Shams is the Human Rights Commissioner of the Human Rights Office at the City of Vienna. We spoke to Shams about her perspectives on The DNA of Vienna.
Photo credit: Jacek Dylag via Unsplash.
What is the DNA of Vienna?
I mean, I thought about this question and to be honest, you know, if you start from just population or if you start from just the behaviour of the city, I would say wine is in the DNA of Vienna. And it's kind of music. And then from the other side, I just noticed because originally, I'm not from Vienna and just as really, I try to come in into this society and just spend more than two-thirds of my life in Vienna.
And at the beginning, just thinking about this, OK, we have to think about something, not decide immediately or just there is something that we will sleep one more night in order to decide. I guess all of those just behaviour of Vienna, DNA of Vienna, is not being very concrete and not being committed.
I mean, for me, it was very interesting. There is an actor and he had an interview in New York and it was very interesting. They asked him, you have the Vienna Philharmonic, and we do have in New York, but what is the difference between the Philharmonic in Vienna and Philharmonic in New York? And he himself is from Vienna and he told in New York, you have one, two, three time. But in Vienna we have one, two, perhaps three. You know, it is just definition of the behaviour in Vienna or in Vienna in behaviour that it's not very concrete, just a little bit of time for diplomacy and just to think about that.
From the other side, food, you know, for me is a part of the DNA of the city. And if you look at the offer of restaurants and food or supermarkets, you see that Vienna is very diverse and the diversity of Vienna is, again, it is a part of Viennese DNA and it comes from centuries. Look at the Hapsburg monarchy and then just the areas that it was under this monarchy. And look at the composition of the population now and you see more or less it reflects the past, reflects the future and now for Vienna. So diversity – it's, again, there is no one Viennese, there is hundreds, thousands of Viennese that have different characteristics.
I'd love to pick up on that first point you made about Vienna not being too concrete in the way it approaches things, and where do you think that has come from?
Maybe it comes from the history of Vienna because Vienna has lots of dramatic events in their history. And it comes that you never know what is going to happen tomorrow. So don't fix yourself to one idea. And maybe it is also a little bit Viennese that – it is a kind of, you know, just they had during the history many different eras that they forced them not to be very clear and just it's some kind of, you know, just to slip here and there.
And let's just stay with the issue of social diversity for a minute, because this is the subject upon which you are the world expert, and can you take a little bit more time to talk about the diversity of the Vienna in terms of peoples and cultures and why Vienna has been a great cosmopolitan centre and in a sense, whether the diversity of Vienna today is similar to the diversity of the past or whether it's different. Just tell the story from your point of view and take your time, because we really want to hear you say all of this for the time being.
You know, just if you look at the population of Vienna, it is about more than maybe 59% of Vienna they are real Austrians. But what is really Austrian? Even if you look at the real Austrian, it is the huge monarchy of more than a hundred years ago. They are from Hungary, they are from Czech Republic, they are from Serbia, or just many different parts of the world or even Romania or a part of Poland for the time being or even Limburg or part of Ukraine.
And if you look at the history of Vienna, monarchy was devoid in 1918, and then the whole administration remained in Vienna in an administration just at that time, accordingly were different people from different parts of monarchy, they were working in the administration of Vienna. So we do have mean more or less administration in part of the city. Administration is also a city for itself. It is one side. Maybe I can come back to this point.
And then if you look at the composition of the population for the time being, just I mean, 60% they are Austrian, they were born with the Austrian nationality. And then 40% of the population, they do have some kind of I mean, like myself, I was born somewhere else, but I lived all my life, more or less all my life in Vienna. And then 30% of the population from this 40%, even they don't have Austrian citizenship. So if you look at the schools, more than 60% of the kids, they don't have Austrian background, or they are not born in Austria or at least one of their parents. They are not born in Austria.
