April 11, 2021

A Walk with the Dead

Posted on April 8, 2014 by in Historic Austria

This is an entry since my return home, but involves some insights I shared with one or two of you by e mail and which I meant to insert into a blog.  But life crowded out death for the moment, and the reflection got postponed till now.

A highlight of my first week in the city was a trip to the Central Cemetery (hereinafter the Zentralfriedhof ) which has a reputation for being a pleasant spot, a popular destination of strollers and picnickers.  It is a far cry from the Habsburg Imperial Vaults, where the royalty are entombed.

Kaisergruft tomb art 3     Kaisergruft tomb art 2

The place is run by the Capuchins, and they are very keen on letting royalty know that they’re just like anybody else.  I hear the burial ritual used to run something like this:  the cortege would arrive at the door and the gatekeeper would ask “who comes here?” and the answer would be “so and so, Kaiser of this, King of that, and Count of the other thing” or words to that effect.  The door would be slammed in their faces.  The cortege would not gain entrance until they asked “well have you any room for the poor miserable sinner, (fill in first name of Kaiser here, sans rank and title)?”  Sic transit glori mundi, and the tomb art (see above) lets you know it.

The Zentralfriedhof is another matter.  Locals say it has “half the population of Zurich, but twice the liveliness.”  This is where the people honors those who have risen to niches of prominence in Austrian culture:  it is their Pantheon, their Pere Lachaise.


ZF Beethoven

ZF Franz Werfel

ZF Brahms

But there is a part of the Friedhof that leaves a pang:  the Jewish section.

The Viennese Jewish community was once a major part of the intellectual, cultural, and economic life of the city.  As with other families of standing here, they buried their loved ones in well care for plots.  Apparently grave upkeep is completely the job of the family here, and once the family has died off or moved away, care ceases.  That’s why the epitaphs here stop at 1938 and why the place appears as you see it here.  Those who could have cared for their dead perished in what they refer to here as the Shoah.

ZF Jewish section 2   ZF Jewish section

This is the part of the Friedhof where people go to reflect and quietly mourn the passing of a vibrant way of life which made irreplaceable contributions to the culture here.

The word Friedhof translates literally as “courtyard of Peace.”  But peace is built on memory, and memory needs to be graven on the heart.  A visit to the old Jewish Quarter here in the Zentralfriedhof leaves one with a sense of melancholy but also the determination to keep memory alive.

So Much History–and So Much Genius–under One Roof

Posted on April 3, 2014 by in Historic Austria

On Wednesday evening, I was privileged to dine with the Rosenauer family, Ben’s parents, in the lovely hillside suburb near where we hiked this past Sunday.  I had already been told that the place was steeped in history, but I had no idea of the depth of its association with such a rich past till I got there.

It was immediately clear that the place had a pedigree of sorts.  The exterior gave me the first hint.  Though I was eager to take pictures, I also didn’t want to look like some journalistic gate crasher, so I waited till the conclusion of the evening to take this one, which I hope will convey a bit of what I am trying to show.

Rosenauer house courtyard

I then met Professors Monika and Arthur Rosenauer, who immediately regaled me with tales of their home’s historic associations.  As art historians, they are justifiably proud of their collection and their library.         Rosenauer house antique stove     Rosenauer house objet 1     Rosenauer house armoire

An object which could be called the piece de resistance is an untitled painting by Oskar Gawell, an artist whose art was condemned and destroyed in the 1930s by the Nazi Culture Ministry as entartete Kunst (decadent art–this classification included such luminaries as Picasso, Chagall, and Kokoschka).  The painting here is a sole surviving example of his work.

Rosenauer house painting

the family knew the stories of previous occupants of the house, among them the family who had sold it in 1937 to the parents of Frau Professor Rosenauer.   By her account, that family had an ancestor who rose, American Dream style, from ragpicker to textile manufacturer.  As the Depression spread from Austria to the rest of Europe in 1930, that family fell on hard times and had to rent the property as a summer cottage.  The roll call of occupants is staggering.  I don’t remember all the names because she was rattling them off so fastt, and i behaved (as I mentioned earlier) like a guest, not a journalist.  But if I were to drop names like Walter Gropius, Arnold Schoenberg, and Sigmund Freud, I’d get most of the list right.  In fact, I know I’m right about Freud.  She had the photo to prove it.

