Author Archives: msoderhall

Spatially-Embedded Collective Memory and Political Behaviors

Activated History – The Case of the Turkish Sieges of Vienna

Christian Ochsner and Felix Roesel (Ifo Institute – Leibniz Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich Dresden Branch)

Abstract: We study whether long-gone but activated history can shape social attitudes and behavior even after centuries. We exploit the case of the sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683, when Turkish troops pillaged individual municipalities across East Austria. In 2005, Austrian right-wing populists started to campaign against Turks and Muslims and explicitly referred to the Turkish sieges. We show that right-wing voting increased in once pillaged municipalities compared to non-pillaged municipalities after the campaigns were launched, but not before. The effects are substantial: Around one out of ten votes for the far-right in a once pillaged municipality is caused by salient history. We conclude that campaigns can act as tipping points and catalyze history in a nonlinear fashion.


Circulated by NEP-HIS on: 2017-11-05

Revised by Martin Söderhäll (Uppsala University)


The Turkish Siege of Vienna (1529). Collection: Vienna Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

a) Summary

Is it possible for “arguably irrelevant” historical events to shape the voting behavior of a population if triggered by political campaigning exploiting said historical events? This is the main question the authors set out to answer in the paper. The authors show that political campaigning that uses stereotypes of religious and ethnic minorities can be highly effective when encountering spatially embedded collective memory utilizing a set of seemingly unique historical and societal circumstances occurring in present day Austria, among other things: 1. The pillaging of Austrian villages by Turkish troops during the Ottoman military expeditions in the 16th and 17th centuries. 2. The presence of one of Europe’s oldest and still existing right-wing populist parties (the Freigeitliche Partei Österreich, FPÖ) which in 2005 started to campaign against Muslims and Turks explicitly referring to “their vicious crimes during the Turkish sieges of Vienna” and 3. The arguably exogenous location of the Battle of Bisamberg which led to spatial discontinuity in the probability of villages being pillaged by the Turks north of the Danube during the second siege of Vienna in 1683.


The empirical strategy is directed towards examining if the vote share of the Austrian right-wing populist party (FPÖ) was significantly higher in villages exposed to Turkish pillaging in the 16th and/or the 17th centuries (i.e. in villages were the collective memory of Turkish pillages was stronger) than in villages that were not pillaged, right after the change in campaign tactics of the FPÖ in the year 2005. Using the “tools of the trade” of 21st century economic historical research (the baseline model uses a traditional DiD approach, although the spatial fuzzy RD design using panel data, seen in section 4.3 is new according to the authors), Ochsner and Roesel find that having been exposed to pillaging in the 16th and the 17th centuries led to an activation effect (i.e. the average treatment effect) of 1.6-3.05 percent depending on the specification. The larger effect sizes, 2.5-3.05 percent are estimated using the spatial fuzzy RD design on the sub sample of villages west of Vienna.


The authors conclude that neither “a local historical record of foreign atrocities” or “a campaign that addresses the stereotypes of these foreigners” are necessary and sufficient conditions to activate any effect. However, when both conditions are met the effect is statistically significant and robust across a range of specifications. In section 7 of the paper the authors address the underlying mechanisms at work. Ochsner and Roesel find that the effects of the campaigning were stronger in small rural communities and in communities with a lower share of out-commuters. Their findings suggest that “collective memory is likely to be a function of local embeddedness”. The authors conclude their paper with a call for future research that addresses the fact that societies can evolve and interact in a non-linear manner.

b) Comments

In general, I tend to approach quasi-experimental long-run effects papers with seemingly robust and large effects on the treatment group, with a bit of skepticism. In this case however, at least from my point of view, the authors made an excellent job of convincing me of (at least) the internal validity of their study. This is in part thanks to the appealing empirical setting, which they carefully account for in the introduction, and the two following sections of the paper.  The use of pictures and references to visual remnants of history in East Austria as well as quotes of “anti-Turkish” comments in online forums and the analysis of FPÖ’s campaign content provides context to readers unfamiliar with the setting, which is great!


While I find the authors interpretation of the mechanisms at work plausible, the empirical examination of said mechanism lacks the attention to detail shown in section 4-6. Collective memory might well be a function of local embeddedness; however, the authors use the share of out-commuters from a village as a proxy for embeddedness. Arguably this variable could also be a proxy for a lot of other things such as the average income or the age structure of the population in the villages (which they do not control for in the models presented in table 13). Addressing the mechanisms at work more carefully would in my opinion further improve the paper.

As a final comment, the results provided by the authors raises many interesting questions. The possibility to activate history in places were a collective memory of past events is present by campaigning could be utilized by a range of actors. In this day and age when the costs for highly customized political advertising (on social media platforms for example) is lower than ever before, “activating history” could be utilized by political parties (or other interest groups) in locations were the probability of a positive effect is higher, whilst other (less controversial) campaigning strategies could be used in other locations. The fact that the authors implicitly raise the awareness of how distant history in subtle ways can influence our opinions is truly a good thing.