Germany vs. Austria: Similarities and differences

Germany vs. Austria: Similarities and differences

by Leona Quigley

Updated August 2, 2023

As you cross the border from German Bavaria into Austria, hiking southeast towards Salzburg, you may not notice any sudden change in your surroundings. The landscape, culture and people you meet don’t seem particularly different on either side of the German-Austrian border. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Germany and Austria have long held close cultural, political, economic and familial ties. So, does it even make sense to compare Germany vs. Austria?

In many ways, it does. Make no mistake: These are two distinctive countries, each proud of its history, culture, traditions, customs and habits. While they share a long border and a long history, Germany and Austria also differ in significant ways. Some of these ways you may notice on a short visit, while others become apparent only after staying long-term! 

In this guide, we’ll break down Austria vs. Germany in terms of geography, culture and more. We’ll also explore the ties that bind these countries’ histories, economies and customs.

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Geography and demographics

Germany and Austria are neighboring countries situated in Central Europe. 

Germany is the larger of the two, with a population of 83.2 million — 3.7 million of whom live in the capital, Berlin. Other major population centers include Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart and Leipzig.

The topography in Germany is impressively varied. High Alps in the south drop off to the foothills of the Alps (Voralpenland), an area renowned for its beautiful towns, lakes, forests and castles. North of that lies the Danube River Basin, the forested uplands of central Germany and the low-lying North German plains. 

Austria, which lies south of Germany, is a comparatively small country with a population of about 9 million, almost 2 million of whom live in Vienna, the capital city. Other major and famously beautiful Austrian cities include Graz, Linz and Salzburg. 

It is predominantly a mountainous country, in which the Alps rise to nearly 3,800 meters at the Großglockner (or Glockner) peak, Austria’s highest mountain in the west. Lower elevations can be found on the Pannonian Plain in the east, near Vienna. 

History 

Early history and the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Germany and Austria share a long and deeply intertwined history. 

In the mid-19th century, Germany was organized into 35 confederated states. This fragmented situation ended with the unification of the Prussian-dominated German Empire in 1871. 

The idea of a united “Greater Germany” including the German-speaking peoples of both Austria and Germany emerged in this era. From 1867 to 1918, Austria was part of a dual monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by the imperial Hapsburg family.

The Hapsburg Empire faced increasing instability but endured until the end of the First World War, a catastrophe which resulted in the dissolution of both the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. Germany and Austria then emerged as republics.

The Third Reich and Cold War

In March 1938, German troops marched into Austria and Adolf Hitler proclaimed the annexation of Austria by the Third Reich. The annexation marked the beginning of Germany’s aggressive expansionist policies, which led to the outbreak of World War II in 1939. 

At the end of the war in 1945, Austria was occupied by the Allies and, like Germany, was divided into zones of occupation. The new Austrian constitution included a statement of permanent neutrality, which is partly why Austria remains one of the few European nations that is not a member of NATO. Unlike many of its neighbors, Austria maintained political neutrality throughout the Cold War.

Now, after the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany, Austria and Germany share close relations as cooperative members of the European Union.

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Language

German is the official language of both Germany and Austria, but there are significant variations in dialect and accent from region to region within both countries. In fact, when Austria joined the EU in 1997, it made sure that much of its specific Austrian German terminology, especially from the culinary field, was protected by law. 

The spoken language differs, too. The German spoken in Austria is more lilting and less crisp than that of Germany, but it is rather similar to Bavarian German. This makes sense, as Bavaria is the southeasternmost region of Germany and shares a long border with Austria.

Of course, there are some differences in everyday language use. For example, in Austria, you might greet someone by saying Moagn (Good morning) — not Guten Morgen, as in Germany.

Similarly, in Austrian German you may hear these terms that aren’t common throughout much of Germany:

  • Servus – Hello (casual)
  • Griaß di – Hello there (to family and friends)
  • Grüss Gott – Hello (literally “God’s greeting”)
  • Pfiat di – goodbye (informal similar to Tschüss in Germany)

In the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, several languages — such as Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Slovenian and Romani — were spoken, and are still spoken in parts of Austria today.

Waves of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, Turkey and Syria since the early 1960s have significantly increased the linguistic diversity of both countries.

Lifestyle and culture

Generally speaking, Austrian people are considered more outgoing and cheerful than Germans, who are often more formal and perhaps distant upon first meeting. In Austria, people address others more often with the informal du rather than the formal Sie as in Germany, although Bavarians tend to share Austrians’ informality.

People in both Austria and Germany wear traditional Germanic Tracht costumes such as Lederhosen (leather trousers with braces), the Dirndl (a kind of dress) and embroidered shirts. You’ll likely see such outfits when visiting various festivals, though some rural residents wear them on an everyday basis. This applies more to the south and west of Germany than to the north or east. 

Austria is the most popular tourist destination for Germans for both winter sports holidays and summer vacations. There are extensive cultural and academic exchanges with Austria and many German conductors, orchestras, musicians, singers, directors and actors work in Austria. The same applies in the inverse, with Austrians frequently visiting their neighbor to the northwest.

Economics and work

Germany, being one of the most populous countries in the European Union and one of the largest economies globally, plays a more assertive role in global affairs than Austria. It is well-regarded for its strong manufacturing and export industries including cars, machinery, electrical goods and pharmaceuticals.

Austria, naturally, has a smaller economy but nonetheless has a strong industrial base and is known for sectors such as machinery, agriculture, tourism and finance.

The average salary per month is slightly higher in Austria vs. Germany, standing at about €47,000 per annum vs. €44,000 per annum, respectively, by 2021 figures. The cost of living in both countries is not as high as in Switzerland, Norway or Sweden, but rents in both countries are quite high (though this varies between regions and cities). 

Cuisine

Austria and Germany favor similar styles of cuisine and share many dishes. Bavarian cuisine especially can be difficult to distinguish from Austrian cooking.

Traditional Austrian dishes include Wiener Schnitzel (fried, breaded veal cutlets), Sachertorte (chocolate cake) and Apfelstrudel (apple strudel). Prominent elements of German cuisine include dishes like Bratwurst (grilled sausage), Sauerkraut, pretzels and Black Forest cake (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte). Despite considerable overlap with Germany, Austrian cuisine often incorporates notable influences of Eastern European and Italian cooking.

There are also differences in how Austrians and Germans talk about their cuisine. If you want cream with your Apfelstrudel, it’s best to ask for Schlagobers in Austria and not Sahne as you would in German. If you would like potato salad, it is more usual to ask for Erdäpfelsalat in Austria, not Kartoffelsalat as in Germany. If you want a large beer, you need to ask for a Hoibe in Austria, which would be ein Halbes (a half liter) in Germany. 


Big and little neighbor

We shouldn’t exaggerate the similarities between Austria and Germany, as they each have distinct and interesting cultures. And yet, these two countries have far more in common than what separates them. Sharing traditions and a similar way of life makes cooperation and friendship between these two countries a matter of happy ease.

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Leona Quigley

Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.

Leona Quigley
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