Austria and Germany: Worlds Apart

Billy Wilder (1906-2002), the noted Austrian-American film director (Double Indemnity, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot), as famous as he was, used to complain about how he was frequently misidentified as German. Americans often get Austria and Germany mixed up. Sometimes they even confuse Austria with Australia! Thus the joke T-shirts and signs found in Austria with a “no kangaroos” logo. Silly Americans!


The Hohensalzburg castle seen from the padlock bridge in Salzburg, Austria.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Never really that good at geography, Americans, even if they can find Austria on a map, also tend to be ignorant of the many great and subtle differences between the small Alpine republic (population 8.4 million), known as Österreich, and its much larger neighboring republic to the north, known as Deutschland (population 80 million). Austria is only about the size of the US state of South Carolina. Germany is slightly smaller than Montana. In some ways, the two countries can be compared to the United States and Canada, or the US and Great Britain (with the sizes reversed): They both speak the same language, but with significant differences, and they share a common history that has made them friends, yet has also left them worlds apart.

More at The German Way
Austria (culture/history)
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Even English-speakers with a modicum of German can hear the difference between the lilting, almost musical tones of Austrian German versus the less lilting, more crisp sound of standard German (Hochdeutsch). Bavarian, on the other hand, is very similar to Austrian. (Bavaria being a state in Germany, yet not quite part of Germany. Rather like Texas in a way.) The difference between Austrian German and standard German is similar to the difference between the drawling language heard in the US South versus the more standard English of the US Midwest or West.

Book: Streitbare Brüder

One of several recent books about the differences beween Austria and Germany is entitled “Quarrelsome Brothers.” See more books below (in German).

Yet, for a country so small in area, Austria has an amazing variety of dialects and regional differences. A remnant of the much larger former Austro-Hungarian empire, Austria today is one of Europe’s most prosperous nations, but there are in fact three Austrias. Austria No. 1 is Vienna (Wien). Unlike Germany, which is also made up of many regions, Austria is heavily dominated by its capital, with 2.3 million people living in the metro area. Austria No. 2 is made up of a few other cities, none of them anywhere near as large as the capital. Graz (265,000), Linz (191,000), Salzburg (148,000) and Innsbruck (121,000) are the only urban centers with a population over 100,000. The third Austria is the rural, small-town Austria that stretches from the western Vorarlberg that butts up against the Bodensee (Lake Constance) and Switzerland, to the fascinating eastern lowland and lake region (Neusiedler See) that borders Hungary and Slovakia. There are also many regional dialects in Austria, ranging from Vienna, with its own distinctive sound, westward to Vorarlberg, with its Alemannic/Swiss dialect. The country is divided into nine provinces (Bundesländer), including Vienna.

Many years ago, when I first laid eyes on Austria, I thought the country was one big national park. It may be small, but Austria has more scenery and panoramas per square kilometer than any place I’ve ever seen. Austria really is a scenic place. It’s one reason the Germans like to visit Austria as tourists. (Germans make up 40 percent of the tourists going to Austria each year.) They find the country quaint and folkloric. But Germans who live and work in Austria soon learn that they need to adapt to a more leisurely, laid back life style that is very different from Germany. Like Billy Wilder, Austrians do not like being categorized as “German” in any way, shape, or form. They also hate The Sound of Music and the kitschy, oversimplistic image of Austria it conveys, although that doesn’t stop some Austrians from exploiting the movie/musical for tourists in Salzburg.

In the chart below I have listed some more differences between Germans and Austrians.

Some Differences Between Austria and Germany
Cultural and Other Comparisons
Germans consider the Austrians amusing, charming and quaint. Austrians consider the Germans humorless, arrogant and rigid.
About 32 percent* of Germans are smokers. Non-smoking laws are enforced. About 43 percent* of Austrians are smokers, but it seems like much more. Non-smoking laws are NOT enforced.
German Terms
nicht wahr?
ein bisschen
Austrian Terms
a bisserl
Germany is roughly divided evenly between Catholics and Protestants, few of whom go to church. About 75 percent of Austrians are Catholic. They and the Protestant minority (4 percent) rarely attend church.
Germans have no pejorative term for Austrians. Austrians often use the disparaging term “Piefke” (“Kraut/Prussian”) for a German.
Smoking Rates (Percentage) (WHO, 2008)
Austria: 43% – males 46.4%, females 40.1% – Germany: 31.6% – 37.4 (males), 25.8 (females)

