The “Book of Austria”, Revisited

I just stumbled across an interesting article by Austrian cultural critic Wolfgang Müller-Funk in the Austrian literary magazine Wespennest. In this piece, entitled “So viel Österreich: Mutmaßungen über die Erfindung eines Landes”, Müller-Funk compares the Österreich Buch (about which I’ve had a lot to say here)–with a very recent publication titled Österreich and edited by none other than Hannes Androsch, the former SPÖ minister of finance.

As one might guess, Müller-Funk cannot find lots of good things to say about the new book, the chapters of which were authored by some of the most well-known names in the Austrian academic and intellectual scene, including Adam Wandruszka, Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, Anton Pelinka and Gerald Stourzh, to name only a few. As Müller-Funk writes, “[e]hrenwerte Namen finer abtretenden und abgetretenen Generation, die sich noch einmal an den großen Narrativen abarbeiten, die die imaginäre Nation Österreich zusammenhält [sic].”

Much more interesting than his take on the Androsch volume is Müller-Funk’s discussion of the Österreich Buch, which he discusses by throwing in quick references to Anderson’s Imagined Communities and Hobsbawm’s Invented Traditions. What makes Austrian national identity construction after 1945 unique in Müller-Funk’s eyes, is the complete lack of the “juvenile[…] Dynamik” that he sees as crucial to Hobsbawm’s concept of nation building: “In dem selbstgestrickten narrativen Gewebe gibt es keine wirklichen Helden und schon gar nicht eine dynamische Gegenwart” (Müller-Funk).

Müller-Funk states–appropriately, in my view–that the book is not an example for “Verdrängung” but rather for an “absichtsvolles Schweigen, […] das damals jeder versteht [sic].” And he does a nice job of reading the picture of the Venus von Willendorf with its panic-induced caption

“Wer Österreich auf dem Weltglobus sucht, muss den runden Erdball langsam um seine schiefe Achse drehen, sonst könnte er das Austria des XX. Jahrhunderts leichthin übersehen. Wo liegt das vielgenannte Österreich überhaupt? Welches ist sein Platz in Raum und Zeit, in Geschichte und Kultur?”

For Müller-Funk, these questions explain why almost 70 years later another volume about Austria pursues many of the same topics that the Österreich Buch already addressed:

“Hinter den offiziellen und halb-offiziellen Selbstdarstellungen unseres Landes lugt die Angst hervor, wir könnten in und vor allem von der großen weiten Welt übersehen werden, weil wir so klein (geworden) sind. Deshalb und wegen der Unsicherheiten, die auch eine Folge unserer belastenden Geschichte sind, kommen wir nicht los von dem Zwang, beständig über uns reden, sprechen und erzählen zu müssen.”

To read the entire article, click here.

“The Book of Austria”

Exhibit one in my investigation of the performative reconstruction of Austrian national identity after 1945 is the Österreich Buch [The Book of Austria]. The lavishly illustrated and carefully edited book was the brainchild of Ernst Marboe, a key figure working at the intersection of postwar Austria’s intersecting zones of politics and culture. (Close to the leading circles of the ÖVP, Marboe was founding director of the Austria Wochenschau, a weekly news reel show. He was director of the cultural department in the Austrian Press Service when he edited the book and then went on to become the director of the Federal Theater Administration. Marboe also collaborated on the script for the 1952 Wolfgang Liebeneiner film, 1. April 2000.)

Marboe designed the book as a hybrid combining popular history, tourist guidebook, and museum in pocket-format that was to be distributed worldwide through Austria’s foreign offices and presented as official gift to foreign diplomats and high-profile visitors. First published in 1948, the Book of Austria was soon translated into English, French, and many other languages and republished until 1969. In 1953, the book was, according to the German weekly Die Zeit, the Austrian postwar bestseller.

Despite the editor’s claim that the book “does not set out to be […] a Baedeker […] nor an encyclopedia” (Marboe X), the sequence of chapters on tourist attractions in the various Austrian provinces, the stylistic blend of journalistic, literary, and scholarly writing, as well as the extensive use of pictures and maps firmly embed the book in the discourse of tourism. (The list of contributors includes renowned historian Friedrich Heer and Hanns Koren, a well known ethnologist and later member of the Austrian parliament. Among the translators who worked on the English version from which I quote in this chapter is British journalist and former intelligence officer Gordon Brook-Shepherd.)

This categorization under tourism does, however, not mean that I view the Book of Austria as irrelevant for the constructtion of post-1945 identity. On the contrary, the book perfectly illustrates the ways in which the discourse of tourism facilitated the performative reconstruction of Austria and, equally important, it does so by calling attention to the citational and reiterative process that is at the core of Butler’s concept of performativity.

The Book of Austria’s dominating trope is that of the great idea of Austria, which, born thousands of years ago, had to be defended repeatedly against much more powerful forces. In this context, World War II and especially the Anschluss of Austria to the Third Reich, appear as only the most recent manifestation of Austria’s perennial struggle for survival. This perspective produces the paradox on which the Book of Austria builds its argument: On the one hand it claims that the contemporary Austria has been diminished so much that it might disappear; on the other hand it refers to the grand pre-1914 tradition of Austria and nudges its readers to accept these narratives and images as Austria’s contemporary identity.

