Austria is a landlocked country located in south-central Europe. It shares its borders with eight other European countries, each of which have contributed to Austrian culture in varying ways for centuries. In fact, the land of contemporary Austria was once part of a more extensive empire known as the Austro-Hungarian empire (formerly part of the Habsburg Dynasty), which also covered present-day Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as parts of Poland, Romania and Italy.
While some might perceive similarities between Austria and other German-speaking countries such as Switzerland and Germany, various historical events and institutions have shaped Austria to be distinct from its Germanic counterparts, such as the Habsburg Empire, World War II and the Catholic Church. The values of cooperation, formality and gemütlichkeit (warmth or happiness) are cornerstones of contemporary Austrian culture. Austrians also have a deep respect for the environment, artistic talents and enriching conversations.
Regionalism and Geography
Austria is divided into nine ‘Bundesländer’ (‘single lands’ or provinces). Nearly every Austrian province shares a border with another European country, apart from Vienna. In turn, the people of each province tend to have some distinctions, often noticeable in language and dialect. One of the main determining factors of the distinctiveness among regions is geography, specifically the mountains and forests. Indeed, one of the most prominent parts of Austria’s landscape is the Alps. While historically the Alps did not demarcate official provincial boundaries, due to the impassable nature of the mountainous region, many inhabitants of the Alps were isolated from the rest of the country.
Geographic and geopolitical elements have led to differing cultural characteristics between regions and cities within Austria, visible in the way traditional heritage, foods, architecture and celebrations vary across the country. Austrians are generally proud of their regional identities and it is quite normal for people to show loyalty to their local area. Although they hold their regional identity and distinctions dearly, Austrians also feel connected to the broader ‘Austrian' identity. Such regional distinctions have somewhat diminished since the advent of mass media and increased mobility.
Ethnicity and Language
For the most part, Austria is ethnically homogeneous with just over 90% identifying as Austrian. However, there are notable Slovene (in Carinthia), Croatian (in Burgenland), Czech, Slovak and Hungarian minorities. Austrian law guarantees the preservation of their language and culture. The country is also home to numerous immigrant, refugee and transmigrant groups that have largely arrived since the end of World War II. After 1945, labourers from southern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa moved to Austria as ‘guest workers’. Many of these workers, particularly Bosniaks and Serbs, have since made permanent homes in Austria for their families.
Austria's composition has changed in recent decades, and population growth in the country is mainly due to immigration. Austria has generally been welcoming towards refugees and committed to family reunification on a national level. Indeed, the country has among the highest number of asylum seekers per capita compared to other European countries. Many recent migrants and refugees come from the Middle East and North Africa. The Austrian government makes an effort to assist newcomers through German-language courses and job training. In recent times, the government has shifted to stricter immigration restrictions as the mass influx of migrants has strained resources and altered public opinions. Indeed, the unprecedented number of newcomers has challenged Austria economically and culturally.
The official language of Austria is German. There is a discernible difference between the versions of German spoken in Austria and Germany. This is noticeable in the vocabulary. For example, the word ‘potato’ in Austria is ‘Erdapfel’ while in Germany it is ‘Kartoffel’. There are also regional differences in the dialect of German spoken. For instance, a dialect known as Wienerisch is spoken in Vienna. Dialectical differences tend to be more pronounced in rural areas and Austrians from one part of the country may not understand the dialect of another due to linguistic differences. Along the border between the Carinthia province and Slovenia, it is common for people to speak Slovene. Similarly, there are Hungarian and Croatian speakers in the Burgenland province. Nearly all Austrians know at least two languages.
Social Structure and Egalitarianism
In general, Austria places great value on an egalitarian social structure. According to Hofstede Insights (2018), Austria scores very low on the dimension (score of 11), meaning that emphasis is placed on participative communication and equality among members of society. The social welfare system of Austria reflects this value of equality. Indeed, the welfare system is fairly extensive and provides support for most of the population's health, education, employment and retirement needs.
Another contributor to Austria's egalitarian society is the country's education system. The vast majority of Austria's population has a high literacy rate, and all children are given the right to free education along with transportation and learning resources. In recent times, the government has made it compulsory for all citizens under the age of 18 to either complete their education or undertake apprenticeship training (ausbildungspficht), thus ensuring children have a high standard of education to enter the workforce.
Many of the traditional markers of socioeconomic class affiliation have faded over the last few decades. The standard of living in Austria is quite high, and the unemployment rate is relatively low. However, classes are still prominent throughout Austria. There is a sizable middle class and a general trend for the Roma population and other immigrant groups to be less economically stable. Higher education is often seen as the means to upward mobility.
Past Experiences and Current Attitudes
The events of the World Wars have made a significant impact on Austria's culture and people. One pivotal event was the unification of Germany and Austria. Talks of a unification between the two countries began as far back as the mid-19th century. At the end of World War I, various treaties were established to prevent the political and economic union of Austria with Germany. However, the beginnings of World War II saw Nazi German troops annexing Austria in an attempt to unify Austria with Nazi Germany forcibly. This annexation is referred to as ‘Anschluss’.
