Authors: Andrew Riemer
The place is, of course, wonderfully well maintained; in better shape, to be truthful, than Vienna's own funfair, the Prater, which is looking decidedly grotty by comparison. The city is, nevertheless, just as much a place of illusions and even perhaps of cheap thrills, a bold pretence that this dead city is still vibrantly alive. There is no cogent reason for the existence of Vienna except as an essay in sentiment and nostalgia. In the patterns of late twentieth-century political, social and even perhaps cultural life Vienna and Austria are both irrelevant, both victims of a grand predicament.
Austria's predicament is that it has lost its Empire. The scope and style of Vienna are ridiculously inappropriate for its population of a few million. Its grandeur may have impressed the inhabitants of Kakania, perhaps dampening their envy and restlessness by the assertion that this was their city too, a part of their proud heritage. Yet Kakania has been dead for many yearsâonly the outward signs of its existence remain in this city as reminders of a vanished world. The result is an ever-present yearning for the past and an ugly cultural xenophobia masked by a welcoming smile. Austrian nostalgia, the pursuit of
visible in the streets of contemporary Vienna, did not exist so blatantly in the days of the Empire, when this small duchy stood at the centre of a vast and polyglot conglomerate of often unruly subject peoples. The transformation of the Holy Roman Empire into the Austro-Hungarian by the adroit House of Habsburg ensured that Austria could continue to enjoy its essential centrality, its conviction that it, and it alone, represented the essence of âEurope', having successfully resisted those anarchic waves of republicanism and liberalism that flooded over many other states of the continent. The history of Austria throughout the nineteenth century reveals a striving to maintain such an insistence in the face of
Prussian ambition and energy. The disintegration of the Habsburg world in the years leading up to the Great War, observed with such malicious relish by Robert Musil in
The Man Without Qualities
, was the product of that rivalry, and also of the disastrous alliance between the newly formed German Empire (always seen by Austria as something of a parvenu) and the Habsburg realm, the old centre of the European spiritâthat is to say of German civilisation and language. Before 1918 âAustria' was a cultural and idealistic concept that could embrace people in the most remote parts of this realm, like the people of the Bukovina commemorated by Gregor von Rezzori, or people like my grandparents, German-speaking Hungarians, Jews and Bohemians, who saw themselves as citizens of this world despite its many hatreds, rivalries and exclusions.
The paradox of contemporary Austria is that it has been obliged to transfer that imperial dream, its conviction that it is the leader of peoples and nations, into an entirely non-political sphere, or at least into a dubious political and cultural idealism. The people strolling around the immaculately swept streets of this theme park are, in a way, just as much displaced persons, exiled from their birthright, as those former citizens who were driven to the farthest corners of the world by fear, enmity and hate, people who elaborated a mythology of this golden world in countless cafÃ©s and espresso bars in Sydney and Melbourne, in Buenos Aires and Rio, in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Vienna is wholly immersed in its past. The repertoire of the Vienna State Opera, that glamorous and prestigious establishment, is the most conservative in the world, with almost no departure from standard Italian and German works. Even in the visual arts, âmodern' in Vienna means Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oscar Kokoschka, artists firmly embedded in the culture of the
. Concert-goers still consider Mahler a difficult modern composer. In no other city of Europe, not even in the architecturally richer cities of Italy, is the tendency to conserve, that is, to live in history, so evident as it is here.
The extraordinary number of dwellings Mozart occupiedâgenerally because of his difficulties in paying rentâin the last ten years of his life are meticulously marked throughout the inner city. You may stay in this pension, where he wrote
The Abduction from the Seraglio
, or take coffee on the ground floor of a building where the G minor symphony was composed. Meanwhile the living culture of the German-speaking people is conducted elsewhere, in the cities of the newly reunified Germany, the world that Habsburg pride used to regard with undisguised contempt. To the citizens of Munich or to the inhabitants of the newly reunited Berlin (half glitz, half grot) Vienna is a cultural mausoleum dedicated to the old and hopelessly outdated fantasy of Kakania.
