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A Poignant Week in Vienna

I spent a week in Vienna at the end of April, 2000, as a guest of the Austrian Institute for Nonlinear Studies, a group of three neat scientists exploring the fundamentals of physics and evolution. I was their keynote speaker for their 10th anniversary at an international cybernetics conference (European Meetings on Cybernetics and Systems Research). I almost didn't come. As a Jew, I was rather upset by the turn towards fascism in Austria.

I offered my hosts the option that I would stay away as a protest. But they were in the streets protesting themselves, and we agreed it would be better if I came to Austria. The head of the conference, Robert Trappl, and the Dean of the University of Vienna started the meetings with very strong, stirring statements of tolerance. It was a good start to a week of trying to fathom what was going on. Such a brief visit makes me no expert. But perhaps a little feedback will help those of you who need to live with the situation daily, and may want to influence which way Austria goes.

I come from a country, Canada, that is 100% made of immigrants. Even our Native population derives from people who walked over the Bering Strait perhaps 50,000 years ago. In regard to Austria's new immigrants, what I observed is that there is a financial need for them, they become citizens, and they intermarry. As in Canada, the prejudice against them will die down, and then some of their descendants will hold the same prejudices about the next wave of immigrants.

The Jews I met had no use for any of the Austrian political parties: their property was stolen in World War II, and hasn't been returned. They feel in no particular danger, though the submachine guns outside the Stadt-Tempel synagogue during a Bar Mitzvah I attended made we wonder about this. The plaques on the wall in the synagogue were particularly poignant. While in Canada we have a generalized memorial to concentration camp victims in each of our synagogues, in Vienna every other plaque was for an individual or family who died at the hands of the Nazis or disappeared. As one fellow put it, "we live the Holocaust every day". Praying in that synagogue makes the Holocaust intensely personal. The agony of those who died and those who survived and remembered them screams from that wall.

I was curious why this synagogue survived Kristallnacht and World War II. The answers I got were: 1) it had to be built to be inconspicuous, looking like an apartment building from the outside, as required of the Jews by a pre-Nazi government (assimilation by invisibility); 2) if burned by the Nazis, it might have taken much of Vienna with it; 3) if burned, the records of most of the Jews in Vienna would have been destroyed, making it harder to identify and kill them. So the presence of this magnificent synagogue now is bitter sweet. It would have been better for the Jews of Austria had the Stadt-Tempel been burned.

I had little time for sightseeing. I went off to the Natural History Museum, which is wonderful, reminding me of the Field Museum in Chicago, where I grew up. The Director has prepared a window with copies of plates from: Haeckel, E. (1904). Kunstformen der Natur/Art Forms of Nature, Leipzig: Verlag des Bibliographischen Instituts. The young ladies giving an insect demonstration told me of his keen interest in Ernst Haeckel, which I share.

Afterwards, wandering the streets of downtown Vienna, I came across and participated in an evening demonstration by the youth wing (Sozialistische Jugend Österreich) of the socialist party out of power. It was tame, with everyone, police included, well behaved, in an endless procession of candles. The fellows I spoke with indicated no discussion was going on about why the party lost, and the Jewish viewpoint seemed distant to them. This is a party that needs shaking up from within, if not replacement, not silence in the name of "solidarity". Unfortunately Haider (FPÖ: Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs) seems to be the only one who sees this, and how to do it, for his own agenda.

I like your Vienna, and got a sense of why it has such a rich history of contributing to world science and culture. It's safe and clean, with little evidence of poverty, at least along my limited wanderings, and bubbling with life. Except for a few unbendable bureaucrats, people were friendly, and it felt comfortable being there. Fascism was not in evidence, except for news of the turning of the screws on the University, on the press, on the immigrants, on the Jews. The whole world is mystified why a rich nation should act this way. The pat answer is a refusal to face its history. But that may be a "red herring". Those who hold fascist views of the world know that history, and perhaps even want to repeat some of it. Their notion of any threat to Austrian culture seems ridiculous to an outsider, who sees a robust culture that has made, and continues to make, major contributions to world culture out of proportion to its size.

The real problem may lie with the nonfascists, who are not prepared to face the inaction of their "moderate" political parties. It is the ÖVP (conservatives: Österreichische Volkspartei) and the SPÖ (social democrats: Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs) who did not welcome the Austrian Jews back, and who perhaps thereby created the atmosphere that makes new immigrants unwelcome. If I have anything to advise from such a short visit, it is that the liberal elements in Austria should begin with cleaning their own house. What they learn in the process will help them stay the course of reducing fascist thinking in Austria. It's a long haul, easily a generation or two. But there is so much positive going on in Austria that I am quite hopeful this can be achieved.

I grew up in the USA. Despite liberal parents, I absorbed the general prejudice that prevailed against blacks. I could only begin to change when I faced the fact that I had internalized this prejudice, and de facto was not the liberal I was brought up to be. Prejudice is an irrational fear, but it can be overcome by practising behaving in the opposite manner the fear suggests. If I may venture a guess, it is that well meaning liberal people in Austria may have the same problem I had. As the cartoon character Pogo once said: "We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us."

Richard Gordon
Department of Radiology,
University of Manitoba, Winnipeg