connection wouldn’t really be Vienna, and, even if there are some tensions, in the end, the Balkan presence sets Vienna apart from other Austrian and German cities and makes the phrase ‘Vienna is different’ true.