Polemical Austria: The Rhetorics of National Identity: From Empire to the Second Republic

Polemical Austria: The Rhetorics of National Identity: From Empire to the Second Republic

by Anthony Bushell


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Polemical Austria: The Rhetorics of National Identity: From Empire to the Second Republic by Anthony Bushell

Today Austria is a small, neutral, and economically successful country in the heart of Europe. Yet modern Austria is the product of a complex and turbulent history. Following World War I, Vienna lost its position as the capital of a large continental and multiethnic empire and became an alpine republic surrounded by larger states. Anthony Bushell’s Polemical Austria examines this transition, asking how such an abrupt change has affected the way Austrians perceive themselves today. Bushell places particular emphasis on the role of language in Austrian national identity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708326046
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 08/15/2013
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 8.60(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Anthony Bushell is professor of modern languages at Bangor University and a visiting scholar at St John’s College, University of Oxford, both in the UK.

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Polemical Austria

The Rhetorics of National Identity: From Empire to the Second Republic

By Anthony Bushell

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2013 Anthony Bushell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2604-6



Introducing a small handbook of facts and figures about Austria, the type of publication produced by most governments, but here uncharacteristically without a date of publication, the Chancellor of the Republic of Austria, Dr Wolfgang Schüssel, wrote in his short preface lines that would be the envy of any political leader:

Österreich ist ein leistungsfähiges Land. Die Bilanz der wirtschaftlichen, kulturellen und soziologischen Entwicklungen seit 1945 zeigt Österreichs Erfolgsgeschichte. Dies hat auch zu dem Ruf unseres Landes als 'Insel der Seeligen' (sic) beigetragen.

(Austria is a competitive and efficient country. The record of its economic, cultural and social development since 1945 is a story of success, helping our country to earn the reputation of being an 'island of the blessed'.)

