Book Review: Global Austria: Austria’s Place in Europe and the World

No longer an “Operettenstaat” or a “banana republic”, Austria has come a long way from being the “country nobody wanted”

TVR Books | Allan Janik | March 2012

Modern, Mobile and Poorly Understood

There are people who consider that Austria’s future, like that of opera, lies principally in its past. However, the spate of refreshingly brilliant contemporary operas – think only of Aribert Reimann or Michael Nyman’s stunning achievements – are enough to ward us off such facile generalisations.

So too with this 20th anniversary issue of the periodical-in-yearbook-form initiated by Günter Bischof and Anton Pelinka and dedicated to serious historical scholarship on today’s Austria, Contemporary Austrian Studies. Entitled Global Austria, the volume reminds us that Austria today is much more than the "Operettenstaat" or "banana republic" (title of a recent ÖRF TV discussion) that cynics take it to be. Austria has come a long way from being the "nation that nobody wanted" in 1919.

Apart from the opening chapters introducing the general theme and a handful of reviews, the bulk of the volume is divided into two sets of "topical essays." These inquiries by distinguished scholars explore Austria’s impact upon the world and the global impact upon Austria.

The contributions on the interest in and research upon Austria in China and Japan are eye-openers. China, for example, tends to coalesce around literature, while Japan chooses political themes, reflecting a tension found throughout Austrian studies, whose American practitioners tend to be historians and whose Austrians, literary scholars, each downplaying the other’s importance. And both tend to overlook social history, the point where politics and culture meet. But let us turn to the volume’s main themes.

The first set of historically-oriented essays treat a range of important themes: The rise and fall of international fascination with Vienna 1900; the infamous Wiener Welle of the 1980s and 1990s; the ideological polarization in the First Republic, the impact of the Austrian School of Economics, epitomized by the formidable F.H. von Hayek, in the wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of international socialism; Vienna as an international finance centre, something that has only really drawn closer attention on the part of the general public after Standard & Poor’s recent downgrade of Austria, precisely on the basis of its involvement in eastern European banking; the surprising fact that Austria’s capital is the world’s most sought -after conference centre; and, finally, co-editor Alexander Smith’s contribution on the international importance of the Austrian oil company, OMV,  as a modest but decidedly global industrial player, another surprise for many readers.

The second set of topical essays treat current developments in migration by Austria’s leading demographer, Rainer Münz; Austria’s role in Central Europe by Emix Brix, who helped to shape the developments he describes; an insightful study of the transformation of Austria’s political culture with the rise of populism co-authored by Fritz Plasser and Gilg Seeber; and a depressing but absolutely relevant analysis of her wishy-washy attachment to the European Union by Sonja Puntscher Riekmann.

These are doubtless the most challenging contributions. Each treats a sea change in Austrian social and political life in the course of the last fifty years connected with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the expansion of the European Union from twelve to twenty-seven members in the years between 1995 and 2007. The richly detailed chapter on migration focuses upon the transition from a labour force recruited from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey, to immigration predominantly from Germany and other EU lands.

The statistics are frequently revealing: For example, although people with only compulsory school-leaving certificates are over-represented among immigrants, so are people with university degrees. Moreover, the very idea that a significant number of Austrians migrate (to Germany, Switzerland and the USA) with more Austrian nationals leaving than returning seriously challenges the image of Austria that we find in the yellow press.

Austria’s "exceptional" role in Europe after 1955 as a "neutral" meeting place between East and West seemed to contain promises of political leadership based upon pluralistic cultural hegemony as long as Germany remained divided. The anti-totalitarian sentiments that united "Mitteleuropäer" from Warsaw to Toronto dissipated disappointingly into the outburst of inter-war-style nationalism in East Central Europe that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain. Instead, Austria became prominent in the financial restructuring of the post-communist societies in a way that had considerably less impact than Austrian Mitteleuropaer had originally hoped.

Austrian "exceptionalism" was rooted in a curious consensus between Left and Right-center (Austro-Marxists and Christian Democrats) that involved their sharing power as elements of a "social partnership" that guaranteed political stability and promoted trust among citizens. Starting with the "Waldheim Affair" in 1986 (in which the former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, candidate for the Austrian presidency, lied about his role in World War II) that political culture began to disintegrate: A citizen culture of relative contentment "was confronted with a subculture of discontent with strong feelings of lack of political influence accompanied by massive weariness and distrust."

Thus began an era typified at once by populism and grand coalitions from which Austria has suffered since then. While this is certainly correct, the authors tend to over-emphasise changes in the political situation at the expense of minimising Jörg Haider’s perverse brilliance in shaping the political agenda literally according to his whims. Is the populism he embodied the cause or the effect of radical changes in the mainstream political parties as some political scientists suggest? Or perhaps both? There is no clear answer for Austria or the rest of Europe. However, it is clear that Austrian dissatisfaction and disappointment with the European Union has been a source of aid and comfort to populists of all colours.

Wooed down a primrose path strewn with hollow promises of economic gains for all, Austrians overwhelmingly voted to join the European Union, blissfully ignoring political realities such as the Union’s infamous "democracy deficit". Austrian disillusionment with Europe took on monumental proportions when the other fourteen European nations imposed sanctions on the Black-Blue coalition in 2000. Since then Austria has come to surpass even Great Britain as the Euroskeptic land, something which is paradoxical given the great success of its first European Union commissioner in Brussels Franz Fischler, the respect given Othmar Karas and Hannes Swoboda as leaders in the EU Parliament and Austria’s growing prosperity within the EU.

Paraphrasing Wittgenstein, we can assert that the truth about Austria is never simple and never probable.

"It’s not simply that people abroad don’t know what’s going on here, people here don’t know either," wrote Karl Kraus, which is certainly at least half true, if not one and one-half times true. The editors and contributors to this richly informative volume have done their best to remedy that with respect to Austria’s position in the world today. Despite lacking discussions of certain aspects of Austria’s global presence (for example, the international prominence of Austrian physics and medicine would well have been worth an essay), this book as a joint venture between the Universities of New Orleans and Innsbruck is itself an illustration of its own main theme.


Global Austria: Austria’s Place in Europe and the World

Contemporary Austrian Studies

Vol. 20 (2011)

Edited by Günter Bischof, Fritz Plasser,

Anton Pelinka and Alexander Smith

University of New Orleans Press &

Innsbruck University Press, pp. 352

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