We were sitting in a common room in 1968 worrying and commiserating with a visiting Czech academic as it appeared increasingly likely that the Soviet Union would intervene to oust the liberalising government of Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia. There were practical and urgent things to worry about, but the talk turned to the long term future of the country. What would be ideal? A new, liberalised socialism? The Yugoslav model? The Scandinavian model? Full-on western capitalism? The Czech visitor looked increasingly disconcerted and detached as if were talking different languages. “Austro-Hungarian Empire was nice,” he said mournfully.
Of course, it wasn’t really. It was, as I heard an American guide telling his clients outside the Hofburg, ” . . . . an incredible situation, fourteen nations ruled by two.” The empire was constitutionally unstable, riven with ethnic conflict like a dozen Irish questions rolled up into one mess and highly repressive, at least in intent. (For the peculiar flavour of Hapsburg repression one must read Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk.) On the other hand the ethnic tensions, including anti-Semitism, did not spill over into widespread violence and the repression was narrowly political and generally inefficient. The whole edifice was only brought down by a war that brought down nearly everything else. The empire was indisputably better for most of its subjects than anything that followed and, arguably, better than any real alternatives. Certainly, that was the view of the western powers who thought the Hapsburgs had to be propped up because the probable alternative to them was the expansion of the German and Russian empires and even greater instability. Anyone who thinks of themselves as a conservative should give some thought to the Hapsburg Empire as a massive example of how change is often for the worse.
It wasn’t just getting by. “Vienna 1900″ is shorthand for an explosion of intellectual and artistic innovation. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Popper, Arnold Schönberg, F.A.Hayek, Hans Kelsen, Gustav Klimst, Gustav Mahler and many others were all products of the reign of Franz-Josef and they set the agenda for twentieth century thought in philosophy, psychology, politics, law, economics, art and music. At the time Vienna was seen from the west as a decaying backwater full of chocolate soldiers and aristocrats with obscure titles; in fact, it was anything but behind the times – it was setting the mental tone for the coming century.
So when we ask for a restaurant recommendation it is no surprise to be advised to try the tafelspitz “because it was the Emperor’s favourite”. Nor, when I ask for a beer recommendation, I end up with half a litre of Franz-Josef. I may be in danger, as a reactionary monarchist, of over-estimating other people’s nostalgia for the time before 1914, but at the same time you can be certain that there is no chance that one will be recommended a dish because it was the favourite of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfus or given a half a litre of a brew named for Kurt Waldheim, even though he was Secretary-General of the United Nations as well as Chancellor of Austria. The jury is supposedly still out on how close Waldheim was to war crimes in the Balkans. His family name, incidentally, was Watziawick, a Czech name which his father Germanised in the ethnic purification which followed the collapse of empire. The brute fact is that there is no list of great Austrians from the twentieth century republics and tourists go to Vienna to celebrate the cultural achievements of the Hapsburg regime. It is about Mozart and Strauss and “Vienna 1900″, just as it is about the mighty architecture of the empire, especially the buildings along the Ringstrasse which replaced the city walls in the second half of the nineteenth century. And it is about Franz-Josef not just because he lasted so long (he was on the throne from 1848 to 1916), but because he represents a certain kind of decency, unlike most of his successors.
Austria lost everything in 1918. It lost its hinterland: what are now the Czech and Slovak republics and Hungary had far more economic connections with Vienna than did the regions which now form the western part of Austria. In another dimension it lost its identity. “Austria” meant the empire: since the Dual Monarchy agreement of 1867 the inhabitants of what is now Austria had been encouraged to regard themselves as Cisleithanians, in reference to the conception of an empire with three distinct parts, the other two being the kingdom of Hungary and the Bosnian condominium. But the rest of Cisleithania disappeared into their own new republics, as approved by President Wilson. The population of the rump, German-speaking lands had always been referred to as “Germans”; the Kaiser’s subjects were called “Reich Germans” after 1870. They thus had no particular identity of their own. No wonder Anschluss was on the cards from the start, with several kinds of plebiscite showing overwhelming favour, though Voralberg did vote to join Switzerland, a proposal that was not reciprocated. But the French were always going to veto the Anschluss with Germany. Thus the image of “orphan Austria”: while the other components of the empire hived off to their exciting new ethnically-based republics, even if they eventually regretted their new arrangements and new partners. “Austria” was now the name of an unwanted rump.
As an example of how complex and elusive Austrian identity can be consider the best known of all “Austrians”. The six-year-old Mozart famously leapt onto the lap of the Empress Maria Theresa and gave her a cuddle; I have been in at least two rooms, in different buildings, where this event was said to have occurred. But he was not one of her subjects because the principality-bishopric of Salzburg was not part of the Hapsburg lands. He was, though, in a rather formal sense, a subject of her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, who was Holy Roman Emperor at the time (1762). Ethnically, the Mozarts would have been considered simply German. Of course, one must immediately admit that such questions of identity as applied to individuals can quickly become silly. I recently had such a dispute about whether Stan Laurel was a Lancastrian; he was from Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, now part of Cumbria. It would be churlish to deny the Austrians Mozart if (for example) the Bruegels are Belgian.
