Last week I had an interesting discussion about the relationship of Vienna and the rest of the country. A foreigner who has been living in Vienna for quite some time told me about an incident with his colleague from Salzburg: She repeatedly claims that the West of Austria would finance Vienna and that the capital’s importance was overrated. He asked me about my attitude to Vienna and if I would support his colleague’s argument.
I grew up in the region of Burgenland but went to school in a town called Wiener Neustadt, which is in the region of Lower Austria. This town is about 30-45 minutes from Vienna. My parents frequently took us to Vienna – almost every week – and we also had frequent school trips to the capital. I guess because of that I never thought I was only part of one particular region. I think it is the same for many people who live in the “Speckgürtel”, the towns in a radius of about 50 kilometres around Vienna, and commute daily to their work in the capital.
When I lived in Hong Kong, it took me longer to get from my flat to my office than it takes me from my hometown to Vienna. Similarly, in Bangkok it is not unusual to spend 90 minutes in the car to a meeting without even leaving the city. Austria is so small and still it amazes me that people stress the differences between the regions – or even villages – so much.
I consider myself European. If I am perfectly honest, I find regional patriotism or “nationalism” silly. When I moved to Nuremberg, Germany, I wanted to be polite and made a comment that Bavarian and Austrian culture was very similar. There was a big outcry at the office: “Nuremberg is in Franconia, we are not Bavarians!” Maybe I was ill-prepared, but prior to my move, I had not known that there was any difference. (I am sure most Non-Franconians are unaware about that difference.) Regional patriotism or dynamics between bigger cities and the countryside are nothing unique to Austria or Germany – in the UK it is London, in France Paris. I am sure there are many more examples globally.
There certainly is a dynamic between Vienna and the rest of Austria. When I studied in Vienna, my number plate was still the one from the Burgenland region and I got repeatedly honked at and told to “go back home if I cannot drive like a Viennese”. Similarly, if a Viennese number plate is spotted in the countryside, people assume the driver is not able to handle “countryside traffic”.
This tension stems from historical developments. Vienna used to be the capital of the Habsburg Monarchy, which was one of the biggest empires in Europe for a very long time. Vienna took over the role of administrating all the regions, while the industrial activity was located in Bohemia and the food supply came from Hungary, for example. After the First World War, Austria was reduced to a tiny territory. Suddenly, the industry and food supplies were gone and the regions in Austria had to support what everyone called the “Hydrocephalus of Vienna”. Food was scarce and people in the countryside did not see how they benefitted from what they considered an overproportionate capital.
Furthermore, Vienna has always been an international, liberal and – most of the time – leftist city. Similar to Paris or Berlin, the intelligentsia met in Vienna. You probably know the pictures of intellectuals meeting at the Viennese cafés or at privately organized salons. The countryside was, naturally, more dominated by land owners and farmers. Consequently, it has always been more conservative.
And to address the comment of the colleague from Salzburg: She is right when it comes to one argument. The West of Austria is indeed richer than most of the Eastern parts. However, economically, I do not think that the West “subsidises” Vienna without getting anything in return.
Some of the tensions may also be related to attitudes and language. The “snobby Viennese” spending their holidays in the countryside, not willing to understand the local dialect and looking down on the locals has become quite a stereotype. Vice versa, as somebody who moved from the countryside to Vienna, I also encountered stereotypes about us: We are “all farmers”, because we “sound less educated when we speak our dialects and have no idea of life because we live in the middle of nowhere”. This stereotype has led to one development: many people in the countryside refuse to teach their children the local dialect and only speak standard German to them so that when they go to Vienna, nobody can tell that they come from the countryside. This is leading to many dialects disappearing at large scale.
I always found these stereotypes silly. I do have to admit that when I moved to Vienna, I initially also tried to cover up where I came from and only spoke standard German. This already started in high school when some children told me I should not speak in my dialect because “it makes me sound dumb”. But I soon learned that there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Today, I speak seven languages. My mother always says that I actually speak eight because the dialect counts as an additional one. I am not so sure about that theory. But I definitely do not want to cover up where I come from or feel less than others. Today, I actually sometimes struggle to speak standard German: In Thailand, I speak English with my partner, his family and my friends and I speak Thai with the locals. I only speak German when I am on the phone with my family and my friends in Austria and then I speak my dialect.
When I come back to Austria, I do not just come back to one particular region like Vienna or Burgenland. I go back to Austria. Actually, I say I go back to Europe. Because even though regional differences and traditions are important, our concept about borders has changed – at least within Europe. And I hope that not even the coronavirus crisis can change this.
What about your home country? Are there stereotypes about the bigger cities and the countryside?