Her Excellency Gabriele Matner-Holzer ‘LOOKING BACK, AROUND AND AHEAD FROM THE CENTRE OF EUROPE’ May 21, 2007

Her Excellency Gabriele Matner-Holzer


May 21, 2007


Central Europe is, of course, not just a geographic term, but also has political, historical, economic and cultural connotations. There are a number of countries who claim to harbour the centre of Europe, including Austria which considers herself to be the very heart. I shall not venture into any definitions, but countries like Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and the Baltic states also count to the realm of Central Europe although my focus in going to be on the “Old Austria”.

Looking back:

For many centuries Vienna was the hub of a vast major European power, the Habsburg Empire. Before its break-up in 1918, it comprised most of Central Europe and had 54 million inhabitants who spoke 17 major different languages. Parts, if not the entirety of a number of present day states, once belonged to this Empire: Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Croatia, Ukraine, Romania, Italy, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, many of them for a very long time.

Given the circumstances, especially rising nationalism and the failure to cope with it in a successful manner and the disastrous participation in the First World War, the demise of this multi-national-ethnic-linguistic-religious conglomerate was all but inevitable, seen in hindsight. “In my empire the crisis never sets”, Emperor Francis Joseph used to say of the country which came to be termed as “Kakania”. And this end was welcomed by many at the time, for a number of reasons, last not least aspirations of self-determination (which, by the way, was denied to the new little republican Austria).

Contrary to what has been said about this conglomerate and in spite of all the difficulties which plagued it especially in its last decades, it was not such a bad thing after all. I say this not out of nostalgia for past “Austrian” greatness. Also, I am a republican, there are very few monarchists left in Austria anyway. Regardless of many weaknesses, including periods of intellectual and religious repression, “old” Austria had functioned very well for the vast majority of its diverse inhabitants. In its last decades the Dual Monarchy had taken steps towards more and inclusive modern economic and political societies. Such steps, which came late or even too late, included the emancipation of the Jews, various degrees and forms of autonomy and even national independence, the promotion of modern industries and intellectual and religious freedom.

Vienna, which had always profited from the influx of talents, especially in music, from all over the empire, as well as other major cities, such as Prague and Budapest, became hotbeds of modernity leaving decisive traces on the European artistic and intellectual developments of the 20th century, precisely because of their heterogeneity. It was this multi-national creative chaos, this “blessing of racial impurity”, as the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók saw it, which, by the way, the monomaniac young Hitler loathed so much that he left Austria as soon as possible. The Old Austria was an idea or an ideal, rather than a national state. And this may have been at the roots of the identity problem little, left-over Austria experienced after its end, with dire consequences. Also, in the partition Austria got a particularly bad deal: it was left with the bulk of debts and public officials, cut off from industry in the Czech lands and agriculture in the Hungarian parts.

Quite a few political thinkers all over the empire had worked on ideas on how to save this empire from dismemberment by reform of its national policies. They include, just to name a few of the political thinkers, the Slovak Milan Hodza, Karl Renner, Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and many others. There is a wealth of literature on this question which could, by the way, be of interest even today in the era of European union. Ideas of peaceful European unification emanated in parts of the dissolved Empire already in the twenties and thirties of last century, e.g. Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Pan-European Movement which exists to this day.

Following the difficulties and disasters later on, including social and economic misery, dictatorship, civil strife, war, foreign occupation in many of the successor states, some came to look on this past conglomerate more benignly, not any more as a prison, standing in the way of national aspirations. The Austrian 19th century playwrights’ Franz Grillparzer’s fears, that humanity would move from humanitarianism via nationalism to bestiality, had disastrously proven right. After all, Old Austria was “an absolutistic monarchy made more humane by sloppiness”, as the founder of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, Viktor Adler, once remarked. On a more melancholy note Grillparzer had summed it up as follows: “It is the Austrian curse to timidly move ahead, never applying its entire means and to hesitantly halt in mid-way”.