Where and What is Austria

Unsurprisingly, the Book of Austria casts a highly nostalgic look at Austria’s Habsburg-past, delivering a general overview of Austria’s history up to the beginning of the 20th-century followed by a chapter-by-chapter description of the provinces that formed the Second Austrian Republic.

Of particular interest is a section at the beginning, titled “Unborn Austria.” Although the section heading pertains to Austria’s stone-age origins, the intended analogies to the rebirth of Austria in 1945 are hard to ignore, especially because the first paragraph connects the pre-historic beginnings with the 20th century in a paradoxical act of describing a not-yet-existing place with a historically overdetermined name:

 “He who would find Austria on the globe must turn the round ball of the earth slowly on its slanting axis, otherwise he might easily overlook the Austria of the 20th century. Where is this much-talked-of Austria? What is her place in space and time, in history and culture?” (Marboe 3)

 The difficulty of finding Austria is not a new phenomenon, as the Book of Austria suggests, for even the gods of antiquity had no idea where Austria was:

 “If , as Hercules set forth to pluck the golden apples of the Hesperides, he had asked the giant Atlas who supported the arch of the heavens upon his shoulders, whether the weight of Austria seemed an especial burden to his neck, the latter would have wonderingly denied it. Or he might have answered: ‘Austria, is there such a thing?’ In this he would not have been entirely in the wrong, for […] that part of the earth which lay to the North-East behind Olympus was for long presumed by the Greeks to be the realm of the dead. A secret. Impenetrable darkness, the mystery of birth and death in the magic mists of creation and mythhology” (Marboe 4).

 On one level, these opening pages of the Book of Austria could be read as simply a rhetorical ploy to undercut any discussion about Austria’s responsibility for the atrocities committed by National Socialism. On another level, the introduction of Austria as a hard-to-find and easy-to-overlook place, as small and too insignificant to be known by the classic gods, indicates what philosopher Edward S. Casey calls a “place-panic” (Casey, Fate 8). The Book of Austria’s references to the mythical origins of time and its expressed fear of the country’s invisibility invite to be read in the context of Casey’s analysis of creation myths in general. As Casey writes in his survey of the history of place in philosophical texts,The Fate of Place (1999), the notion of the ‘void’ is central to many western and non-western creation myths. Yet the void is not without content. According to Casey, even those situations labeled as “chaos” and “gap” bear the traces of a place:

 “A gap has boundaries and thus a form, however primitive; it is not an indefinite, much less an empty and endless, space. […] Chaos […] is not a scene of disorder […]. It is a scene of emerging order.” (Casey, Fate 9)

 The “emerging order” of a place named Austria becomes visible, despite the attempts to present Austria’s location as doubtful, in the book’s reference to two geographical and topographical constants that have shaped Austrian identity, the river Danube and the Alps:

 “The riddle of all beginning and creation hangs over the landscape of the mighty stream which flows eastwards from the heart of Europe, parallel with the high-towering chain of the snow-capped Alpine peaks” (Marboe 5).

 Especially the reference to the Alpine peaks resonates with president Renner’s 1945 appeal to the world to come and visit Austria:

 “Wir lieben unsere Heimat, aber wir brauchen die Fremde! Wir brauchen den Fremdenverkehr und laden alle Welt zu uns zu Gaste. Wien und Salzburg werden als Stätten der Kunst, unsere Alpen als touristische Ziele ersten Ranges die Fremden mit Freude begrüßen.” (Wiener Zeitung, 23 September 1945, no page; qtd. in Brusatti 143)

 Both the Book of Austria and president Renner refer to geography as the allegedly unchanging elements of Austria. Presumably, this reference is intended to deflect attention from contemporary and recent political developments. After all, what could be more apolitical and innocuous than a river and a mountain chain? Whatever the intention might have been, however, both references are also examples of the performative reconstruction of Austria’s national identity and place. The Danube and the Alps cannot be mentioned without also evoking a host of historical and cultural discourses that shape the readers’ interpretation. The Book of Austria takes great care to mention some of these discourses, ranging from the medieval epic Nibelungenlied [The Song of the Nibelungen] to the waltzes of Johann Strauß. What the book does not mention, are other discursive layers that could be cited, such as the National Socialists’ infatuation with the story of the Nibelungen, which resulted in the construction of the Nibelungenbrücke in Linz, the Upper Austrian town’s major bridge across the Danube river. The Alps also bring up a range of meanings, not the least of which is the role of mountaineering and of the Deutsch-Österreichischer Alpenverein in the exclusion of Austrian and German Jews from leisure practices as well as the function of the Alps as a refuge for early and illegal disciples of National Socialism in the years before the Anschluss (for more on the antisemitic history of the Deutsch-Österreichischen Alpenverein and its role in harboring illegal National Socialists in the 1930s see Bernhard Tschofen, Berg Kultur Moderne: Volkskundliches aus den Alpen, Wien: Sonderzahl, 1999).