So it is a very, very diverse city, but it's not new for Vienna. Vienna has to be such a diverse city in the whole history of Vienna. And then if you just only maybe after the Second World War until the end of 80s-- 89 that the fall of the Iron Curtain or just the opening of the Eastern countries. Then again, I mean migration, it has been increased from this time. And then if you look at the Turkish siege that happened in 15th and 16th century, a lot of Turkish people, they came to Vienna and they stayed here, even. So, if you have a telephone book of Vienna, it is Turkish. But they are Austrian people and for centuries, they live in Vienna, so it has a very historical background. I mean, this diversity of Vienna, and now it is getting more diverse and it is getting from a religious point of view, because since 2015, the number of the Muslim people that they immigrated from Syria, from Afghanistan and many different countries, from Arabic countries, they've increased. So you see the pattern of migration is different from 2015 and the before time. But still, the people from Serbia, from Romania, from Germany, they are the highest migrant groups of different number. They are the main migrant groups in Vienna.
And if you look at the diversity of Vienna today, would you say it's working well or working not so well, and what explains why Vienna has been good at bringing together people from many different backgrounds?
I mean, this question could be from – if you ask me, and I will just answer your, question, it would be very different from the right side. I mean, right-wing political parties, it is a little bit based on the educational level and social and economic level of the people that answer this question, to be honest. But for me, Vienna functions from the integration side very well. And the reason is we don't have until very recently that we had the group of Turkish I mean, migrants a little bit from I mean, the Grey Wolves party that they started to be a little bit-- there was, you know, riots in Vienna. But until now it has been very peaceful living together.
And I guess the reason is there was a lot of projects or it has been a lot of projects that helped with this living together in peace. Number one, I would say because economically, people they can find jobs. And it is a reason that people, they have jobs if they really want to work and if even young people that they are not very that much of anchored in, I mean, social or economic life of the city, there is a lot of programs, I would say, in Vienna for the young people that are unemployed. There are two very intensive programs. One is the qualification program. I mean, without any consideration of the nationality, because if you are in Vienna and if you live in Vienna, you are eligible to enter this program. And then if some people even are not in this program or if they are not in school or they are not in an educational program, there are lots of offers in carpentry or music or computer, and in order to take the young people until 25 and bring them to the system, and if they have daily life system and if they are integrated in daily life, that they have to get up and they have to come to somewhere they have to – I mean, they have a really good time. They can drink coffee and if they want, they could be a part of a group. If not, they can sit and just look and do nothing.
And so I think programs like that helps a lot to have the – or being accepted into society. So it is maybe not in the first view that you see it's not integration, but all of those programs help the integration. And one another thing is maybe it's good to mention, it was 2004 until 2010 or something. It was the thought of living together. And it was a participative project. And people if they are young, if they are old, if they have. German as a mother tongue or not, they could come together and speak about what we really do need in this city, and then the charter was founded and then people, they took it and it was their real participative project.
And without participation, ownership is quite difficult. And this charter was a good foundation for us, for peaceful living together, and we repeated it in the last two years for young people and it is the participation of youth. And about 20,000 young people, they came together, and they wanted to ask the question, "How do I want to live in this city and what is my future wish?" Or just "how I see the future of this city" and taking the young people into consideration and then giving them space just to speak about the future. I think it is a democracy that helps them to be the ideal participants of the society, that they are aware of their rights and they want to really do something for their own future.
And of course, if you look at the kindergarten from three years, it is without any cost. I mean, it was a discussion for many, many years. But we have the day-long schools for the young people that they hold, they go all day and they can be just prepared for the future if they don't have the possibility at home in order to get help or support from the parents.
Of course, you know, maybe afterwards we're going to speak about COVID and city and COVID and the future of Vienna, I guess for the time being, COVID is everywhere.
Absolutely, and let's come back to that in a minute, because we're going to talk about shocks and traumas and this kind of thing, and there's a lot to say.
So Shams, in your mind, how many Viennas are there, is there just one, are there more than one? And if there are, what distinguishes them?
I would say just we do have about 1.9-- it's like less than 2 million population, and Viennese – in this size Vienna exists, you know, because every person if you look at the gender, if you look at the just socio-economic background, if you look at from where they come. There is plenty of Viennese and Viennas in the end, I would say, but just I don't know, it's very difficult to speak about one Vienna. If you go to the opera, you see very similar Viennese that they like the opera music. If you go to the underground scene, you see a lot of people that they do, or they share even for the time we do have the just the hippest area of the city. It is like the Danube channel. Then if you go there, you see plenty of groups that they play the music and the only thing that they have is their music. But just because of the music, they come together and just celebrate.
