The region of Burgenland was transferred to Austria in 1921. After the First World War the country was compensated with a territory which had previously been a part of Hungary. Since its “birth”, Austria’s historical claim to the region was contested by Hungarian historians. In contrast, Austrian historians were eager to integrate Burgenland into their new national histories. What follows is a comparative case study of how historians participated in creating histories based on nation, region, or ethnicity.
Nationalizing border cities: Sopron and Eisenstadt
Two cities, (in German: Ödenburg) and
hrv. Željezno, hun. Kismarton

Eisenstadt is the capital of Burgenland in the Federal Republic of Austria. The city lies at the southern foot of the Leitha Mountains. Since 1648 the city has been a royal free city, shortly afterwards it became the princely headquarters of the influential Esterházys.

(in Hungarian: Kismarton) were of utmost importance for historians on both sides of the border. These cities served as popular topics of national historical narratives, but they also functioned as centers of historical research. Historians working for city libraries, archives, museums, and local journals were keen to participate in debates about this border region. For example, both the leading archivist of Eisenstadt (Heinrich Kunnert) and the director of the Archive of the City of Sopron (Jenő Házi) joined the heated discussions about
deu. Burgenland, eng. Burgenland, hun. Várvidék, hun. Őrvidék, hun. Felsőőrvidék, . Gradišće

Burgenland is the easternmost and smallest province of the Republic of Austria in terms of population. Its capital is Eisenstadt. The area was formerly part of the Kingdom of Hungary, which was obliged to cede what was then German West Hungary to the new Republic of Austria under the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. The newly added province was legally named Burgenland in 1921.

The problem of Sopron was a complex case because, after the war, this border city was promised to Austria, following the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1919. However, the Venice Protocol (signed on October 13, 1921) allowed that the fate of Sopron could be decided with a referendum. The referendum took place in December 1921, and the majority of the local population voted for Hungary. After this political event, two entirely different historical interpretations emerged.
The Austrian historical writing contested the results of the referendum (declaring it to be “fraud”) and argued that the city had an essentially German ethnic character. The booklet written by Viktor Miltschinsky, Das Verbrechen von Ödenburg (1922) stated that Sopron is a part of an ancient German territory and that the assimilation policy of Hungary between 1867 and 1918 (the period of the dualist Austro-Hungarian Monarchy) was not successful here.2  The sorrow over the loss of Sopron is clearly present in the writings of Otto Aull, too. A schoolteacher in
Wiener Neustadt
hrv. Bečki Novigrad, hun. Bécsújhely, hrv. Bečko Novo Mjesto

Wiener Neustadt is the second largest city in Lower Austria and is located about 50 km south of Vienna in the so called industrial quarter.

