Austria: Second Try

Austria has faced—and overcome—many of the challenges that now face Eastern Europe.

In Vienna, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart rates a statue, an alley, and a square. Karl Lueger is honored with a bigger statue, a bigger square, and the most august section of the Ringstrasse, the Dr. Karl Lueger Ring, which is the site of Austria’s parliament, the university, the Burgtheater, the town hall, and the Volksgarten, a large park. Lueger, who was Vienna’s mayor at the turn of the century, is, together with another Austrian politician of the same period, Georg von Schönerer, one of the fathers of modern anti-Semitism. “I regard this man as the greatest German mayor of all times,” Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. “If Dr. Karl Lueger had lived in Germany, he would have been ranked among the great minds of our people.” Upon receiving the news of an election victory by Lueger in 1895, Theodor Herzl, a Paris-based Viennese journalist and the father of Zionism, drew up a plan for a Jewish exodus from Europe.

Lueger, Von Schönerer, and Herzl are the central figures in Carl E. Schorske’s famous essay “Politics in a New Key: An Austrian Triptych,” originally published in 1967. These three men, in Schorske’s view, expressed (in different ways) an abrasive, reactive, “post-rational” type of politics that “constituted part of the wider cultural revolution that ushered in the twentieth century”—and that contributed mightily to Europe’s social and political disintegration. (Austria, as the nineteenth-century poet Friedrich Hebbel once wrote, is “the little world in which the big one holds its tryouts.”) The process began in Vienna in the second half of the nineteenth century, when liberalism rose to challenge a fossilized political system and ruling class. Though “strong enough to dissolve the old political order,” Schorske wrote, “liberalism could not master the social forces which that dissolution released.” Vienna at the time was flooded with immigrant laborers from throughout the Hapsburg Empire, which encompassed all of present-day Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, and parts of Germany (until 1866), Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Romania. Once freed of the empire’s autocratic shackles, these masses proved ready not, as the liberals had hoped, for a tolerant social democracy but for various kinds of exclusivist nationalisms, as well as a virulent anti-Semitism

The situation seems somehow familiar. In Eastern Europe today, and particularly in the Balkans, political liberation has begotten many narrow nationalist movements among peoples who lack the moderation that comes of middle-class prosperity. If the Austria of fifty or a hundred years ago showed where Central and Eastern Europe were heading, an understanding of Austria today may likewise offer hints of what’s to come.

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The Lueger monument, on Dr. Karl Lueger Square, is a stark example of fascist realism. Hand on heart, in sartorial splendor, der schöne Karl stares forward into the future, his eyes brimming with determination; muscular, naked-to-the-waist workers armed with shovels and pickaxes surround him on the plinth. Austrians justify the monument by pointing out that Lueger built Vienna’s subway system, its sanitation system, and other adornments and amenities. But it is also the case that many Austrians simply do not find Lueger’s beliefs abhorrent. A recent opinion poll funded by the Austrian government and conducted by the Vienna Institute for Conflict Research indicates that 37 percent of Austria’s 7.5 million people display “acute or latent anti-Jewish ways of thinking”; 13.8 percent of those polled admitted to a feeling of revulsion at the thought of shaking hands with a Jew. The fact, moreover, that Austrian voters in 1986 elected Kurt Waldheim as their President, despite his having served as a Nazi intelligence officer in the Balkans during the Second World War, suggests a population unable to come to grips with its own Nazi past.

But Prince Charles VII Schwarzenberg, a Viennese hotel owner and a descendant of the man who defeated Napoleon at Leipzig, in 1813, looks at the Waldheim affair differently. “The scandal was a hidden blessing,” he says. “Though foreigners didn’t notice, it forced Austrians, particularly young ones, to focus harder on our historical reality.” Many foreign observers, along with Austrians who have impeccable anti-Nazi credentials—such as the Vienna-based Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal—agree with Schwarzenberg completely. “Kurt Waldheim made everybody suddenly interested again in the Nazi period, and that’s a good thing,” Wiesenthal says.

