Austria Put on the Couch

Today: How is Austria different from Germany, anyway? Our guide, via the Danish newspaper Politiken, is Marlene Streeruwitz, once again a prize-winning author (novels, plays, radio-plays) and translator, whose works we are told focus upon “the terror of every-day life, nearly-unbearable normality, and the laid-waste relation between the sexes.” We get an initial clue about her homeland from the review of one of her radio-dramas that was broadcast a couple years ago on Danish Radio, which judged Frau Streeruwitz’ anger as “typically Austrian, that is, substantial and implacable.” Indeed, take a look at Frau Streeruwitz’ portrait, if you please. That’s only a half-smile you see there, at best; indeed, I’d also call her look “substantial and implacable.” (I bet she’s divorced.) But to proceed . . .

  • Painting: Peasant Marriage, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Note that this is a Flemish painter she chooses here, not any Austrian. But the painting itself hangs in the Art Historical Museum in Vienna, you see. More to the point, it was originally part of the art collection of the Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian) Empire, and Streeruwitz writes that Austrians are still having a hard time getting over those 600 years of cosmopolitan empire to fashion a modern culture of their own that can fit their smaller post-1918 scale. It doesn’t help that the tourist dollars mainly seek out the remnants of that old style of life. (Wait, what about those who come to ski?)
  • Photograph: Foreign Minister Figl holds up the 1955 state-treaties. Those were the treaties that re-established the independent Austrian state, after the Anschluß with the Third Reich in 1938, World War II, and then ten years of four-power occupation – i.e. including a Soviet occupation zone (in the East, surrounding Vienna) and Vienna also divided up among the four powers quite similarly to Berlin. Yet in 1955, at the height of the Cold War and with the McCarthy anti-Communist witch-hunt just subsiding in the US, everybody agreed to withdraw out of Austria and let it resume being an independent country, whereas Germany had to await the collapse of Soviet power in 1989 before West and East could be again be reunited.

    How come? It was probably due to the Soviets’ key requirement, namely that Austria remain neutral in the great Cold War confrontation, joining neither bloc. The United States could accept that for Austria, but could not accept that for Germany. (Although they professed that that’s also what they wanted, it’s probably doubtful as well that the Soviets could have accepted a re-united Germany at all, just ten years after having suffered so at its hands, whether there were promises of its neutrality or no. Come 1990, there was little they could do to stop that, especially in the face of the manifest desire of German populations both East and West to reunite, although they did take part in the “two-plus-four” negotiations that set the international framework for German reunification.)

    On it’s face, actually, this photograph really sucks – just a bunch of men in suits on a balcony, waving what looks to be a big book around. (It truly pales in comparison to other Europa XL entries, such as my own personal favorite, Denmark of course, or Italy’s, which is not even a photograph per se but a still from a film.) The interesting aspect, though, is that it has to do precisely with contemporary Austrian society, marking the beginning of that new existence after World War II was over and done with. As you’ll see, Streeruwitz quite literally illustrates her thesis, discussed above, of an Austria torn between its present existence and its past glory by evenly mixing her cultural choices from among both these spheres.

    One final thing. Streeruwitz briefly mentions here one fact that I didn’t know: that the four powers removed at the last minute the provision in these Austrian state treaties which made Austria co-responsible for the Second World War. Interesting. As she then points out, Austria was thereby able to carry on from there with the assumed posture of a victim of Nazi aggression, rather than an abettor, until the scandal over the German army past of former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim in 1986 raised the old questions again.

    Such a pedestrian picture, but so much that can be extracted from it.

  • Person: Empress “Sisi” – more formally: Elizabeth, Empress consort to Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph. Yes, I’ve heard about “Sisi” before, but as “Sziszi” – the Hungarians loved her especially, it’s said, because she liked to spend time there (she had her own horse-palace at Gödöllõ, just outside of Budapest) and, more substantially, because she helped bring about the Ausgleich of 1867, which basically made Hungary co-equal in the Empire to Austria. (But she wasn’t Hungarian herself, even though she was said to be very beautiful – then her name would have been Erzsébet, now, wouldn’t it have?) Streeruwitz’ main point here with “Sisi” is to refer once again to the long-lost Austrian glory days: “Everything was more beautiful then,” she writes, “and Austria meant something.” (This photo is also a film-outtake, from a 1955 film in which Sisi was played by the German actress Romy Schneider.)
  • Object: Edelweiß, scientific name Gnaphalium leontopodium. Very good. This is the famous mountain-flower, particularly associated with the Alps and Austria since the 1965 film The Sound of Music popularized the “Edelweiss” song.
  • Text: An Outline of Psychoanalysis, By Sigmund Freud. Why not? – although I don’t think that Streeruwitz means to assert that Austria is a particularly neurotic country. But she does assert that “all great souls have [always] had to leave Austria,” as Freud himself did.
  • Hymn: Silent Night (as in the Christmas hymn). Note that Streeruwitz’ musical entry is not “Song” or “Music,” as elsewhere, but “Hymn.” And why not? Plenty of reasons “why not,” namely each of the other big names in musical history that were Austrian: Schubert, the Strauss’s, not to mention Mozart. The “Silent Night” melody was composed by the Austrian Franz Xaver Gruber, while the (German) text was written in Salzburg by Joseph Mohr, both of these back early in the 19th century. But so what?
  • Poem: “Corpus Christi,” by Theodor Kramer. “Corpus Christi,” as in the Catholic holiday, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. I apologize, I can’t help you here. Streeruwitz has chosen an obscure poem from someone who is, to me at least, an obscure Austrian poet. The bulk of the entry here consists of the very poem, translated into Danish. I won’t even try to translate poetry, particularly when it is translation at third-hand (German to Danish to English), nor do I ever care to try to summarize a given poem’s contents in ten-words-or less. This entry is simply a loss, at least for those with not enough Danish to read poetry in Danish.

