The migrant crisis has, like an uncontrolled blaze tumbling through a dense forest, left few parts of Europe untouched. Stories of refugees abounded even in the part of Austria known as Burgenland, where I resided for a week during my travels on the Continent back in January.
I was staying with the great-granddaughter of my great-great-grandmother’s sister, who happened to live in the small town of Breitenbrunn. This was the same town from which my great-great-grandparents emigrated in the later half of the nineteenth century to the United States in search of a better life. Burgenland, as with much of Austria and Bavaria, is quaint and idyllic. Neuseidl Lake, a popular tourist attraction in the summer, lies not far from Brietenbrunn. The region is known for its wine, and the birthplaces and residences of many a famous composer and their patrons – Haydn, Liszt, Hummel, and the Esterhazy family foremost among them – dot the countryside. Burgenland is well-connected to the hubs of central Europe: Vienna and Bratislava are only forty minutes away, Budapest two-and-a-half hours.
Of all the memories I amassed during my travels in Central Europe, the most poignant relate to the effects of the migrant crisis on my ancestral homeland. My “uncle” (the wife of my cousin with whom I was staying) apprised me of a story regarding an abandoned lorry found on the highway to Vienna: 60 migrants were found dead, having needlessly suffocated during illegal transport through the country. What is more, there was to my mind a singular irony in discovering the housing of a recently-arrived family of five – Syrians – directly across from Breitenbrunn’s towered church, which was destroyed by the Turks in the eighteenth century not long after its construction. (It was swiftly rebuilt. I made a point of standing inside, in the same spot my great-great grandparents were married well over a century ago.)
These two incidents – the latter in particular – colored the whole of my experience in Central Europe. I cannot think of my time among my Austrian relatives without tasting the bitterness that goes along with the most delicious sort of historical irony, where Europeans, instead of fighting their conquerors as before, have now welcomed them with open arms.
Consider the Ottoman invaders in more detail.
As I passed numerous towns and villages of sizes comparable to that of Breitenbrunn, my uncle informed me of their respective histories: most were bloody. Because Burgenland lay at the border of Austria and Hungary, it was subject to the tender mercies of the Turks as they made their way to Vienna not once but twice. Villages such as Breitenbrunn and Purbach saw nearly their entire populations murdered en masse – survivors had to seek refuge in nearby forests.
This is not to say the Ottomans exercised a solely destructive influence on Austria. For one, their historical exploits explain Austrian’s mania for coffee (my relatives and I drank cups of the stuff with nearly every meal). In Purbach a yearly festival is held, where the populace dresses à la turque for days on end, while the rest of Burgenland sojourns forth to view their revelries with much amusement. Even to the south, pasta is said to have been brought to Italy by the invaders.
Now turn your attention to the modern-day migrants.
Although the family was Syrian in origin and not Turkish, one cannot help but make this connection between the Muslim conquerors of the past, and the Muslim migrants of the present. Europe does not face the threat of extirpation as it did centuries ago at the hands of the Ottomans, but the mass movement of Middle Eastern and African peoples to European nations does indeed constitute a form of religious, cultural, and demographic ‘conquest’.
The injurious results of unrestrained Islamic immigration require mention. Crime in Vienna has skyrocketed, as have Austrian gun sales (presumably for self-defense). The current governing coalition, including the center-right party, has deemed it necessary to pass legislation banning the burqa and initiating integration and community service programs for refugees. These measures only highlight the difficulties of integrating persons and families – lacking the necessary language and job skills no less – from Islamist countries into a post-Enlightenment European society such as Austria.
What could possibly induce a people so proud of their culture to concede so much ground and offer such hospitality to recent arrivals, arrivals who strike a concordant note with the faith of the violent conquerors of earlier centuries?
One answer might lie in the multicultural nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the nineteenth century: Kaiser Franz Joseph and the beloved Empress Sisi presided over an ethnically diverse realm whose power was concentrated in the overwhelmingly liberal and cosmopolitan Vienna – the Vienna of the Strausses, Freud, Klimt, Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler, Wittgenstein. Maybe the Austria of the twentieth century, anti-Semitic and nationalist, was but an aberration from an inherent Austrian predilection for getting along with Hungarians, Serbs, Croats – and yes, now Middle Eastern peoples.
Having spoken with my uncle, I got the vague sense that some Austrians compare the plight of the refugees to those Eastern Europeans who fled communist oppression in favor of the freedom offered by capitalist Europe. My uncle recalled a bridge not far from Breitenbrunn on the Austro-Hungarian border where Hungarians were shot in the back as they attempted to enter Austria, a country once united to theirs under one crown. Later, he makes a point of driving me, in the dead of night, past the location of a picnic jointly held by Austrians and East Germans in an expression of solidarity. But this begs the question: are Muslim migrants from the Third World analogous to the Europeans who suffered behind the Iron Curtain?
I must reject this as a pretty poor analogy, or even a disanology. This Syrian family, that group of 60 migrants who suffocated in the lorry – they did not necessarily flee a totalitarian regime bent on impoverishing them and controlling their lives. They were far more likely to have been motivated for economic reasons to make the trek far into the heart of Europe than the atrocities of the Assad régime. And even if Assad’s murderous actions or those of the brutal Islamist rebels prompted their escape from Syria, the danger nipping at their heels stopped at the border of their own country. Refugee camps choke nations of goodwill such as Lebanon, and although they are crowded and less-than-ideal, they provide immediate shelter from the woes of war. These young men and the occasional family passed through these camps and Turkey – as well as Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, and yes, even Austria – to get to Germany or some Scandinavian country such as Sweden, where they would receive the most generous support in the form of welfare benefits. And I have yet to speak of those many hundreds of thousands of North Africans, who are purely motivated by economic opportunity to board ships at the risk of drowning to travel to Italy and other nations. What is more, the vast majority of the migrants I have just described are not European, neither culturally nor ethnically, unlike the refugees of Eastern Europe. Both in point of fact and morally, refugees from communism and migrants from the Third World are not equivalent.
On the way to Budapest an accident forces my uncle and I to sit in the morning sun, which has yet to melt the patches of alabaster snow off the swarthy countryside. We exit our car and converse with fellow travelers. A native of Budapest, without prompting, launches into something of a tirade concerning the migrant crisis. It sounds rehearsed – but only because it has been the subject of common conversation. He laments the fact that the majority of migrants are young men who readily commit crime. He also decries what he calls “lies”: he emphatically states he and his fellow Hungarians were told the people fleeing terror and bloodshed in the Middle East were families and children, not these young men. He feels cheated. My uncle keeps mum on the subject.
As an American I must admit – not without irony –the situation of many of these migrants is closer to that of the Eastern Europeans who sailed to the New World beginning in the 1870s. My great-great-grandfather and his family left Breitenbrunn, along with many thousands of other Europeans, looking for superior economic conditions rather than régime change.
As I left the very church where my great-great-grandparents were wed, I could not help but ponder one of either two possibilities: that Burgenlanders are either blind to the historical irony of housing Muslim migrants across from a church Turks once burned to the ground, or that historical guilt weighs so heavily on their psyches that they swallow this irony as just another bitter pill. I hope it is the former.