As Wiesenthal, Schwarzenberg, and other Austrians I spoke with in the course of three recent visits to their country pointed out, Austria’s political evolution, like that of its neighbors to the east, has been messy and complex. The Battle of Königgrätz, where in 1866 the Prussian Minister-President Otto von Bismarck-Schönhausen defeated the Hapsburg army, settled forever the question of which German-speaking people would be dominant in Europe. It also set Bismarck on the path toward the creation, five years later, of a Prussian-led Reich. Bismarck offered Hapsburg Austria generous peace terms, because what Prussia—and soon after, Germany—required was a friendly, preferably subservient, buffer state between itself and the hostile Slavs and Turks. The German Reich, in alliance with Hapsburg Austria, helped precipitate the First World War, a conflict that saw the defeat and dismemberment of both countries. And yet, although Germany under Bismarck was the cause of Austria’s decline into a second-class power, and Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II shared responsibility for the destruction of Austria’s empire, pan-German feelings remained widespread in Austria.

Austria has always been especially susceptible to such sentiment. The closer one gets to either the eastern or the southern fringe of the German-speaking world—the closer one gets, in other words to Slavs—the more insecure, and thus the more dangerous German nationalists become. On the German world’s eastern frontier, Pomeranian and Silesian Germans question the legitimacy of the Polish border. In the south, in Austria, where blood from all over the Slavic world actually flows in “German” veins, denial of this elemental fact of ancestry can sometimes verge on the paranoid. Carinthia, an Austrian province that borders on Yugoslavia and contains a sizable Slovene minority, was a center of Austrian Fascist activity in the 1930s and produced many of those who ran the death camps. Its provincial government today is led by a fervent nationalist member of the right-leaning Freedom Party.

The collapse of the Hapsburg Empire left a power vacuum in Austria, which, combined with ethnic hatreds, brutal class divisions, and a collapse of Vienna’s banks, subverted the country’s postwar experiment in democracy. In February of 1934 Engelbert Dolfuss took power in a Fascist coup. Austrians gave Hitler widespread support when he invaded Austria in March of 1938 and forced upon it an Anschluss (“union”) with Germany. Only with Vienna’s near-destruction during the Second World War and Austria’s subsequent occupation by the Four Powers (one of which, the Soviet Union, continued to occupy eastern Austria until 1955) did Austrian enthusiasm for the pan-German idea begin to ebb.

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“Austria, as something distinct from Germany, had a cesarean birth at the end of World War Two,” Prince Schwarzenberg explains. Fritz Molden, a leading Viennese journalist, says, “The Nazi occupation crystallized a separate Austrian identity.” Falling back on what was uniquely Austrian meant rediscovering what had been good about the world of the Hapsburgs: the pride in sovereignty, the pluralism, the cultural efflorescence. In the dreary aftermath of the Second World War the Hapsburg epoch, despite its iniquities and inequities, appeared good, even innocent, compared with what had occurred in Austria between 1918, when the dynasty collapsed, and 1945. More important, the memory of the Hapsburgs, however retouched, served as a foundation for Austrian patriotism and for a conception of Austria’s role in a multi-ethnic and politically diverse Central Europe. In 1956, only a year after Soviet troops withdrew from Austria, and with the Soviet threat still quite real, the memory of Austria-Hungary helped a militarily vulnerable Austrian government muster the courage to roundly condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary. A beginning, though a small and tenuous one, had been made.

The second experiment in Austrian democracy has provided more successful than the first. There have been no riots or coup attempts, and not even—leaving the Waldheim affair aside—much inflamed rhetoric. The most popular and able postwar Chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, who governed in the 1970s, was Jewish. For two decades now, Arab pressure notwithstanding, Vienna has served as the surest transit point for Soviet Jews en route to Israel. Waldheim himself, it seems, has become a deliberately forgotten figure. Considering his position and reputation, he receives remarkably little space in Austrian newspapers. If all this contradicts the statue of Karl Lueger and the persistent anti-Semitism, the explanation is that contradictions abound in societies in transition.

