Auer Borea & The Kreisky Forum: Solving Problems Through Dialogue

Bruno Kreisky Forum director Gertraud Auer Borea d’Olmo keeps a low profile to make room for risks and big ideas

Top Stories | Dardis McNamee | February 2013

Gertraud Auer Borea d’Olmo at Café Engländer (Photo: Matthias Wurz)

Given the roster of leading thinkers who cross her threshold, it’s surprising how many are unfamiliar with the name of Gertraud Auer Borea d’Olmo, since 2005 the General Secretary of the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna. But she prefers it that way.

"It’s not about promoting me, it is about promoting ideas," she insisted over coffee at the Café Engländer on Postgasse in the 1st District. She gave an admirably Gallic shrug. "But the people who know the institution know that I’m there." So low is her profile that she was in fact surprised to be contacted for an interview, which "happens very rarely".

We met on a Tuesday morning, squeezed into the final free hours before she was to leave for Jerusalem to meet with a publisher and some of the people involved in the Kreisky Forum’s ongoing working groups on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Bruno Kreisky Forum is one of Austria’s leading think tanks, with an international reputation far beyond its size. Named for Austria’s great post WWII chancellor, the Kreisky Forum is dedicated to carrying forward the ideas and activities Bruno Kreisky most cared about over the course of his long political life. To this end, Gertraud Auer Borea gathers politicians, academics and "critical minds" from across the world for what the organisation’s website describes as "an exchange of ideas and possible solutions to complex problems that call for a global response."

The list of recent participants reads like a Who’s Who of public intellectuals: former Chancellors Franz Vranitzky of Austria and Helmut Schmidt of Germany, British MP and economist Robert Schiller, American sociologist Richard Sennett, Austrian political scientist Helga Konrad, and political theorist Benjamin Barber, as well as the courageous Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaja, murdered in Moscow in 2006, the brilliant British historian Tony Judt, who was a "regular" until his premature death in 2010.

"I see the Kreisky Forum as a platform where many puzzles of political and social life come together," Auer Borea said. Picking up from earlier programmes addressing global development, human rights and Europe after 1989, Auer Borea set about rethinking the Forum’s agenda for the issues of the new Millennium. It was in 2005, the 50th anniversary of the Austrian State Treaty and 60 years after the end of WWII. "Everybody was celebrating the victory of 1945," Auer said. "I wanted to do something else."

She found her answer through a friend, the distinguished art historian and curator Cathrin Pichler. It was a small booklet of a conversation between Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein from 1932 called Why War – not a celebration of victory, but an inquiry into origins, addressing not the eagerness of forgetting, but a commitment to understand.

"For me, it was a new way to look at problems, to change paradigms," she said, "and to see conversation as a means to develop ideas."


The lost art of conversation

Thus the Kreisky Forum was re-dedicated as a place of conversation, an antidote to growing social and political isolation, to the pace and fragmentation of modern lives; it would be a way to build and restore trust in the discussion of key issues of public concern.

"We live in a period where it is either very noisy or very silent. But the real sense of conversation, we’ve lost it," Auer Borea said. "Conversation in the best sense is participating with your brain and with your heart in developing ideas together with others." It would be this paradigm that would accompany her making of the programme.

Kreisky Forum programmes include three public lecture series: "Diaspora", addressing the many outcomes of migration, of exile or integration, multiculturalism and parallel societies and "Democracy Reloaded", asking the question of how to breathe new life into an old ideal, both curated by philosopher Isolde Charim; and the third, "Genial Dagegen", loosely translated as "inspired dissent", led by the provocative political journalist Robert Misik, that addresses the joint goals of prosperity and social justice and asks, "Why Not?".

But that’s just the beginning: Over the course of any given year, the Forum’s public programmes include programmes on the future of knowledge and the role of culture, on the global balance of powers, developments in Russia, Africa and the Arab world, and a series of memorial lectures in honour of Vranitzky, Politkovskaja, and Karl Kahane, the political economist, businessman and co-founder of the Kreisky Forum.


Dialogue behind closed doors

However, the most important role of the Bruno Kreisky Forum may be the part most people never see. This is the bringing together of colloquia that Auer calls "protected groups" who meet several times a year at the Armbrustergasse villa in the 19th District that was the former chancellor’s home. These are a group of private round tables on sensitive topics – like the ongoing discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that can often be addressed more effectively out of the limelight.

"The Middle East was very important to Bruno Kreisky," Auer said, "and here I have the opportunity to have an on-going conversation with very serious people from both sides without exposing them into the public light." It is a chance to speak more openly, to develop alternatives. In the best cases, a stronger trust can gradually emerge.

Here, Auer Borea’s low profile becomes an important asset. "It works because I’m not the one who wants something," she said. "I’m the one who tries to create an environment where people feel secure and protected to engage with each other and to make it possible even in difficult moments to overcome their fears and to smooth angers and angles."

It also helps to be asking in Kreisky’s name: "Carrying the name of this remarkable person, c’est un cadeau," she said in French. "It’s a gift; it opens so many doors."

Another "protected group", entitled Europe at Risk, is examining the continuing fallout from the 2008/9 financial crisis. A joint project of the European Council of Foreign Relations and the Austrian Defence Ministry, as well as the Center for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria, this group – some 20 to 30 of whom would be meeting in Vienna the last week in January – is looking at security risks, internally and internationally, at the rise of extremism, and also the dangers from Europe’s weakened position as an economic player.


Europe’s missing sense of together

Among the most interesting gatherings are The Vienna Conversations, so named to express Auer Borea’s ideal of problem solving through dialogue. In this "protected group" – now in its third round – the theme is solidarity, "the missing sense of togetherness in Europe".

"I think that we need the spirit of solidarity to become trendy again," she said, "a good brand, not a bad brand, not something which is dusty and old-fashioned."

The Vienna Conversations include some 20 intellectuals from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Jews, Christians and Arabs. "In the last seminar, a French historian set out to define the various ‘others’ we have, and what that means for the composition of a society. An Italian economist came up with a "Ten Commandments of Europe", including "that the breaking apart of Europe should be avoided at all cost."

"People are beginning to understand that fixing Europe is not only a technical problem," she said, "It’s not only mechanics, not driving a screw here and there and then you fix it. It is a matter of philosophical and social issues and very complex."

So I find myself wondering again about this low-profile leader of the Bruno Kreisky Forum. Is this a role of choice? Or (I’m reluctant to ask) is she a shy person, making virtue out of necessity?

Auer Borea laughed. "Shy?" she said, raising her eyebrows. "But I’m an actress!" Among her many credentials that include studies in French, English, and a Mag. phil. from the University of Vienna in Anthropology and Architecture, she studied acting in Paris, performed at the Wiener Festwochen and was the co-founder of the Theater Drachengasse.

Then, as if a masque had been stripped away, she launched into vivid descriptions of adventures in "theatreland", followed by joint awards for experimental architecture and a further chapter in the curating and mounting of large scale museum exhibitions in Paris, Vienna and Prague.

Along the way, she was deeply involved in a series of major politically-motivated occupations – of the Amerlinghaus, the Arena, and the Naschmarkt, by which young activists successfully pressured the Vienna city government to set aside these spaces for a cultural workshop and arts centre complex, a leading popular music venue and, as we all know, one of the liveliest and most charming open markets in Europe. And in every case, changing the face of Vienna for the better.

It was a breath-taking narrative, and utterly disarming. Thus tabling the "shy" theory once and for all.

For coverage of past lectures at the Bruno Kreisky Forum, see the list of articles here.

Bruno Kreisky Forum

19., Armbrustergasse 15

(01) 318 82 60


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