You know, for me Vienna is very diverse, and it is because of even the – maybe will come back to the geography of the city, because we do have some Vienna neighbourhoods and then we do have the Kahlenberg, if you know a little bit Vienna. And then we do have the labour market that the workers concentrated or the migrants that they come, and nowadays displace. But it's like any other city, you know, the diversity of the society and the diversity of the city and, of course, the affordability of the city.
But one thing that in Vienna really helps is social housing, because social housing brings a lot of just a diversity of city. I mean, in the villas or in the very expensive part of the city there is also workers that they live in this part. So it is the just mixing of the population somehow.
Maybe now we should talk just for a minute about the City of Vienna government, because one of the unique and distinctive things about Vienna is the very powerful city government and the approach it takes to things like housing, water, social provision, infrastructure, the costs to the citizens, the indirect costs versus the direct cost. It's a very inclusive and comprehensive city government.
And I suppose, Shams, maybe you could talk a little bit about why is it that Vienna has this very strong city government with this very comprehensive set of citizen services? Why is it that Vienna has that?
I mean, I would say, you know, stability of the government, about 100 or more than 100 years, the Social Democratic Party is, at least during this time was itself or in the last 15 years or so with coalition, was a part of the city government. And if you look at today all of the rankings of the city, that the City of Vienna has the highest quality of life or just the logical city, the political stability plays a very strong role here. And I guess political stability reflects also in the city administration. And one more thing. The city administration is itself very strong. Politicians, they come and they go. But we are here, and we never, ever change, unless we really are in a bribe or if we are involved in criminality or so. But if you really work, and you see in the city administration, a lot of people that they live for their work, you know, and I'm one of those people that I work for the city administration for more than 24 years. And I love my job. And the city administration, they let me do it. And I guess the possibilities that we have within the city administration and the whole of our engagement for this city, it is also very, very strong, I don't know, maybe just anchor that we have in this city. Politicians, they listen to us, to city administration, and we see ourselves in the role of consultants for politicians. And our mayor, for instance, for his human rights, just he never and ever decides for himself. And he asks me because he knows that he has the experts in his administration. And it's a kind of trust that there is between the politicians and between the city administrations that we work for the city and the politicians. They trust us, if we work it's not because of our individual profit or benefits. We love this city and we work with this city. And I guess it is the main key actually in Vienna and for the stability of Vienna.
And does this idea at all relate to the previous role of the imperial government? So you said very clearly this is about one hundred years of continuous social democratic rule. I understand that. But my understanding from history is that one part of the Austro-Hungarian empire was the provision of a lot of citizen services. So is there something behind even this modern history that plays into this?
Yes, definitely. Definitely. It is a part of that. But in 2000, we had a change of the culture of the administration, because until this time, it was that we work for the city administration. We love our job and we do. But still, we are the higher class in this society because you enjoy the respect and everything. But from 2000 or just at the 90s, it has started. But we have a process of-- the whole city administration has just undergone such a process that we are here in order to serve the population. We are not higher than the rest of the population. We are here because we are in a very privileged position in order to serve the population of Vienna. And of course, we do have a lot of education in the city academy for the employees of the city. Even human rights are a part of that. And even diversity and justice and regaining of the diversity competence is very important because we are a diverse city. But it doesn't mean that we all of us have diversity competence, competence in order to serve. So we do have a lot of education for the people that come to the city. And it is a kind of newcomers' school, everybody has to go to this newcomer school and then afterwards, it is some kind of transforming or transferring of the values of the city of Vienna that you are in the administration, but administration has some kind of values that you have to learn and you have to just implement in your professional life.
And then it goes beyond that, and it is I mean, it's not only I mean English or, you know, it used to be even the neighbouring countries like Hungarian language or just said language and everything, but still the values of the city administration and of course, everybody, that if they are in law or just regulation, they learn the whole one year of the law and regulation just for the city of Vienna. And it's like a school that you have to learn and then you get and you be informed enough to be a part of this administration. Also, this is something that I have to really mention.
I think one of the big questions that we want to ask is for your perspectives on the shocks and traumas in Vienna and the lessons it has learned from these.
