An Austro-Hungarian State Of Mind – Bridge on the Leitha: Together One Last Time

Austria-Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I never thought much about the way in which that name was ordered. It always seemed quite natural that Austria would be in front of Hungary. Austria is wealthy and more well known, Hungary still shadowed, if no longer shrouded in my mind, by its decades hidden away behind an Iron Curtain. Their capital cities belie these differences, Vienna is much larger and its sparkle much greater than that of Budapest. The two cities’ relationship is the same today as it was back in the days of empire. The way it was happens to be the way it is today. Then there is the not insignificant matter of semantics. To say Hungary-Austria just does not sound right.

There is also the matter of chronology.  Austria allowed Hungary into the empire, not the other way around. Austria came first and Hungary followed. Even the Hungarians recognized this as such. In a language that runs counter to every other European one, the Hungarians still managed to call the empire Osztrak-Magyar Monarchia. That needs little translation because it is the same thing being said in the same way. They who controlled the empire, controlled the way it was expressed and internally divided. This was a literal and spoken truth when it came to Austria-Hungary. The Austrians knew it, the Hungarians acknowledged it.

An Empire in Full - Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands

An Empire in Full – Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Austrian Rules – The Terms Of Discussion & Division
Just as the wording of the empire’s name was by Austrian design, so it would be much the same when the Leitha River was used as a naming convention. The river served as a useful topographic symbol when dividing the empire’s Austrian and Hungarian halves. This is not surprising since Austria always managed to control the terms of discussion and internal division in its relationship with Hungary. In an Orwellian bit of irony, both sides were equal, but one was more equal than the other. The Leitha would be a convenient place to divide the empire, at least in a colloquial sense. This meant taking liberties with the geographical and political situation between the two. Like everything else in the empire, using the Leitha was a hedge. That was because the Austrians nominally controlled Galicia and Bukovina, two provinces which were located northeast of Hungary. The Leitha was as distant from those two provinces as Transylvania was from the Tyrol.

There was also the issue of the Leitha’s length or lack thereof. The river runs for a total of 120 kilometers, nowhere near as long as the internal border where Austrian and Hungarian controlled parts of the empire abutted one another. Perhaps this was a case where the Leitha was the best that anyone could come up with as a dividing line. It just happened to be in the area where German speakers gave way to a majority of Hungarian ones and vice versa. Everything depended on which side of the Leitha they were on. After the compromise of 1867 formed the Dual Monarchy, colloquial expressions arose out of Vienna that were expressive of the way Austrians viewed the empire.

Cisleithania - Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray

Cisleithania – Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Superiority Complex – A Detrimental Delusion
The Austrian lands were Cisleithania, meaning “on this side of the Leitha.” Conversely, Hungarian lands were Transleithania. Tellingly, the prefix in that term denoted “beyond”. This meant Hungary was the other or the outsider. In other words, it was foreign, obscure and meant to seem lesser. The implication of using Cisleithania was that the Austrian side of the border stood for civilization, refinement and culture. While the Hungarian side, Transleithania was the wild east, a land beyond normal in the minds of the Austrian powers that be. Then again, what did it say that Austrian weakness forced them to bring in the Hungarians as equal partners. The Austrian’s superiority complex was delusional. They needed the Hungarians in order to maintain their status. The Hungarians would have gladly taken complete independence. Being one-half of the Dual Monarchy was the next best thing. More than the Leitha divided Austrians and Hungarians, but setting an internal border there met each other’s needs. As usual, the Austrians came out feeling better about themselves, even if deep down inside they knew it was just a cover for their own weakness.

Today, the Leitha is just another small river and not even that during certain seasons. The river’s greatest claim to notoriety is that it eventually flows into the mighty Danube. It has long since lost its geopolitical raison d’etre.  The Leitha is now lifeblood to farmers and others who live close by it in eastern Austria. The river’s historical resonance vanished along with the empire that once made it famous in the early 20th century. For those few who recall the stature it once held, the Leitha offers a fascinating example of the fluidity of borders, both real and imagined. For the Leitha was a real border to the inhabitants of Lower Austria, especially Vienna, who viewed it as a point of differentiation. It was also an imaginary border, one given definition by a colloquialism that was informed as much by the imagination as facts on the ground. This us and them mentality showed that when it came to Austria-Hungary, the ruling powers were not on the same side. Cisleithania and Transleithania were a subtle expression of a known truth.

A Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blueA Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blue

A Different Kind of Blue – Transleithania in light and darker blue (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Bridging A Troubled Relationship – Unified & Divided
Many years ago, the famous American novelist James Michener wrote a work of non-fiction called The Bridge at Andau. The book centered around the story of Hungarians escaping to Austria and the free world during the 1956 Revolution by way of a small footbridge near the Austrian border town of Andau. Perhaps someone in the future will write a book with a similar title about a bridge and town close to the modern Austria-Hungary border. The book could be called Bridge on the Leitha (Bruck an der Leitha). Ostensibly a work of history, the title acting both metaphorical and factual. The “Bridge” on the Leitha would be the Austro-Hungarian Empire which brought two great peoples, Germans and Magyars, together one last time. This imperial experiment lasted for less than a half century, but in that short span of time the Leitha became more than a river, it also became a border which divided and united. A border which today no longer exists except to those who know their history.