The Chancellor had indeed much to be pleased about in what must have been late 2004 or early 2005. By any international standards most Austrians had tangible cause for contentment as they looked back on their country's history since 1945. Austria's citizens were now enjoying some of the highest standards of living on the planet, the Republic's welfare provision was exceptionally good, and in such countable areas as low youth unemployment rates or the least number of days lost through industrial disputes Austria had been ranked for years amongst the world's leaders. Its status as a neutral and non-aligned state meant that the Republic and its citizens were not involved in costly or bloody military operations apart from some small-scale peace-keeping duties on behalf of the United Nations, an expression of Austria's laudable desire to contribute to the well-being of the international order. After some initial nervousness, the Republic of Austria had also weathered the tensions surrounding the collapse of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s and the subsequent implosion of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a state with which it had shared an at times contested border. To its east Austria suddenly found itself flanked by former Warsaw Pact states that had embraced with alacrity market economy values, thereby offering Austrian enterprises considerable, and very profitable, opportunities for increased trading and the chance to export advanced Austrian technical and commercial know-how to newly emerging economies. Chancellor Schüssel had good cause to be personally satisfied too, as his photograph accompanying the preface suggested. His gamble in breaking away in the late 1990s from Austria's traditional grand coalition pattern of post-war government seemed to have paid off. The price had been coalition with Jörg Haider's Freedom Party, which had enjoyed breathtaking success in the 1999 elections. Schüssel was leader of the conservative People's Party, the ÖVP, and although his party had performed poorly at that election, receiving fewer popular votes than either Haider's right-wing populist Freedom Party, the FPÖ, or Austria's Socialist Party, the SP Ö, Schüssel was politically shrewd enough to make the most of a weak hand by forming a government with the politically inexperienced Freedom Party. The international response to a Freedom Party in government in Vienna was initially one of alarm and protest. Schüssel, however, was to keep his political nerve, and by the time of the next elections in 2002 his party had recovered well enough to emerge as the strongest party whilst the Freedom Party fell back with the loss of thirty-four of its seats in the lower house of Austria's Parliament, the Nationalrat. Schüssel prolonged the coalition with the Freedom Party but it looked as if the populist upsurge had been tamed. It was little wonder therefore that he felt and looked secure in the photograph accompanying his preface. (Interestingly, in earlier years such publications carried pictures of all the Republic's past and serving chancellors and presidents. His was now the only picture, and the absence of a date of publication might even suggest that Austria's contentment had become truly timeless.) His preface did make mention of one date in history, 1945, and that date alone would serve many purposes. It was the date which would act as a base line for modern Austria, a state popularly referred to as the Second Republic. Using the end of World War Two as the point of departure for most measurements and comparisons implied that there was no need to look back any further to earlier dates. The shadow of the weak First Republic, created out of the chaos of the defeat of 1918 and the ending of over six centuries of Habsburg rule, was just that: a mere spectre, an unpleasant but fading memory that had not even been experienced by most living and voting Austrians in the early part of the twenty-first century. And 1945 was, at least to those who could still remember their basic European history, the point at which Austria disentangled itself, or more accurately had been disentangled by the Allies, from its incorporation into the German Third Reich. The final element in the quotation above taken from the preface, the accolade of being an island of the blessed, was surely an example of Austria being more Catholic than the Pope, for it was a variation on an expression used by Pope Paul vi on the occasion of a visit to the Vatican of Austria's President Franz Jonas in 1971. In the early 1970s Austria was still a solidly Catholic society, as it had been for centuries. The Jesuits had ensured such a state of affairs by encouraging the forcible expulsion of Protestants within Habsburg territory in the wake of the Counter-Reformation. Luther's Bible translation into German had spread dangerously quickly amongst the independently minded and literate skilled craftsmen of Vienna, and without a concerted effort by the emperor and the Church large parts of the Habsburg territories could well have joined the Reformation lands to the north. That threat had passed and, with the exception of Vienna, modern Austria would remain a generally loyal and obedient ally of the Vatican. Even as late as the 1970s there was little sign amongst Austrian Catholics of that querulous nature of more progressive Dutch Catholics whose spirit of liberalism was causing their bishops so many problems. Pope Paul vi rewarded Church obedience and apparent social harmony by bestowing the expression 'Insel der Glücklichen' (island of the happy, or fortunate) upon Austria when he received President Jonas. It was in the subsequent repeating of the expression that Austrians took the opportunity to upgrade the term from happy to blessed and so imbue it with even greater pontifical and religious fervour.

Austria: a country of the prosperous and a land enjoying, or so it would seem, divine sanction. Schüssel's description of the process as a success story could hardly be gainsaid. Sixty years on since Austria's emergence from the end of a painful war was an undeniably appropriate time-span for taking stock, and the chancellor and many of his generation would also have been conscious of many other anniversaries now inviting comparison between Austria's present, happy state and far more difficult times in previous decades. It had been half a century since the State Treaty had been signed in 1955, restoring Austria's sovereignty after a decade of foreign occupation by the Americans, the British, the French and the Soviet Union, and although many Austrians would claim that the period under Hitler's rule following the Nazi annexation of 1938 had been a violation of Austrian statehood, it did not follow that most Austrians regarded the presence of those armies which had ended that occupation as therefore worthy of being hailed as forces of liberation. Other anniversaries also lurked beneath the surface, although there remained considerable reluctance to evoke them for fear of unleashing unresolved antagonisms. At the time that Schüssel's preface was published Austria's short-lived civil war of 1934 already lay seven decades in the past, an event most Europeans would today struggle to recall, given the hold on the imagination of the ferocity of the Spanish civil war which had broken out two years later in 1936. This would be understandable, for the Austrian civil war had claimed a few hundred lives and some ten executions were carried out. Approximate calculations for the Spanish civil war, by contrast, suggest half a million killed and a slightly lower number forced into exile. Yet the Austrian civil war would paralyse Austrian politics for decades just as much as Spain's civil war and its unimaginable brutality would shape the course of political life on the Iberian peninsula. Initially the Austrian civil war guaranteed with disastrous consequences that the non-Nazi parties in Austria would be incapable of combining to form a united front in the face of Germany's annexation ambitions. The longer-term impact of the civil war would be of a different nature but also insidious to the development of democratic traditions within the Second Republic. Post-war Austria coped with its painful history initially not by a fearless and in-depth re-examination of its past, but by an act of denial, by putting its history to rest without further disturbance. Accordingly the little handbook for which Schüssel wrote the preface offered startlingly few dates from the interwar period. It finds it important to relate that 1920 was the year the most easterly and least populated province Burgenland was admitted into the young Republic but makes no mention of the dates of the many plebiscites in which most of the other provinces in the early 1920s voted to join Germany or Switzerland, an expression of the despair most Austrians felt over a future in the truncated state which the Allies had granted Austrians after the fragmentation of the Empire. Other and far more fateful dates for which one would search in vain in the handbook included the shooting of Socialist demonstrators in the Burgenland village of Schattendorf in January 1927, an event which in turn provoked an arson attack upon Vienna's Palace of Justice in July 1927 following the acquittal of those right-wingers charged with the shooting at Schattendorf. The burning down of the Justizpalast was regarded as an expression of class war and drove a wedge through any hope of social harmony in the new Republic. The civil war, the assassination of Chancellor Dollfuss in July 1934 during a failed Nazi putsch, and the unopposed entry of German troops into Austria in March 1938 also receive no mention in Schüssel's preface or anywhere else in that government publication.