The events that followed would inevitably transform the country and its people. For the next six or so years, many Austrians, particularly those who demonstrated opposing political views or religious affiliations (such as Catholics or Jews) fled the country to avoid persecution, deportation or extermination (see more in the Religion section). In addition to being persecuted for political and religious views, Austrians suffered significant losses on the battlefield. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of Austrians fought under the German military. Nearly all Austrians of the time experienced displacement, loss and trauma.
Today, the topics of World War II and Anschluss can still evoke strong emotions, with what has been called the "endless discussion" of Austria's role during World War II as victims or accomplices in the war. For some, there is still a sense of guilt and sadness attached to the events of the war. For the most part, Austrians are open to discuss the events. In some cases, the topic may even be approached lightheartedly, particularly among younger generations.
At the end of World War II, Austria was divided into four zones that were governed by each of the four Allied powers (France, the former Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States). Over the next decade, Austria peacefully re-established its territorial sovereignty and proclaimed itself to be in a permanent position of neutrality. To this day, Austria prides itself on its neutral stance, and the country has become a model of political, social and economic stability in the region. Owing to Austria's neutrality, the capital of Vienna has become an important United Nations (UN) city.
New approaches to interactions and politics have also emerged. Tolerance, cooperation and consensus are often the guiding principles of many Austrians in their private and public lives. The concept of ‘Sozialpartnerschaft’ (‘social partnership’) refers to a cooperative relationship of social partners (usually companies, trade unions and political groups), where decision makers seek a consensus and resolution of conflict long before enacting legislation or making official announcements. Alongside cooperation and consensus, Austrians tend to place a high value on tolerance and respecting people’s freedom of choice in their attitudes, beliefs and individuality.
Gemütlichkeit and Camaraderie
A common attitude found among Austrians is ‘Gemütlichkeit’, which means a feeling or state of friendliness, warmth and happiness. The Austrian propensity towards warmth is manifested through their ways of socialising with one another. For example, Austrians often enjoy engaging and learning through conversation. It is common for people to have a membership in a local organisation (referred to as ‘Vereine’). Socialising in public places is also common. Many will typically socialise during outdoor activities or at cafes. For those who live in the countryside, Sunday is considered to be a day to spend time with one’s family. In small rural villages, men and sometimes their wives may meet at a ‘Gasthaus’ (pub) or a ‘Heuriger’ (wine pub) to talk and enjoy a drink. Meeting at restaurants, coffeehouses and gasthäuser extend beyond drinking alcohol; such settings provide a communal place for camaraderie to flourish.
A deep appreciation and respect for the arts continue today in Austrian society. Both modern and traditional forms of artistry are popular. One of the longest standing artistic expressions in Austria is music from the Classical and Romantic eras. Indeed, Austria is known for its various classical composers, most notably Wolfgang Mozart. Vienna is also associated with two particular music genres: the operetta and the waltz. Austrian society and the government make efforts to instil an appreciation for the arts in younger generations. For example, Austrian children often have compulsory music and art classes, and it is common to find conservatories and private music schools throughout the country. It is not uncommon to find Austrians as members of a band, choir or informal music groups with friends and neighbours.
Other facets of the arts, such as writing, painting and architecture, are also well-loved throughout the country. Coffeehouses in Austria have long been meeting places for writers and poets. Today, many will gather at a coffeehouse to share their works or to read in a library section, which is commonly found in many cafes. Austria’s literary luminaries include Franz Kafka, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Kraus.
Although popular music, television, motion pictures and other forms of popular culture are enjoyed throughout the country, the arts and artistic talent of traditional Austrian culture remain important to many generations. Large numbers of younger generations have an appreciation for artistry, as indicated by their attendance at orchestral concerts and theatrical performances. The popularity of enjoying the arts is in part due to the cheap, standing-only tickets available for everyone to purchase and special discounts available for students.
Appreciation for Wealth
A recurring theme throughout Austrian culture is a shared perception of wealth. Austrians tend to view themselves as wealthy in various ways – wealthy regarding natural landscapes and climates, culturally and artistically wealthy, and economically prosperous. This sense of appreciation for wealth manifests in various ways. For example, up until the events of World War II, Austria was economically prosperous. The events caused instability and poverty, yet Austrians endured much hardship to make the country prosperous again. Thus, there is a great sense of pride and appreciation towards Austria's current position of economic prosperity.
Another example is how most Austrians have a deep love of nature and take great pride in their country's landscapes. Outdoor activities and sports such as hiking, mountain climbing, sailing and swimming are prevalent. It is common to find people partaking in ‘Spaziergänge’, which refers to the act of taking a leisurely walk or stroll. Gardening is also popular, even in places where there is limited space. Those residing in apartments will often have cultivated flowers in window boxes. Skiing is also a widely popular and supported sport. Indeed, it is common to find Austrian ski instructors all over the world.
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