Austrians

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In Postwar: A history of Europe After 1945, Tony Judt reports on the nice trick that Austria pulled off at the end of World War Two. It went like this:

When the killing stopped and the smoke cleared, Austria sidled up to Europe’s devastated liberal democracies and assumed the pose of a fellow victim. Austrians too had been ravaged by Nazism, the Austrians said. All Europe’s countries should now join together to seek a future of peace, reconstruction and healing. Austria would mill about with the other convalescents, hoping–it must be believed–that its wartime record would go unremarked.

It worked. The world bought it. Austria was let off the hook with a pro forma denazification process. In 1972 the Austrian diplomat Kurt Waldheim, hiding his past as a Nazi intelligence officer, ascended to the office of the world’s leading proponent of peace, the UN Secretary General. Not bad for a man who almost certainly helped send Jews to the camps and possibly ordered the torture and execution of Yugoslavian partisans.

If Austria’s trick were a sports play on YouTube, you would watch it endlessly in playback, squinting to try to see how they pulled it off. The home of Hitler and Mauthausen–one of the first concentration camps, established in 1938–was, as if by magic, rehabilitated into an ordinary European country with nothing special to confess.

In point of fact, the Austrians had been virulent Nazis during the war. In a book review, the New York Times summarizes some of Judt’s key observations in this vein:

In a country of under seven million inhabitants, there were still more than 500,000 registered Nazis in Austria at the end of the war. Austrians were greatly overrepresented in the SS and among concentration-camp staff. Tellingly, over 38 percent of the members of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra were Nazis, compared with just 7 percent of the Berlin Philharmonic.

To be fair, the whitewashing of Austria’s wartime history was a mutual fantasy–there were two parties doing that tango. The victorious Allies needed the people of (occupied) former Axis countries to feel they were being sincerely welcomed back into the community of nations, and so a certain amount of amnesia was indulged in, blatant as it was. Acts of forgetting, as the novelist Milan Kundera reminds us, are an essential part of making ourselves into who we are, and–unlike their German cousins–Austrians were simply handed an unlimited prescription of lotus flowers to help do the job.¹ They had a lot to forget; the Allies just let them get on with it.

In a wonderful side note to this history, Judt remarks on the the striking success between the 1950s and 70s of German-language Heimatfilme (“homeland films”). These were saccharine movies of innocent family dramas set in bucolic German or Austrian landscapes, stories utterly bereft of politics or war. In a grandiose, deliberate act of forgetting, the Heimatfilme reached back to memories unpoisoned by recent history. Germans (and Austrians) loved them, and critics from Allied countries for the most part felt no need to prick Germanophile audiences’ consciences over them.

But I digress. Today’s topic is only tangentially related to these painful ironies of history. Today’s talk focuses on how Austria, a small, landlocked country made mostly impassable by mountains, managed to punch miraculously above its cultural weight throughout the whole course of the 20th century. It put a stamp as big as all of Europe on the world’s main events. In 2016, the staid Economist assessed Austria’s historical impact in these fulsome terms:

Imperial Viennese society could not survive. But the ideas and art brought forth during the fecund period of Viennese history from the late 1880s to the 1920s endured—from Loos’s modernist architecture to Gustav Klimt’s symbolist canvasses, from Schoenberg’s atonal music and Mahler’s Sturm und Drang to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Those Viennese who escaped Nazism went on to sustain the West during the cold war, and to restore the traditions of empiricism and liberal democracy.

Austria has always had a knack for outdoing itself. It’s hard not to admire certain of its outsized accomplishments, many of which you might think of erroneously as German. Mozart, for example, was justly celebrated as a hero of Germanic genius, but he was a son of Salzburg. It turns out there are many other, lesser noticed such vagaries.

I first took note of them in the early 2000s when The Economist profiled Red Bull and Swarovski. At the time, these firms had recently emerged from their humble status as “small or medium enterprises,” or SMEs, to conquer world markets and become giants. Probably not many people even know they’re Austrian companies, but they have come to define the products they make and sell. Red Bull didn’t just win the global battle of energy drinks; it created the whole contest. Swarovski is stylish, affordable crystal, to the tune of $3.3 billion annually.

