A Refugee Crisis?

I am back in Austria for a few more days and have greatly enjoyed my time back in my original home-country. There are lots of wonderful things about Austria. But, as some of my international friends asked me, what about the “European refugee crisis”? Austria took in about 88000 asylum seekers in 2015, which is about 1% of the Austrian population; this is a significant number. What are the effects on Austrian society?

Let me tell you about the impression I got after spending 7 weeks in my home-country, after years of living abroad, and during that period only visiting for brief stays. Before this visit, I hadn’t been to Austria for 2 years. I got my impression by going to a lot of different places in Austria: I spent time in the countryside in the south of Austria; I was in the affluent suburbs of Vienna and in it’s really posh districts, but also in some of the less wealthy districts; And I ventured to the east, close to the Hungarian border.

I expected to see some effects of the refugees’ presence; not the utter chaos and hefty economic strain pained by some political fear-mongers. But I thought I might see a lot of foreign-looking guys standing around near train stations, maybe more begging, maybe some infrastructure like the public transport system running closer to capacity. I expected to see some mild effects of the refugees’ presence.

What effects of the “refugee crisis” did I observe? Pretty much almost none, at all! I did see a few guys who are most likely refugees, young Africans taking a walk in my home town south of Vienna around noon on a work day. They certainly didn’t bother anyone. But that’s pretty much it! Once I had to wait for half an hour at night for a train at the “Praterstern” station, the crime hot-spot of Vienna. A bunch of older Austrian drunk guys with their beer guts dangling over their belts and cliques of somewhat shady looking young foreign men (refugees or not, I don’t know) were hanging out there. I didn’t see any violence, yelling or other bad stuff. I know bad things had happened there in the recent past, but the evening when I was there was quiet. The police was present on foot. If that’s the worst place in Austria, then the situation is really not that bad! I am not naive – Europe is experiencing large migrations these days, and that has to be dealt with in an intelligent manner. But by looking around in the country  for a few weeks I must conclude: in no way did these migrations push Austria towards the brink.

Horse music in Vienna. #klauseuropeantour2016 #vienna #austria #streetphotography #travelphotography

A photo posted by Klaus Stiefel (@pacificklaus) on

Vienna has always been a very international city. In the times of the Hapsburg monarchy, many citizens of the Hapsburg empire from eastern Europe migrated to Vienna (like Freud’s family). There has been a Turkish and Balkan immigrant community for many decades. These days, you’ll also see more and more Asian exchange students and Arab tourists. The city’s already very cosmopolitan demographics have not changed much with the arrival of the refugees. Anyway, it seems that most refugees are housed away from the urban centers of the city, and don’t have the money to go shopping or on a nice field trip.

Vienna in 2016 is a clean, orderly, affluent, really lovely place which does not at all seem to me to be in the midst of some kind of “crisis”. Yes, the refugees’ presence will cost a lot of money and cause some political challenges. But “crisis”? Vienna these days, with its well-dressed people shopping in exquisite specialty stores and filling fine-dining restaurants to the last table is not in a crisis. Neither is the rest of Austria.

The outrage about the refugees is an engineered panic by the right wing. They did not come up with this idea out of a vacuum. There are a number of macro-cultural trends which make such a panic a sign of the times. After decades of becoming more international, unified, and cosmopolitan, Europe is clearly psychologically turning inward again. People can pay with the same currency from Amsterdam to Napoli, but want to be members of their own little tribe again. As an Austrian undergraduate the Universities of most of Europe are open to you, but once returning home you will run into people who would rather have much fewer foreigners around.

A trend I have observed in Austria which started after I moved abroad in 1998 is that the traditional Austrian folk dress called “Tracht” is making a huge but odd comeback. The original folk dress, worn in the countryside then and now, is quite pretty, and a part of Austrian rural culture. It’s a pair of leather pants for men and a dress with a wide skirt for women – for my American friends: Remember what they wear in “The Sound of Music”. Now the Tracht is not only worn in the countryside anymore like up to the 90s. Folks who wore jeans a decade ago now these days dress country-style. One also sees a lot of folks dressed in versions which are odd hybrids, with women wearing something in-between the original men’s leather pants and a BDSM-outfit. It’s clearly not an Austrian traditional dress anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the fashion police. Everybody can do & wear what they want, as far as I’m concerned. I know super awesome people, of older generations or actually living in the countryside, who sometimes wear Tracht. But clothing can be a political signal. If wearing some pseudo-hip version of a country dress becomes a huge fashion among urbanites, there is a psychological trend behind it which says “I want the old times back”. Not everyone likes that trend, of course. A pretty lefty mate urged me to “shoot him in the back without warning” if I ever saw him wearing neo-Tracht. That’s quite a hefty statement to someone who just came back from the Philippines!

There is also a curious rise of the cheesy faux-folk music called “Schlager” (forgive me if there is a new category for that kind of music now, but it surely sounds like Schlager). I am not talking about the traditional music of Austrian’s regions – which is often very interesting and meaningful – but a shallow kind of pop music vaguely inspired by real folk music, with really brainless and sometimes “patriotic” lyrics. Again, if you are American, the difference can be compared to the contrast between Woody Guthrie’s music and modern day commercial country music. When I left Austria in 1998, Schlager was listened to by older and less educated people, and the country population. Now some Schlager shows are filling big concert halls in Vienna. In many social circles it’s not considered an embarrassment anymore to admit listening to it. Again, anyone can listen to anything they like as far as I am concerned, but the recent popularity of Schlager is a political indicator.

A few years ago in my hometown (just south of, and part of metropolitan Vienna) a festival started where Tracht and pseudo-Tracht wearing townspeople listen to Schlager while drinking (a lot of) beer. A kind of mini-Oktoberfest. There was nothing like that when I grew up! The kids in the 90 would have laughed at the idea of dressing up like the mountain people for a party (without any irony to it). It’s a very particular scene. Another mate told me he wants to “projectile vomit” when he sees the festival crowd stumbling through the event’s entry gates to the sound of very bad music.

Many Austrians in 2016 have a taste in music and fashion closer to the fashion & music taste of an uneducated country pumpkin in 1990s Austria than to a young urban 90s Austrian. That has to have reverberations in politics as well. The private is political. In my opinion the boost in people wearing Tracht and listening to Schlager is indicative of the great European inward turn. Not everyone participating in these trends will talk and vote to the right, but there is a correlation. If you want to dress up pseudo-Alpine and listen to shallow music with brainless lyrics about the good old times at home, then you will probably not have a lot of sympathy for someone from western or central Asia, even if they are escaping horrible wars at home. And the mere news of such refugees arriving will make you believe in a “crisis”. If certain politicians are talking about that “crisis” on a weekly basis, you’ll be more inclined to believe them. Don’t get me wrong: A lot of Austrians acted full of compassion for the incoming refugees, volunteering their help. But the trend to the right is unmistakable in many parts of Europe, both when it comes to elections and to the workings of society.

History swings back and forth like a pendulum. The current episode of petty-nationalism will pass. It’s up to us to make the historical pendulum swing back faster and to restrict the ugliness of the current swing to the right.

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1 Comment

  1. Stefan

    Hey Klaus, if you’re near Antwerp in the coming weeks and feel like a couple of beers, make sure to contact me.

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