Dec 2004 Journal

previous article:Life certificates: a new development
next article:Dutch girl's concentration camp love letters

A change from The Sound of Music

Countries, especially when they have expanded empires, are in the habit of inventing a mission for themselves. France boasted of its mission civilisatrice, while Germany claimed Es wird am deutschen Wesen einst die Welt genesen (The German essence will heal the world). Imperial Britain saw itself as a reincarnation of Rome - cf Palmerston's Civis Romanus sum speech - and Dostoevsky apostrophised Tsarist Russia as the 'Third Jerusalem'.

What of Austria? Once it was celebrated in the phrase Austria Erit In Orbe Ultima, as the empire that would outlast all others in the world. In the seventeenth century it actually stopped the Turks, and thereby Islam, from advancing into Western Europe. Thereafter it declined and, after 1918, all that remained was a rump state. With the empire and vital economic assets gone, it had to rebrand itself, as it were. The answer was - symbolically, at least - the Salzburg Festival. In other words, the country re-emerged as a magnet for music lovers and tourists.

This artistic aspect of Austria's modern raison d'être is important. For decades after 1945 the country was in denial about its involvement with Nazi barbarism, and the undiminished worldwide reputation of the Vienna Opera and Philharmonic helped to spread this unfortunate amnesia. The fact that a Karajan had advanced rapidly, thanks to the purge of Jewish conductors, and that Karl Boehm had acquired an expropriated Jewish apartment was conveniently glossed over.

Other cultural instances of Austria's refusal to face its past were the resurrection of the career of Werner Kraus (of Jud Süss notoriety), and the rehabilitation of Paula Wessely, who on Nazi orders had cravenly denounced her benefactor Max Reinhardt and starred in the bloodthirsty propaganda movie Heimat.

With beneficiaries of Nazi patronage like Karajan, Wessely and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf high in the cultural firmament, postwar Austria had returned to the status quo ante in one important sphere. A corresponding development took place in the political arena when (a) Chancellor Kreisky took the ex-SS officer Karl Peters into his cabinet; (b) Waldheim was - twice - elected president; and (c) Haider joined the government coalition.

However, even in Austria the devil, and his toadies, did not have all the best tunes. The country's past literary celebrities included humanitarians like Grillparzer, Nestroy and Wildgaus - as distinct from reactionaries like Heimito von Doderer - and the former have had some notable contemporary successors. One was Thomas Bernhard, who hated Catholic, superficially denazified Austria to the core of his being. He went so far in his revulsion towards his compatriots that he forbade posthumous performances of his plays in the country.

Several years ago a similar ban on the staging of her own works was decreed by the 2004 Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jellinek in protest against Haider's inclusion in the government. Jellinek's work has likewise targeted the Nazi collaborator Paula Wessely, while her play Totenauberg dealt with the relationship between the world-famous philosopher Martin Heidegger and his PhD student Hannah Arendt. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in the year of Hitler's takeover, whereas Arendt was Jewish. Jellinek's own pedigree bears a strictly limited resemblance to this. Her Viennese mother stayed loyally married to her Czech Jewish father, who escaped the Holocaust as a chemist employed in the German war effort. However, postwar his dreadful experiences caught up with him, and he suffered a terminal nervous collapse.

The writer's view of the world as a place full of violence and (male) oppression was clearly shaped by this - which makes her an uncomfortable denizen of the country of The Sound of Music.
Richard Grunberger

previous article:Life certificates: a new development
next article:Dutch girl's concentration camp love letters