When I first saw a can of Red Bull in Germany in 1991, it was a specialty drink stocked only in gas stations. You would grab a can to fight fatigue and improve your concentration on the Autobahn. Given the Germans’ passion for driving, I thought of Red Bull as an essentially German product.

Back then you couldn’t buy Red Bull in a bar or even a grocery store. Today, I witness, just in my cubicle and the one next to mine, the consumption of at least a dozen energy drinks a day–all produced or inspired by Red Bull. This scenario is played out daily in several million other work sites around the world. I don’t know how many cans are consumed on average by desk workers like me (which seem to make up its steadiest market), but Red Bull reports it sold just over 6 billion units in 2017, earning revenues of $7.4 billion. The energy drink industry as a whole, which I reiterate was pioneered by Red Bull, earned $21 billion in 2017. It is like Red Bull created an industry that figured out how to sell air. Another nice trick.

Speaking of things invisibly familiar, Germans might be aware of a local variation on the Red Bull “effect.” Austrian grocery stores quietly dominate the market in Germany, and to such an extent that Germans themselves may not even know it. Indeed when you want to say “supermarket” in German, you can practically substitute any of a handful of brand names–Aldi, Lidl, Rewe, Penny or Spar–Austrian all. I’ve lived in Germany for 15 years, and I probably sent half my grocery money to Austria.

There is obviously nothing improper about this, but I think, to put the shoe on another foot, it would give Americans a certain unease to discover that all our major supermarkets were, say, Canadian. Like it or not, brands are a part of national identity. McDonalds, Starbucks and (God help us) Walmart help make us who we are. Germans must feel that the Austrian companies that bring them their daily provender and thus nourish millions of Germany’s 75 million bodies, have confiscated a small part of their identity.

Such accomplishments as these, though, are merely the most pedestrian indicators of the towering cultural contributions that Austrians have made to the present course of history. It turns out that the same country that produced such clever business managers also turned out much larger geniuses who shaped the way we perceive reality and the human place in it. A country with half the population of Guatemala gave the world intellectual giants on whose shoulders our thinkers (and doers) stand today.

This cultural refulgence began to break out and twinkle through the darkness even before the 20th century.