, Aull was one of the most famous local historians in Burgenland at that time. He eagerly attacked the Hungarian national position in newspaper articles and books. In the 1920s he repeatedly argued that Austria had a historical right to Sopron, because the majority of its population belonged to the German “Volk”.3
Contrary to this position, Hungarian historians, jurists, and geographers argued that the territory now called Burgenland had always been an integral part of the Hungarian state and ethnic identity did not matter in this region’s history. One of the first books celebrating the referendum of Sopron tried to defend the concept of an integral Hungarian nation-state. This volume (Sopron. Civitas fidelissima – 1925) was edited by Gusztáv Thirring, an expert in geography and demography. Thirring was born into a German-speaking family but was a Hungarian nationalist. He stressed that the result of the referendum was just a spontaneous manifestation of a historically evolved patriotic sentiment.4  According to him, the German citizens of Sopron were always loyal to the Hungarian nation-state. Later, Thirring published several articles and books about the social and economic history of Sopron; while relying on the methods of social sciences, he maintained a Hungarian nationalist agenda throughout his works.5
The border city on the Austrian side, Eisenstadt, did not receive particular attention until 1925, when it became the provincial capital of Burgenland. In 1931, the regional authorities celebrated the 10th anniversary of Burgenland. It was part of the regional memory politics that Otto Aull published a comprehensive history of Eisenstadt. The book emphasized that all ethnic groups of the city (even the Jews and Hungarians) were integrated into the German culture and used the German language in their everyday communication.6  In his historical overview, Aull condemned the expensive lifestyle and Catholic orientation of Hungarian aristocrats (the Esterházy family) who lived in Eisenstadt. He rather sided with the city’s supposedly democratic and protestant German “Volk” population. Hungarian historian and archivist Jenő Házi challenged Aull’s point of view in a critical review, which was published in the leading Hungarian historical journal, Századok (Centuries). Házi belittled the cultural relevance of the German-speaking population in Eisenstadt and focused instead on the deeds of the Hungarian family of Esterházy. In Házi’s opinion, it was the Esterházy family that made Eisenstadt a flourishing, European center of culture – for example, by supporting and financing famous musicians like Joseph Haydn.7
It is striking how historical interpretations changed over time. After the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, the history of Eisenstadt was reframed in a radical way. Heinrich Kunnert published a small book about the city, which aimed to guide readers through its history, art, and environment. In this booklet, Kunnert called the Jewish inhabitants of Eisenstadt members of a “parasite race” and argued for their deportation.8  In the year Kunnert’s book was published, Burgenland ceased to exist as a region, since its territory was divided between Lower Danube and Styria.
The impact of German ethnic “folk history” on the study of Burgenland
In the 1930s some considerable shifts took place in the ranks of Austrian and Hungarian historical writing. The research on the history of Burgenland became much more organized and a new historical approach started to gain momentum.
The German “Südostforschung” (Southeast research) viewed Burgenland as a vital bridgehead for future cultural and political expansion. The goal of these German Southeast studies was, on one hand, to collect all kinds of data on Germans living abroad and, on the other hand, to support research in connection with their history, anthropology, economy, and sociology. This complex knowledge was then utilized to support the territorial expansionism of Germany. The institute coordinating the related research (Südost Institut) was established in München in 1930. From 1936 on, the institute published an official journal called Südost-Forschungen, which became a new scientific and political forum for Austrian historians. For example, local historians living in Burgenland (Otto Aull, Heinrich Kunnert, Ernst Löger) now had a chance publish their articles there, aiming for a broader readership. Even in the first volume of the journal in 1936, we encounter several Burgenland-related articles. For example, Ernst Löger analyzes the history of education in Western Hungary/Burgenland in an extensive article and criticizes the Hungarian assimilation policy of the 19th century.9
Besides Südostforschung, there existed a vast network of research groups in Germany that supported an ethnic (völkisch) view of history (Volksgeschichte). These research groups were called “Volksdeutsche Forschungsgemeinschaften” (ethnic German research communities), and they had six different centers. One of them (Südostdeutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) was established in Vienna in 1931. The head of this Forschungsgemeinschaft was Hugo Hassinger, a professor of geography at the University of Vienna. Hassinger’s interest covered both historical and geographical topics. His group was very influential because it was supported financially by Germany and managed to connect Austrian historians living in Vienna and Burgenland. The Südostdeutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft had members in the State Archives of Vienna (Lothar Gross), in the Institute of Austrian Historical Research (Hans Hirsch, director of the institute), and the Regional Archive of Burgenland (Heinrich Kunnert). Those local historians in Burgenland who subscribed to the “völkisch” view of history had their scientific career secured and had more publishing opportunities. One of the joint scientific projects of these groups was the Burgenlandatlas (Burgenland Atlas) in 1941, which consisted of dozens of high-quality maps and lengthy commentaries explaining the historical events depicted on the maps.10
At that time, the leading representatives of Volksgeschichte – Ernst Klebel, Otto Brunner, and Heinrich Kunnert – published articles and books about the history of the German population in Burgenland. The main elements of this approach can be illustrated with one study by Otto Brunner published in 1932. In Das Burgenland, Brunner emphasizes that the region rightfully belongs to Austria but not because of a diplomatic treaty or as a political result of the war. Burgenland has always been an integral part of the German ethnic bloc; thus, the period of Hungarian rule was only a transitional moment in its history.11  According to Brunner, it is true that the regional elite was of Hungarian origin, but the majority of the population spoke German. Therefore, it was the peasantry that preserved the German character of the territory.
The adaptation of Volksgeschichte in Hungary
In contrast to many other Hungarian scholars debating the Austrian Burgenland-histories (like Jenő Házi or Gusztáv Thirring), a younger generation of Hungarian historians became open to the methods and ideas of German Volksgeschichte and tried to use this scientific toolkit against Austrian and German historians while at the same time challenging their histories about population and urban history. An expert in population and county history, Elemér Mályusz propagated an ethnic concept of the nation, which meant that he considered the territory of Burgenland as a Hungarian “Kultur and Volksboden” (cultural and ethnic soil). Mályusz taught Hungarian history at the University of Budapest and had many followers.
One of his pupils, Márton Kovács researched the social and ethnohistory of the Hungarian diaspora living in Burgenland, especially the minority groups around
hun. Felsőőr, hrv. Borta

