Austria-Hungary was a large, landlocked dynastic state situated in central and southeastern Europe; it was partitioned following World War I (1914–1918). In the great wave of European migration between 1880 and 1919, Italy and Austria-Hungary each sent more than 4 million immigrants to the United States, totaling more than one-third of the 24 million total immigrants from that period. Migration to Canada was severely restricted by German travel requirements—from whose ports almost all Austrians traveled—which made migration to the United States vastly easier. Some 200,000 Austro-Hungarians nevertheless eventually made their way to Canada between 1880 and 1914, with the vast majority being Slavs.
Galician immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire at immigration sheds in Quebec province: Peasant families such as this were considered ideal immigrants by the Canadian government during the early 20th century. Galicia was a former Austrian Crown territory, now divided between Ukraine and Poland. (John Woodruff / National Archives of Canada / C-4745)
Austria-Hungary was a vast, multinational empire that lagged far behind western European countries in both economic development and individual freedom, thus providing impetus for the empire’s Poles, Czechs, Jews, Magyars (Hungarians), Slovenes, Croatians, Slovaks, Romanians, Ruthenians, Gypsies, and Serbs to seek new opportunities in North America. The exact number of immigrants from the Austro- Hungarian Empire cannot be determined, nor can the numbers within particular ethnic groups. Not only were official records not kept in Austria-Hungary during most of the period, the nomenclature used to classify immigrants frequently changed. Also, members of various central and eastern European ethnic groups arriving in the United States or Canada were often mistaken for one another.
In the 18th century, what would become Austria-Hungary was usually referred to by its dynastic name, the Habsburg Empire, and increasingly in the 19th century as the Austrian Empire. Thus, all subjects of the Habsburg crown were properly referred to as "Austrians.” With the rise in nationalistic sentiment from the early 19th century, more Austrians began to identify themselves according to their native culture and language. This growing sense of nationalism led to a number of revolutions in 1848 and eventually in 1867 to the creation of a new federal system of government in which Hungarian Austrians were given legislative equality with German Austrians. Both partners discriminated against other ethnic groups, particularly the Slavs.
Only a handful of Austrians immigrated to North America prior to the mid-19th century. When the Catholic bishop-prince of Salzburg exiled 30,000 Protestants from his lands in 1728, several hundred settled in Georgia. A few radical reformers fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848 settled in the United States as political refugees. Most were middle class and reasonably well educated and tended to cluster in New York City and St. Louis, Missouri, where there were already large German-speaking settlements. Although the official estimate that fewer than 1,000 Austrians were in America in 1850 is almost certainly wrong, it does suggest the limited migration that had taken place by that time.
By the 1870s, however, several factors led to a rapid increase in immigration. The emancipation of the peasantry beginning in 1848 led to the creation of a market economy and the potential for wage earnings and individual choices about migration. Overpopulation also contributed to the rapid increase in immigration. With a rapidly growing population, laws and inheritance patterns reduced the majority of farms to tiny plots that could barely support a family. As more agricultural workers were uprooted from the land, it became more common for them to try their hand in North America when prospects in Austrian cities failed. Finally, a heightened sense of nationalism encouraged Austro-Hungarian minorities to escape the discriminatory policies of the Austrians and Hungarians.
From 1870 to 1910, immigration increased dramatically each decade, despite restrictions on immigration propaganda. Many ethnic groups, including Poles, had high rates of return migration, suggesting immigration as a temporary economic expedient. On the other hand, German Austrians, Jews, and Czechs tended to immigrate as families and to establish permanent residence. With the United States and Austria-Hungary on opposite sides during World War I (1914–18), immigration virtually ceased. More than 100,000 Canadians of Austro-Hungarian origin were declared enemy aliens. At the end of the war, the anachronistic, multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered and replaced by the successor states of Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia.
See also Austrian immigration; Croatian immigration; Czech immigration; Hungarian immigration; Jewish immigration; Polish immigration; Romanian immigration; Serbian immigration; Slovakian immigration; Slovenian immigration.