  • In 1846 the Vienna physician Ignaz Semmelweiss discovered the germ theory of disease. Before Semmelweiss, doctors held the same ignorant, superstitious beliefs as the benighted masses about what causes people to get sick. It is nearly impossible to grasp the full impact of Semmelweiss’s discovery; it still informs everything we know (and learn) about communicable diseases. Semmelweiss’s work is why everyone, especially doctors, are encouraged to wash their hands as an act of preventive medicine. Like having Purell dispensers everywhere? Thank Semmelweiss. Even more to the point, the public vaccination campaigns that have eradicated several childhood diseases would not have been possible without Semmelweiss’s foundational insight into microbes and disease.
  • Just two decades after Semmelweiss, the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel worked out the first accurate theories of genetic heritability, using his famous pea plants. His work is the basis for everything we know about genes today. Although I am skeptical of the much-hyped prospects for genetics to make humans immortal, it may succeed in extending our lifespan by decades or freeing yet-born children from horrible, debilitating diseases. Whatever it does for humanity, we owe it to Mendel, busying himself in his Austrian monastery.
  • And then there’s Sigmund Freud, the turn-of-the-century Vienna intellectual. Say what you will of his more scurrilous ideas about our dreams or our mothers, the foundations of Freud’s psychoanlytic theory of personality remain intact. Anyone working today in any kind of functional psychology assumes the truth of what Freud proposed in his earliest writings–that formative mental processes happen unconsciously. We are not just who we say or believe we are; we are the outcome of opaque mental computations over which we have limited control or even insight.
  • A handful of Austrians worked in the spooky intellectual penumbra of science, a place where you might say angels fear to tread. One was Kurt Gödel, a mathematician who proved what is known as the Incompleteness Theorem, the deeply counterintuitive idea that there exist more (true) mathematical facts than can be proven true. Although I suppose only theoretical mathematicians can fully appreciate Gödel’s thinking, even a layman may be quietly awed by the scope of Gödel’s idea–that the human mind cannot lay full claim to supervening mathematical dimension of reality, the domain of unchanging logic and basic physical laws. Gödel put us all in the humble position of Hamlet’s Horatio, proving, not just rhapsodizing, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. (On his way to be naturalized as U.S. citizens in 1948, Gödel intimated to his friend and witness Albert Einstein, that he [Gödel] had detected a logical loophole in the U.S. Constitution that would enable the country to become a dictatorship. Einstein advised Gödel to sit on his discovery long enough to swear his oath of allegiance, which he did.)
  • The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein also drew a kind of boundary around humankind’s ability to conceive of reality. The world, he said–meaning all of reality–is the sum total of coherent sentences expressing facts. Poetry and other voodoo be damned, list all the well-formed facts there are and you have defined the limits of what we can know and therefore of what exists. Wittgenstein’s radical idea may not be provable as a theorem, but it gave birth to several predominant schools of thought in philosophy and the social sciences in the 20th century. His revolution is known as the “linguistic turn,” and it conjectures that the particulars of human language shape and constrain humans’ ability to know anything at all. If you want to know who started all the postmodern kerfuffle about nothing being real if it can’t be “represented” in some kind of system of symbols, you may look, ruefully perhaps, to Wittgenstein.
  • Three deeply influential Austrian thinkers must be mentioned in the same breath. The economist Friedrich Hayek was a Nobel Prize winner who enunciated the clearest, most comprehensive defense of classic economic liberalism in the history of his field. His compatriot Ludwig von Mises solidified the foundation of microeconomics as a form of rational choice theory. If, as an American, you think we owe the free-market ideology on which our economy is based to Milton Friedman, Allen Greenspan, or some other Chicago ideologue (still less to the vulgar claptrap of Ayn Rand), we do not. Those economists owe the sum of their ideas to Hayek and von Mises. The Austrians were the first economists to say, if you want the state out of the individual’s way, you must start by allowing the markets to function in the freest way possible. For good or for ill, these are the fathers of the Reagan-Thatcher deregulation wave that conquered the world in the 1980s and remains with us today.
  • Hayek’s and von Mises’s counterpart in political philosophy was Karl Popper, author of the justly famous The Open Society and Its Enemies. Perched as he was in central Europe, and having witnessed Nazi fascism and Warsaw Pact communism, the well-informed Popper became an implacable foe of the corporate state. He argued with passion and principle that citizens must be left alone to speak their minds and form their own interest-based associations if they are to enjoy real freedom. If you get the heebie jeebies at the idea that governments should have ministries of religion or ministries of “sports and youth,” for example, but cannot quite articulate your revulsion, you will find a champion in Popper. He is the main expositor of the ideas that passed through the crucible of World War Two and the Cold War to be christened as liberal democratic values.

I make no attempt to explain Austria’s high cultural batting average here, only admire it. Still, they say location is everything, and there must be something to the notion that Austria took in all of Eurasia’s intersecting cultural influences because of where it sits. It then wove them all together. I have only touched on the surface of them here.

On the three or four occasions I’ve found myself in the Innsbruck Main Train Station, I’ve felt I was somehow at the gritty and unprepossessing heart of Europe. It’s a place where you can still feel the old confluence of Germanic, Latin, Jewish and Slavic cultures. In 1993, I heard Bosnian spoken there by people carrying bundles and suitcases. In 2016 I heard Arabic and I guess Swahili by people carrying just bundles. People are always on the move. Lots of them pass through Austria; some stay and think.

innsbrickhbf
The Innsbrook Main Train Station (image: signalbox.org)

Looking back, I feel like those moments at the Innsbruck station found me at the heart of the world as I know it. Somehow Austria, despite asking for no such fame, opened up onto the rest of the world. If I should ever go crazy and run off to die at a train station like Tolstoy did, I hope I make my way back to Innsbruck, where you can still sense genius being formed by accident.


  1. This is of course an oversimplification. Many young postwar Germans believed their parents’ generation had been shamefully exempted from having to face up to their past. They thought the Allies’ hasty rehabilitation of Germany allowed too many fascist undercurrents of German society to survive, allowing the “new” German bourgeoisie avoid the moral self examination that was required of them. The Red Army Faction was just one, extreme, example of this larger protest movement. It is worth noting, however, that Austria was not wracked by such collective soul searching after the war, likely because the Allies imposed a less stringent denazification process there.

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