There is, of course, no question of going back. But it is important to know history, for the present and the future.

Looking around:

Almost 90 years later, what is left? In peoples who have lived together for centuries you can find traces of common values and thinking for a very long time, the Czech writer Karel Capek once said. It is not only the many buildings, palaces, museums, churches, theatres, opera houses, post offices, holiday resorts, prisons, universities, inns, coffee houses, built at the time, that resemble each other enormously, in places as distant from one another and otherwise diverse as Cracow, Ljubljana, Budapest, Lvov, Vienna, Sibiu, Zagreb, Bratislava, Prague and so on. Those interested in literature, music, paintings, architecture, and philosophy or cooking have profited and still profit from each others creations, recognizing their relevance and closeness, as different and diverse as they also were and are. To this day Austrian literature and philosophy is often preoccupied with the use and meaning of language, a legacy of its multi-linguistic past. Studies and surveys attest to the similarities in attitudes and habits among the inhabitants of Old Austria, such as kissing ladies’ hands, in how often people meet friends or go to church, or how many flowers make a nice bouquet.

Most present day Austrians have ancestors and/or living relatives in some of the other successor states. To this day more than a quarter of the Viennese telephone book is taken up by Slavic names. According to a Viennese saying there cannot be three Viennese together, there is always a Czech among them. The Czech Republic has a president named Klaus (and an ambassador named Winkler) while Austria had a series of prime ministers with Czech names, including Bruno Kreisky whose family came from Moravia. It was Metternich who once said that the Balkans starts on the Rennweg in Vienna, which I take as a compliment. There is still a sense of belonging, even in its rejection, and regardless of quarrels as they are normal between neighbours. I became acutely aware of this closeness, even when it is sometimes ignored or even denied, when serving as Austrian ambassador to Slovakia.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain many people from the Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe have sought to renew personal, cultural and economic ties with each other, including Austria, and quite a few have immigrated to Austria. There is a measure of sometimes nostalgic sympathy for Austria and Vienna which is quite touching, although there are also disappointments. Part of this sympathy is also due to the fact that modern Austria, which luckily had ended up on the right side of the Iron Curtain, always held open the door, engaged in dialogue wherever possible, tried to ease tensions and over the years gave first refuge to 2 million political refugees from communist Europe.

Many Austrians, for the first time after many decades determined by the Cold War, reached out to look for their roots and enter into relations. There was and is an outburst of new connections and co operations, in practically all fields of life and this has changed also Austria quite dramatically. For the first time since 1918, Vienna is again growing and fast, mostly through immigration. It is, once again, a very multi-national city and almost one third of its inhabitants are either foreign nationals or born abroad, including, by the way, many Turks. Islam which the Old Austria as the first European country officially recognized, in 1912, is now the second most important faith. The awareness of past and present links with and benefits from other national and cultural sources is regularly highlighted in schools, publications, conferences and the media, irrespective of xenophobic trends which regrettably also exist in Austria. I vividly remember, from a Viennese exhibition about the siege of Vienna by Ottoman troops in 1683, that Turks at the time came across as much more civilized than Austrians, especially in personal hygiene.

Politically, apart from renewing ties with new democratic leaderships in these formerly mostly communist countries, Austria, in her own interest, always favoured and promoted their institutional and economic transition and progress towards membership in the European Union. Whenever help, transfer of know-how, was desired it was and is being given. This also holds true for future members such as Croatia and the states of the Western Balkans. There are a number of regional, formal and informal fora and organizations regularly bringing together politicians and officials for consultations and cooperation on many important issues relating to the region and European and international affairs, such as the “Regional Partnership”, the Alpen-Adria-Group, the Danube Commission, the Summits of Heads of States, the Visegrad Group or the Central European Initiative.

Now I come to the last and hardest part, namely the future. I could, of course, make a fortune and resign from my ambassadorial duties if I could predict it.

