After years of gazing at pictures of European splendor in disbelief, the Davidson in Vienna trip provided me with my first opportunity to see it in person. My first days in Vienna have been spent embodying the stereotype of a mélange-drinking, neck-craning, bike-dodging, gelato-eating tourist, and it has been positively splendid. However, the most enriching aspect of this trip has been the fruitful discussions about Vienna’s position in the context of European migration.
Wandering the streets of the historical districts of Vienna, it is exceptionally easy to be swept up by the seven-story skyline, cobbled streets, and alluring cafes. But, in exploring its history, it is easy to identify ways in which Viennese citizens have defined themselves in relation to an “other.” For example, on our first full day, we visited the Vienna Museum, where we learned about the successful defense of the city against an Ottoman invasion in the 16th century. When we had the opportunity to visit the two museums dedicated to Viennese Jewish history, we learned about the separate community and culture of the medieval Jewish district. The Viennese are certainly not alone in developing an identity around a position of contrast to another group, but the historical instances which were discussed in our group travels around the city highlighted the fact that this tradition of antithetical identity may very well still exist today.
I do not wish to imply that there is a historically discriminatory culture in Vienna more so than there is anywhere else in the world. There are countless avenues through which I could explore the development of a Viennese identity, but what I find to be infinitely more interesting is the way in which minority groups have been addressed in Vienna. On Friday, half of the group met with Ms. Julia Rutz, the Head of the Research and Migration Law Unit of the International Organization for Migration. Ms. Rutz focused her discussion with us on migration in Europe, and she took the time to explain that the term “refugee crisis” is misleading. This conversation helped to answer one of the questions I had going into this trip which was how public and political discourse might influence policy and public opinion. Ms. Rutz made it clear that the reason the influx of migrants into Europe in recent years is considered a “crisis” is not because nations were not expecting it, but rather because they were willfully unprepared. What this led me to consider was the way in which framing the flow of refugees as a “crisis” implies that a migrant’s position as an asylum-seeker and the host countries inability to effectively cope with its population of refugees are both inevitable.
This trip has provided the opportunity to observe aspects of Viennese culture in person. In keeping with the theme of the position of minority groups in Vienna, it has been very interesting to witness the ways in which Vienna has publicly recognized parts of its history that have involved the oppression and murder of minority groups. Our encounters with memorials and museums dedicated to Jews affected by the Holocaust have been particularly powerful. However, what I cannot help to note is the normalization of commemoration. For example, in a city which is supposedly struggling to come to terms with its past, I heard more English speakers at the Jewish museums than I have anywhere else in the city. When wandering the residential streets with a few of my peers, we stopped to take note of the “stumbling stones” along the sidewalk as a group of Viennese teenagers wandered by. It is not that I wish to imply that the people of Vienna have not taken note of the memorials dedicated to those who suffered at the hands of the majority. It is simply that it is easier to understand the ways in which events and actions can be normalized when you experience them every day.
What this reflection has spurred me to do is to interrogate the thoughts which I have entertained since arriving in Vienna. I recognize that I have barely touched the surface of this city, its people, and its culture and tradition. However, I currently am struggling to reconcile the awe and appreciation I have when gazing at the splendor of the Schonbrunn or Belvedere with the fact that such developments have only been possible because of a long, tumultuous history, based in a tradition of exclusionary practices. There is a seemingly endless historic tradition of elegance and opulence, but it is very clear that a remembrance of darker times does not come as easily, and is not nearly as old. I expect the last days of my time in Vienna to be equally enriching and thought provoking and I especially look forward to getting to discuss further some of these topics with my peers and professors.