Waltzing Past the Graveyard
Austria may have buried the final heir to the Habsburg crown on Saturday, but the empire's political culture is far from dead.
VIENNA — On Saturday, July 16, central Vienna assumed the bearing of a costume drama, as Austria’s democratically elected leaders, members of the European aristocracy, church representatives and military regiments in historic dress assembled in St. Stephen’s Cathedral to pay their respects to the House of Habsburg — or, more specifically, to Otto Habsburg — Lothringen, son of Austria’s last emperor, who died two weeks ago at 98. He was born in Vienna on the cusp of World War I — the conflict which put an end to his family’s long-lived empire.
But the nation still focused its undivided attention on his funeral: indeed, the public broadcaster ORF covered the funeral for nine straight hours. The viewers at home, and the 1,000 guests invited to St. Stephens — including the Austrian President Heinz Fischer, Chancellor Werner Faymann — bore witness to formal funeral rites that may never be practiced again. They listened intently as representatives from the Vatican offered their condolences on behalf of Pope Benedict, and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn pronounced a solemn homage to the Habsburg family. A part of the audience then marched through the city center, past a cordon of tourists — some bewildered, others in awe – toward the Imperial Crypt. There, the Master of Ceremonies knocked three times on the door before the monks inside opened it to make way for the coffin.
All this ceremonial pomp, however, was not a mere exercise in nostalgia; it was a tribute to a past that never really died. Yes, Vienna is no longer a world capital — the ubiquitous portraits of the emperors have all been packed away, but Habsburg political culture (including some of its pernicious aspects) is still very much alive.
From the moment of its establishment in 1438, the House of Habsburg was never a modern centralized nation-state, but rather a multi-national empire that left its mark not only on Austria, but across the continent. The most concrete reminders of its rule — in cities from Lviv to Warsaw, Prague to Sarajevo — are the many remnants of Habsburg architecture in the form of train stations, schools, and government buildings.
But it is the Habsburg’s animating political philosophy — informed as it was both by hierarchy, and tolerance; authority, and plurality — that is its most significant legacy. The nations subject to Habsburg rule earned the privileges of law, but were also forced to learn the caprice of imperialism, most prominently in the form of special privileges for a German-speaking minority, and the strict, unquestioned, power of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Habsburg indulgence of the Catholic Church, and its anti-Enlightenment and anti-Protestant fervor, led to cruelty across the continent. Protestant aristocrats were routinely beheaded, their heads and hands displayed in public as warnings to others. (In Prague in 1621, for instance, after the Habsburg regime quelled an incipient reformation, the Catholic rulers ordered that a Protestant city official be nailed to the gallows by his tongue and left to hang there for twelve hours.) Subjects of the Habsburg crown who practiced the wrong denomination of Christianity were often summarily disowned of their property. (Indeed, most of the opulent baroque palaces in Vienna that today attract tourists were built with the fortunes the Catholic aristocracy stole from Protestants.)
The Habsburgs also were Europe’s major bulwarks against the advance of democracy. In the 19th century, the House of Habsburg continued to advocate a feudal notion of Europe, with its appointed frontman, Chancellor Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, spying eagerly and repressing any and all potential disruptions from the empire’s burgeoning nationalists and democrats.
And yet, despite these reactionary traits, Habsburg monarchs also at times displayed forward-looking policies of cosmopolitanism and tolerance. These monarchs reigned over a multilingual and multinational empire, and they largely refrained from stoking anti-Semitism. Islam was declared an official religion in Austria in 1912.
Unfortunately, the Austria that buried its last heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire on Saturday sometimes seems more inclined to heed the repressive, rather than the liberal, aspects of its imperial past. Austria, of course, is no longer as empire, but a small country in the European Union. Economically, it is one of the EU’s richest countries and has long been an AAA-rated country, according to the OECD. Its infrastructure ranks sixth, and its overall competitiveness ranks 18th in the latest Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum. Banks like Erste Bank and Raiffeisen, insurance companies like the Vienna Insurance Group, and telecommunication companies such as A1 control large market shares in Eastern Europe.