Oberwart is a town in the Austrian province of Burgenland. It has 8,000 ca. inhabitants.

(Oberwart). His approach was similar to his Austrian colleagues: he concentrated much more on the peasantry because – according to Kovács – the lower ranks of society represented the authentic Hungarian culture. In opposition to this ordinary Volk, the Hungarian aristocrats like the Esterházy family played a negative role in the Hungarian history of Burgenland, because they sympathized with the Habsburgs and did not care about the ethnic background of the population under their rule (the landholders of the Esterházy family hired German, Slavic, Jewish, and Hungarian workers alike). Kovács presented the ethnohistory of Felsőőr as a kind of infinite war between ethnic blocks. In his opinion, Austria had almost won this war, because, since the 16th century, the Germans in this region had received ethnic “reinforcements” much faster than the Hungarians.12  Kovács’s book was intended as a wake-up call to spur the Hungarian authorities into doing something to preserve the Hungarian diaspora outside state borders. The book attracted the attention of Austrian historians across the border. A historian from Graz, Bernhard Zimmermann reviewed the volume in Südostforschungen. He acknowledged some merits of Kovács (his critical handling of the sources, for example), but he belittled the cultural relevance of Hungarian communities living in Felsőőr. In Zimmermann’s opinion, the fact that they did not even publish a Hungarian newspaper implied that their history was not that important even from a Hungarian perspective.13
A multicultural border region as target of rival national histories
Historians played a huge role in stabilizing the results of territorial changes. However, evoking the past could be utilized to question the historical legitimacy of these changes as well. While the Austrian and German historians emphasized a 1000-year-long German ethnic continuity in the history of Sopron or Eisenstadt, some Hungarian scholars considered the ethnic component less important and relied on a political (territorial) concept of the nation. Hungarian historians did not acknowledge the legitimacy of a new region called Burgenland. They viewed it as a part of “Greater Hungary” (i.e., the Hungarian state before the Treaty of Trianon), or as a Hungarian “Kulturboden” (cultural soil). As we have seen, the historians held different opinions about nationality, but their common goal was to homogenize an otherwise multicultural border region through the act of writing its history.
It can be also observed that the more professional a historian was, the easier it became for him to advance his career and participate in national historical debates – and vice versa. It was not rare that precisely those local historians of Burgenland could work together with Austrian and German historians in the long run, who were also frequent opponents of Hungarian authors – like Heinrich Kunnert, Otto Aull, and Viktor Miltschinsky.
The referendum of 1921 in Sopron was at the center of many national histories. It represented the peak or the lowest point in the history of Sopron, depending on which side of the border an author was writing on. For the Hungarian nationalists, this event made every history of Sopron a kind of theological fulfilment of a historical destiny. This interpretation (which is still flourishing in present-day Hungary) silences the fact that not everyone acknowledged the legitimacy of this referendum. The Austrian side often tied political views to the ethnic background of the population, thus limiting the possibility of free thinking outside ethnic determinants. By highlighting the German ethnic character of Sopron (or Eisenstadt), they attempted to destabilize the right of Hungary to the city.

Siehe auch