I mean, very briefly, you know, if you look at the history of Vienna, it is the Turkish siege that still – but they are very, very proud that they have coffee from Turkish people. And then if you look back to the Second World War, still, just everywhere you have the feeling of the Second World War, and of course, the Jewish community, that they were deported. They were just sent to concentration camps, and there was no discussion in the society for until 80s, and they started to speak or started to work on that. And so then you look at the decline of the monarchy, of just Hapsburg monarchy after 650 years. And then it was the party, it was war, and it was just lack of the male population in the city. You know, city of Vienna has a lot of dramas.
And then fire. Fire is a part of the history of Vienna. If you look from the Roman military camp that Vienna was in 400 AC until 1993 or so, that I mean, Hofburg was on fire. Fire is a part of real, very shock and trauma to the city of Vienna and even the code of the building and everything changed because of this fire that it has been in the history of Vienna.
And looking to COVID, of course, and unemployment and the economy, the crisis, just as the effect of covid is for the time being in our society that we think and we just work in this area very recently, 2020.
But look at the structure of the city. City has a very small city centre, and then afterwards it is 1830 to 1860-1870. It is the ring road and then you have the part of the city that is for the workers or just about the end of 19th century/beginning of 20th century and the morphology of the city, it is from one side, very geographically affected, from the other side, of course, to the development of the city and political development of the city also, and industrialisation. Vienna was no industrial city, but still we had a lot of workers that worked in surrounding areas, but they lived in Vienna. And of course, again, migration with labour migration is very much to do.
I think there are two final questions I have in my mind. One is, who are the key leaders that stand out in Vienna as having shaped the city, and then key inventions or discoveries that have emerged from the city?
If you look at maybe some key people that influence Vienna, they are musicians, they are like folk or just modern time. And then you had the Qualtinger and they are from cabaret and music. And I guess it's just, I don't know, very important people. They do have politicians. I mean, politicians are also – let me see, I have a little bit of just – if you look at – from Hapsburg, you see still a lot of people that is – Thomas Bernhard from theatre. You have from one side, the artists, from the other side, a little bit politicians and of course, the father of social democracy. And so size or just power or just everybody that they are politicos that they have.
But for me, the most in my field, in 1993, the UN Conference on Human Rights took place in Vienna. And Vienna has been in this conference that took eight days. But I mean, I don't know. Ten thousand people or so. And its name is Vienna Conference. The "human rights city" just as a word was invented in this time. And if you know, after twenty seven years in Vienna, the human rights city it comes from Vienna, and Vienna became itself a human rights city. And we do have a lot of influence on European cities and beyond in global terms for bringing the human rights in the city. And it is a very innovative thing that maybe indirectly has to do with Vienna. But Vienna, name of Vienna with human rights, is very much combined. And tomorrow we do have European Human Rights Cities Conference just through video, but bringing the human rights in the city is something that everybody connects to violence and because of UN city and because of the community rights agency, the only human rights organisation of you in Vienna, it brings Vienna in a level that you have to bring the human rights in the city. It is something, you know, because it was natural. And then this naturality goes again out from Vienna and very, very recent history that wherever I go, city of Vienna and human rights, they are very much, you know, just in all of the discussions.
Thank you, Shams. And the final question to wrap up is, if we were to have asked you a better question, would there have been anything else you would have wanted to say about the DNA of Vienna?
I mean. I mean, ball is a part of it. Philharmonic is a part of it. But still, you know, the worker, just very worker movement is a part of Vienna and just social democracy is from Vienna. Look at May 1st and the – I mean, this year we didn't have it. But in the last years, a lot of tourists, even from many, many different far countries, they come to Vienna in order to see the May 1st in Vienna, you know. I'm not a politician and I don't want to speak about that much of politics, but still it's a very present part of Vienna, the social democracy, and we are going to have the elections in 24 days and then just we will see what is the intention of people to elect them. So but still, it is amazing. The social democracy is still very, very tangible in Vienna. And you see in the schools and you see the social policy, you see just whatever that is happening in this city is very – and of course, you know, Blue Danube, that it's not blue, but it's music of Blue Danube. Still, it is something that you have in the mind. And it is not dependent on the political or just socioeconomic background of the people – they go to Danube and they use it.