Once upon a time, in a back-street Beisl selling fantastically priced beer and the promise of Viennesesque intrigue, I was privy to a conversation which explained my adopted home’s attitude to foreigners. Foreigner class one, I was informed, was anybody playing for Rapid or Austria, the two big Viennese football clubs. Foreigner class 2 were white, but not Turks or Yugoslavs. Foreigner class 3 was everybody else. And foreigner class 4 were Germans.
It is surprising that I remember the conversation given that a schnapps was almost certainly involved, but it is a tale that always comes to mind when the subject of Vienna and immigrants comes up. I mention this because very recently I had the occasional delight to converse with a local man who opined that parts of Vienna are unbearable these days due to the number of foreigners. Really? I replied, as I put on my Union Jack cap and tweaked my Bank of England moustache, I’d never really noticed. Yes, he went on, with a face suggestive of disillusionment with life, you get on a bus and you never hear German! I actually find this quite agreeable because when I don’t understand a language – which is about 99% of the world’s tongues – I find it easy to switch off.
But the conversation gave me an idea, an idea that was seeded back in July where I promised to try and formulate a critique of why Vienna might not always be the number 1 place in the world to live. I don’t want to talk about casual racism – it exists everywhere, sometimes in the places you least expect it – but I want to talk a little about integration.
Before I scratch the surface, let me just say I am not sure which city on earth can claim to be the poster-boy for long-term integrative success – London? New York? Paris? Stockholm? Vancouver? – and as such I doubt Vienna can learn anything meaningful from these more professed “inclusive” capitals (although Paris could give Vienna a run for its money in the rudeness stakes). But sometimes the capital of Austria takes a bit of a knocking for its lackadaisical approach, particularly with the integration of Turks and peoples of the former Yugoslavia and its perceived attitude to meddlesome Brits. In the 21st century this may or may not surprise you. But to assess the contemporary, first a smidgen of history.
At the turn of the 20th century, 60% of citizens of Vienna were already non-Austrian (although most likely members of the Austrian Empire) which suggests to my methodical intellect that even then they must have been doing something right. Such a cultural and ethnic mix made Vienna at the time an exciting and vibrant global metropolis, a process which was intensified at the end of the Great War as intellectual elites, business people and English trainers moved in as the empire imploded. And it was arguably this period after 1918 – in spite of the hardships – that made Vienna a paradigm of innovation, science, intellectual discovery and liberal-social modernity (although we all know where that led). However, if they can seamlessly integrate the Germans (now the biggest ethnic group in Vienna) then surely they can welcome anyone!
At this point you might be thinking and rightly ask, how I can be certain of this (the integration issue not the welcoming hand shown to the Piefke)? The short answer is I can’t, almost certainly without resorting to anecdote and the apocryphal (my specialities). Conversely, I cannot readily defer to dubious statistics proffered by politicians, social policy commentators or organisations, for the simple reason that measuring something as intellectually elastic as integration, or lack of, is an exercise in futility. Why? Because where would it start and where would it end? Is there a checklist? Is there a set of criteria which define a local? Do I really have to listen to Radio Wien, eat Schmalzbrot (lard bread) and get naked in the sauna to be conferred Viennese?
Perhaps there are some basic preconditions, like language (unless you are a native an English speaker) or acceptance of the rule of law, but presumably I can integrate without the need to wear, symbolically speaking, traditional dress or, in the case of Vienna, eat Schnitzel and drink Ottakringer. Indeed, common sense compels us to concede that integration between cultures can only ever be a mutual construct simply because the fluidity and crossover between juxtaposed cultures – and this is very similar to bleeding between languages – are in incessant state of flux where contamination is inevitable and unstoppable (like wine from Burgenland in the 80s).
But irrespective of the ability to measure integration, the issue is alive, breeding existential fear and coercively urging me to relinquish my foreignness in the spirit of harmony. Austria takes it seriously enough to have an Integrations Minister (for the time being, the youthful and perfectly coiffured Sebastion-sational Kurz). And Vienna even has its own state funded expat centre (key words: indoctrination, re-education, assimilation). More importantly there is also a dedicated local government department tasked with integration and diversity projects which includes learning Deutsch for immigrants (Municipal Department 17). Integration in their words is:
“A process where the host society and migrants face a number of challenges and tasks. Integration aims at achieving equality and equal opportunities. Showing respect and acknowledging each other are vital factors in a successful integration process.”
If nothing else, it shows a Vienna confronting the tasks of multiplicity, intercultural management and support for new migrants. Perhaps it is not so bad after all and we should be temporarily assuaged and encouraged (although I am still waiting for my share). Nonetheless, it is this “respect and acknowledging each other” that is inescapably central to our further exploration. But to voyage there will necessitate a return to politics, and specifically, the provocative, confrontational politics of the right. Oh goody.
This we will do in the next chapter in a few days time as I now have to put on a suit, venture into town and ingratiate myself with the Viennese establishment. I shall do this by travelling on the underground line 6, a piece of civic space which encapsulates more than anything else the state of integration in Vienna today. Maybe I will even hear some German.
© RJ Barratt 2013