The Austrian Riveter: The Problem of Austrian Identity by Jamie Bulloch

2023 marks the centenary of the publication of Pan-Europa. Pan-Europa, a manifesto for the movement of the same name, which envisaged the creation of a unified European state, was written by Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi and appeared in October 1923, just a few weeks before the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Coudenhove-Kalergi’s ancestry made him a global citizen in the truest sense of the world: the Coudenhoves were Dutch, the Kalergis Greek, his mother Japanese, and his father a much-travelled ambassador for the Habsburg Monarchy. After the Paris Peace Settlement in 1919 Richard found himself a Czechoslovak citizen, although he and his movement were based in Vienna. These days he is little-known, especially in the anglophone world, but a recent biography by Martyn Bond (Hitler’s Cosmopolitan Bastard: Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi and His Vision of Europe) may help rescue this colourful figure from obscurity.

It is no coincidence that the Pan-Europa movement established its home in post-First World War Austria. The prominent Austrian political figure of the 1920s, Ignaz Seipel, chancellor from 1922–24 and 1926–29, enthusiastically endorsed the movement and became president of its Austrian committee. Seipel was openly positive towards the idea of a United States of Europe in which he saw Austria playing a key role because of her unique multinational history. Seipel was also a keen advocate of a Danubian Federation, which would have seen Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary realign politically, perhaps under the Habsburg crown.

The quest for alternative geopolitical solutions came in the wake of the Paris Peace Settlement that reordered the map of Europe and had a profound psychological impact on what became the Republic of Austria. This rump country was shorn of its economic hinterlands (coal from Bohemia, grain from Hungary); French Prime Minister Clemenceau, who had been largely responsible for the punitive treaty against Germany, famously referred to Austria as ‘what is left’. Vienna, once a great imperial capital, now felt too large for the small state it governed.

Historians have debated whether Austria was in fact an economically viable state in the 1920s; what is certain is that the dismemberment of the Habsburg Empire caused a crisis of Austrian identity that was not resolved until after the Second World War. To understand why this should be the case we might consider the words of the 19th-century politician Victor von Andrian-Werburg: ‘Austria is a purely imagined name, which means neither a distinct people nor a land or nation. It is a conventional name for a complex of clearly differentiated nationalities […] There are Italians, Germans, Slavs, Hungarians, who together constitute the Austrian Empire. But there exists no Austria, no Austrian, no Austrian nationality, and, except for a span of land around Vienna, there never did.’ In other words, ‘Austria’ was a shorthand way of referring to the Habsburg Empire (and after 1867 to the non-Hungarian half of it), but more specifically to its ruling dynasty, which from the late Middle Ages was known as the ‘House of Austria’. The people who we might imagine to be Austrians, in fact saw themselves as Germans.

Further clarification can be found in Seipel’s 1916 treatise Nation und Staat (‘Nation and State’) in which he argued that they were two distinct entities. This is very different, of course, to the situation in countries like the US, France and Britain, where the nation is understood as a political construct, and thus congruent with the state. For Seipel, the state was a political community, the nation a cultural one. Maintaining that it was possible to have an allegiance to both nation and state – Seipel professed himself to be a proud German and loyal subject of the Habsburg Monarchy – he insisted that the supranational or multinational state offered a superior framework for the political organisation of peoples, leading to greater harmony and understanding between nations, a point which had particular relevance in wartime. 

Although Seipel’s thesis in Nation und Staat was not new – the idea has its roots in the German Romantics, especially the work of Johann Gottfried von Herder – it had clear resonance in the aftermath of the Treaty of St Germain, which had prohibited Anschluss, or the political union of Austria with Germany. One of the key tenets of the Paris Peace Conference, President Wilson’s much-touted principle of national self-determination, seemed to have been ignored in the German case. Quite apart from the Anschluss ban, core areas of the Habsburg Monarchy that were ethnically German, most notably the Sudetenland and the South Tyrol, found themselves outside of Austria – in Czechoslovakia and Italy respectively. Seipel, who rejected the idea of the ‘nation state’, had foreseen this problem in his book when he wrote that it was neither possible to have a state which was purely homogenous in national terms, nor one which included all members of a particular nation.

Despite the ban on Anschluss imposed by the Allies, the idea of political union with Germany was highly popular in the years following the war, and the regions of Salzburg and Tyrol unilaterally held plebiscites in favour of such a move. Like many conservatives with a strong attachment to the old Monarchy, however, Seipel was cool towards Anschluss. This put him at odds with the majority of the population, but there was one point on which virtually all Austrian citizens could agree: there was no such thing as an Austrian nation.