If 1918 was bad, 1945 was rock bottom. Graham Greene’s novella/film script The Third Man describes a Vienna that was derelict, occupied, utterly corrupt and without hope. Yet in a strange and important way its identity problems came to the rescue. It suited the allies, even the Russians, and certainly the Austrians to treat Austria as detached from Germany and as one of the countries occupied by the Third Reich. This was contrary to all reasonable interpretation of the evidence, but it helped justify all the allies disengaging from the country in 1955 leaving it with a strictly defined neutrality, even though, for example, Steven Beller in the Cambridge Concise History of Austria suggests that Austrians were less than 10% of Anschluss Germans, but provided more than 50% of personnel involved in enforcing the Final Solution. As a result, Austria was divided and occupied for only a fraction of the time that Germany was and did not experience de-Nazification even to the extent that Germany did. It is impossible to imagine Kurt Waldheim having the career that he did if he had been a German or a German land having a governor with the political views of Jorg Heider, who was governor of Carinthia. It must be remarked, though, that Heider’s views were complex and shifting and he was often in trouble for saying things that were true, such as that Hitler had an effective employment policy.
But I can understand German resentment of Austria and I vividly remember a night out in Berlin in the early 1980s with a friend from the city. We had a few drinks and ended up at the Wall, which he kicked, shouting, “There’s no f***ing wall in Vienna”. I find it slightly shocking that in several parts of Vienna (not least in the Central Cemetery) there are plaques and memorials to the “great mayor” of the city from 1897 to 1910, Carl Lueger, who was rabidly anti-Jewish and admired by the young Hitler, though Franz-Josef initially vetoed his appointment. Complexities here include Lueger’s otherwise impressive record and the suggestion that he was much less anti-Jewish in practice than in rhetoric. And the city also retains places named for Marx, Engels and Lassalle, vestiges of “Red Vienna”. Other suggestions of an unreformed outlook may be in the eye of the beholder: I find myself looking at people in Austrian traditional dress, which is quite common on Sundays, and wondering what they really believe, just as I look at men in kilts differently these days. And there are issues from the Anschluss period which will not go away, notably that of art which was stolen (or, at least, coercively transferred) from Jewish to non-Jewish ownership during this period. The Austrian state does not come well out of Simon Curtis’s 2015 film The Woman in Gold, which is about the recovery of one of Gustav Klimst’s most famous works by the descendant of the family that owned it.
Austria lived through two generations of wild dreams and nightmare after the collapse of the Hapsburg regime in 1918. It has done rather better since. It is in the top twenty in the world on all lists of GDP per capita – and above Germany in all of them, too. It has some superb public services, especially in health and transport. The political system is hardly the most viable of democracies, being dominated by “grand coalitions” of the centre-right and centre-left intended to exclude extremists, but the result at least provides stability, moderation and international respectability. The foundations of all this were laid between 1955 and 1995 when the country lived in an enforced separation from its neighbours and from the international organisations it would naturally have joined, including NATO and the EEC. One of the main directions of the last twenty years has been the privatisation of an economy which was for a long time étatiste.
In some ways, a century on, Austria has recovered itself. The fall of Communism and the expansion of the EU have given it back its hinterland. Vienna feels like a multi-national capital again and you can easily hop on a train to Bratislava or Prague or even Budapest (if the station isn’t besieged by migrants). The Euro and the Schengen agreement mean that neighbours feel like the same country again, albeit to different degrees. But if the hinterland problem is solved, the identity question remains complex and there is a surprising amount of Euroscepticism in Austria. Austrians clearly feel less German than they did, just as Scots feel less British. It is interesting to note that Jorg Haider came from an originally rabidly pro-German background and that was his own original position. But he was a populist and a maverick and his anti-European stance was partly dressed as anti-Anschluss. One of the most bizarre pieces of European legislation (and it’s a big league) is that you cannot sell Aprikosen in Austria: apricots must be sold under their local, Austrian, name, which is Marillen.
National identity is a complex and contested concept almost everywhere. Austria’s problems in this respect have been extreme, not least in their complexity. They do, though, suggest two relatively simple lessons. The first is that if you join in a project to exclude from your sense of identity your most vibrant ethnic group you may start with wickedness, but you will move on to sheer mediocrity: nobody will ever talk about “Vienna 2000″ as we talk of “Vienna 1900″. Who knows about Vienna 2100? The second is that states tend to form their own national identities, especially when isolated. All other reflections are bound to be more complex, but when we think about empire or about what it is to be British or English or Scottish, we would do well to bear in mind the Austrian comparison, even if no simple parallels can be drawn.
Lincoln Allison January 2016