Social Structure

Social Structure

Austrian society was traditionally stratified and had a low degree of social mobility. As a result, social distinctions were clear. Social relations between aristocrats and commoners, masters and servants, large landowners and peasant-farmers, and employers and employees were hierarchical and well defined, and the use of titles as a reflection of rank or social status was important. Austrians born into specific social groups or classes had few opportunities to improve their social and economic standing and identified themselves strongly with their inherited social positions, which were reinforced by education (or the lack thereof), attitudes toward religion, and political convictions.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the three predominant social classes in Austria were aristocrats; "citizens" or burghers in towns and cities, who had special charters of rights and privileges; and peasants-farmer--"free farmers" in western Austria who owned and tilled their own land and peasant-serfs in eastern Austria. Reforms had been introduced during the last decades of the eighteenth century to bring about a greater degree of social equality, but legal equality was not established in the Austrian half of Austria-Hungary until the constitution of 1867 was promulgated. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, society still consisted of a very small upper class composed of an old aristocracy of "blue bloods" and a recently ennobled and new aristocracy of wealth, a small middle and entrepreneurial class (approximately 15 percent), a growing working class (approximately 25 percent), and a class of peasantfarmers (approximately 55 to 60 percent).

During the troubled interwar period, a time of political unrest and economic hardship for most Austrians, the country's main social groups remained rigidly segregated and there was a high degree of identification of specific classes with corresponding political ideologies and worldviews. The resulting "Lager," or "camp," mentality was seen in the embrace of the urban working class of social democracy while the rest of the country became proponents of conservative Roman Catholic Christian politics or, to a much lesser degree, European-style liberalism.

After World War II, however, the structure of Austrian society changed substantially. The white-collar middle class expanded greatly during four decades of unprecedented prosperity. The number of farmers and workers declined as they or their children were able to benefit from the postwar era's social mobility and find better employment. Many low-status jobs were taken by foreign workers from southeastern Europe. An increasingly white-collar service economy reduced the previous social inequalities and blurred traditional class distinctions. Education became the most important vehicle of upward social mobility, and a more open education system made it more available than ever before. Attitudinal barriers to social mobility did not disappear to a corresponding extent, however. Coming from an "established" or older family still played an important role in the social position Austrians were able to assume in society.

The long period of prosperity and social mobility weakened the Lager mentality that had characterized the interwar period. Beginning in the 1980s, electoral patterns indicated that the traditional political allegiances of specific classes to corresponding political parties and ideologies had deteriorated. This relaxation of political ties permitted the formation of new political parties that profited from a growing pool of "floating votes."

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