    Update: I wasn’t about to try to decipher this poem based on the Danish translation alone, and it turns out my caution was justified. I finally found the the original German version on the Internet, to come to grips what this work is all about; the four-stanza poem describes a religious procession, undertaken by a very few, through the streets of a city. And there are a couple of problems with that Danish translation. Minor problem (but enough to send a warning signal): The Danish version speaks of “rain stifling the [procession’s] incense” (first line of second stanza: Regnen kvalte røgelsen) but there’s no mention or implication of rain in the original. The thing is, you could maybe understand adding something minor like this to the poem, were it the case that the Danish translator was trying to make his translation rhyme just like the original does. But he is not. Major problem: At the end the Danish version has det skjulte kors – “the hidden/concealed cross” – swinging out of windows, while the German original has das verbogne Kreuz – “the twisted/distorted cross” (and, by the way, the German version has them on flag-masts, not out of windows, but no matter). Those meanings are of course very different: “hidden” vs. “twisted.” In particular, I think we can assume that “twisted cross” here means the swastika, so that that adjective verbogne is key to the poem’s depiction of passers-by witnessing a religious procession in the street, with bowed heads and tears in their eyes, while swastika-flags twist in the wind at every window. You lose that entirely with “hidden” in the Danish version; indeed, if these flags are floating out of the windows, how are they “hidden”? Actually, I think the Danish translator made a mistake and saw an “r” where it wasn’t, i.e. read (instead of verbogne) verborgne – which is indeed German for “hidden.”

    So there you have it: Nazi flags floating, meanwhile the religious procession in the street. Austria under Nazi occupation, in other words. And Streeruwitz takes the occasion here to lament “the merciless synchronicity in history . . . how can a society recover from this?” Much ado about nothing here? Well, I don’t like to have to write “I can’t make anything out of this Europa XL entry, dear readers – you’re on your own!” (Right, but then all those of you out there who know both German and Danish should come out all right.) After finally finding Kramer’s German original, I wanted to retrieve that situation somewhat.

  • Food-dish: Wienerschnitzel. Back to the familiar! Of course! Even though as Streeruwitz notes, the dish was first known as “Milanese.” Austrians have at least inherited a partiality to good food from the old days.
  • Place: The Hahnenkamm ski race-course. OK. As Streeruwitz points out, skiing is immensely popular in Austria, a real highlight of the local culture. But “female skiers always take second place to the men and earn less money,” she complains.
  • Event: Austria’s “Yes” vote in its EU referendum (1994). I don’t think so. This is just another choice made to balance out all those other Empire-related choices, to try to throw the spotlight back on contemporary Austrian society. There were many other much more important events in Austrian history, the Ausgleich itself being merely one among many. It’s also amusing that Streeruwitz asserts here that, with that referendum, “Austrians for the first time could determine their own fate.” No – “Yes” was clearly the only answer, and they provided it. EuroSavant has a thing about bogus referenda, where there seems to be a real choice to be made but there really isn’t; I covered this topic a while back.

So tell me then: How is Austria different from Germany? Well, it seems that Austria is all-mountain, while Germany does have a lot of lowlands as well. More significantly, it seems that 1918 made Austria into a pitiful runt of a country (confirmed in 1955), that still finds it hard to forget those many centuries when the Austrian Empire spanned the entire southeastern quadrant of Europe, and was the bulwark for the rest of the European peoples against the Turks. Germany’s empire – the Second Reich, 1871 to 1918 – hardly lasted as long, and what’s more had its own reputation blackened by association with the Third Reich, so the Germans have gotten over all that much better. Plus, the Germans know that they make up an important country again, before reunification but also particularly after.

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