What’s the difference between a German and an Austrian? The German wants to understand Austrians, but can’t; the Austrian understands Germans, but doesn’t want to. That’s just one of many jokes about Austro-German enmity. This year’s publication in Austria of Streitbare Brüder (Quarrelsome Brothers) has rekindled the gabfest over the rough relations between the two neighbours.

“When a foreigner takes me for a German, it’s almost an insult. I wouldn’t mind being from any country, from Canada, Norway, the Czech Republic or Chile, but not from Germany,” snipes Austrian writer Franzobel, who doesn’t mince words when it comes to his northern neighbours: “They don’t get our jokes, they take everything seriously, they think they’re always right.”

Vast majority welcomed Anschluss

The German tabloid Bild doesn’t go easy on Austrians either, and lists 30 reasons to deride them, e.g.: “Your flag is red, white and red so you can’t hang it upside down. The most famous Austrians are either dead or they’ve emigrated, like Arnold Schwarzenegger." The Austro-German opposition reflects the old dichotomy between the Austrian and the Prussian. The former is a Catholic traditionalist, courteous and amiable. The latter is a stiff Protestant, arrogant and excessively formal, with an obnoxious penchant for lecturing the whole world.

Back in the 18th century, Frederick the Great snatched almost the whole of Silesia from the Austrians. In 1866, at the Battle of Sadowa [aka Battle of Königgrätz], Wilhelm I ’s Prussian army crushed Franz Joseph’s imperial forces. But after World War I and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Austrians, reduced to living in a small state along the Danube, yearned to be incorporated into Germany. So it’s no wonder that, scarcely 20 years later, the vast majority welcomed the Anschluss, their country’s annexation by the Third Reich, with glee.

Germans refuse to learn the "language"

After the Nazis were defeated and their atrocities brought to light, on the other hand, Germanitude beat a hasty retreat. The Austrians tried to dodge any blame for the recent bloodbath, recounts Hannes Leidinger, co-author of Streitbare Brüder. The reconstructing country nursed its neutrality; its political establishment, along with the Viennese press, knocked themselves out building up the myth of Austria as Hitler’s first victim – as though they’d forgotten where the Führer was born. Austrians want to persuade the world that Hitler was German and Beethoven Austrian. Germans couldn’t care less, according to another joke about the Teutonic neighbours.

The Viennese weekly Falter quips that the Germans, who make up the biggest immigrant community in the country after the Turks, are just as reluctant as the latter to integrate into Austrian society because they refuse to learn the language. As matter of fact, the Austrian idiom does differ in many ways from the German spoken in Berlin or Hannover. Austrian Palatschinken isn’t a kind of ham [Schinken in German], but a crêpe. Plum jam, or Pflaumenmus up north, goes by a Slavic moniker down south: Powidl.

Never vacation in Austria again

After the war, the authorities in Vienna made a point of setting themselves linguistically apart from big brother across the border. In 1949 German as such actually disappeared from the Austrian school curriculum for several years: it was still taught, of course, but officially termed the “language of instruction”. Nowadays, Austrian German is gradually losing its distinctive traits, partly owing to satellite and cable TV: many Austrians prefer German networks like RTL and SAT 1 to their ORF. Austrian singers wisely make an effort to learn standard pronunciation, a prerequisite for conquering the alluring German market.

“Never vacation in Austria again!” exhorted Bild in 1994 after German tennis player Michael Stich got booed by an Austrian crowd. But the call to boycott the destination didn’t work: 40% of tourists to Austria are from Germany. “Without foreign holidaymakers, the Alpine republic would be an economic crisis zone,” admit the authors of the book. Per capita GDP in Austria (close to €37,000) is now higher than in Germany (less than €33,000). The days when Austrians bought used cars in Germany are gone. They’re the wealthier ones now, and their economy was not as hard hit as Germany’s. So the bottom line is the feuding neighbours can gibe and jeer at each other all they like, they’re condemned to put up with each other.