Text: Žikica Milošević
Those who are trying to judge the spirit of one country only by ethnicity or language, could be baffled by the difference between Canadians and Americans. These people are even more baffled when it comes to Germany and Austria. Although speaking German, the Austrians formed their identity against a different background, which is, on one hand, deeply Germanic, and on the other hand, it is deeply not. Therefore, the old capital of Vienna still serves as the informal capital of the vast and rich multicultural world of Mitteleuropa, or, Middle Europe.
Every culture has its outposts and every culture has its multicultural outposts. Peter the Great made his famous and magnificent Saint Petersburg, to „carve the window into Europe“ and it became the most diverse and cosmopolitan of all the Russian cities. Ukraine has Odessa, an imperial city full of dozens of immigrant nations. Serbia has Vojvodina, Croatia has its Istria. The list goes on and on. And what is specific about the „outposts“ is that they are not a „core“ or a „hard core“ of one culture, but rather a splendid mixture of genuinely tradiotional and something deeply foereign. So, the German-speaking world has its vibrant, jolly and multifaceted Austria.
Austrian mentality was deeply derived from its imperial past. Austria and its Habsburgs desperately tried to unify the German lands, but the battle was definitely lost in the 19th century, to Prussia, which did so. In return, Austria concentrated on ruling the vast continental empire, and the Habsburgs ruled such countries like Belgium or Spain. But the crucial difference was the fact that one German-speaking country ruled such nations like Italians, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, Croats, Romanians, Serbs, Ukrainians… Which are so very different among them, not to mention the sharp difference between them and the Austrians. And it proved to be a benefit. The spirit of Austria emerged. The waltzes ruled the world. Viennese nightlife was as good 150 years ago as London nightlife nowadays. The Prussians were precise, the Swiss hard-working, the Austrians, enriched with so many opposite cultures, were jolly. The Empress Sissy liked Hungary, and popularised the idea of policentric Empire. Her favourite places were at the very corners of the Empire, like Baile Herculane in Romanian Banat, where she went for a spa treatment, trying to learn the Romanian national songs and their language. The mockery that the „Viennese graveyard is merrier during night than Zurich during Saturday night“, already well known, just goes to show how Austria formed. You cannot rule Venice, Prague or Budapest and be stiff and rigid.
And finally, there came the idea of genetic mixing. Many people proudly say they are Austrians, although anyone with clear mind could recognise non-German surnames. Especially Czech and Slovene. but that is the point, right? Speaking German, knowing your Slavic origins, like Krajsky or Prohaska, or Schuschnigg. just like it is very Austrian to be 100% Germanic. And also, something very Austrian is to believe in the opposites: during the last presidential elections, the Green candidate Van de Bellen, of Dutch origin, had some 50% of the votes, just like Freedom Party leader Norbert hoffer, traditionally German. The Greens promoted LBGT-friendly traffic lights in Vienna, while their opposition is fiercely conservative. The Austrians can cherish their imperial past, many of the former nobility will carry their titles with pride, and yet, the Red Vienna is the pride of the Austrian capital, and the city is bragging with the highest standards of living, being the most livable city in the world, equally for the rich and the poor. Some might joke that the Austrians are paradoxical, and that they are like a traditional cookie: „red (leftist) on the outside, brown (conservative) on the inside“. But it did not prevent them from giving the world some of the greatest scientist and artists ever.
Why is Austria so good for thinkers and artists? Because in such an environment, with so many admixtures, you have to question yourself constantly: who am I? Siegmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Oscar Kokoschka, Hundertwasser, Egon Schiele, Alphonse Mucha. Although from Prague, Franz Kafka lived in Austria, spoke German and had this very self-questioning Austrian spirit. Some of them are Jews, some Czechs, some Germans by ethnicity? Well, that is the point. This very rarely mattered in the flourishing and neutral Vienna or Austria, the country that during much of its existence tried to avoid overseas colonies and to improve the life of their citizens in the core of the Old continent. They formed the first European Union, far before this one.
Austria is still the idea of building culture and identity not only upon genetics, but upon language, common values and the idea of belonging to the same Central European family. That is why this tiny state is still so resilient. And a role model, too.