As you walk around the streets of Vienna, that worldâthe world of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubertâseems to be a living reality. In the narrow passages of the old city the baroque palaces look down on the bustling world below with seemingly timeless serenity. Here is a sense of continuity, of the intimate and life-sustaining connections between the past and the present. A moment's reflection should remind us, nevertheless, of the lessons of the theme park. Vienna was almost wholly obliterated during the Second World War. Most of the city's famous landmarks were lovingly restored during the 1950s and the 1960s. My first memory of this cityâfor I do not remember the times I was taken there in my infancy to visit relatives or to spend a few days among the woody hills of the Wienerwaldâis of the early winter of 1946, when my parents and I were making our way to our new life in Australia.
We spent those weeks of anticipation in a small hotel in the inner city. The three of us slept in one room, which was cast into a constant gloom throughout the dark winter days and nights. No glass remained in the handsome windows that looked, or should have looked, down on the thoroughfare below. They were boarded up with plywood, with one small rectangle of glass set into one of the panels. The only other source of light was provided by a naked low-watt bulb hanging from the ornate ceiling. At night it illuminated the heavy
furniture and the great tiled stoveâentirely useless because of the lack of fuelâwith the exaggerated lighting effects of an expressionist film. Some years later I encountered those images again, in the old Regent Theatre in George Street, in Carol Reed's homage to the German expressionists,
The Third Man
The scene outside the hotelâfragments of which you could glimpse through the small piece of glass in the windowârevealed the characteristic images of defeat. The shabby citizens of Vienna shuffled up and down the cobbled street, avoiding the piles of rubble that lay everywhere. Some were carrying shapeless bundles, others pushed carts filled with torn mattresses, pieces of an iron bedstead and other curious items. The occupying forces, chiefly Russians with their mouths filled with gold teeth, looked on with contempt. An air of utter despair hung over the city.
My parents pointed out two vast ruins at opposite ends of the central part of the KÃ¤rtnerstrasse. At one end only a few fragments of the elaborately patterned roof of the cathedral remained. At the other the great Opera House was an empty shell. Catholic Austria, the Habsburg patrimony that made Vienna the most violently antisemitic of European cities, and the chief monument of its culture (which so many Jews fostered and patronised) had both fallen victim to a dubious vengeance. Today the crowds milling around the church admire a building steeped in history. Visitors from the new world, especially the newest of the new, are visibly impressed by something so ancient, a monument that seems to have lasted so long, withstanding the ravages of time. Yet both the cathedral and the theatre have been rebuilt after their almost total destruction. These monuments of Austria's pride and achievementâboth spiritual and culturalâmay be regarded as gigantic essays in trompe l'oeil, an elaborate attempt to deceive, to gloss over a reality that no-one wants to remember, just as in a theme park you may find intricate reconstructions of days gone by or of worlds to come.
Contemporary Austria displays, in this sense, the folly of a sentimental education. The past has been sanitised, disinfected
and altered to conform to a sentimental view of a culture or a heritage which no longer resides in reality but engages with images of fantasy. There remain, it is true, apparently substantial monumentsâin both the material and the metaphoric senseâof the reality that shapes such nostalgia. Yet this city has, as the work of restoration on many an eighteenth-century palais reveals, an all too obvious sense of make-believe. As in all good theme parks the past is spruced up to appeal to the sensation-seeking tourist. In the great âart' cities of contemporary AustriaâVienna, Salzburg and Innsbruckâno buildings may be erected that are out of harmony with their historical heritage.
As I scan the faces of the people strolling around the pedestrian malls of this meticulously reconstructed city, I do not discern any sense of the confusion that has been a traditional affliction or preoccupation in this world, the angst and scepticism that drove those trenchant critics of Kakania into their searing indictments of vanity and hypocrisy at a time when Kakania was still a reality, not merely a dream. In 1991 I see only contentment around me. Yet it seems a curiously shallow contentment, or so I persuade myself. But then one wouldn't expect to encounter misery in a theme parkâthe inhabitants of such places must always look clean, attractive and satisfied. And they must look as if they believe in the myths and dreams such places seek to promote. Why else would you bother paying the admission priceâthe outrageous cost of hotel rooms, of largely indigestible meals and cups of watery coffee? And Vienna is certainly a spotlessly clean city.