Part of the Austrian tendency to bash Germans and Germany stems from Austria’s inferiority complex as a once much larger, now tiny country with a tenth of its large neighbor’s population. Austria also has a bit of a historical split personality. After World War II, Austria pretended it had been a victim of Hitler, rather than a willing participant after welcoming Hitler (an Austrian, but don’t tell anyone!) and the Nazis with open arms in 1938. Here’s how one American observer put it:

In the constant onslaught of Germany-bashing, there is a harsh undercurrent. During World War II, Austrian-born Hitler was embraced by his home country, and Austria and Germany together constituted the Third Reich when Austria famously voted for “Anschluss” [“annexation”]. After the war, though, Austria rewrote their constitution and their history, claiming that Austrians were Hitler’s “first victims.” One gets the sense that while Germans have been doing their best to atone for their part in the atrocities, Austrians have been doing their best to forget they had anything to do with it. Thanks to these legal and historical maneuvers, Austria avoided shouldering the consequences that Germany faced after the war. On one hand, the snide remarks about Germany allow this hypocrisy to be clouded by a shield of imagined difference. – Ten Things to Know About the Viennese (Part 1) and Part 2 by Kate Wiseman

Austria declared itself a neutral nation in 1955, but following the fall of the Soviet Union, Austria modified its definition of neutrality to accomodate a changing world. It allowed overflights for UN-sanctioned action against Iraq in 1991, and now participates in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). When Austria joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace in 1995 and later participated in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, it began to really bend its neutrality. The issue of possibly becoming a full NATO member is controversial, but the only part of the Constitutional Law on Neutrality of 1955 that remains fully valid today is not allowing foreign military bases in Austria.

Austria joined the United Nations in 1955, the same year it once again became a sovereign nation after World War II. Vienna is home to a major UN office complex.

In 2011 the Academy Award-winning actor Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained) appeared on Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show. When asked about the differences between Austria and Germany, Mr. Waltz, who can claim both Austrian and German citizenship, said it was “like the difference between a battleship and a waltz.” When Mr. O’Brien asked about the cliché that Germans have no sense of humor, a smiling Mr. Waltz replied, “That’s not a cliché.” Waltz was born and raised in Vienna, but he has a German father and an Austrian mother, giving him a unique perspective on the topic.

While the Germans don’t seem to be all that obsessed with their southern neighbor, they aren’t beyond a jab now and then. In 2008, when Austria and Germany were opponents in the European Cup football (soccer) championships, the notorious German tabloid, Bild Zeitung, published an article listing 30 reasons “why Austrians are often idiots” (“30 Gründe, warum Ösis oft auch Dösis sind“). Some of the reasons translated into English:

“Your flag is red-white-red so you can’t hang the thing upside down.”
“Only 8.4 million people can understand your language.” (adding some of the vocabulary differences listed above)
“The most famous Austrians are either dead (Mozart and Falco) or they’ve emigrated, like Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
“Austrians are so shy, they only kiss their women on the hand.”

I’ll close with this humorous comparison that has a certain grain of truth to it:

What’s the difference between a German and an Austrian?
The German wants to understand Austrians, but can’t.
The Austrian understands Germans, but doesn’t want to.
Quoted in “Germany/Austria: Divided by a common language” by Filip Gańczak (


BOOKS: The only books on this topic are in German. Three of them are listed below. They can be purchased from using the links shown.

Streitbare Brüder: Österreich: Deutschland / Kurze Geschichte einer schwierigen Nachbarschaft
(Quarrelsome Brothers: A brief history of a difficult neighborhood)
von Hannes Leidinger, Karin Moritz, Karin Moser
More about this book (Gebundene Ausgabe) from (€21.90)

Piefke: Kulturgeschichte einer Beschimpfung
von Hubertus Godeysen
More about this book (Gebundene Ausgabe) from (€24.90)

Servus, Piefke: Was sich ein Wiener in Deutschland so denkt
von Severin Groebner
More about this book (Kindle) from (€9.99)
More about this book (Gebundene Ausgabe) from (€12.99)

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