But for me, the find of the evening was what I hinted at yesterday:  a tucked away, makeshift shrine to the revolutionaries of 1848.  If you’ve never heard of the Revolutions of 1848 (and right now I can hear AP European History students saying, “Boy, have we ever!”), they are a European version of the Arab Spring of 2011.  It was a grassroots protest gone viral, and it led to major changes in European politics, but only after the revolutionaries themselves were first driven to cover.   Three of them found refuge in the attic of this dwelling, where they stayed from late October, 1848, till early November.  Their names were   Wenzel Messenhauser, Robert Blum, and Hans Kudlich.    By way of background, Blum had been a member of the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848-49, which had passed resolutions calling for a German nation based on a written constitution.  Blum had, the same year, introduced a bill in the Austrian Reichstag to abolish serfdom.  This year, by the way, was roughly the same time that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were campaigning for women’s suffrage in Seneca Falls, and that Henry David Thoreau spent time in jail rather than pay taxes to support the expansion of slavery.  I’m thoroughly convinced that events like this happen together on a global scale for a reason.  There’s no such thing as coincidence.

During their attic confinement, the refugees occupied themselves by drawing charcoal self portraits.

Rosenauer house attic revolutionary self portrait 2 Rosenauer house attic revolutionary self portrait 3 Rosenauer house attic revolutionary self portrait

I’ve googled the names (this has been an education for me, too.  I found their full names and backgrounds, and won’t soon forget them.)  I also checked out enough likenesses to convince myself that these are the real deal.  Oh, and–the hideout is not for the claustrophobic.  In terms of cubic metreage, the Frank family had something of an advantage.

The trio tried to sneak away through a tunnel when the opportunity presented itself, but the Austrian authorities were waiting for them at the other end of it.  Blum and Messenauer were executed; Kudlich fled and eventually made his way to New Jersey, where he died in 1917.    It’s interesting (and agin maybe not a coincidence) that I was covering the leadup to the American Civil War, and the conversation about abolitionism and underground railroads fit right in with my discovery of these overlooked freedom fighters.  Their bodies lie a mouldering in the grave.  But their Truth goes marching on.

The rest of my evening was a series of conversations and anecdotes like few I will ever hear again.  The topics we discussed were salon material, and the tenor was one which I found at once both challenging and enlightening.  None of the five persons at that table was at a loss for words for anything.  It would take an entirely new blog for me to remember and diffuse and then distill all the nuances of our various topics, and I hope I get the chance to do it some day.  Right now, Ben and I are so convinced of the value of this particular adventure that we have promised a joint effort on history and international perspectives as soon as we can get it up and running.

If I came away with any firm impression, it is that this country is a melange (to use their word for the preferred style of coffee here) of differences which have all combined into a vibrant existence.  This won’t be my final entry, but I do have to say here what a privilege and a benefit it has been to sample that melange.

Rosenauer family 4   Rosenauer family 1

photo on left, l to r:  Birgit Meindl-Oser, school exchange coordinator, me, Frau Professor Monika Rosenauer, Herr Professor Arthur Rosenauer; on right:  Monika, Arthur, and Benjamin Rosenauer

The Fog of War, Part II

Posted on April 2, 2014 by in Historic Austria

I gained another insight yesterday at the Army Museum about the role of the military in Austrian life as I again played the role of careful listener, taking mental notes.  The problem with mental notes is that you forget them till later, but fortunately, I remembered this one just now.

Austria, by its State Treaty of 1955, agreed to perpetual neutrality.  It is a member of the EU but not of NATO, and its national defense force is tiny, with an army of six figure enrollment and an almost negligible air force.  Forget about the navy; it lost its seacoasts when the Empire dissolved in 1918.  That navy captain in The Sound of Music (they hate that film here if they know about it at all) was retired with honorary rank.

The minimal air force is of course allowed to defend the nation against a surprise attack, but I learned that if Command Central suspects unidentified flight over Austrian air space, it has to quickly consult with the neighboring defense ministries (read:  Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland) before they scramble their jets.

Speaking of mechanized weaponry, these were on display in back of the museum.  Tanks, jets, and armored vehicles were rusting away, and their labels and designs showed all the markings of American or British manufacture.  Evidently the Allies let the Austrians borrow or buy weapons on the cheap as the State got on its feet in 1955.

