TransAct 65

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Problems with your children? The government office responsible for young people will sort it out! Problems with work? The employment office will sort it out! Here in Austria there are great expectations of the state, said a Turkish social worker who has been working with young people in Vienna for many years. In contrast, the Turkish public would simply expect nothing from the authorities. Traditionally, they are used to getting nothing from them and expecting nothing – except tax burdens, special military laws or the recruitment of their young men into the service of the state, which has no interests in common with those of the population. That is if they are not directly against those interests. Against the Kurds, for example. As evidence for this N.N. cited the fact that even in the years of continuous PKK terror which did not stop at the Turkish population, there was no outbreak of collective aggression against the Kurds.

Austria: I know of no other country in which so much is expected from the state but at the same time there is so little identification with it. More still – this state is regarded as an enemy. It gives – that is its duty! It takes – and this is felt to be inevitable interference. In a different way, for example, as in Italy (where the black economy has far larger dimensions than in Austria), the state is not craftily taken for a ride, but it is cheated in the consciousness of a natural right to resist inimical far-reaching state power. Taxes, especially inheritance tax, for example, cause bitterness and gnashing of teeth. Cheating the state is not almost a sport (who is more crafty or cunning) but a defensive mechanism of the weak, that is those who are at a basic disadvantage. Only a few people consider the fact that the state is made up of all its citizens as a whole. This does not only lie in the consciousness of the people but also in national politics. Beneficiaries and opposition at the same time – the traditional double role in a tragicomedy which has a long way to go before the final curtain falls.

Paradoxically, Austrian nationalism makes an exception of itself. It is less virulent than that in the former Yugoslavia, for example, but it is just as displaced and just as out of tune with the times, even if not so new in its acute danger. What the Austrian style of hostility to foreigners (with a simultaneous over-proportional generosity in making donations), what this xenophobia feeds seems to be based on deeply-seated feelings of hurt. And here, at the latest, one must turn to history.

Here is the shrunken empire of the Hapsburgs which was reduced to the comparatively ridiculous remains of a state in 1918 and there is the Vienna telephone directory which still provides evidence that the large majority seems to consist of immigrants of the first, second or third generations. That immigrants by no means always have a friendly attitude towards later arrivals (even family members) is shown by studies of Kurds in England and also by experience with refugees from East Germany before the fall of the Iron Curtain. But nowhere does rejection of new immigrants (even those from the same ethnic and cultural context) seem to remain so stubbornly in place as in Vienna council flats. After all, the major reason for building them was to accommodate the massive flood of people from the former Hapsburg Empire. That integration occurs as a result of adaptation does not only apply to Austria. But nowhere else does adaptation force people to give up so much of what is their own. Whereby there is also the decisive question about what one should adapt to: to a civil society or to a subservient mentality. In Austria one is also forced to be grateful for giving up one's own way of life. Adaptation is a basic condition for Austrian identity, which is seen as national and not as part of a modern state. Adaptation which goes as far as making what is foreign unrecognisable. This is also the attitude of the Waldheims and the Westentalers. Odilo Globocnik (Gauleiter of Carinthia and later Kaltenbrunner's henchman) apparently did not even once consider changing his name. 

Austrian nationalism is a phenomenon of the Second Republic. Jean Améry noted with astonishment that after the Second World War, in addition to the political importance, the intellectual potency of this country was reduced, but that nevertheless – in a state "that nobody wanted" – in a surprisingly short time people's "recognition of Austria" had transformed itself into a clear vision of themselves as Austrians. He referred to a conversation with Ernst Jandl who responded to Améry's question by describing himself as an Austrian author. – Not as a German! Today this may appear to be taken for granted (like the indignation of the Foreign Ministry when the Goethe Institute abroad presents Kafka, Musil and Broch beside Goethe, Fontane and Böll as German authors without making any distinction).

However, what is forgotten in all this is that still after the Second World War even a Renner continued to believe that Austria should actually have been a part of a larger Germany. For well-known political reasons this was no longer possible. However, these reasons were rational and opportunist. Austria could never have presented itself as the first victim of National Socialism and come to such perfection in this innocence. All this is fairly well known. The point is the dichotomy between the relationship to the state and the way of seeing what is Austrian. It would have been rational to recognise the state as the sum of its citizens and to leave what is national behind. However, exactly the contrary is true. The feeling of being Austrian is one of sentiment and resentment.

