Language Rights for Minorities in Austria with special reference to the Hungariam minority

Szilvia Szotak


In today’s Austrian legislation, the administration of justice and public administration are all conducted in the state language, which is German. After the First World War, out of absolute political consideration for the massive rearrangements of  power and territorial boundaries, the guiding principle was to try to induce the newly-created states to guarantee the basic rights of minorities. In other words, in theory an affirmation would be made that minorities would be able to use their own languages in public life, in education and in the private sphere.  In the case of Austria today there are six officially  accepted autochthonous ethnic groups among which only the Croatians and Slovenes are granted such rights within a legal framework. The system of minority protection of the Federation for Nationalities does not in fact carry out its set tasks very well. It is supposed to oversee whether states implement properly the promises they havge made in law to minority groups. Nevertheless, the laws which were accepted by Austria in the past are still valid in the present. It is possible to say about Austria, in the same way as one can speak about other European states, that the legal articles affirming the rights of minorities to use their own languages are present in currently existing laws; these are guaranteed on the basis of obligation in connection with international rights. Even so, theory and practice often present a divergent picture. In order to realise their minority rights all six ethnic groups wage a continuous struggle;  the Croatians and the Slovenes have been most successful in achieving their aims.

In the state treaty of 1955 the 6th and 7th legal articles of law 1955/152 contain details on the rights of minorities. The 7th article specifies the Slovenes and Croatians as minority ethnic groups and delineates the rights for the regions of three federal provinces: Karinthia, Stajerlande and Burgenland. It is said that the Slovene and Croatian minorities enjoy the same rights as any other Austrian citizen, including the right to use their own language. However, it is nowhere specifically stated who, and on the basis of what criteria, can be counted among the Slovene or Croatian minorities. Besides German Croatian and Slovenian can be used as official languages. The law makes no mention of the Czech and Hungarian minorities. The 1976 law on ethnic groups, which can be considered as a framework law, contains for the most part general formulations; the working out of concrete provisions has been left to the provincial governments. One of  the deficiencies of the law is that it does not deal with educational matters. The application of the law in practice is contradictory because its stipulations are only relevant to certain ethnic groups – other groups are not even mentioned.

In the 1994 law on schooling bilingual education was guaranteed in the whole of  Burgenland if  25% of the parents of a school requested it. Actual practice indicates that students involved in Hungarian studies have two or three lessons a week learning their mother tongue as a foreign language. The existing education system is not suitable for reinforcing acquistion of the mother tongue nor for strengthening minority culture. Rather, it promotes the process of assimilation.