More Austrians would agree that we should restore the Habsburg monarchy rather than unify with Germany — says Emil Brix in an interview with Zbigniew Rokita.
ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: In your book Mitteleuropa Revisited you and Erhard Busek stressed: “Austria joined the EU in 1995 as the first Central European country”. Is that really how most Austrians perceive themselves—as a Central European country rather than a Western one?
EMIL BRIX: Austria has a long tradition of being a Central European country. After World War II, the Iron Curtain mentally divided the Austrian population: a large number of Austrians identified themselves as part of the free world—the West, but the other part felt connected with Central Europe. Additionally, the fact that Austria declared itself a permanently neutral state after becoming fully independent in 1955 and did not join NATO reinforced the idea that Austria was both a Western and a Central European country with special relations to the East.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, polls showed that the number of Austrians perceiving their country as part of Central Europe increased. During the Cold War, they declared that the closest country for them was Germany, but after 1989 this was replaced by Hungary. Actually, during the last couple of years, it has been changing once again.
What was the reason?
Because of the media coverage on the non-democratic developments in countries like Hungary the mental ties with the region have become a little bit looser.
Do you think that mentally we, as Europe, have managed to overcome the Iron Curtain?
I hoped for that after 1989, but now I see that we didn’t succeed. I blame, at least partly, the structure of the European Union.
The structure of the European Union has a Western European notion: Western European countries still make the most important decisions, we still have the idea that the cooperation between France and Germany is politically the most important one.
This structure has a Western European notion: Western European countries still make the most important decisions in the field of economics, we still have the idea that the cooperation between France and Germany is politically the most important one, etc. There have been too few attempts on the Western European side to include Central European countries in that golf club. And this is not only about economics or politics. In the EU we speak a lot about European values, but we are not ready to discuss it with Central European states.
Does the West treat Central Europe as something worse? In the book, you quoted data according to which fish fingers in Austria contain 65% of fish while in Slovakia only 58. There are plenty of similar examples. Why is this so? It looks like Western Europe treats Central Europe as something inferior.
This is the consequence of the market economy. When we confront some companies with these figures, they answer that it has to be done, because the taste of Central Europeans is different from the taste of Austrians. But what they are really saying is that the logic of capitalism is to sell the same product at different prices or different products at the same price if this allows them to make more profit. They use similar capitalistic tools that were used in the colonies for a long time. You cannot build equal relationships as long as this form of economic logic continues. This creates resentment. This is much more important than the idea of Ivan Krastev who claims that the real problem is that the East was only imitating the West and resentment emerged when the East realized that this is nothing but imitation.
Professor Jacek Purchla wrote in his introduction to Mitteleuropa Revisited: “Not accidentally Austria was the only western country that did not see itself before 1989 as part of the East”—was that the case? Even Poland? You didn’t have that concept of two Europes?
This is absolutely correct. But it was not because Austrian politics was more advanced. It was a question of experience. At least for the political elite in Vienna, it was clear that we have a geopolitical situation that is not genuine and natural. Moreover, it was easier for Austrians to cross the Iron Curtain. We also knew how to help dissidents in Poland or Czechoslovakia after 1968 or 1981. We had our historical experiences. Also, as a neutral country, we had a different position. Just look at the fact that it was Austria which was the transit country for the migration of 300,000 Jews from the Soviet Union to the free world.
You underline historical links but it happens to be quite challenging. Countries like Russia still suffer from the so-called post-imperial syndrome. Hungary also experiences very strong so-called Trianon syndrome. Does Austria—which is only one country that used to be an empire at the beginning of the twentieth century and now is not a leading world power any longer—also suffer from this disease?
No, you cannot find post-imperial trauma within Austrian society and politically this does not exist at all. My feeling is that, different from Hungary, Austria never saw itself as only a victim of the past.
How did you manage to avoid this self-victimization?
Because of the good economic development between 1945 and 1989. Becoming a prosperous country helped us avoid developing this idea that we have always been victims. Austrians don’t feel bad about lost territories, not even all that much about the loss of the German-speaking South Tyrol (Alto Adige).
