Today, they are trying to slam the door shut on Turkey again by insisting that the mostly Muslim nation should have a “partnership” with the European Union instead of full membership, ahead of the launch of accession talks on Monday.
But ancient animosities are mingled with modern fears, and Austrians insist they are not racist or xenophobic – just deeply distrustful.
Geography helps explain why only one in 10 Austrians – by far the weakest support in Europe – backs the idea of a EU with Turkey as a member.
Austrian media frequently describe Turkey as a “Bosphorus country”, a reference to the narrow waterway that links the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and marks what many insist is the spot where Europe ends and Asia begins.
Austrian media often describes
Austria, which shares its borders with the former communist Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia, has also long been a place where East meets West.
Generations of Austrians have had to live within the tensions created by that cultural crossroads, and they have always felt a certain ambivalence and vulnerability towards outsiders.
“Many Austrians obviously have a problem with Turks and other foreigners,” the Swiss newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung noted in a commentary on Sunday.
History also sheds light on the hostility.
Among Austrians’ first lessons at school is the story of the epic battle of 1683 that halted the Islamic empire’s westward march.
Had the outcome been different, much if not all of modern Europe might have been Muslim today – “under the crescent instead of the cross”, as the Viennese expression goes.
Many Austrians are also wary of throwing open Europe’s gates to the Turks because of the nation’s 7% unemployment rate – the highest joblessness in recent years.
“Many Austrians obviously have a problem with Turks and other foreigners”
Commentary in Swiss newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung
About 73% of respondents to a new poll published over the weekend by the Austria Press Agency said they believe the cultural differences between Turkey and the rest of the EU are too great to justify membership.
Martin Juergensen, a Vienna businessman, ticks off the risks: “Uncertain borders, the Islamising of the West and the financial collapse and internal social breakup of the EU.”
Austrians are not the only ones questioning whether the 25-nation bloc should take in Turkey.
A majority – 54% – of all Europeans share that view, according to the 5 September telephone survey of 1000 people aged 18 and over. No margin of error was given.
To be sure, the debate is tinged with racism in Austria, a tiny country of 8 million that is home to an estimated 200,000 Turks – Europe’s third-largest expatriate Turkish community after Germany and France.
There, “Turk” is a derogatory term for any immigrant of colour.
Such contempt prevails despite frequent reminders from Austrian economists, who point out that the alpine republic stands to profit from Turkey’s entry into the union.