Harmony after 1945 would thus be achieved at the cost of partial amnesia. Avoidance of any confrontation with its own painful past became not only a psychological tool to avoid selfscrutiny; it was an approach instrumentalized by the Austrian state to ensure national and social cohesion. Robert Menasse, an untiring critic of the way in which post-war Austria had dealt with its historical legacy after 1945, expressed the rationale used in these terms:

Die Gründerväter der Zweiten Republik, die erlebt hatten, daß Menschen wegen ihrer Gesinnung verfolgt worden sind, beschlossen, damit dies nie wieder geschehe, ein System zu errichten, in dem man sich ohne Gesinnung zusammensetzen kann.

(The founding fathers of the Second Republic, who had witnessed people being persecuted for their convictions, resolved that, in order to prevent such things happening again, a system should be put in place in which people could be brought together without the need for any conviction.)

Menasse's perspective of viewing the Second Republic as a state constructed upon the foundations of ahistoricism might be explained by many influences at work: initially after the end of World War Two there was a reluctance by an older generation of politicians to go over troubled ground or to antagonize those many Austrians who had been stripped of their voting rights by virtue of the denazification legislation but whose disenfranchisement was not a lifetime ban and who could therefore be expected to reappear as a sizeable element in post-war electoral equations. This neglect of Austria's recent history explained in part the intensity of response and the subsequent convulsions caused not only by the rise of Jörg Haider but was also the fall-out from an equally turbulent time in Austrian politics a decade earlier which had been brought about by the election in the mid-1980s of Kurt Waldheim to the office of president of the Republic of Austria. The international furore surrounding Waldheim's election campaign against a background of serious allegations challenging his own minimalist account of his record as a serving office in the German Wehrmacht during World War Two will be discussed later in this study, but both the Waldheim and the Haider phenomenon deeply disturbed Austria's preferred projection of itself. It would provoke, as will be shown later in this study, a belated and intense occupation by Austrian writers, intellectuals, journalists and professional historians with Austria's history and Austrian identity. But the drift towards a position in which Austria placed itself outside of history had been detected some time before the Waldheim débâcle. By the late 1970s a former editor-in-chief of Die Presse, a leading Viennese newspaper with roots going back to the year of revolution in 1848, surveyed post-war Austria and could see a country that had placed its own history behind itself and was now lying comfortably in the autumn sunshine and resting, as he expressed it, against the wall of its house whilst securely sheltered against any cruel winds that might still be blowing outside. The distinguished Austrian historian and political scientist Anton Pelinka saw such a stance as part of the inevitable and necessary process of national healing and self-protection, but he nevertheless recognized such strategies as also belonging to a world of taboos and self-deception.