Secondly, Austria is one of the few countries where national identity was able to develop although we have a neighboring country where the same language is spoken. This is something unusual in twentieth-century Europe. It also helps us avoid post-imperial syndrome.
You cannot find post-imperial trauma within Austrian society and politically this does not exist at all. My feeling is that, different from Hungary, Austria never saw itself as only a victim of the past.
You mentioned special ties between Austria and Germany. I’m wondering when the willingness of at least part of Austrians to unify with Germany disappeared entirely?
Immediately after 1945. It was very clear that the only way to gain independence was to end the German dream in Austria. To erase this dream, the occupation of four World War II allies up until 1955 also helped. Today this is not a question at all— most Austrians would agree that it would be better to restore the Habsburg monarchy than unify with Germany.
In the book, you underline how important it is to cover all the terras incognitas in one’s history. Poland is trying to do this right now but it’s going slowly and painfully: an example is an ongoing discussion on the Polish attitude towards Jews during the war. Did Austria manage to deal with its historical dilemmas like Kurt Waldheim or Anschluss?
Yes, but it took us a long time. We succeeded because in our economic system w were able to develop a strong middle-class and an active civil society that pushed for looking into history in a much more open way than it was before. Take a look at what is going on in Belarus. The economic situation there is not bad. They still have cheap energy from Russia, and they produce the best chips for computers for American companies. But they are missing the Central European part. More and more people in Minsk are asking: how can we develop a strong middle-class civil society which we need to develop a national community that is acceptable for the majority of the Belarussians and that may help them take part in the political process? This is the experience that we have in Central Europe and we can share it.
But why is history so important in our region? Conflicts over the past burst out over and over again, much more often than in the US or the UK. How can we get rid of these constant dilemmas?
We have too much history in Central Europe. There are so many layers, experiences, approaches, perspectives, the identity situation is simply much more complex. Arguments about the past have a direct connection with building a national identity. Western countries like France or Britain managed to build a common collective identity from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, sometimes brutally. In Central Europe, it took us much longer and we even up until now face the challenge of building common ideas about our past within our societies. As a consequence, we have many more issues that need to be discussed. Nation-building processes are as a rule finished in most Western European countries, but are still dynamic in Central European ones.
But this is not only the case in our region— take a look at Spain for instance. They struggle with their past in search of commonalities. This concerns how to judge the Franco period but also how to ‘manage’ the past and the future of the Catalonians.
It was very clear that the only way to gain independence was to end the German dream in Austria. To erase this dream, the occupation of four World War II allies up until 1955 also helped.
According to your book, some countries may become a part of Central Europe in the following years. You wrote that in future Albania or Macedonia may ‘join Central Europe’. I‘m wondering why they would want to join us? Central European states were willing to join the West because of safety and welfare. But why would Central Europe be attractive for Albania more than Western Europe? Are we not only the transitional stage on their paths to the West?
Because safety and welfare are not enough to build a community. It was very understandable for any former member of the Warsaw Pact to see the idea of Central Europe as only a way to integrate into the West. But afterwards, some people realized that this stepping stone is maybe more important than the final objective Poland or Hungary were heading toward. It is thus not a surprise that now in these countries political parties can win elections by criticizing ‘liberal democracy’. Transformation can reach a point from which societies cannot go further without answering the questions: what does it mean for culture, for the national identity?
It’s interesting what you are saying about a stepping stone that becomes more important than the goal because many people claim that the story about Central Europe is more about what it isn’t than what it is: we are not the East anymore but we are not the West yet either.
It’s wrong to think that Central Europe is only what someone does not want to be. Central Europe cannot merely be the acceptance of the West as a whole, it cannot be an attempt at imitation. Parties like Law and Justice in Poland are so successful because they understand that they need to balance the market economy and focus on equality. Central Europe is the notion that it is not enough to catch up with the West.