The bookshops of the inner city are sumptuously elegant. To those of us whose eyes are accustomed to garish dump-bins and promotional posters, lurid dustjackets and psychedelic paperback covers, these discreet temples of the printed word speak of restraint and ceremony. Solidly constructed and
handsomely polished shelves and counters are almost overburdened with novels and volumes of verse, essays and philosophical tracts, works on oriental art and Indo-European linguistics. There is nothing frivolous or vulgar here: this world seems to treat books with a respect which we, from the raw new world, may only regard with envy.
Scattered among these sober and chastely serious volumes are a number of somewhat more colourful books. Their dustjackets often show sepia photographs of portly gentlemen in severe military uniform, their faces all but covered by billowing beards and whiskers, monocles glinting in the sunlight or reflecting the flash of a magnesium flare. Bustled ladies step daintily from graceful carriages or stand ramrod-straight in imperial ermine. Here and there a panoramic photograph depicts a procession winding its way through the imposing portal of the Hofburgâcavalry, infantry, a military band, and in their midst, no more than blobs in these faded images, the rulers of the realm acknowledging the plaudits of the crowd who must have been standing in their serried ranks beyond the margins of the photograph, kept out of range of the commemorating camera.
These books are concerned with the illustrious House of Habsburg. Some recount its origins in the mountains of Switzerland. Others tell of its fortunes in the eighteenth centuryâthe epoch of Maria Theresia and the expansion of the Empire. Most, however, concentrate on the seventy-odd years leading up to the gunshot at Sarajevo that marked the beginning of its end. Here is a myth world that gives substance to the nostalgia visible in the theme park outside the immaculately polished glass doors. These sober and scholarly volumes deal with the political, social and military difficulties of the last decades of the Empire. They analyse the stirrings of nationalism in North Italy, Hungary, Slovakia and elsewhere in a realm that stretched to the borders of the empire of the Russian tsars. The intellectual ferment of Viennaâand of Prague and Budapestâin the closing years of the nineteenth century is discussed here with judicious restraint.
Flicking through these volumes reveals many footnotes.
It seems that what attracts readers to these solid historical discourses is the other face of the ubiquitous yearning for that golden past, a time when Austria was the proud heart of an empire, when Vienna's grandeur was justified because it was, after all, a great imperial capital. That face is the pathetic and scandalous life of the last Habsburgs, a tale ready-made for television epics and mini-series photographed in the places where these dramas were played out, and embellished with much swirling and twirling to the Strausses' innumerable waltzes, polkas and galops. All the ingredients of those sagas are contained in these handsome volumesâfrustrated love, sexual rage, political intrigue, violent death. The cultivated citizens of this elegant city may enjoy all within the covers of these sumptuously produced tomes.
The border of the theme park is marked by the great semicircle of boulevards, the Ring, which replaced the old fortifications during the reign of Franz Josef, the Emperor of Peace. Here lies a different Vienna. Here live the scene shifters, the machinists, the set constructors and costume makers who keep the show functioning year in and year out. It may well be that the men, women, children and dogs who appear in the streets and squares of the park repair to this part of the city once they have clocked off duty, having spent the requisite number of hours eating cream cakes, strolling arm-in-arm down the Graben or the KÃ¤rtnerstrasse, not running around or making too much noise; sitting and heeling obediently, and certainly not straining at the leash; or else leafing through liberally illustrated historical volumes.
For me this is a much more familiar world. A long, wide street, the Mariahilferstrasse, running from the
to the large open space (permanently in the process of being dug up, it seems) in front of one of the railway stations, is lined by shops, department stores, cinemas and pinball parlours of the sort you may see in almost every large city. Stiff shop dummies display the latest clothesâmanufactured in Taiwan, Korea and
even in the last remaining People's Republicsâall designed to disintegrate after two seasons, by which time they will have come to seem as quaintly old-fashioned as the crinoline and the swallow-tail coat. An abundance of video equipment beckons consumers from shop windows heavily barred with lattice-work of iron. Through the plate-glass doors of the supermarkets you can glimpse shelves upon shelves of detergent powder and disposable nappies.