No more ‘Schwarzfahren’: Austrian and German cities to phase out term due to racism concerns

Transport authorities in Austria and Germany have said they are phasing out the term ‘Schwarzfahren’ - which literally translates to ‘riding black’ - to describe fare dodging, over racism concerns.

No more ‘Schwarzfahren’: Austrian and German cities to phase out term due to racism concerns
A ticket stamping machine in Vienna. Photo: ALEXANDER KLEIN / AFP

Vienna transit company Wiener Linien said on Friday it had already begun phasing out the term ‘Schwarzfahren’ in order to avoid “misunderstandings”. 

ÖBB, the company’s Austrian counterpart, said it would do the same. 

In recent years, the term has become increasingly debated in Austria and Germany, with some saying it has a racist connotation. 

Instead of using the term ‘riding black’, Austrian officials will use the literal ‘Fahrgästen ohne gültiges Ticket’ – meaning ‘passengers without a valid ticket’. 

German Word of the Day: Schwarzfahren

“Language is a living thing and that is why the use of language changes again and again,” Wiener Linien said in a statement. 

“In order to avoid any misunderstandings, we have been using the term ‘passengers without a valid ticket’ for a long time. However, there was no educational campaign.”

A similar debate has taken place in the German cities of Berlin and Munich, with both indicating they will also phase out the term. 

While a ticket on public transport in Vienna costs €2.40, the fine for riding without a ticket is €105 – rising to €145 if unpaid. 

Does Schwarzfahren have a racist connotation?

While it appears the term’s days are numbered – at least in an official context – some debate whether the term actually has a racial connotation. 

Eric Fuß, a German linguist, says the term does not relate to the word Schwarz – i.e. black – at all, but is instead a translation of a colloquial Yiddishism ‘shvarts’, which means poor or poverty. 

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Fuß said the term had become common place to describe those who were too poor to buy a ticket. 

This explanation has however been criticised by Jewish scholars, who argue that it means black in Yiddish and has a “dark or evil” connotation. 

In April 2021, the Black People Initiative in Germany (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland) released a statement saying that regardless of the origin of the term, it now had a negative racist connotation and therefore should be replaced. 

Tahir Della, a spokesperson for the group, told AFP that society must be sensitive to language changes – and what terms may come to mean in the present day. 

“Even if fare dodging was not at all racist, the effect on those affected is that ‘black’ stands for something negative, for example crime or illegality.”

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EXPLAINED: What to do if you experience online abuse in Austria

Following the suicide of an Austrian doctor who received threats from Covid-19 anti-vaccination activists, the government has now launched a new campaign to help victims of online abuse.

EXPLAINED: What to do if you experience online abuse in Austria

The Austrian medical community was left in shock in July when Lisa-Maria Kellermayr, a local doctor in Seewalchen am Attersee in Upper Austria, took her own life following months of online abuse.

Kellermayr, 36, had been targeted by anti-vaccination activists and Covid-19 conspiracy theorists for her out-spoken support of vaccines, and the abuse even included death threats. 

Her death prompted candlelight vigils and demonstrations in Vienna and the tragic story was picked up by news outlets around the world.

READ MORE: How Austria’s attempt to make vaccines mandatory changed the country

This led to calls for tighter laws against online bullying and the ability for perpetrators to be prosecuted in other EU countries – particularly as at least two of the people who are believed to have targeted Kellermayr are based in Germany, according to the Guardian.

The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has even called for the creation of a special public prosecutor’s office to deal with “hate-on-the-net”, but this has been rejected by prosecutors and other political parties, as reported by ORF.

Instead, the Federal Justice Department has launched a new information campaign, website and hotline to help people dealing with online abuse.

FOR MEMBERS: What happens if you get arrested in Austria?

What is in the new campaign?

Austria’s Justice Minister Alma Zadic (Greens) said they have launched the campaign to raise awareness about the issue and to inform victims about the support available.

Zadic said: “It is important to me that those affected know that they are not alone in this situation and that the judiciary supports them with free psychological and legal process support.”

“You don’t have to cope alone with the extraordinary burdens that criminal proceedings can entail, for example through confrontation with the perpetrators.”

READ ALSO: Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Part of the support package is the new website Hilfe bei Gewalt (Help with Violence), which details how to access help from the authorities, as well as secure free legal advice and representation from a lawyer.

The website states the service is for victims of bullying and/or hate online, defamation, stalking, terrorism, incitement, sexual violence and robbery.

The service is designed to be anonymous with options to contact the Justice Department by phone or via a chat box. The website also lists contact details for regional support services in all provinces across Austria. 

The free (kostenlos) hotline for Hilfe bei Gewalt is 0800 112 112.

Useful links

Hilfe bei Gewalt

Austrian Federal Justice Department