Austria-Hungary: A Multi-Lingual Empire

Austria-Hungary (1867-1918) flag

Last week we talked about one of the greatest European emperors of the modern era, a Corsican/Italian speaker who extended French dominion and influence all over Europe. Despite his own multilingual background, Napoleon did not include tolerance for local language customs into policies of his empire; he pushed an aggressive policy of francization where French was not spoken autochthonously.

A much different approach to multi-lingualism would become necessary in the second half of the century whose beginning had seen the rise of Napoleon. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was officially created in 1867 as a great Compromise which gave the Hungarian nation nearly equal footing within the Austrian Empire.

The recognition of the Hungarian nation was an important step for the Habsburg empire, and yet it belies the much more complex diversity of the Imperial territory. A 1910 census found that 23% of the empire’s citizens spoke German as a mother-tongue, 20% Hungarian, 13% Czech, 10% Polish, 8% Ruthenian (Ukrainian), 6% Romanian, 5% Croat, 4% Slovak, 4% Serbian, 2% Slovene, 2% Italian, and 5% another of the languages which the survey asked about, including Bulgarian, Bunjevac (a Štokavian dialect of Croatian), and Romani[1][2] (N.B. the percentages do not add up to 100% due to rounding). This sample of languages contains representatives from many different language groups: Germanic (German), Uralic (Hungarian), Slavic (Bulgarian, Bunjevac, Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Ruthenian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian), Romance (Romanian, Italian) and Indo-Aryan (Romani).

According to the liberal constitutions drafted both in the Austrian and Hungarian jurisdictional domains of the Dual Monarchy, respectively known as Cisleithania and Transleithania because of their positions relative to the Leithe River, these languages were given a good deal of recognition. In Cisleithania, Article 19 of the Basic State Act of 1867 stated:

“All races of the empire have equal rights, and every race has an inviolable right to the preservation and use of its own nationality and language. The equality of all customary languages in school, office and public life, is recognized by the state. In those territories in which several races dwell, the public and educational institutions are to be so arranged that, without applying compulsion to learn a second country language, each of the races receives the necessary means of education in its own language.”

The Social Democrat Karl Renner, who after the Great War would become the first chancellor of the Austrian Republic, later proposed that so far as linguistic and cultural jurisdiction went the Empire should be divided into eight federated nation-states: German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Italian and Romanian.

In Transleithania, language was taken as an indicator of ethnicity. The 1868 Hungarian Law on the Equality of Nationalities begins:

“Since all citizens of Hungary, according to the principles of the constitution, form from a political point of view one nation — the indivisible unitary Hungarian nation — of which every citizen of the fatherland is a member, no matter to what nationality he belongs: since, moreover, this equality of right can only exist with reference to the official use of various languages of the country, and only under special provisions, in so far as is rendered necessary by the unity of the country and the practical possibility of government and administration; the following rules will serve as standard regarding the official use of the various languages, while in all other matters the complete equality of the citizens remained untouched.”

This law gave linguistic-nationalities the right to establish their own schools and choose the language of instruction. At the same time state schools were required to use the prevalent local language. If requested by 20 percent of the deputies then the minutes of county and communal assemblies had to be taken in their language. Finally, all citizens had the right to use their own mother tongue in court. Judges even had to pronounce verdicts in the language in which they were addressed.

Unfortunately, although the legal framework of the Dual Monarchy was set up with the intention of fairly presiding over the most linguistically heterogeneous territory in modern Europe, the practice may have been far from perfect. Many of the minorities felt that the concessions were not enough. 100 years ago in Sarajevo, the capital of the freshly-annexed Condominium of Bosnia and Herzogovina, Austro-Hungarian heir presumptive Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and after 4 years of the bloodiest war that mankind had yet known, the diverse union created by the Habsburgs was dismantled. Today the lands of the old Empire are part of 13 different Central and Eastern European nations, a territory which bridges both the old Iron Curtain as well as the boundaries of today’s European Union.

[1]   Volkszählung vom 31. Dezember 1910, veröffentlicht in: Geographischer Atlas zur Vaterlandskunde an der österreichischen Mittelschulen. K. u. k. Hof-Kartographische Anstalt G. Freytag & Berndt, Wien 1911.

[2]   Marácz L. “Multilingualism in the Transleithanian Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918): Policy and Practice” Jezikoslovlje 13.2 (2012): 269-298.

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