So even thought there is an element here which prides itself on past military glories to the point that they gather the evidence for them in a museum, everything else points to a nation that has become pretty successful at beating swords into plowshares.   It was, after all, an Austrian, Bertha von Suttner, who won the first Nobel Peace Prize for her novel “Lay Down Your Arms!” which students study here at the right point in the curriculum.  And as I reflected earlier, Austria has not really won a war in 200 years.  Perhaps that’s why they’ve become better at mediating conflicts.  Speaking of conflicts, I’m off to school to teach Dred Scott and John Brown through primary documents packets.  This should be interesting.  Look for more under the heading “In the Classroom.”

The Fog of War

Posted on April 1, 2014 by in Historic Austria

What’s the most ironic thing in the world?

Being guided around a military museum by somebody who hates war.

Army Museum exterior    Army Museum Great Hall 1

I agreed to this side trip because Ben and Reinhard were eager to be sure that I saw “that” car with my own eyes.  The one that caused all the ruckus when it made a wrong turn in Sarajevo a hundred years ago.  So off we trotted to the Heeresmuseum (the Austrian Army Museum). And when we got there, the fellow at the ticket booth said they had moved it into curatorship to spruce it up for the big commemoration on June 28.

The centerpiece of the exhibit was in storage.  So we saw the rest of the museum. The collection is housed in one of the major barracks of the old Austro-Hungarian Army, and the design is a “retro” sort of thing by which the builder evokes past grandeur.  You can see the same attempt in the architecture of King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria or in the British Houses of Parliament.

Spoiler alert:  it’s basically a stash of artifacts cobbled together by historians with no sense of history.  The pair of us gleefully went from showcase to showcase, howling at all sorts of anachronisms which would be too complicated to explain to the uninitiated, so I won’t.   To paraphrase World War I era French Premier Georges Clemenceau, we pretty much concluded that “military historians are to history as military music is to music.”

Army Museum Vizier tent Seige of 1683

We did see a highlight of sorts–the remnant of the field pavilion of the Ottoman Grand Vizier captured by the forces who broke the Siege of Vienna in 1683, and this began a series of explanations by my very able guide which formed a kind of motif as we strolled form one exhibit to the next.   The motif was that a lot of political and social cleavages that still trouble Austrian politics today have deep, deep roots.

Take the Siege of Vienna.  Turns out the Hungarians were allies of the Ottomans in 1683 and that this has been a root of long standing mistrust between two peoples who eventually fell under the rule of the same dynasty.  The austrians never quite forgave the Hungarians, nor vice versa.

The second such cleavage found its expression when we toured through the wing where they commemorated leaders and commanders from the period between 1815 and 1867, in other words, from the defeat of Napoleon to the Compromise that established the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.  This was an era of retrenched conservatism and reaction.  I spoke yesterday of Metternich and today saw his portrait prominently on display.  And I was promptly reminded that this was the person who had set the mold for the security state, establishing the ancestor of the Gestapo in 1817 to curb liberal and nationalist uprisings.  (This is my guide telling me all this; it certainly wasn’t in the museum blurbs.  I was familiar with this perspective but it was a nice reality check to have it confirmed.)

Army Museum Metternich

Around the corner from Metternich were statues or paintings of other generals associated with trying to hold back the tide of change to the modern era.  Among them was Field Marshal Radetzky, to whom the Radetzky March, familiar to those of us who watch the New Year’s Gala from Vienna every January 1, was dedicated.  The occasion was a military victory against revolutionary Italian nationalists, and Ben said he couldn’t listen to it without getting upset at the context it represented.  It’s something that happened 165 years ago, but it still rankles.  Part of the reason for this is that Ben’s family still feels closely connected with the revolutionaries of 1848.  His home was a hiding place for them, Underground Railroad style, and he let me know that one can still see graffiti they left behind in his attic.  I’m dining with his family tomorrow evening and will be eager to check this out.

