The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

Matters of Identity: How German Are the Austrians?

After the First World War, the position of Austria was that its people, to all intents and purposes, were German. Therefore, Austria asked officially to be incorporated into the German state, to which it naturally belonged. After the Second World War, Austria claimed the exact opposite. Look as hard as they might, Austrians could detect no similarity whatsoever with the Germans. Come to think of it, some mused, Austrian German sounded so different, that it almost amounted to a different language. So, which is it? The question touches at the very heart of Austrian identity.

It is, of course, true that the Habsburg Empire was a multicultural empire, which was, in this respect, very different from highly homogenous countries like Germany. After the First World War, this empire was dissolved and Austria, comprising mainly of the ethnic German inhabitants of the Habsburgs, came out as one of the entities. The demand for unification with Germany was, thus, not so unreasonable. In fact, according to the foremost contemporary historian of Germany, Richard Evans, of all the provisions of the Versaille Treaty, signed after the First World War, the refusal to allow Austria national self-determination was “the most unjust.” Very likely, one suspects, the victors felt that it would be odd for Germany to lose the war and then be rewarded with extra territory and one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, Vienna. Reparations were in view, not gifts.

Welcoming of a Nazi soldier in Austria

In 1938, Hitler’s army started its invasion of Austria. Those being conquered turned out to be so ecstatic and eager to be conquered that even Hitler was astonished. So, the subjugation of Austria appeared very much like a popular celebration of the Nazi army, memorized in an embarrassing number of photographs and documentaries from the time. It was almost impossible to walk in the Kärtner Strasse, the main street in Vienna, Alma Mahler tells us in her memoirs, because of the thousands of flowers placed in front of Hitler’s portrait there.


Understandably, after the war, this was not the sort of thing that Austrians were eager to attract attention to. So, very quickly they dissociated themselves from everything German, in the process coming up with some bizarre interpretations of history, culture, and language. Arguably, no other city's monument to the Red Army is polished so regularly and thoroughly as the one in Vienna, thus reminding us once again that Austria was liberated from Nazi Germany.

The monument to the Red Army in Vienna


What all this seems to point to is the problem of identity. To speak the language of Goethe, to belong to the great philosophical tradition of Hegel and Kant and the musical tradition of Bach and Handel – all this is so wonderful that one wants to close one’s eyes and wish away Hitler and his huge popular support that, quite inconveniently, are part of the same tradition. To quote again Evans: “If the experience of the Third Reich teaches us anything, it is that love of great music, great art, and great literature does not provide people with any kind of moral or political immunization against violence, atrocity, or subservience to dictatorship.”

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