Both examples under discussion here are part of an early postwar strategy to lure more tourists to Austria, but it would be too simplistic to view them only as manifestations of how tourism was employed to distract from Austria’s problematic role during Hitler’s regime. Rather, these examples show that each attempt to refer to a quasi pre-historical or pre-discursive Austria–to one that is not tainted by 19th and 20th-century developments–ends up citing and reaffirming already existing social, political, historical, and cultural discourses relating to and shaping Austria. In short, these instances underscore my reading of the role of the tourism discourse as an important realm for the performative reconstruction of Austria. Now the question is what these performative reconstructions tell us about the “emerging order” (Casey) of this allegedly new Austria.

The Book of Austria answers the rhetorical question about Austria’s time-space coordinates in a very gendered way, pointing at the conservative patriarchal underpinnings of the emerging postwar order. The above-quoted passage that envisions a puzzled reader turning the globe in search of Austria is printed around a photography of the Venus von Willendorff, a small statuette of a prehistoric goddess of fertility, which was found in Lower Austria in 1908 and is believed to date back 25,000 years B.C.

The statuette, considered to be one of the most significant archeological findings in Austria, symbolizes the historic time that links the postwar period with pre-historical epochs and lays the foundation for the place of the “new” post-1945 Austria. Simultaneously, the Venus von Willendorff can be read as illustrative of the “emerging order” of contemporary Austria in 1945. The statuette’s presentation by the Book of Austria exemplifies a traditional, patriarchal gaze that renders the female body passive. If one takes, as the Book of Austria does, the Venus von Willendorff as a pars pro toto for Austria, then it is possible to interpret the use of the statuette as a symbolic femininization of Austria in general.



The book’s subsequent historical overview elaborates on this gendered logic in which femininity equals passivity equals innocence when it presents Austria as a place that had to endure continuous traffic, beginning with the “primitive tribes of Illyrans, Celts, […] Teutons, […] Huns, Goths, […] Slavs,” for whom the land “serve[d] as a bridge”, continuing with the Romans, and ending with the contemporary (and, of course, desirable) stream of tourists (Marboe 5). This representation of Austria as a space that must endure conforms to a Western tradition in which “time […] is typically coded masculine and space […] feminine,” as geographer Doreen Massey notes (Massey 6). Obviously, the Book of Austria’s retroactive femininization of Austrian territory emphasizes the performative element in this particular reconstruction of Austria. As Siegfried Mattl points out in a highly original essay, the representation of Austria as feminine and passive lends itself very well to an analysis in the context of Judith Butler’s concept of performativity, mainly because the claim that there is some kind of “natural,” pre-historic Austria is, ultimately, as untenable as the claim that there are pre-discursive and quasi-natural categories of sex (see Siegfried Mattl, “Geschlecht und Volkscharakter: Austria Engendered,” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften, 7.4, [1996]: 499-515).

Post-1945 governments embraced depictions of Austria as feminine and therefore innately peaceful as welcome “evidence” that Austria bears no responsibility for the crimes of National Socialism. However, as Judith Butler points out, it is crucial to note that performativity carries with it the kernel for its own deconstruction. It is, therefore, not surprising that the emphasis on Austria’s feminine and passive identity has been used, in an even more misogynist way, to cast doubt on the country’s self-image, as this memorandum from the British Foreign Office shows:

“It should be remembered that Austria yielded with so little opposition and afterwards accepted her violator with such enthusiasm that it was legitimate to wonder whether it was a case of rape or seduction” (Caccia to Eden, 16 November 1951, Foreign Office 371/93597, Public Record Office; cited in Bischof, Austria in the First Cold War 10).

 Finally, let me point out how the Book of Austria sheds light on the role of tourism–and, by extension, its own role–in the performative reconstruction of Austria. We must not forget that the above discussion of the performative reconstruction of Austrian national identity and place was sparked by a quotation in which an outsider was called upon to verify the existence of Austria in a space-time continuum. The phrase “He who would find Austria on the globe must turn the round ball of the earth slowly on its slanting axis […] evokes the image of an explorer, a traveler, or, a tourist turning the globe. This imaginary figure, deemed to be objective because he is outside the globe and, by extension, outside of Austria’s compromised recent history, vouches for Austria’s existence. By way of searching for the “much-talked-about” Austria, he not only acknowledges the existence of this place, but he simultaneously invokes the already existing matrix of facts, narratives, and images that form the basis for a reconstruction of Austria and for a re-anchoring of the country in “space and time.” This appeal to the tourist-as-witness can be read as an appeal for absolution from the outside and, as I will show in subsequent posts, as a template for the operations of the various government-organized tourism projects in the early years after the war. The discerning gaze of an imaginary tourist continued to play an important role in the reinvention of Austria, either as legitimizing and scrutinizing outside authority, or as imaginary role for Austrians who were able, as imaginary visitors to their own country, to participate in this performance of Austria as new and innocent.