Eastern Connections – Burgenland: The Unknown Austria

While visiting Schloss Esterhazy (Esterhazy Palace) in Eisenstadt, Austria I spoke with an intelligent and energetic tour guide by the name of Pia. I asked her about tourism in this, the easternmost province of Austria known as Burgenland. The smile fell from her face as she gave a sigh of resignation. She said that the state authorities were working on getting more tourists to the area, but Vienna and the mountainous regions of the country dominated Austrian tourism. Anyone who has ever spent a fair amount of time in the splendid historic center of Vienna or in the Austrian Alps knows why these places are so popular. They have all the elements of popular travel: overwhelming charm, rich culture and spectacular natural beauty second to none.  How could the Burgenland, with its rolling hills and fertile fields, massive wind farms and tiny towns compete with the rest of Austria in the tourist trade?

Burgenland - eastern Austria

Burgenland – eastern Austria (Credit: Dave Knelsz)

A Land Apart – German West Hungary
The Burgenland is not going to be the first, second or third choice for very many tourists, but it certainly has much to recommend it. There is an understated, pastoral beauty to the countryside. A quaint refinement pervades the small towns scattered across the land. Vineyards that produce renowned wines cover many of the hillsides. A unique history much different from the rest of Austria adds an element of diversity. Burgenland is not a place for superficial tourism. There is no window shopping tourist attractions, no sparkling cities filled with haute couture fashion or world famous attractions. Instead it is for those who seek an acquired taste and subtle beauty. Burgenland is the remotest and least visited place in Austria, it also the least populated and smallest state. It is a land that borders more nations (Hungary, Slovenia & Slovakia) than fellow Austrian states (Styria & Lower Austria). A slender piece of territory much longer than wider, it stretches over 150 kilometers from north to south, but in some places is little more than 10 kilometers from east to west. There is nowhere else like it in Austria, a place where one can get left alone. In short, the Burgenland is a region apart from the rest of Austria. This separateness is informed by deep historical connections with its eastern neighbor Hungary.

The state known today as the Burgenland did not acquire that name or its current borders until the early 1920’s, when it became a constituent part of the newly formed Republic of Austria. Though Germans were the largest ethnic group for centuries on end, the region was actually part of Hungary for much of this time. It was usually referred to by the name Deutsch-Westungarn which means German West Hungary. Starting in the mid-11th century, the region was part of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary. For the next several centuries it was the western border zone of the Kingdom. The Habsburgs first gained control of this land in the mid-14th century, but two hundred years later handed it back to the Hungarians. During this time, the Hungarian population (Magyars) mainly consisted of border guards protecting the Kingdom’s western flank. Waves of German settlement did little to wrest it from control of the dominant Hungarian aristocracy. The local nobility was led by the powerful House of Esterhazy, one of Europe’s most powerful noble families.

Schloss Esterhazy in Eisenstadt, Austria

Schloss Esterhazy in Eisenstadt, Austria (Credit: Zairon)

Between Austrians, Hungarians & Croatians –  Voting, Fighting & Peacemaking
The Esterhazy’s were strongly pro-Catholic. To their great advantage they were closely allied with the Habsburgs. Because of this, they were able to acquire massive landholdings throughout the region. The ruling influence in the region up through the early 20th century was Hungarian in ethnicity, making it atypical from the rest of Austria. It was never part of the Holy Roman Empire and when the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was created in 1867, it fell under the Hungarian ruled part of the monarchy know as Transleithania (east of the River Leitha). Interestingly enough, though Hungarians made up the ruling class, they were not the second largest ethnic group (behind Germans) in the region. They were outnumbered by Croatians who moved into the area during the mid-16th century after western Slavonia (part of present day eastern Croatia) was overrun by the Ottoman Turks. The most noticeable aspect of the Croatian presence left in Burgenland today are bilingual signs noting both the German and Croatian names of the villages.

Burgenland was handed to Austria in the chaotic years that followed the end of World War One. This was one of the more quixotic decisions of the Paris Peace Conference. Austria was the only nation that had been on the losing side in the war to gain territory afterwards. Burgenland was not given up without a fight by the Hungarians. Though they were outnumbered by ethnic Germans eight to one, a small, but fanatical band of Hungarian militiamen attempted an armed insurrection. Their efforts went for naught. Hungarian diplomats rather than armed men did a bit better. By agreeing to disband the militia, they were able to get a plebiscite vote held. Citizens of the city of Sopron, which had been the capital of the region and its only major city, voted in 1921 on whether they wanted to be part of Austria or Hungary.  Though at the time half the inhabitants were ethnically German, two-thirds voted in favor of staying in Hungary, thus Sopron (German: Odenburg) would not become part of Austria. A new capital for the new province of Burgenland had to be selected. Eisenstadt soon became the economic, political and cultural hub for the region as it still is today.

Haydnsaal at Schloss Esterhazy

Haydnsaal at Schloss Esterhazy

Schloss Esterhazy & The Haydnsaal – Burgenland’s Magnificence
Eisenstadt, is a reflection of Burgenland, neat and clean, with a bit of splendor represented most prominently by the Baroque luxury of the radiant Schloss Esterhazy glowing in the heart of the city. It was at the palace’s Haydnsaal concert hall that the famed composer Joseph Haydn performed some of his most famous works. It was also at the palace where he composed hundreds of musical pieces under the patronage of the Esterhazy’s. The palace acted as a preferred residence, especially in the winter, for the family. Today it is one of Burgenland’s most visited tourist attractions, but by no means the only one. The state of Burgenland offers up a largely forgotten Austria, likely to go unseen by most tourists. Perhaps that is the most compelling reason to visit.