Looking ahead:

Much of what I guess may just be wishful thinking. I do believe that we in Central Europe have learned some lessons from the past, not only the imperial one, which influences our present and future worldviews and approaches.

As far as Austria is concerned these lessons include: cooperation is preferable to confrontation. Competition is healthy but not if designed to annihilate the competitor. Looking for compromise and peaceful solutions is not weakness but wisdom. Driving matters to extremes, pursuing grand ideological designs irrespective of possible adverse consequences for oneself and others is silly and dangerous. Right must go before might. Muddling along is often more humane than cutting through. Subterfuge and improvisation can go a long way to fend off or soften adversity. It is foolish to provoke more powerful and potentially dangerous neighbours or to follow them blindly. There are always alternatives. Diversity is good for creativity. We speak German but are no Germans; our roots are extremely diverse and we have more than just one unchanging identity. As the Austrian writer Alfred Polgar put it, Austria is as blue as the Danube, which on its long course takes up many different colours from diverse shores as if God had washed out a lot of brushes. We must stay open for exchange and mutual learning. Egalitarian societies are more stable and secure than others. We cannot enjoy our wellbeing next to poor and disadvantaged neighbours; we must contribute to their wellbeing. Democracy must be defended and developed constantly. We must not take ourselves too seriously; sometimes things are hopeless but not serious. The Slovak equivalent to this would be that people get used to everything even the gallows.

My guess is that many peoples in our neighbourhood intrinsically share at least some of these outlooks and lessons. As the former Czech president and writer Vaclac Havel once explained the often bitter experiences to be gained from a long history: one learns to see behind facades of enchanting words, to read between the lines, to develop a radar for all things totalitarian, a sensitivity against the arrogance of power, and to nourish a muffled sense of humour and cheerful hopelessness. One develops scepticism vis-à-vis grand utopian designs often leading to disaster. The Austro-Slovene writer Drago Jancar also makes out scepticism as a Central European heritage, scepticism even vis-à-vis scepticism, as well as the ability to live with contradictions and ambivalence. The Austrian satirical writer Johann Nestroy thought that the greatest nation is resignation. The Czech author Milan Kundera once called Central Europe a family of small nations that has its own vision of the world based on deep distrust of history. Where else but in Old Austria could literature such as Kafka’s “Schloss”, Jaroslav Hasek’s “The Good Soldier Svejk” or Musil’s “Man without qualities” have originated?

Of course, these lessons are not always shared and followed, but they are there, at least in many people’s back of mind.

While having once belonged together and sharing some experiences and basic attitudes is no substitute for political programs in view of changed circumstances and new, often global challenges, it may help to at least understand one another.

Most central European states are now members of the European Union, some also of NATO (which Austria is not and shall not be in the foreseeable future). We are thus in the same club or shall soon be. National interests, while still being there and invoked, now blend into a larger European project. And as this project further evolves and Europe increasingly turns its attention to global issues and challenges Central Europe still has some meaning and can play a useful role. Of course, Austria has no claim or ambition to gang-leadership, but a keen interest in cooperating wherever possible and sensible, in helping to make the voices of smaller, only seemingly peripheral nations heard, in drawing attention to our immensely rich, partly common cultural heritage and in promoting stability and wellbeing around us. We have an interest in making Europe also work for ordinary people and thus in its social agenda. On the backdrop of disastrous experiences with narrow nationalism, economic and social hardships fostering civil strife, and with dictatorships and wars we share the desire for a peaceful and constructive Europe and have a lot to contribute.

What does this all mean for the UK, the rest of Europe or transatlantic relations, you may ask. I hope to have given a clue to some answers. A larger picture is never complete and relevant without the details. Europe is diversity and complexity and that is part of its strength. From across the foggy Channel Central Europe may look particularly remote and sometimes queer. But it has a wealth of experience, talents (among them popes, presidents, governors and plumbers), energy and good will to offer.

Or so I think.