Schüssel's confidence was shared by another conservative chancellor of Austria, Josef Klaus, and in another preface, this time in a work published in 1965 and thus marking the first two decades of Austria's post-war reconstruction, Zwanzig Jahre Zweite Republik. The book's subtitle, 'Austria finds its way back to itself ', acknowledged unmistakably a country that had been blown off course but had now rediscovered itself. It is remarkable how much Klaus's preface anticipated Schüssel's. No date before 1945 was offered as a constituent of Austria's modern identity. The preface does not deny the darker and more painful aspects of Austrian identity, but the roots of that pain had been visited upon Austria by forces that were not indigenous to the country but had been imposed from outside, by a 'ein landfremdes System' (an alien system). As in Schüssel's preface, the name of Germany is never invoked. Klaus, like Schüssel, is keen to talk of the Second Republic in terms of success. Indeed 'der größte Erfolg' (the greatest success) of the Second Republic as it celebrated its first twenty years was, according to Klaus, the creation of a sense of community, 'Gemeinschaft', uniting all Austrians after years of division. Like Schüssel, Klaus looked at Austria's record sheet and was well satisfied with what he found, and clear distance between now and the past is claimed, for twenty years have been enough to permit conclusions on that achievement, 'ein abschließendes Bild' (a concluding picture), to be drawn. Klaus was no more generous than Schüssel to his political rivals, but at least he names two of his predecessors, Leopold Figl and Julius Raab, both from his own party, as the main architects of the Second Republic's success. Nor did Klaus lose the opportunity to identify his own party, the ÖVP, as the principal contributor to the emergence of this successful new Austria, although he stressed that such a view stood above any party political evaluation. Klaus concluded by stating that the various contributions in the book demonstrated impressively that Austria had once again found its firm place in the consciousness of the rest of Europe, of the world and, above all, amongst Austrians themselves, as if they were the last constituency still to be convinced. Both chancellors did not shy away from emotional language. For Klaus the reborn Austrian state had found its way, he claimed, into the hearts of the Austrian people; forty years on, and this modern Austria was for Schüssel firmly embedded in the very heart of Europe ('eingebettet im Herzen Europas').

Eulogy, optimism, party political opportunism, a newspaper industry lacking at times in credibility, and amnesia, both individual and institutional – to talk about Austria is to encounter a myriad of approaches towards the phenomenon of Austria that so often refuses to come into focus. It would be tempting to dismiss much of what Schüssel and Klaus wrote about post-war Austria as merely the obligatory cheerfulness of serving politicians in high office, were it not for the fact that the prosperity and the civil cohesion of Austria's Second Republic which they invoked in their respective prefaces had become tangible achievements. What appeared at first sight to be Klaus's shameless praise of his own party's contribution to the restoration of an Austrian identity was not so misplaced: the ÖVP was to provide all the elected chancellors of the country after the war until 1970, when Bruno Kreisky became the first post-war Socialist chancellor. And the Austrian Conservatives and even the Austrian Communists were to find their way back to an Austrian identity well before the Austrian Socialists had overcome their own considerable ideological reservations regarding an independent Austrian state. In the years running up to the First World War Rosa Luxemburg, in a series of astute articles for the Polish journal Przeglad? socjaldemokratyczny on the problems of nationality and autonomy, had been conscious of the struggle that Austrian Social Democrats were experiencing in attempting to resolve the nationality problem within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it was only after the ending of the Second World War that the Socialist Party finally became firmly committed to an Austrian state.


Excerpted from Polemical Austria by Anthony Bushell. Copyright © 2013 Anthony Bushell. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents


Part One: Towards a Theory of Austria

      1. Felix Austria?

      2. Locating Austria

      3. Austria and Concepts of Identity

Part Two: Writing Austria

      4. Austria’s Identity and the Response to Revolution

      5. Vienna: Print and Pre-eminence

Part Three: Austria: Revived, Reviled, Revised

      6. Failure at the First Attempt: The First Republic

      7. Austrian Identity and the Impediments of History

      8. Voicing Austria in the Second Republic

      9. Challenging and Confirming Identity in the Second Republic




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