New World Rebels at the Imperial Court

The Museum of Military History celebrates 175 Years of U.S. – Austrian diplomatic relations

Top Stories | Simon Ballam | November 2013

When they met, Austria was a giant empire encountering a dwarf-like distant colony, barely independent and without many allies. Much has changed over the past 175 years. 

As the U.S. Congress appointed William Lee in 1777 to be America’s first diplomatic representative to the Austrian-Hungarian court, imperial diplomats declined to recognise an upstart young nation that had just booted out its legitimate ruler, another European crowned head.

The files in the Hofkanzlei referred to American officials as "rebels" and "insurgents". Documents – and insights – like these are part of a small but fascinating exhibition just opened in the magnificent Arsenal (Armoury), home to the Austrian Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Museum of Military History).

Just to walk into the Arsenal’s grandiose entrance hall is worth the trek to the 3rd District, right beside the new Hauptbahnhof (main station). The architecture is a splendidly overdone melange of Renaissance meets Gothic meets 19th century imperial bombast.

On all sides are two-metre statues of the great generals and heroes of centuries of Habsburg military adventurism.  On this occasion, the imperial splendour was softened, however, by crisp white linen-draped tables bedecked with welcoming glasses of good Austrian wines.


The flag follows trade … so what’s new?

At the opening on 15 October, the evening began with an intriguing tour d’horizont of U.S.-Austrian relations from museum director Christian Ortner. Initial reluctance to have any truck with the rebels from the young and distant republic soon softened, as Austrian business interests discovered the potential in America’s cotton and tobacco products.

A much more recent anecdote: A bunch of farm boys from eastern Austria’s winegrowing Burgenland, who were scooped up in the final months of WWII to work as POWs in California’s wineries, were largely responsible for helping the state graduate from student jug wine to Upper East Side dinner tables.


Austrian talent for American goods and aid

The exhibition is modest in size, just one gallery right off the entrance hall, but densely packed with fascinating detail.

There are original documents (a humble note from an American envoy to the omnipotent Prince Metternich requesting an audience with the emperor) through to ironic cartoons showing Uncle Sam presiding over "the greatest department store on earth", as American business invades the sceptical European markets (around 1900).

In the other direction the list of Austrian emigrants who left their mark on the US seems endless:  Hollywood greats Michael Curtiz, Otto Preminger, Max Reinhardt and Josef von Sternberg of course, legendary gurus Peter Drucker and Josef Schumpeter and last but not least, Leo Hirschfeld, inventor of the Tootsie Roll (an indestructible candy and standard equipment in GI’s ration packs).

There are a number of obligatory photographs of forgettable politicians and long-buried ambassadors shaking hands or posing archly at functions, but not enough to dilute the charm of the good stuff.

Shots of The Third Man’s Joseph Cotton handing out huge CARE packages to bemused little Viennese children, and a map showing how the massive funds behind the U.S. Marshall Plan were allocated across Austria, are an always timely reminder of how an almost absurdly magnanimous America helped a shattered and humiliated Austria re-build in the grim days after the terrible European war.

One can’t help wishing something of the same spirit dictated U.S. foreign policy today.


3., Arsenal Object 1


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