Photo: Historical Map of the Deutsch-Österreich territory of 1918. Photo Credit: Collection of Peter Wassertheurer
“Ninety years of the Republic of Austria..,” Johanna Rachinger, General Director of the Austrian National Library paused, and for a second the words hung in the air. “Now we all know that there are a number of inaccuracies that resonate with those words,” she admitted.
Yes. You could see a head nod here or there, particularly the grey ones. Because, for at least seven years, from 1938 to 1945, there had been neither a Republic nor a sovereign state of Austria. And with the elimination of the Parliament in March 1933 and the establishment of the Austro-Fascist state in May 1934, there was certainly no democracy.
These things are known, but not often spoken of in Austria even today. But sharing the podium at the Hofburg on Nov. 12 with President Heinz Fischer in front of Austria’s leading politicians, Rachinger didn’t want to cut any corners. Austria was celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Austrian Republic in 1918, and she wanted to get it right.
As Rachinger continued, Austria’s complex history in the early years of the 20th century became clearer – the intermittent abolition of an autonomous, democratic Austrian state and the entanglement in national-socialist injustice “mark a deep caesura between the First and Second Republic and define our national identity even today,” she said.
There was drama even at the beginning of the First Republic 90 years ago, at the beginning called Deutsch-Österreich, which initially incorporated most of the German-language territories left over when the Austrian Monarchy was dismantled after World War I (see historical map). Deutsch-Österreich was proclaimed on an afternoon that ended in chaos, when as the new red-white-red colored flags were hoisted, only the red segments were lifted. The panic that followed left two persons dead and 50 more wounded. The territories of the Sudentenland and the city Brno were disconnected from the rest of Austrian territory. These were temporarily part of the new state, until it was repartitioned to Czechoslovakia in the Peace Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye, in September of 1919.
The Republic Deutsch-Österreich was seen historically as an intermediate stage of accession to Germany. But as the Treaty of St. Germain did not permit the accession, the modern Austrian Republic that was born in 1919, was a state, many believed then, could not survive on its own.
The Exhibition at the Parliament
As part of the commemorative events was the organization of a special exhibition in the historical Säulenhalle of the Austrian Parliament. Before the main ceremony at the Hofburg in the late morning, journalists were admitted to a special tour led by curators, Stefan Karner and Lorenz Mikoletzky. The two professors, formally dressed in dark suits with elegant ties the colors of the Austrian flag, were full of enthusiasm for the story they had to tell.
“You all know of those exhibitions, where the opening is already taking place up front, while in the back there is still hammering going on,” Mikolitzky began. “That is not the case today.” Still, we noticed, who was doing that sound-check…
As we assemble at the vestibule of the Roman atrium-inspired Säulenhalle, Karner began with 1918: The “collapse of the political Central Europe” started at the vestibule, leading into the main part grouped under topics like Political Parties, National Politics, Schools and Higher Education, Art, Culture and Media, showing the sweep of history across the 90 years with some original documents and artifacts, or facsimiles, without the necessity of going back to other sections of the exhibition.
However, the overall framework comes back around to the beginning, because, “what collapsed in 1918, grows together in a united Europe,” Karner explained, namely in Austria’s 1995 accession to the European Union. The exhibition was designed within the architecture, so there are only some panels at the sidewalls, but the main exhibition is located on lower desk panels between the huge columns.
Along with the panels, there were integrated LCD screens, displaying election results, as on T.V. today, or elsewhere, historical news clips on interactive touch screens. Towards the middle corridor were special desks for children that allow a playful exploration of the different subject areas, including piles of the legendary Mannerschnitten that compare the income situation in Austria from the 1950s to the present day (unfortunately, the piles were locked so that the sweets didn’t disappear. Seemed grossly unfair….)
Some of the most impressive artifacts exhibited are half-burnt, unidentified, documents that survived the infamous torching of the Justizpalast (The Court of Law) in July 1927. The revolt and general strike that led to the violence was caused by the acquittal of right-wing paramilitary agents, who had killed two Social Democrats in the Burgenland village of Schattendorf on Jan. 1927. The burning of the Justizpalast was a symbol of the irreconcilable political rivalries between the left and right that signified the First Republic, and also showed the strength the paramilitary organizations had had on public life in the 1920s Austria.
The Ceremony at the Hofburg
Back in November 2008, shortly before 11.00 am, political life came to a standstill as everyone from the President on down assembled for the live televised event from the Hofburg Zeremoniensaal. There were no foreign guests present, except the Papal Nuncio. The lavishly decorated interior with chandeliers, golden stucco and mirror walls was a welcome contrast to the foggy damp outside. Through the windows at the side, one can catch a glimpse across the Heldenplatz to the Rathaus and imperial grandeur of history.
The stage was set for a large orchestra, where the speakers – from President Heinz Fischer, Provincial Governor Herbert Sausgruber, and, of course, Johanna Rachinger – were placed at the side. The large film screen was hanging in the middle of the stage, which not only allowed the few hundred selected guests to view the speakers.
Following a short film about Austria’s foundations President Fischer reminded the audience that Nov. 12, 1918 had not been a day of harmony.
“It was a very controversial day, at the end of a terrible war,” he said. But it was also no zero hour either, rather a transition from the collapse of one of Europe’s most influential empires to a small new state, reiterating the words of writer Stefan Zweig that “one world has sunk while a new one was born.” (“eine Welt versunken ist und eine Neue geboren wurde”)
Still, a bit more of a pride in the democratic tradition of Europe might be in order, he exhorted: “A bit of the spirit ‘Yes, we can’, that the new American President is trying to bring into his country’s politics, would be undoubtedly helpful here for us too.”
The speeches were alternated by performances by the Radio Symphonie Orchester Wien with Romanian-born Soprano Ildiko Raimondi, conducted by Bertrand de Billy, followed at the end by Vienna Boys Choir singing the National Anthem.
Selections Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s ‘Glück das mir verblieb’ from his opera Die tote Stadt. Although originally written for Tenor, the charming, almost fragile voice of Raimondi was captivating and her performance many had tears in their eyes.
As the ceremony drew to a close after about one hour, the honorary guests and were admitted to a delicately presented buffet with Austrian delicacies and rich wine, before moving on for the rest of the day’s events.
This is an excerpt, the full article was published in December 2008 in The Vienna Review.