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Politics in Austria: Expatriates and Bureaucrats

Politics in Austria: Expatriates and Bureaucrats Theodor Lessing’s book Der Jüdische Selbsthass (Jewish Self-hatred) was the first work to discuss the concept of Jewish self-hatred, which as the British Journal of Social Psychology states “is often used rhetorically to discount Jews who differ in their lifestyles, interests or political positions from their accusers.” In Austria, this accusation is sometimes labeled against expatriates, Austrians living abroad and daring to point out the petty and indolent political discourse in the “island of the fortunate,” as Pope Paul VI labeled Austria in the 1970s.

I heard this accusation thrown against me more than once in discussions about domestic politics, Austrian manners, and the infamous Austrian ‘soul’ (“Die oesterreichische Seele”). The most circle-the-wagons response I got was “if things are so bad, why don’t you then stay in your fancy New York apartment indefinitely?” My reply is always the same. I never said things are ‘bad,’ but that I am a skeptic of many things Austrians are traditionally proud of, such as the corporatist social partnership or the free-riding, much cherished Austrian neutrality. What I always like to point out is that I am a skeptic of Austria in the true Socratic meaning of the word, i.e. someone who is free from all prejudices and attempts an inquiry into accepted opinions about the nature of things. At this point, people usually change the subject, which I assume is not because I won an argument but because they are fed up and think my case to be hopelessly lost not to believe in the “Brave New Austrian World.”

And indeed I sometimes ask myself why it is so hard to believe in a prosperous, well-run, little democracy in the heart of Europe. In that sense, I am the antithesis to distinguished historian Guenther Bischof’s observation:

Over the years, they (Austrian expats) experience a high degree of assimilationism, once they turn their backs on Austria. While the prewar refugees from Austria often maintained a high degree of emotional attachment to their homeland, which they were forced to leave, this younger crop of careerists sports hardly an iota of nostalgia or much emotional involvement for their birthplace. They want to be successful and leave Austria behind.

I am very much emotionally attached to my country, yet I think for a young person, there are simply bigger fish to fry in the world than the Austrian state eagle. The truth is that Austria has experienced a miraculous economic recovery from the Second World War—the last true big upheaval in Austrian history—and since has been successful in creating a prosperous, well-run social democracy strongly embedded within an European Union of like minded countries.

The political battles in Austria are petty because there is not much to fight about. A little change in the tax code here, a little adjustment in the social security system there; it is no coincidence that Arno Geiger’s great postwar novel on Austria is called Es geht uns gut (We are doing well). In many ways, we are again in Stefan Zweig’s pre-war Vienna of his autobiography Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday), where “bureaucrats could set their watches to the day when they retire.”

The result is that the country does not produce statesmen or politicians; it principally produces administrators and bureaucrats because the environment does not require visions or new ideas, but merely the slight improvement of the already existing. Helmut Schmidt’s statement in the 1980s that “wer Visionen hat, soll zum Arzt gehen” (whoever has visions should go and see a doctor) was not a sardonic but factual statement. Western Germany had very little room to maneuver on the international stage because it was locked between two competing blocs in the middle of a Cold War that at any moment could lead to a nuclear exchange. Austria, because of its small size, will always be dependent on exterior factors and is ‘locked’ within the European Union and its bigger neighbors.

The best evidence for this is the young political elite of Austria, which primarily consists of young Doppelgaenger (a double of a living person) of long serving politicians. “Er ist tuechtig!” (He is strenuous), or “Er hat noch keinen Fehler gemacht!” (He has not made a mistake yet) are the most often heard praises for young politicians in all parties, which might as well be applied to any Austrian bureaucrat since the days of emperor Joseph II. Yet, as the tagline of the western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance states, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In the case of Austria, that means even superbly organizing a proper Catholic thanksgiving celebration can cause you to be labeled “a political talent” as was the case with former Vice Chancellor Josef Proell, who as a young party member did precisely that. In most other countries, this would make you a good events planner, but in Austria, it makes you a political hopeful, i.e. for non-Austrians and after stripping the legend, an administrative hopeful.

Where are Austria’s grand strategists and statesmen? For example, it is a sheer impossibility to devise a daring new foreign policy for the Balkans or Eastern Europe (which was hijacked by the Austrian private sector more than 20 years ago) or dispatch the best and brightest of Austria to Brussels, the true ‘great uncle’ of small European powers, to push Austrian ‘interests’. (When did anyone ever hear any Austrian politician mention the word ‘Austrian interests’?) I am not even mentioning the rise of China, nuclear Iran, the war in Afghanistan, terrorism in Pakistan, the power transition in North Korea, or the current upheaval in Russia. “Such outward things dwell not in Austrian desires,” to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Henry V, and never seems to be a concern for any party. The exception of course is the United States to which small Austria defiantly proclaims, “Austria is not the 51st state of the United States.”

At the end of the day, bashing Austria as an expat is merely like trying to find the one thing that is wrong with a Jane Austin novel; the elegant form often hides the weakness of the content. Even the Americans recognize Austria’s obsession with outward appearance as a diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Vienna indicates, “More than most countries, Austria places great importance on conferences and ceremonials.” Yet as the US motivational speaker Wayne Dyer once said, “Transformation literally means going beyond your form.” In that sense, expats bashing Austria are just expressing their frustration that little will change over the years in our Alpine republic. But then again, why should it; Uns gehts ja so gut (we are doing so well!)



Franz-Stefan Gady

Franz-Stefan Gady is a foreign policy analyst and world affairs commentator. Franz-Stefan has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy Magazine, Foreign Policy Journal, Der Standard, American Diplomacy Quarterly, The National Interest, Small Wars Journal, and New Europe. Follow him on Twitter:!/hoanssolo