Tipping point

Austria went to the polls on Sunday in an election that dealt a body blow to the European project.

As Germany digested the results of a contest that saw a hard-right party enter the Bundestag for the first time since the second world war, across the border a dashing anti-immigration hardliner dubbed ‘Prince Ironheart’ won out over a vehement Europhobe whose only allies in the Brussels parliament are to be found in the secessionist Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom.

The alternative was a social-democratic party that had refused to rule out a coalition deal with the selfsame devil in its desperation to fend off the favourite, who was himself responsible as foreign minister for suspending his government’s commitment to the Schengen treaty last year. The election of pro-EU academic Alexander van der Bellen to President at the expense of would-be dictator Norbert Hofer last December is already beginning to look like an anomaly.

The salvation of Austria from destructive right-wing forces matters because the country, and its capital Vienna in particular, has a compelling claim to be the cradle of enlightened European civilisation.

From beneath the statue of the goddess Athena that stands outside its keenly contested parliament, Vienna still looks a fitting tribute to human endeavour. Girdled round by the Ringstraße, a regiment of perfectly white marble buildings stands guard over a cultural heritage that may have done more than any other to create the idea of European union. In the cool shadow of history, the streets creep.

The Hofburg imperial palace was once the seat of the Habsburg dynasty, administered for 68 years by der ewige Kaiser (the eternal Emperor), Franz Joseph I. Under the largely benevolent auspices of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Viennese court ruled vast swathes of the European continent between it and Russia until the end of the First World War. Even the port city of Trieste on the Adriatic belonged to the Austrian crown for centuries.

To this day, a grey marble table in a grassy clearing near the opera house commemorates the erstwhile Austrian dominions. The names of every modern nation state that once belonged to the so-called Danube monarchy are engraved into chairs arranged around an outline of Austria. There is nothing triumphalistic, or even elegiac, about this performance. It is simply present.

The same could once have been said of the regime’s longest-serving leader, Franz Joseph. Scarcely seen outside the confines of his palaces, his legend still permeated as far as the Galician backwater of Brody in modern-day Ukraine, so entrancing a young Joseph Roth that he would travel to Vienna and build a short life’s work around the nebulous figure of an inaccessible emperor. In one of his novels, the inconsolable narrator, descended from a noble family distinguished by Franz Joseph for an ancestor’s battlefield heroics, reacts to the Anschluss by making straight for the eponymous emperor’s tomb. Only there, at the once and future sovereign’s side, can he hope to revive the Austria he believes in.

When I last visited Vienna, the Habsburg crypt was festooned with fresh flowers. Many of these were strewn on the coffin of Franz Joseph’s wife, Elisabeth of Bavaria. Known affectionately as Sisi, she counted admirers far beyond the Austrian borders and was granted immortality when an anarchist murdered her on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1898. Bizarrely, my visit was bookended by the sight of her husband’s whiskery countenance on a huge poster in a crop field on the way to the airport.

That nostalgia hints at what is so precious about Vienna in this age of uncertainty. It is a city predicated on a profound respect for its own history and, by extension, that of Europe more widely. Instrumental to its understanding of this history is its contribution to the arts.

For generations of German-speaking playwrights, the Burgtheater was the holy grail. In summer, the shimmering lights of the town hall opposite complete the spell as the guests process up the plush staircase to the evening’s entertainment. Here it was that Stefan Zweig, European par excellence and the intended object of Roth’s first visit, sighed over Franz Grillparzer and marvelled at near contemporary Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Incidentally, it was Grillparzer whose meeting with Goethe produced the rueful reflection that it had been ‘as if Friday had met Sunday’.

The other great legacy Vienna has bequeathed our turbulent era is its coffee culture. Nowhere else is the humble espresso bedecked with such sophisticated accoutrements. In Café Griensteidl, for example, broadsheet newspapers hang on wooden spines in their very own wardrobe and paintings are reflected a dozen times in mirrors lining the walls. The waiters in these hallowed establishments live by the motto ‘The waiter is king’. But even their tyrannical reign is underpinned by democratic values, with impoverished writers in Zweig’s time known to pay a pfennig or two for a coffee and then stay all day at their manuscripts. Writers were a venerated breed.

Past the blinkered horses that inspired Oedipal fear in an infant patient of Sigmund Freud, a sidestreet leads to another literary watering hole, Café Hawelka. Bulgarian-born Elias Canetti was a customer here, making it just about possible that he hit upon the idea for his novel Auto-da-Fé, with its foreshadowing of the Nazi book burning, in the dim light of its oak-panelled interior. Like Freud and Pope Pius III before him, Canetti studied at the fourteenth-century university.

Darkness, as much as light, is part of the story of Vienna. The Austrian architect of that ominous bonfire lived in the city as a frustrated young artist and visited horror on its Jewish quarter after becoming German Chancellor. The systematic disenfranchisement of the Jews in Vienna, which began with the exclusion of children from the city’s ice rink, would live up to the ‘Babylonian captivity’ later evoked by Roth. “They cannot even sit and weep,” he lamented.

Long before the rise of Hitler, cracks had begun to show beneath the surface of the imperial city. Arthur Schnitzler, who famously made it his business to sting public morals, exposed the dreadful ethical shackles of the military code of honour in Lieutenant Gustl, as well as dredging up the Viennese bourgeoisie’s sexual hypocrisy in a story since popularised as the film Eyes Wide Shut starring Tom Cruise.

Yet Vienna has risen above such lapses. From the luminous beauty of the parliament building opposite the theatre to the serene symmetry of Schönbrunn palace in the outskirts, it projects an expansive grace that reaches classical perfection in the forecourt of the Hofburg, where stone sentinels loom over fountains either side of the entrance to the Spanish Riding School. Dazzlingly bright coffee house fronts butt flatteringly into the square just metres from the temporary lodgings of Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff, whose disdain of adjectives shook the genre out of its lardy torpor.

The thought of the dreamy Prussian lyricist Eichendorff watched over in posterity by mythological bodyguards conjures the essence of this city. Vienna is an artistic and intellectual idea as much as a physical place. It lives on in the heart of Europe — for now.


Originally published at jackarscott.wordpress.com on October 19, 2017.