When we consider key communities of the Greek Diaspora, Vienna rarely comes to mind. However, if we are to consider historically significant communities for modern Hellenism, the Austrian capital should certainly be on the shortlist with its own Greek enclave, Little Greece.
Like other Greek communities in the former Austrian Empire, the Greeks’ large-scale migration to the seat of Hapsburg power followed the wars between the Austrian and Ottoman Empires.
After the Ottomans’ two failed attempts to capture Vienna, the Austrians, at the head of a multinational European force, pushed the Ottoman Turks southward and eastward to the gates of Belgrade, which today is the capital of Serbia.
Greek merchants set up shop in Vienna’s Little Greece
After the Treaty of Passarowitz, signed in 1717, the borders stabilized. There was a push to reopen commerce and reconstruct a vast area devastated by decades of war.
Along with fixing the boundaries between the two empires, another key provision of the agreement was that Ottoman and Austrian subjects had right the right to engage in commerce in the territory of the other.
However, the Austrians lacked knowledge of the Ottoman Empire, and the Turks themselves disdained commerce.
Hence, as a practical matter, the opportunity fell on Ottoman minorities — Orthodox Greeks and Serbs, as well as Jews and Armenians — to fill the gap.
As the capital of a large multiethnic state, Vienna was a key center for these “Ottoman” merchants.
Bulk goods, particularly cotton, were the lifeblood of the trade.
Though legend has it that Greeks set up the first coffeehouse in Vienna, Dr. Theophanis Pampas, a local Greek Viennese doctor with an encyclopedic knowledge of the community, informed Greek Reporter this singular honor goes to the Armenians.
The Greek community there, as it did everywhere it set down roots, grew and prospered.
But in typical Greek fashion, factions soon appeared. Some Greeks took Austrian nationality and, in some cases, even entered the Austrian aristocracy.
Others retained Ottoman nationality, which had the benefit of lower taxation but restricted their activities to the mercantile sphere.
Vienna’s “Little Greece” and the first newspaper in Greek
Each faction then founded its own church, both within a hundred meters of the other, in Vienna’s Greichenviertel (Greek Quarter).
These churches remain to this day, and liturgy alternates every Sunday from one church to the next.
Education and literacy in Greek were key endeavors of the Greek community, regardless of faction. The Vienna Greek school is older even than the Greek state itself, being founded in 1804.
Standing in a church older than the modern Greek state, watching Greek-language instruction classes which have been held continuously since 1804, is an experience never to be forgotten.
Greek appeared in print for first time in Vienna
Aside from the educational efforts that were ongoing since that time, Vienna is where the Greek language first appeared in print in the modern world.
The actual site of the first Greek printing press is gone. Still, within the Greek Quarter, a stately baroque Viennese building houses the second Greek printing press, where Rigas Pheraios, the protomartyr of Greek independence, edited the Greek newspaper Ephimeris.
All Greek publications, particularly those in the Diaspora, in a genuine sense descend from this press.
By the time of the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, the Vienna Greek community was at its acme, with about 5,000 members and an increasingly diverse socio-economic structure.
The members of the educated and prosperous community naturally longed for Greece’s liberation from the Ottoman yoke. Still, at the same time, they were conscious that the Austrian Empire, a bundle of nationalities under a relatively benign but absolute autocracy, was violently opposed to and fearful of revolution.
Austrian Greeks, therefore, had to walk a very thin line between joy at Greece’s prospective independence and their personal safety and livelihood in the Austrian Empire.
After all, it was the Austrians who had arrested the Greek revolutionary Rigas Pheraios in the key Austrian port of Trieste and handed him over to the Turks, who strangled him in Belgrade in 1798.
Greek community in Vienna is a shadow of its former self
Greek independence did not result in the large repatriation of Austrian Greeks.
A few returned, but the impoverished little kingdom could offer nothing compared to the vast Austrian Empire.
The inexorable tide of assimilation began to absorb the Greeks into Austria’s ethnic goulash.
Other Greek Austrians began to move to Britain or France or even New Orleans in the United States, where the economies were more dynamic than Austria.
However, a trickle of new immigrants arrived in Austria through the years, which, along with the long-established members’ efforts, kept the community intact.
The two world wars increased pressure on the Greeks to assimilate, particularly during the barbaric Nazi era, but their religious community survived.
After the war, Austria had none of the mass immigration of Greek “Gastarbeiter” or guest workers, like in neighboring Germany. Still, a fair number of Greeks went to Austria, particularly for study, and afterward, they often stayed in the country.
Like Austria itself, Vienna’s Greek community is a shadow of its former size but it is still prosperous and elegant. Like the “Greektowns” of America, today’s Viennese Greeks rarely live in the original area where their ancestors settled.
Still, some do have businesses there, and the church and community center, as always, function as the community’s center of gravity.
Greek society in Austria witnessed and participated in key events in the history of Hellenism.
For those of us who are Diaspora Greeks in America or Australia, the remarkable survival of such long-established communities should be a source of pride and hope that our communities, too, will also pass the test of time.