Prosperity lies behind Austria’s transition. Its inflation rate is among Europe’s lowest. Vienna is among Europe’s most glittering and expensive capitals. Austria appears to be providing for a soon-to-be reunited Germany what it once provided for Bismarck’s Reich: a buffer that almost invisibly augments German clout in Eastern Europe. The buffer this time, of course, is economic, not military.

Austria is non-Soviet Eastern Europe’s second biggest Western trading partner, after Germany, accounting for 10 percent of the region’s total trade with the West. Close to 14 percent of  Hungary’s Western trade is with Austria, and Austria and Germany combined account for well over half of all Hungarian-Western trade. These figures achieve their full significance only when one looks at the bilateral Austrian-German economic relationship. Last year more than a third of Austria’s exports went to Germany, while Austria imported 43.4 percent of its goods from its neighbor. German companies have been buying out Austrian ones. Austria makes many of the spare parts for German cars. The Austrian  schilling has been pegged to the German mark since the early 1970s. The two countries are also in harmony on the issue of financial policy. Both have staunchly independent and conservative central banks that follow unyielding anti-inflation policies, to the sometime displeasure of France, the United States, and other Western countries.

All this makes the two countries natural allies. Though officials in both countries are loath to admit it, Germany and Austria, with their convergent economies, form a veritable Greater German trading bloc. A former U.S. ambassador to Austria, Henry Anatole Grunwald, calls it “a virtual economic Anschluss.” But such an Anschluss, Grunwald adds, has no clear political or emotional content; Austrians state emphatically, and for the most part convincingly, that the one thing they are not is “German.” As a small state that has retained a distinct identity despite the intimate economic embrace of a larger neighbor, Austria offers a seductive model to its eastern neighbors. Czechoslovakia and Hungary in particular—fellow descendants of the Hapsburg Empire—seem destined to follow Austria’s example and forge close economic ties with Germany.

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One sign that may bode well for Austria’s future lies in what has been happening in the southern province of Carinthia. Carinthia is the kind of place that if it were located in Romania would doubtless be torn by bloody communal strife. Although most of the province’s population is ethnically German, perhaps as many as 10 percent of the people are ethnic Slovenes, and all the time more and more Slovenes are pouring from Yugoslavia into Carinthia to shop and do business. Last year Jörg Haider, the populist leader of Austria’s Freedom Party, which in Carinthia has been associated with a movement for separate classrooms for German-speakers and Slovene-speakers, was elected governor. Carinthia is also the home of the Carinthian Heimatdienst, a group founded after the First World War and revived, with a neo-Nazi ideology, in 1955.

But the peace has not been shattered. As Simon Wiesenthal explains, “the Freedom Party can do nothing without an economic or social crisis, and such a crisis does not seem likely.” In Klagenfurt, the Carinthian capital, the only slogans I saw on the streets were those for credit-card companies. Israel is brought up as just another destination favored by local sun-worshippers. Instead of the grimy, sullen-faced laborers and empty store windows that I’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Yugoslavia, Romania, and other Balkan states, in Klagenfurt I saw Thorstein Veblen’s leisure class in a typical shopping-mall setting; Carinthia’s nouveau-riche population thinks less of ancient enmities than of economic advantage. After the excited, racially biased harangues I’ve heard throughout the Balkans, my visit to the headquarters of the Heimatdienst proved anticlimactic. The head of the Heimatdienst, Josef Feldner, is calm and polite. He says that the idea of Greater Germany is dead and that his organization is interested only in preserving the integrity of the German language in a linguistic frontier region. Although the organization’s history and literature make one uneasy, the formalities of a middle-class democracy apparently demand that even the Heimatdienst make a show of moderation.

Is Austria, as Prince Schwarzenberg believes, a “window on tomorrow”? Shortly before her death, in March of last year, the ninety-six-year-old former Hapsburg Empress, Princess Zita, said she hoped the various peoples of Central and Eastern Europe would live well. The elaborate funeral given her at Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, in which prayers were read in several of the languages of the former Hapsburg Empire, appeared to express not only the Austrians’ nostalgia for a relatively peaceful and racially tolerant age but also their hope for the future. And for the formerly communist nations to the east, the Austrian present is hardly the worst future to hope for.