Support for Anschluss – the ban was renewed in 1932 as a condition of Austria receiving a League of Nations loan to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression – vacillated throughout the First Republic. Hitler’s accession to power in Germany in January 1933 was a turning point that polarised opinion in Austria. As in Germany, many saw National Socialism as the solution to all Austria’s problems. Others, including those on the left as well as a dwindling proportion of conservatives, continued, albeit for different reasons, to support Austrian independence. A united political front was rendered impossible, however, when in March 1933 Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss used a procedural impasse in parliament to impose an authoritarian form of government, excluding the left from the political process. Incited by elements on the far right, the briefest of civil wars took place the following February, leading to an outright ban on the Social Democratic Party. The political rift in the country was irreparable.

Under Dollfuss, who was murdered by Austrian Nazis in an abortive putsch in July 1934, and his successor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, the authoritarian, quasi-fascist regime attempted to foster a patriotic movement in Austria, known as the Vaterländische Front (‘Fatherland Front’). Very much a pale imitation of the similar organisations in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, the Front did not enjoy anything like the same support. It was never a mass movement, having been imposed from above, while its ideology that insisted on Austria being a ‘German’ state was no match for the rabid nationalism of the Third Reich, where the idea of the nation had shifted from a cultural to a racial construct. When German troops entered Austria in March 1938 not a shot was fired, and the huge crowds that greeted them and cheered the Führer in Vienna’s Heldenplatz told their own story. Not all Austrians welcomed Anschluss, and those who were opposed generally kept quiet about it, but clearly an identification with the Austrian Republic was too weak in the late 1930s to foster widespread resistance.

The Moscow Declaration of October 1943 stated that Austria had been the first victim of Nazi aggression, and that the Allied Powers desired to see a free and independent Austria restored after the war. They insisted, however, that she bore an inescapable responsibility for her participation on the side of Hitler’s Germany, and that when the final reckoning came it would be necessary to take into consideration the extent of her contribution to her own liberation. An attempt to encourage resistance, this document provided a sort of foundation myth for post-war Austria, allowing the Second Republic to distance itself from Germany.

Despite the Moscow Declaration, Austria, like Germany, was occupied by the Allies in 1945 and also divided into four zones. Unlike Germany, however, it managed to avoid decades of division by adopting a policy of permanent neutrality along the lines of Switzerland and Sweden. In 1955 the Austrian State Treaty was signed in Vienna, which made no mention of Austria’s responsibility for the war and its associated crimes. This selective interpretation of the past now made it easier for both main political parties to endorse and promote the idea of Austrian nationhood. As the years progressed opinion polls showed that the public too were increasingly embracing an Austrian national identity, and no longer felt their allegiances divided, unlike the Austrians of the interwar era.

But what of Coudenhove-Kalergi? Having been told he was high on the Gestapo’s hit list he left Austria with his Jewish wife as soon as Chancellor Schuschnigg announced his resignation in March 1938, effectively handing the country over to the National Socialists. He spent most of the war as a refugee in America, where he taught at New York University and also organised the third Pan-Europa congress in 1943. When in 1946 Winston Churchill called for a United States of Europe he name-checked Coudenhove for the contribution he had already made towards this. These days two Frenchmen, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, are far better known as founding fathers of the European project. Some commentators, however, see Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, who continued his work after the war, including proposing ‘Ode to Joy’ as the European anthem, as an equally important pioneer.

In the one hundred years since the publication of the Pan-Europa manifesto, Austria has gone from being ‘the state that no one wanted’, via an integral part of the Third Reich, to a confident, economically dynamic country, still bound to neutrality but firmly embedded in the EU, which it joined along with Finland on 1 January 1995. There have been bumps along the way, most notably the Waldheim affair in the late 1980s, when it was revealed that the then Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, a former secretary-general of the UN, had lied about his wartime past. In the wake of this scandal, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky finally admitted to Austrian complicity in the crimes of the Holocaust in July 1991. Then, in 2000, the EU temporarily imposed sanctions on Austria when the far-right Freedom Party was brought into a government coalition with the conservative People’s Party. But today Austria, while remaining an important element of the German cultural world, no longer has to look outside its borders for its own sense of national identification.

Jamie Bulloch

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