Official Minority Groups

Austria Table of Contents

Within Austria a distinction is made between "official ethnic groups"--Slovenes, Croats, Hungarians, and Czechs and Slovaks-- who are legally defined and recognized as minorities, and other social groups, such as Roma and Sinti (commonly known as Gypsies), Jews, and foreign workers. These other groups do not have a special legal status as "Austrian ethnic groups" but are de facto minorities.

Although Austria was the most homogeneous of the successor states carved out of Austria-Hungary, it had a number of indigenous ethnic and linguistic minorities in the southern and eastern rural borderlands: Slovenes in Carinthia; Croats, Slovaks, and Hungarians in Burgenland. An urban minority of Czechs and Slovaks were also concentrated predominantly in Vienna. These groups accounted for 4.7 percent of Austria's population after World War I.

The Croats represented the largest single official minority in Austria. The Croat enclaves in Burgenland were the result of the Habsburgs' wars with the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Croats fled north to avoid Turkish subjugation, and after the Habsburgs defeated the Turks, Croats were settled in Burgenland to compensate for the depopulation the wars had caused.

The drafting of the post-World War I frontiers of Burgenland also created Austria's smallest minority. Areas east of the Leitha River historically had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary, although they were predominantly inhabited by German speakers by 1918. Negotiations of the national frontiers between Austria and Hungary led to Burgenland's becoming a province within Austria. Thus, the province's Hungarian population became an Austrian minority.

The Slovenes of southern Carinthia, Austria's second largest ethnic group, were the descendants of the ancient Slavic population that initially inhabited the southern slopes of the Alps and the Drau River Basin. Beginning in the early Middle Ages, these Slavs were displaced by German speakers. After both World War I and World War II, the newly formed state of Yugoslavia had aspirations of incorporating into it the areas of southern Carinthia inhabited by Slovenes. A Yugoslav invasion of Carinthia in 1918 was followed by a plebiscite in the areas in question in 1920 that resolved territorial claims with a clear vote for Austria. Tensions between the Slovene minority and the German-speaking majority in Carinthia increased during World War II because of Nazi racial policies and the military actions in southern Carinthia of Slovene partisans operating under the directions of Marshal Josip Broz Tito's National Liberation Army.

After World War II, neither the Allies nor the Austrian authorities were willing to meet renewed Yugoslav demands to redraw the Austrian-Yugoslav border. A partial response to Yugoslav demands was Article 8 of the State Treaty of 1955, which granted official minority status to the Slovenes in Carinthia and the Croats in Burgenland. Relations between the Slovenes and the German speakers of Carinthia remained strained in the following decades, more than was the case anywhere else in Austria. One reason for this hostility was the persistence of right-wing and German nationalist attitudes among sections of the Germanspeaking population.

The Croats and Hungarians of Burgenland and the Slovenes of Carinthia were usually peasant-farmers located in peripheral regions. The Czechs and Slovaks who still spoke their native languages as first languages, presented a stark contrast to these groups. This minority descended mainly from migrants who left predominantly rural areas of southern Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to settle in industrial centers such as Vienna, Graz, Linz, and Steyr, and in areas in northern Styria. There were so many Czech migrants in Vienna that the imperial capital was said to be the "second largest Czech city" after Prague. In these urban and industrial settings, immigrants were soon assimilated.

Austrian censuses use the criterion "language of everyday communication" to determine who belongs to one of the official ethnic groups. The Ethnic Groups Law of 1976 sought to protect and promote the distinct identities of officially recognized minorities and arranged for bilingual education in their languages. Despite such measures, however, all of Austria's officially recognized minority groups have declined markedly in size. Between 1910 and 1980, the number of Croats and Hungarians who declared themselves as members of their respective ethnic groups dropped by 50 percent, the number of Slovenes by 75 percent, and the number of Czechs and Slovaks by 95 percent.

The decline of indigenous minority groups in Austria stemmed from a variety of causes. Part of the decline resulted from pressure to assimilate to German-speaking Austrian culture before and after World War II, as well as from Nazi racial policies in Austria, which distinguished between "superior" and "inferior" races. Assimilation, however, was also caused by the modernization of Austria after World War II through an increase in economic and social mobility that drew younger generations away from traditional ethnic and linguistic enclaves, lifestyles , and identities.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress