What Does It Mean for Me to Be Austrian?

So I come round to the question, What does it mean for me to be of 1/4 Austrian heritage? All of my ancestor research has been linked to my quest to understand the colonization process, and how my family fits into that long history. How might I be connected to my Austrian ancestors, and how were they connected to the land where they lived?  What might I learn from them? I have had very mixed and often troubled feelings during this particular search.

John Hochreiter Baby in Linz

Johann Hochreiter as a baby, in Linz

Linz, the city where my grandfather Hochreiter was born in 1884 and lived until 1910, was also the home of Adolf Hitler for several years, from 1898 to 1907. It is not a connection I feel good about. Wikipedia noted, “Like many Austrian Germans, Hitler began to develop German nationalist ideas from a young age.[34] He expressed loyalty only to Germany, despising the declining Habsburg Monarchy and its rule over an ethnically variegated empire.[35][36]”  Learning the history of Austria’s connection and disconnection from other Germanic states, (see my last post) helps me to understand this somewhat, but the outcome was terrifying.

I was glad to read that in 1996, Linz became the first city in Austria to deal intensively with its own Nazi past.  There was widespread research by the municipal archives, and the culture of remembrance extended to the construction of monuments for the victims of National Socialism. But of course all of these events, including both World Wars, were after my own ancestor had emigrated to North America.

In my family, we didn’t really learn anything about Austria when we were growing up. As far as I can tell, there were no cultural aspects that were carried forward to us, except that, ironically and randomly, the only classical music album in our house was Johann Strauss’s Vienna Waltzes, including “The Blue Danube.”

In fact, it is the Danube River (German Donau) which has called most strongly to my heart, of all that I have learned about Austria.  (Not insignificantly, the Danube also flows through the city of Ulm where the Swabian line of my ancestors is located.) The Danube begins in the Black Forest and flows through southern Germany and through Austria, and then on to the Black Sea. The Danube valley in Austria is north of the Alps, and one of the most fertile and populous regions of Austria. This river is at the center of all its history and culture, and was the major East-West transport on the continent of Europe.

Linked to its location on the Danube, the Linz area was settled continuously, from the late Stone Age Neolithic period, in 4000 BCE. They have also found early Bronze Age urn sites and burial sites from the Hallstatt-period. In the first century AD, the Romans constructed a wood-and-earth fort to secure the important Danube river crossing to control traffic and for military reasons. They named it Lentia. In the second century it was expanded into a stone fort. It was part of the Roman frontier called the limes.

The official history site for the city of Linz notes there were many Goth invasions during the second century and that by the end of the 4th century A.D., the indigenous population is thought to have withdrawn to the easily defensible district of Martinsfeld in reaction to the advance of peoples from the East and West.

Upper Austria on the Danube seems to have been a crossroads of many peoples–who knows whether our ancient ancestors were part of the Roman colonizer settlements, or were the “Barbarian” hordes on the other side of the river? Or some combination of the peoples from “the East and the West”? In my personal DNA analysis, there seem to be fragments (less than 2%) of Italian and Eastern European ancestry–maybe they met along the Danube river in Austria.

So much is up to conjecture and imagination, except that it is clear they were of the so-called “lower” classes. Maybe my very ancient ancestors lived along the river, and then later migrated north to clear the forests and farm. Maybe they were a part of the Peasant Uprisings in 1626, or one of the 62 known uprisings in Upper Austria between 1356 and 1849. Maybe they were not. Day laborers. Weavers. Farmers. But in any case, around 1884, they left their rural connection to land and became urban city dwellers, and thus also came my grandfather to the cities of Ottawa, Ontario, and then to Detroit, Michigan. So much is lost in the translation. But I am glad to make the acquaintance of the great river Danube.


Linz in the year 1594.


Linz on the Danube, date ?1889

The Swabian Alb

As I researched my Swabian roots, I realized that one eighth of my ancestral heritage is most likely tied to that place. One aspect of the decolonization process is for those of us with non-native ancestry to explore our roots in other places across the globe, places in which our ancestors might hold their own Indigeneity.  I found myself strangely moved yesterday as I watched Youtube videos about Swabia. See here is the thing:  before this week, I had never even heard of Swabia.  This is the forgetting that comes over so many families through several generations in the United States.

We begin to amalgamate, and make reference to a vague Germanic ancestry. But the more I learn, the more I realize that each of my various family lines came from distinct cultures and landscapes that are now considered “German.”  I want to record some things about that Swabian culture and place–nothing that can’t be found in Wikipedia and other online sources–but new to me. (Most of this is just copy and paste or mildly edited from public domain sources.)

Germany was slowly becoming unified over the 18th and 19th centuries (mostly after my ancestors had emigrated.)  This process was politically dominated by the northern Kingdom of Prussia, and therefore “Weimar Classicism” became the expression of German national “high culture.” As a consequence, southern Germany and by extension both the Swabians and the Bavarians came to be seen as deviations from a generic standard German, and a number of clichés or stereotypes developed about them.

These portrayed the Swabians as stingy, overly serious, or prudish petty bourgeois simpletons, for example as reflected in “The Seven Swabians” story published by the Brothers Grimm. On the positive side, however, the same stereotypes may be expressed in portraying the Swabians as frugal, clever, entrepreneurial and hard-working. Realistically, they lived on a land with thin soil and difficult access to water, so likely they had to be frugal and hard-working to survive.

The Swabian Alb (or Swabian Jura) occupies the region bounded by the Danube River in the southeast and the upper Neckar River in the northwest. In the southwest it rises to the higher mountains of the Black Forest. The highest mountain of the region is the Lemberg (1,015 m.). The area’s profile resembles a high plateau, which slowly falls away to the southeast. The northwestern edge is a steep escarpment covered with forests, while the top is flat or gently rolling.

The geology of the Swabian Alb is mostly limestone, which formed the seabed during the Jurassic period. The sea receded 50 million years ago. Since limestone is soluble in water, rain seeps through cracks everywhere and forms subterranean rivers which flow through a large system of caves until they emerge. Thus there are hardly any rivers, lakes or other forms of surface water on the plateau.

Many different types of beautiful caves can be found there, from dry dripstone caves to caves that can only be entered by boat. Sometimes the discharge of the water from subterranean rivers can be spectacular, too, for example, the Blautopf, (“Blue Bowl”) a source for a tributary of the Danube.Blue Pot

Also because of the porous limestone, the Danube nearly disappears near Immendingen only to reappear several kilometers further down. Most of the water lost by the Danube resurfaces in the Aachtopf, a spring for a tributary to the Rhine.

Much of the Swabian Alb consists of gentle to moderate hills often covered with forest or cleared for small-scale agriculture. The traditional landscape was grass fields with juniper bushes. Today this has become a comparatively rare sight. However, in certain places it is protected by the government (the province of Baden-Württemberg.) The soil is not very fertile, the humus is often as thin as 10 cm (4 in). Many small limestone pebbles are found on the surface.

Fossils can be found everywhere in the Swabian Alb. In a number of caves (including Vogelherd, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels), all just a few kilometers apart, some of the oldest signs of human artifacts were found. Best known are: a mammoth, a horse head, a water bird, and two statues of a lion man all more than 30,000 years old. The oldest known musical instruments have been found here, too: flutes made from the bones of swans and griffon vultures, some 35,000 years old, and a flute carved from the tusk of a mammoth dating from the Ice Age, around 37,000 years ago. Perhaps most astounding is the oldest representation found so far of the human body, the Venus of Hohle Fels.648px-VenusHohlefels2

This Goddess figure, carved from mammoth ivory, and likely worn as a pendant, was found in caves that my very ancient ancestors may have frequented. Of course, people moved around between those ancient times and more recent times, the Celts and the Gauls intermarried with Germanic tribes, but some of the ancestors of the Swabians may have been present even then.

So as I think about my place on this earth, this is one of my places!