The Austrian Riveter: Publishing in Austria After the Second World War by Anthony Bushell

Austria’s First Republic, that unplanned and largely unwanted outcome of the collapsing Habsburg empire after 1918, never succeeded in establishing a secure identity amongst its citizens. That failure was driven by internecine party rivalries, culminating in civil war in 1934 and the imposition of an authoritarian state. By the time Nazi Germany marched into Austria unopposed in 1938, the country was incapable of withstanding the wholesale absorption of all its institutions, including its publishing industry, into the structures of the Third Reich. 

It took the destruction and privations of the Second World War finally to convince most Austrians of the emerging Second Republic that an independent and self-confident Austrian identity might be desirable, and Austrian politicians of all persuasions quickly realised that culture, and thus by extension the publishing industry, would play an essential role in establishing, even creating, an Austrian identity clearly distinguishable from that of its northern neighbour. (In the immediate post-war period the term ‘German’ was removed from some Austrian school timetables.)

Initially the four occupying powers of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and France were responsible for everything that was published in their individual zones of occupation, as was the case in occupied Germany from 1945. The Allies granted the licences for publishers and publications, chose the key personnel in the publishing industry, and assigned paper for printing when it was still a scarce material, yet it is evident that not the same amount of effort had been invested by the occupying powers into thinking about the nature of a post-war Austria as had been devoted to post-war Germany, particularly by the Americans and the Soviets. And, as with denazification, matters were soon handed over to the Austrians themselves to administer.

Unlike other occupied countries during the Second World War, the Austrians had not formed a government in exile. There was no rallying point for those in exile and they did not acquire significance or status for their sacrifices in the eyes of those who had remained in Austria. This would have far-reaching consequences for the history of literary publication in post-war Austria. Those writers and publishers in Austria who had fled Austria – many to escape the Nazis but some even earlier from the authoritarian state of Dollfuss and Schuschnigg – were mainly on the left of Austrian politics, socialists or communists, and many were Jewish. When important posts were being filled in the early post-war years in the publishing houses, broadcasting and the newspaper industry, it was noticeable that there was no great call from within Austria to bring home those in exile. Strikingly, posts were often filled by lesser talents, those literary men, and a few women, who had stayed in Austria during the war years, some having identified themselves with the National Socialists and others with the clerical conservative politics of the Dollfuss and Schuschnigg regime.

The markedly conservative nature of much of early post-war Austrian life was reflected in literary tastes promoted by the government, including not only the central government but also by the nine provincial governments. Indeed, state and political patronage, a marked feature of Austrian life for most of the post-war period, dominated the book and newspaper market. Authors and publishers came to depend on government grants, prizes and awards. Textbooks for school use had to come from approved government lists. Experimental writing was of little use in educating a reading public to embrace a distinctly Austrian identity, so avant-garde writing found little favour, whilst a generation of conservative writers whose reputation had been established well before the 1938 continued to be promoted.

One immediate task after 1945 was to establish who owned and controlled various publishing houses. For instance, one of Austria’s most distinguished publishers, Paul Zsolnay Verlag, had been aryanised after 1938 and renamed Bischoff-Verlag once its Jewish founder had fled to London. The original name was restored after 1945 but the name would fall back into German hands when it was sold to a (West) German publisher in the 1980s during a time of financial difficulties. Today Zsolnay represents once again a major presence in the Austrian book market and, true to its origins, has an impressive catalogue of Austrian and international writers.

This was just one instance of an Austrian publisher coming under German control; simultaneously many of Austria’s most able and most successful writers have also opted to appear under German imprint. Nearly all internationally known Austrian writers of the Second Republic are published in Germany, so it would be no exaggeration to say the copyright for Austrian literature and the decision to promote or simply reprint Austrian writers have often resided outside of Austria. This is in part a reflection of hard economic and demographic facts. Austria’s population is less than one-ninth of that of Germany. Austria’s import and export activity betrays the economy’s almost total dependence on the German market. It is far more lucrative for writers to publish with established German publishers, who in turn can market authors to a greater degree than a smaller Austrian printing house. The financial complexity and globalisation of the publishing and media industry make it difficult for Austrian publishers to establish a clear and distinct profile, and naturally a shared language with Germany means it is difficult for Austrian publishers to withstand perceived encroachments. It is therefore remarkable that a distinct Austrian publishing identity has persisted. Yet if we take the lid off that identity, we find that even within Austria itself there have been tensions, most noticeably between Vienna and the rest of Austria. By the mid-19th century Vienna had established itself as Austria’s major centre of publication. Intermittently there have been brave attempts to offset this imbalance by publishing ventures outside the Austrian metropole: the distinguished Residenz Verlag was founded in the mid-1950s in Salzburg, whilst the leading journal for contemporary and unpublished Austrian writing, manuskripte, emerged in Graz at the beginning of the 1960s, yet Vienna’s dominance within the publishing and media world remains unassailable within Austria.

In recent years the state’s financial support for the arts, including the publishing and literary industry, has changed. In the early days of the Second Republic the conservative People’s Party and the Austrian Socialist Party enjoyed an almost total monopoly over the major institutional posts. Writers and publishers today may have found greater autonomy but they are also exposed to the harsher realities of market forces. Yet despite all the economic vicissitudes of recent years there still seems to be no diminution of creative energy to write and publish in Austria and to articulate a perspective that is unique to those who have been shaped by life in this small Central-European state that draws on its own rich and unique literary inheritance.

Anthony Bushell

Read The Austrian Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Austrian Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Austrian Riveter page.

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