Does Tourism Cover Up Austrian Reality?

Tourism and Austria–for most of the period since World War II, these two terms have been treated as an almost toxic combination. In the literary fiction of authors such as Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, Franz Innerhofer, Felix Mitterer, and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek–to name only a few of the more prominent names–the seminal images of Austria’s landscape and of its cultural and architectural icons function as metaphors for the country’s unwillingness to accept its share of responsibility in the Holocaust. These literary investigations came in different shapes and forms, but over time they have affirmed the notion that Austrian reality is hidden, covered up, concealed, camouflaged–the list could go on–by tourism. Elfriede Jelinek phrased it poignantly and in typical hyperbole in an interview. Asked if she viewed “Alpine tourism as a perfect means to cover up history in Austria?”, she responded: “Yes. Everything that has been done in this country since 1945 was the result of an intricate cover-up” (Brenner 30).

To be clear: The work done by Jelinek and other literary authors as well as by journalists and critics such as Armin Thurnher and Robert Menasse changed the Austrian political landscape and climate in crucial and positive ways. However, their works also reified tourism as the “fake” surface over Austrian national identity and treated the existence of the Austrian nation more or less as a given. (Crang describes the understanding of the nation as a given like this: The nation is not imagined as “the outcome of material and symbolic processes but instead as the cause of those practices–a hidden essence lying behind the surface of behaviour” [Crang 162]).

Viewed in the context of postwar Austria’s political history, this is quite understandable. The questioning of Austria’s existence as an autonomous nation state had played a big role in the Anschluss of 1938. After 1945, casting doubt on Austria’s national independence from Germany became the trademark of right-wing political groups, especially within the Freedom Party (FPÖ). (Jörg Haider’s notoriety as perpetual bad boy of Austrian politics was in part based on his characterization of the post-1945 nation as an ideologische Missgeburt [an ideological miscarriage]). The downside of this characterization was that the multiple ways in which tourism contributed to the process of reconstructing the Austrian nation after 1945 has received only scant attention.

Most scholarly investigations of tourism’s impact on the formation of Austria as a nation after 1945 focus on the economic importance of the tourism sector (an often-cited example is Brusatti). At the same time, the overwhelming majority of studies about the reconstruction of Austrian national identity focus on official political rituals and processes, on the role of the educational system, and on the function of “high” culture (see for instance the discussion of education in Peter Thaler’s The Ambivalence of Identity [2001]).

As Tim Edensor points out in his book National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life (2002) [see the link to My Library Thing in the column on the left], national identity construction is informed much more by everyday practices than by officially staged rituals of the nation. Taking issue with some of the more prominent accounts of national identity formation by Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson, Anthony Smith, and John Hutchinson, Edensor claims that their approaches share a series of blindspots with regard to the role of popular culture in the process of national identity construction. Edensor’s criticism of the various approaches can be summarized in three points:

First, he contends that the above-mentioned authors focus too much on “spectacular and the historic.” Second, if these authors discuss popular culture at all, it’s only in the form of “‘folk’ culture,” which in turn seems to be worthy of investigation only “in contradistinction to mass culture” (Edensor 10). Third, Edensor considers the accounts to be “far too historicist, generalizing about national identity and disregarding contemporary formulations” (11).

In trying to fill in the gap left open by these various scholars, Edensor sketches out an approach to studying the construction of national identity as a

“process of continually weaving together fragments of discourse and images, enactions, spaces and times, things and people into a vast matrix, in which complex systems of relationally between elements constellate around common-sense themes–one such being the national” (Edensor, National Identity 29-30).

The key words here are “process,” “discourse,” “common-sense themes,” with the latter standing in for Edensor’s focus on everyday practices and performances [a concept I will discuss in future blogs] as an essential source for studying the national.

Where does tourism fit into all of this? Initially, it seems as if Edensor views the everyday, the routine aspects of live, as the opposite of touring, of going on vacation (National Identity 18). The latter is, in conventional definitions, the conscious and reflexive activity, the time when we leave our routine to experience something else, while the former is considered unreflective and habitual. However, as Edensor points out, that distinction is somewhat artificial. Most importantly,

“the unreflective construction of national identity, its embeddedness in the everyday, [can best be studied] by looking at how reflexive awareness can result from disruption–either by forms of common sense being interrogated by strangers or migrants, by familiar spaces, things and practices coming under threat from social and economic change, and most graphically by the habituated, embodied national subject being displaced or situated in an unfamiliar context” (National Identity 21).

There are several conclusions I draw from this approach for my own work on Austria: First, tourism might serve as a very good pathway to gain a better understanding of how Austrians reconstructed their national identity after 1945. By analyzing what kind of discourses and images the various institutions, groups, individuals wanted to be circulated for tourists, we can get a sense of what the various Austrian agents considered to be Austrian (and certainly also a sense as to what they did not want to be seen as a part of their identity, but I would argue that this is different from hiding one’s identity under the cloak of tourism.) Second, tourism, as a global practice, helps to perceive national identity not as the stagnant opposite of mobility, of globalization, but as an important element of fluid and temporary identity formation. In other words, the local variety of national identity might very well change under the influence of discourses and images about the Austrian nation by, let’s say, American tourists. The fact that the city of Salzburg now stages its own version of The Sound of Music after having for decades labelled as kitsch the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the 1965 film, and the Sound of Music tours, is only one case in point.

To answer the question posed in my title: Tourism seems to be far less a cover up, than an immensely complex discourse that facilitated the processes of reconstructing Austrian national identities [more later as to why I think the plural is important]. For today’s critic, tourism–understood as discourse–serves as a rich archive for understanding the construction of identities as well as the making of “normality” at specific moments in time.