From the wing representing the hollow triumphalism of a moribund empire, we proceeded to the wing that tackled Austrian military history between the world wars–skipping that 1914 open touring car because it wasn’t there–and examining the history of a bitter civil rivalry that gripped the nation between the 1920s and the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938.  As in Germany, Austria was plagued with economic difficulties which led to the formation of rival political parties which fought like the Gangs of New York in 1863 and like the Gangs of Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s.  The configuration of the two parties resembled the general configuration of the two parties who pretty much govern Austria today–the Christian Socialists and the Social Democrats.  But between the world wars, civil society was hard to find in Austria and skirmishes and ambushes by the paramilitary organizations of the two parties was the order of the day.  The resolution was a dictatorship of the kind that gripped many central European states after World War I, and the party in power made life more than hard on the Social Democrats.  I have read about this era in Austrian history and have come to the conclusion that it was slightly more benevolent than the Nazi dictatorship that replaced it, but not much.  The regime has been characterized by historians as “clerico-fascist” and I saw a fair amount of evidence to justify that claim.  The Chancellor was friends with Mussolini but came to a tragic end when he was gunned down in an attempted Austrian Nazi coup four years before the actual annexation. Evidently his problem is that he was too much of an Austrian nationalist for Hitler’s taste, although Hitler and he probably saw eye to eye on a lot of other things.

Today the successors of the Christian Socialists and Social Democrats govern Austria together in an uneasy but not unstable coalition, yet memories persist, and many Social Democrats remember “that other party” as the party of their earlier oppression.  As with the earlier examples, memory persists, and memory rankles.  There are plenty of ways that the parties here find a road to a win win solution over a variety of issues, but there is still a lot of what Americans used to call “waving the bloody shirt.”  Sometimes it’s subliminal, but it’s never out of the picture.


The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming!

Posted on March 30, 2014 by in Historic Austria

Actually the Russians got here.  In 1945.  They stayed ten years, along with the Americans, the British, and the French.  The plan was to divide up the country into four zones of occupation, just like they did with Germany.  One one hand, this was important because it gave Austria a separate status after having been the southern portion of Germany for seven years after the Anschluss of 1938.  On the other, it meant that Vienna was to be surrounded by the Soviet occupation sector, and itself divided into four zones, just like Berlin.

But in Austria’s case, the Cold War rivalry between the USSR and the West came to an understanding ten years after the war’s end.  The Allies and the provisional Austrian government signed the State Treaty (Staatvertrag) and proclaimed it from the balcony of the Upper Belvedere (right around the corner from SC Wien, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere.  By the way, I’m told that if you look carefully, you can see John Foster Dulles and V. M. Molotov on the balcony in the 1955 photograph.

Upper Belvedere     

There was a slight catch in the treaty.  The Soviets demanded that the Austrian government erect and maintain in perpetuity a memorial to the Red ARmy troops who liberated the city from the Nazis.  It’s still there, and I’ve been told there was a Red Army honor guard there till the dissolution of the USSR.

Russian War memorial 2          ussian war memorial

From what I’m overhearing here, the memories of Russian occupation are not the greatest, but they’re decidedly better than most.  And diplomacy resulted in a situation where, ten years after the end of the war, the Russians left–along with the other occupation troops.  I think they call that a win win situation, and Austria has proved expert in nursing many other such agreements along.  It’s not for nothing that the other headquarters of the United Nations is right here in Vienna.

Simply breathtaking!

Posted on March 29, 2014 by in Historic Austria

This is a slide show, now that I can finally upload pics.  As I mentioned, we stopped at the 900 year old Augustinian abbey of Kloster Neuburg.   It’s an architectural hodgepodge with very little left of the original architecture, but I will let it speak for itself.  The jewel in its crown is the twelfth century Verdun altar, a carefully crafted set of tiles in gold and enamel.  You can see it in the last two photos.  Enjoy the show

.Kloster Neuburg abbey exterior gothic revival    Kloster Neuburg Baroque and Romanesque    Kloster neuburg abbey organ        Kloster Neuburg abbey nave 1  Kloster Neuburg crypt    Kloster Neuburg crypt 3 

Kloster Neuburg Verdun altar detail   

         Kloster Neuburg Verdun Altar Reliquary




O’er the Ramparts They Watched: The Ottoman Siege of Vienna, 1683

Posted on March 29, 2014 by in Historic Austria

As I mentioned, I had the delightful opportunity this Saturday to drive with Reinhard Hallwirth to the outskirts of Vienna.  We passed through the picturesque suburb of Grinzing to the twin heights of Kahlenberg and Leopoldsberg.  The two are connected by a ridge which allows for some moderately strenuous hiking, during which hikers pass a treetop obstacle course that brings “Ropes and Ladders” to three dimensional levels of experience.

