The venerable Greek communities of Austria-Hungary

Take a tour of the Greek diaspora, how they forged their identity and built their communities in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire

Greece’s modern diaspora – of which the Australian community is one of its largest and most dynamic elements – has a very long, illustrious, and nonetheless relatively unknown history. In the course of my travels, I have had the good fortune to explore some of this history, particularly the Greek element in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In European terms, the land once occupied by Austria-Hungary is vast. For those from continent sized countries, such as the US or Australia, these spaces are quite small, particularly when conquered by modern motorways. It is quite possible – within a very short time – to visit some of Central Europe’s most beautiful cities, while at the same time exploring the subtle yet important stamp left by Greeks.

The Ottomans, who had occupied the Balkans, also held much of Hungary and parts of Austria under their yoke until their second, unsuccessful Siege of Vienna in 1683- after which the Austrian Emperor led a European Coalition to oust the Turks from Central Europe. A vast space, devastated by war, needed development and repopulation. The Austrian Emperor called on immigrants, and among them, Orthodox Greeks and Serbs answered the call. The Greek emigration was less massive than the Serbian and more concentrated in the larger cities, such as Vienna, Budapest, and Trieste, all of which we will now visit. Greeks and Serbs lobbied hard for their political and religious freedoms, which were confirmed by various Austrian rulers.

Vienna

For imperial reasons, it makes sense to start our tour in Vienna. In the heart of this exquisite city, just a stone’s throw from the soaring gothic spires of St. Stephen’s Church, one finds Vienna’s Greichenviertel (Greek Quarter). The Greek Viennese merchants grew wealthy as middlemen between the Ottoman and Austrian Empires, and like most diaspora Greeks, became good citizens of their new land, while doing their best to foster Greek education and identity within their community. In the beautiful Greek community centre, housed within the church compound, I followed a group of children up the stairs where a Greek flag emblazoned with the following caption proudly proclaimed, “Vienna Greek School, 1804.”

Moreover in Vienna, Greek first appeared in print, and in a yellow baroque building a stone’s throw from the church, the Greek world’s first printing press functioned and the first newspapers were published. One of the early editors was none other than Rigas Pheraios, whose path we shall again cross in this tour. In a very literal sense then, this newspaper, and all Greek newspapers, descend from this Vienna press. The Greek Viennese community reached its apogee sometime around the 1830’s, after which the community’s very success hastened its assimilation. A small core remained, reinforced by sporadic arrivals from Greece. The remaining Greek community today reminds me a bit of Austria – a shadow of its former self, but prosperous and elegant.

Budapest

The road from Vienna to Budapest, the dual imperial capitals of the former Austria-Hungary, is covered in under four hours. Arriving in Budapest, one finds a more exotic, Eastern version of Vienna. My own experience with Budapest is particularly involved and special. I was one of the first Western students to participate in a university exchange there in 1990. I quickly realised, just beneath the Hungarian surface of Budapest, a once very large Greek and Serbian community existed. Near Vaci Utca, the main shopping drag, fronting the Pest bank of the Danube, a large baroque Orthodox Church built by the Greek community remains as a testimony to a once very wealthy community.

The Greek community supported several churches in Hungary, Greek language instruction, and a Greek hospital until the early 1900s. Baron Sina – whose forebears were from Macedonia – financed the building of Chain Bridge, Budapest’s most iconic Danube bridge. As the Greek community faded into assimilation, a twist of fate injected new life into Hungarian Hellenism. In the aftermath of the Greek Civil War, in 1949, several thousand Greek Communists found themselves as exiles and refugees in Hungary. Many settled in the village of Beloiannisz, a one hour drive southwest from Budapest. Others arrived in Budapest, breathing life into a community almost faded into history. The Greek legacy in Hungary received a second wind, and many of the ‘second diaspora’, as they call themselves, are senior academicians dedicated to the preservation and promotion of their culture in Hungary.

Trieste

Trieste is a child of geography, a cove hemmed in by the Alps, which drop at a clutch-burning grade to the sea. Here was the Austrian Empire’s principal port, the maritime ‘window to the world’ to a largely land-bound, diverse, complicated empire of over 50 million souls. When the Austrians made it a free port in 1719, it was a fishing village with a few Roman ruins.

Then, the Austrians called for immigrants; Greeks and Serbs were among the first to answer the call again. Not surprisingly, shipping and the maritime trade were the Greeks’ primary businesses. Greeks leveraged a maritime network that spanned the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Greeks, and Serbs, branched out of shipping into banking and real estate, earning titles of nobility and building the Palazzi that grace Trieste’s Grand Canal. San Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, whose present facade dates from the late 1790’s, is a fixture of Trieste’s waterfront.

The present Greek community is small, heavily assimilated, but incredibly proud of their extensive pedigree in the city. Next door to the church, itself an exquisite blend of Austrian baroque and Classical Greek, there is a small boutique hotel called Filoxenia, which often hosts community cultural and activities, as well as the numerous visitors from Greece and the diaspora. Beyond the incredible architecture and the legacy of the Greek community, in a spectacular Austro-Mediterranean setting, you have the cafes. Italy’s premier brand, Illy, is native to the city, and Viennese coffee, among the best in the world, arrived, like all other goods via Trieste. I doubt any city in the world has so many cafes, and many of them have Greek origins.

One beautiful May morning, I sat at Cafe Degli Specchi, on Italy’s largest public square, drinking one of my ubiquitous double espressos with Archimandrite Gregory of San Nicholas Church. Greeks founded the cafe itself in the 1830s, and it was easy to drift back to a time of Austrian marching bands, of Greek and Serbian merchants, of commerce and conspiracy. Outside one famous Trieste cafe, the Cafe Tomasso, Rigas Pheraios was arrested by the Austrian authorities for fomenting revolution, and was turned over to the Turks.

These three cities, all only a few hours away from each other on modern roads in borderless Schengen zone Europe, were once the commercial, intellectual nerve centres of a rather interesting empire. Worth a visit in any case, but for us Greeks, particularly of the diaspora, it provides a fascinating, delightful, and hopefully thoughtful and insightful view into our own specific diaspora destiny. In this cafe of cultures, we should be proud to know that Greeks formed an integral part.