And yet, while Austria celebrates its economic success, it has abandoned any pretense of international responsibility or far-sighted politics. Where the Habsburgs cultivated cosmopolitan virtues and European ties, Austria’s political class today shuns cooperation with their neighbors. On the contrary: In modern Austria, party and fraternity allegiances have replaced the dynastic affiliation of the former days, and the spirit of Metternich has seen a certain renaissance in the past decade.
Indeed, when the political establishment is not indulging the nation’s far-right radicals – as the conservative People’s Party did by forming a national coalition with Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party earlier this decade – it has tended to settle on Grand Coalitions between the main conservative and social democratic parties, governing sluggishly, and partly without accountability, on the basis of consensus and lazy populism. The important issues surrounding the integration of foreigners are currently under the sole purview of the law-and-order obsessed ministry of interior. The current grand coalition controls the public broadcaster and entertains close relations with political tabloids by offering them government money. And since most Austrian media organizations belong to two players on the market, there isn’t much pluralism of public opinion. Civil society initiatives on human rights or education are tolerated, but their ideas don’t get far with the risk-averse political establishment. The problem is compounded by the lack of a "Freedom of Information Act", which stifles investigations and leaves a large share of the public sector unchecked — a problem which politicians don’t seem in much hurry to solve.
Like the Habsburgs in their final days, Austria’s political class is evidently fatigued, unable to stimulate innovation and to tackle overdue social reforms. Citizens with a non-Austrian background are severely underrepresented in political and public life, a problem that no one in the government seems concerned about. Although Vienna is home to immigrants from all around the world, and especially from parts of the former empire, cosmopolitanism is absent in politics.
Instead, right-wing opposition leaders hold sway over social and international issues. Heinz-Christian Strache, successor of the right-wing maverick Jörg Haider, who died in a car accident in 2008, has rolled out a modern-day counter-reformatory campaign, promoting slogans like "pure Viennese blood" or "being at home; without Islam."
Mr. Strache often poses with a cross in his hand, alluding to the sermonizers of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. He protests the construction of mosques in Austria, and presents himself as a one-man fortress against Islamic intruders. Many Austrians find his message appealing: Strache’s party has gained 26 percent in the Viennese municipal elections last year.
Contemporary Austria has a particular lack of fellow feeling for many of its neighbors, despite the fact that no other country has seen a higher per-capita profit from recent EU enlargement rounds. Not once since its EU accession in 1995 has a majority of Austrians declared the European Union to be "a good thing." Austrian companies establishing trade ties in Eastern Europe have benefitted until now from the region’s shared cultural ties, but the economic success is being progressively poisoned by Austria’s inward-looking general politics.
This anti-EU sentiment prevails even in the upper echelons of the political establishment. Three years ago, Chancellor Werner Faymann, a Social Democrat, wrote a letter to the editor of the Kronen Zeitung, an influential political tabloid, announcing his party’s farewell from the pragmatic EU policies it had pursued until then. Faymann wrote that "any future change in the EU Treaty that touches Austrian interest will be put to a referendum in Austria." And Vice-chancellor Michael Spindelegger, of the conservative People’s Party, recently criticized the proposed EU budget in polemic terms, calling it a "horror-budget."
What leadership Austria has shown in Europe has come in the form of negativity. Vienna made a prominent effort earlier this decade to block Turkey’s EU accession process. Recently, the Financial Times Deutschland called Austria a "Griechenland-Scharfrichter" (Greece’s executioner) because of the Austrian government’s remarkably harsh pronouncements on the Greek economy.
To be sure, Austria will not return to monarchism. But the opulent display of Habsburg imagery surrounding the funeral in Vienna betrays more than a historical interest in bygone days. It is, instead, an indication of a country mournfully obsessed with the symbolism of the past, the better to avoid the politically pressing questions of the present.