But as we drove and hiked, Reinhard gave me a lot more play by play on the Turkish Siege of Vienna in 1683:   something I had known about in a vague sense, but with which I quickly became more familiar.  From what I pieced together, this was a kind of “Star Spangled Banner” moment for Vienna and Austria as a whole.  Ask any Austrian and she or he will take it a step further:  we saved Europe.  There’s very much a sense of “the flag was still there” after a long siege by a redoubtable foe who was seen to threaten the defenders’ way of life.

There are also stories that combine to form an interesting narrative that would make for a great film or miniseries.

As the Ottoman army began to advance, the nobility fled to higher ground.  The citizens and the poor dug in.  The Turkish siege was so successful that their sappers were beginning to undermine the city walls; indeed, they had already collapsed a few, but the citizens held.  Meanwhile the monarchs who were supposed to provide relief from the siege were on top of the Kahlenberg quibbling over who would be in supreme command, and who would have the rights to lead the triumphal return to the city (talk about planning ahead!).

Kahlenberg Jan Sobieski plaque           Kahlenberg victory chapel           Kahlenberg victory chapel plaque

Eventually the King of Poland, Jan Sobieski, (above left) won the quibble over leadership thanks to mediation from the Vatican nuncio, and long story short, the Ottomans were surprised by a downhill charge of an allied force of Austrians, Saxons, Poles, and a few others.  They left behind storehouses of coffee (it’s very easy to play the six degrees game from 1683 to Starbuck’s), an unresolved set of cultural antipathies that went far back before 1683, and an enduring sense on the part of just about every Austrian that they helped Europe dodge a bullet.  The chapel you see in the photos was erected in thanksgiving.

This is one of the things I fly past when I do European history, but I can see there is lots more information to garner, and many more perspectives to reflect on.

So just what is Austria?

Posted on February 28, 2014 by in Historic Austria

Austria is a name and a location which has been around for over a thousand years. but an Austrian nation with a sense of self and purpose has begun to emerge only in our lifetimes.  Before it was a country, it was a feudal estate:  the wide ranging personal property of the Habsburg family.  As Archdukes of Austria, the heads of the family were movers and shakers in the Holy Roman Empire, a gallimaufry of German dukedoms which always elected one of their own as Emperor with the blessing of the Pope (hence, “Holy” and “Roman”).  By the 15th century, it was standard practice to elect a member of the Habsburg family as emperor.  Wearing the Imperial    Crown (see illustration), he was only a figurehead, but as Archduke of Austria, he was a power in his own right.

The Holy Roman Empire came to an end in 1807, but the Habsburgs continued to be Emperors, this time of Austria.  But Austria was a “big tent” term for a place that contained multiple nationalities:  Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Slovenians were all subject to a family of German speaking Emperors and their German speaking civil servants.

Long story short, the Empire exploded due to the combined pressures of internal nationalistic rivalries and the Great War, which had started as a result of the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne.  The separate nationalities all assumed their separate and equal statuses, and the new Austria, now a German speaking rump state of the former Empire, went about for several decades in search of an identity.

Between 1919 and 1938, it was an unstable republic (which the Austrians call the First Republic) often marred by civil disturbance and governmental shows of brute force.  In 1938, it lost its identity when the German Third Reich annexed it.  Until 1945, it was simply an administrative area of Germany, its citizens taking on German nationality and fighting as Germans in World War II.

After the war, Austria, like Germany, was divided into four zones of occupation by the Allies.  Vienna, like Berlin, was also divided.  By 1955, the Allies had determined on a way to end the occupation and restore the independence of Austria.  So 1955 is the year that Austria marks as its birth year as a modern nation.  (Illustration shows leaders of the new government declaring independence from the balcony of a former Habsburg palace.)

Under the terms of the Allied agreement, Austria was to remain neutral in the Cold War.  Apart from recently joining the European Union, it has maintained that neutrality by refraining from joining NATO, and the world honors that neutrality by acknowledging the importance of Austria as a meeting site for international forums and non governmental organizations.  The new Austria, the first real Austrian nation in the true sense of that word, strikes a balance between clinging to worthwhile elements of an ancient heritage and demonstrating openness to dialogue with a diverse range of views in the modern world.