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Austria Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The nation of Austria has a long and complex history, and this has had some dramatic implications on its ideas about ethnicity. In this lesson we will look at ethnicity in Austria and see what it means to the nation today.

Austria

Flags are pretty interesting. Think about it- the purpose of a national flag is to represent an entire people within a single, simple banner. That's a lot of pressure. So, how do you do encapsulate national identity in a flag? In the USA, we chose stars and stripes. In Canada, they went with the maple leaf. But if we really want to understand flags, perhaps there's no one better to ask than the European nation of Austria. Austria claims one of the oldest national flags in the world, featuring 2 bands of red and a band of white, sometimes seen with an eagle in the center. According to tradition, this flag is based on the banner of Duke Leopold V when he fought in the Holy Crusades of 1191 CE. So, this banner has represented Austria, and the Austrian people, on the global stage for quite a while. It's an appropriate symbol for a nation that has always been deeply involved in European politics and events, and which is deeply proud of a long and unbroken heritage. It's also worth noting that Austria claims the oldest continually operating restaurant in the world, which is said to have opened in 803 CE. So, Austrian identity must be pretty easy to understand, right? Well, like their flag, it may represent more than meets the eye.

Flag of Austria
Flag of Austria

Austrian Ethnicity

The vast majority of people in Austria, 91% of the total population, identify as ethnically Austrian. This seems pretty simple. But what is the Austria ethnicity? That's a much harder question. Over time, the concept of being ethnically Austrian has shifted and molded to various geopolitical attitudes. For much of history, the Austrians and the Germans were seen as essentially the same people. In fact, before there was a unified German identity, most people of the region either considered themselves Austrian or Bavarian. However, when German princes rose to power over the Holy Roman Empire, Austrians became almost strictly German. This changed again when a new state emerged in Europe called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under this power, Austrians and Hungarians became much more closely associated. So, the ethnic category of Austrian is less defined than others, but suggests a patchwork of various European ethnic groups across history. What really matters here is the concept of self-identification. Austrians self-identify as ethnically Austrian, with a great amount of pride, and in Austria more than nearly any other nation, the concepts of national identity and ethnic identity are virtually indistinguishable.

The central location of Austria has contributed to ideas about ethnicity
Austria

One other way we can look at this concept of Austrian identity is through language. The official language of Austria is German. That's what nearly everyone speaks, although they do use a dialect often referred to as Austrian German. However, that's not the only native language of the nation. Many Austrians also speak Austro-Bavarian, a Germanic language that's not always mutually intelligible to native German speakers. You may also hear people speaking Alemannic, a dialectic language similar to those used in Switzerland. These languages are reminders of Austria's complex history and identity.

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