Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Croat groups estimated in 2005 that the total number of Croats in Austria was 50,000, most of whom live in Burgenland with a further 12,000–15,000 in Vienna. The 2001 Census gives 19,374 in Burgenland and a further 2,456 in Vienna who speak Burgenland Croatian. Burgenland Croatian is officially recognized as a distinct version of the Croat language. In the 2001 Census another 12,562 Viennese declared Croatian to be their everyday language.
Burgenland Croats live in six districts near the border with Hungary. Roman Catholicism is their main religion. Croats are equal in their quality of life to the German-speakers of Burgenland and they are represented in politics, administration, education and the church. However, there is continued erosion of traditional ways of life and cultural communities, and a lack of specifically Croatian economic institutions.
Croats came to Burgenland between 1530 and 1584, fleeing the Ottoman Empire and enticed by Hungarian and Austrian landowners to repopulate their estates. They settled in territory that now falls between the states of Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Burgenland Croatian, incorporating Hungarian and German elements, emerged as a written regional language during the Counter-Reformation, but assimilation tendencies began from the eighteenth century onwards.
Following the annexation by Austria of Burgenland from Hungary in 1921, the Croat Roman Catholics opposed the secular Austrian school laws and Croat Social Democrats refused to use the Croat language as a result. Croatian Social Democrats sent their children to school in German-speaking villages. This divided the community between working class or professional socialists who assimilated, and agrarian Roman Catholics who did not. Pressured by the Roman Catholic Church, the federal government allowed Croatian Roman Catholic schools to continue and use Croat as their main language of instruction.
The Croat community was involved in the mainstream political process from this time.
In the 1950s and 1960s the traditional agricultural way of life was undermined by mechanization and a general decline of agriculture. Increasingly Croats commuted to Vienna on a daily or weekly basis or emigrated to the USA, trends which had begun during the interwar years.
The 1955 State Treaty recognized the rights of the Croat minority to be educated and have access to judicial and administrative processes in their own language. In 1987 they brought a successful court case against the non-implementation of these rights by the Burgenland provincial government. Their language rights were confirmed. In 1990 a federal order specified the courts and administrative bodies where the Croat language should be used.
Bilingual education has been mandatory in villages with a 25 per cent or more minority population since 1955, but from 1994 children have been able to opt out. The languages of countries bordering Austria have been provided in secondary and higher education throughout Austria since 1995. But because Croatia does not have a common border with Austria, Croatian is more often taught as a foreign language in secondary education than the official national language it is. There is one secondary school in Burgenland that offers bilingual Croatian/German and Hungarian/German courses.
Burgenland Croat publications for children have increased since 1992 when federal funds were added to provincial, NGO and private funding. There are two weekly newspapers in Croatian and several monthly journals, also books. Broadcasting in Croatian is considered inadequate. In 2003 the state broadcaster ORF provided a 30-minute Croatian language radio programme four times a week and a weekly 30-minute TV programme in Burgenland. The radio programme was repeated for the Croat community in Vienna. A multicultural broadcasting project in Burgenland, including Croatian, lasted from 1999 to 2002, when public funding was withdrawn.
Updated June 2015
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