It is true that recent studies have shown that hostility to foreigners is much higher in Hungary or the Czech Republic than in Austria; Germany and Belgium have far more extreme right-wing marginal groups; minorities are less protected by the French state than by the Austrian; Italy has the Mafia and a strong right-wing; Spain has ETA military terrorism and a right-wing which can keep under cover under the current government and so on. Are we not good in comparison? And this EU has ordered sanctions against us? This is exactly where the resentment lies which does not bow before reason and which can simultaneously be put to political use – and that is what makes it more dangerous.

One would think that in these post-modern times of pragmatism, being used to pragmatic neo-liberal globalisation, it is virtually a banality that autonomous national politics and more especially national economics are outdated. However, exactly those (in every sense) chimeras of an Austrian nation serve to stoke up resentment on the highest political level and that is what cannot be tolerated by the other EU Member States. The sanctions were not imposed against the Austrian citizen but against a government which (at least partly) had made use of this resentment. Responsibility for the sanctions, as an unjustified guilt verdict and punishment, was shifted onto a whole society which had felt its national pride to be damaged. The potential and partly existing anger against the government was therefore turned against those countries which had imposed the sanctions. This is the only way in which the excitement of those who felt no effects of the sanctions can be understood. An alliance between the government and society was created via national resentment: the game of making political capital.

It is typical of this country that a person's position and significance are confused. People become important personalities when in a particular post, only to sink back into private obscurity when they are no longer in that position. Here individuals are worth nothing if they are not representatives. And as representatives they have two faces which usually have little to do with the real person. One is the face of authority and the other that of a figure of national integration. Whoever can play the piano of national resentment can even pragmatically do the opposite of what he says without coming up against serious resistance. This does not indicate that Austrians have no sense of reality but rather a mentality which has been trained for far longer than two hundred years with the fundamental principle: Everything for the people but nothing by the people. Franz Joseph can still hold his ground as a figure of integration although the opposite was the case and it can now be taken as proven that it is not only a pity that he ruled for so long but that he came to govern at all. After Hegel, belief is also reality if only a sufficiently large number of people believe. It is not a sense of reality which is lacking in Austria but the kind of civil rationality which is the only means of bringing authority down to the fundamentals of the constitution and of making them into what they consist of: office-holders empowered by democratic vote to act responsibly and to bear responsibility in the service and to the benefit of the whole of society. This rationality is not opportunist. Rational opportunism blooms all the more. Longue durée. From Metternich until today. This opportunism is even closely related to reality. Far more than German idealism was.

Here good sense is outwitted alongside reality. In the best case, art can also be created if it can make this mechanism transparent. Playfully. Not classically. That is also a reason why there is no classic of Austrian literature. And this basic trait can even be found in the "classics" of Austrian architecture – although often misunderstood. Friedrich Achleitner has repeatedly pointed this out with reference to Hans Sedlmayr.

It is clear that Austria is considerably influenced by all the above-mentioned conditions. It is no coincidence that the real scandals in this country – those which cause heated tempers – have been sparked off by art. From Adolf Loos and Oskar Kokoschka to Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek. To a large degree – and one can say to a significantly larger degree than in other countries – new art comes into being out of subversion. The sense of reality described is subjected to critical appraisal and in this way, based on a concrete proximity to reality of a completely different kind, the background wit follows in the footsteps of that which (in its own specific form) was the Commedia dell Arte in Italy and the picaresque novel in Spain. A sadomasochism which gives itself air and space to breathe in a satirical way. The lightning wit in the blackness. There are countless examples of this – from Nestroy to Karl Kraus or Anton Kuh up to – in the present day – Franz West, Cornelius Kolig and (each in their different ways) H. C. Artmann and the Vienna Group, Ernst Jandl, Bodo Hell, Franz Schuh, Antonio Fian and Josef Hader. Background precision and analytical rationality in the detail. Usually by linguistic means. That is no basis for classical values but for rationality. In spite of this: years ago there was a top level symposium called the expulsion of good sense. Not only was Sigmund Freud driven out but also the Vienna Circle. Whereas Austrian empirical criticism has thrown some light on the world it has remained relatively dark here. The driving out goes on. Also a story of insults.

This country has a culture of the insulted. Too few people attempt to face these insults in a rational, productive and innovative way and too many answer them with resentment. Even now? A question of the generations in the face of international mainstreaming? The facts in Austria contradict this. Our right-wing populist party may still attract the most young voters. Nevertheless, one can live in hope. The price to pay for the loss of specifically Austrian art and cultural resistance would be high but not too high.

Finally: history has always been made. Not only by politicians, the economy and the media. Unique in the fact that it cannot be turned around, it can be compared with natural history. It is never just SO.

Martin Adel
Freelance Journalist 
University Lecturer at Austrian and foreign universities