It should be verified based on how the Western concept works and combine it with our own experience. If we see ourselves only as a periphery, we will not manage to develop convincing ideas about Europe and we won’t understand what our own priorities are.
But to achieve it people in Poland, Slovakia or Hungary should start liking themselves. We still perceive ourselves as a worse West. There is a great deal of work to do in this area because no one will respect us if we will not respect ourselves first.
It has a lot to do with the notion that we need to reframe the narrative of what Europe is. Western Europe made many mistakes when integrating Central Europe, but we also made a serious mistake by not reframing this narrative. And to change a narrative is much more difficult than to cut the barbed wire on the Austrian-Hungarian border. Today the main story is that there is Western Europe and the rest of the continent should be civilized. We should notice that there is something dignified in our own, Central European, past. And it is not only about history but also about how we see the economy, how work should be organized and what should be the place of intellectuals in public life.
Today the main story is that there is Western Europe and the rest of the continent should be civilized. We should notice that there is something dignified in our own, Central European past.
The subtitle of your book is the question: does the future of Europe depend on it? What do you mean by that?
As long as there is no clear influence of Central Europe and its experiences on the European Union, the break-up of the whole organization is not impossible. Central European voices have to be heard.
Many underline that when Orbán built fences on the border a few years ago, the West criticized him, but when Greeks now shoot at refugees’ boats, Brussels supports them. I‘m afraid that Central Europe really is the future of Europe but not in the person of Havel or Konrad but rather Kotleba and Orbán. Yesterday’s outsiders like them or Kaczyński are now becoming part of the mainstream.
True, it looks increasingly as if some role models like Jarosław Kaczyński or Viktor Orbán are now the mainstream models for the rest of the European Union. Orbán said two years ago: “We thought Europe is our future, but now we see that we are the future of Europe”. Why is that so? During the EU integration process, member countries created a lot of illusions. The basic idea of the European project was: we can create a common Europe simply by not talking about culture, identity or education and that it is enough to talk about iron, steel and shared institutions. But today we see that this does not suffice. As long as there was an Iron Curtain, it seemed to be easy.
Because then in the West people could say: “We are the good ones, and they are the bad guys”. They were criticizing the communist regimes, but actually, they were talking about people living on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Now Europe is much more fragmented. And our Central European experience may be helpful. Central Europe is telling the rest of the EU: “Try to be more realistic and less illusionary; you cannot keep continuing to ‘deepen’ the EU and not telling your societies what you want to achieve”.
You’re constantly emphasizing the very need for reframing narratives of what Europe is. You wrote that Austria and Slovenia joining the V4 may prevail in western scepticism over Central Europe and enforce the bridge between the Western Balkans and the West. Why don’t you join?
Within the V4 members, there is no readiness to accept other states joining the organization. Austria tested the waters for that idea informally at least once, but the V4 countries think that they have found some sort of strange equilibrium they do not want to change. Especially in Poland, there is the idea that Poland is a front runner and Warsaw decides. It’s funny, but in the rest of the Visegrad capitals, politicians also claim that they are the decisive forces. But to make Central Europe more influential we need to include other countries like Austria, Slovenia, maybe Croatia in political structures like the V4. This would immediately help to change the European narrative.
Aren’t you tired of this constant discussion about what is Central Europe, what are its borders, etc.?
I am tired of the question: “What is Central Europe”. And do you know what I usually answer?
Central Europe is telling the rest of the EU: “Try to be more realistic and less illusionary; you cannot keep continuing to ‘deepen’ the EU and not telling your societies what you want to achieve”.
This is a moving target. I have met many immigrants in Australia, Israel or the United States that tell me: “We are Central Europeans”. I learned from them that Central Europe is not only a question of politics but mostly of mentality and culture. This is about who we are. I looked back to Vienna before 1914—how creative this city was!
It was the plurality of Central Europe that made it possible. We can try to create this openness and plurality once again and then we can achieve much more than what was possible before and immediately after the Iron Curtain fell.
Share this on social media
The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.