The Impurities of Austria

Cloud-enshrouded and snow-capped alps, valleys that the sun touches with soft rays in summer, deep and pure lakes, neat houses clustering around streams or clambering up the lower slopes – Austria invokes these and more in the imagination of travellers, if not locals. We came to Austria in the summer, in June. And we were keen to avoid the traps of Vienna and Innsbruck, with their Disneyfied ‘authentic’ experiences that are now no different from any other city in Europe. So it was to Klagenfurt we came, close by the Slovenian border, indeed in a region – Carinthia (Kärnten) – that overlaps with Slovenia. Except to put it that way to turn the proverbial horse into a cart pusher, for the region itself is more ancient that either Austria or Slovenia, having originally been the Slavic principality of Carintania.

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Klagenfurt abounds in those typical Austrian features. Out of our window – where we were couch-surfing – we could almost touch the rocky and icy peaks of the range that marks the border with Slovenia. In the other direction, the impossible steepness of the Austrian Alps poked into the sky. I swam in the local Wöthersee, a glacial lake, so clean you could drink it. Within minutes of walking we were in the forest, winding up a path to some lower peak with a grand view on almost every turn. One is almost spoilt for the glories of nature, and we could certainly not get enough. In the evenings, we found yet another bar with a view, sipping on beers and talking life politics, the universe.

Why were there not more people here, partaking of the pure mountain air, of the clear blue lakes? Once the tourists did come, in the earlier parts of the twentieth century. My paternal grandparents were among them, inhabitants of the Dutch sand flats keen to suck in the peaks and their glacier-formed lakes. Some visitors had since bought houses around the massive lake, but they were now – I was told – the not-so wealthy and not-so famous. Those who were so would be in Monaco or the French Riviera. But the effect was that more and more of the lakeshore passed into private hands. Without a tradition of common access to the common good, the shore was fair game – so much so that only by a narrow strip or two can the public access the lake. Of course, they are the muddy, reedy bits, the pieces of land and lake worth least on the real estate market.

Liminal Spaces

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As we talked and explored a little deeper into the local area, a couple of features – not obvious initially – slowly rose to the surface. The first was the curious status of a border region, the liminality, the perpetual sense of transition that seems to be in the air one breathes. Klagenfurt and Carinthia may seem more locked into Austria, but even here a vote in 1920 – as to whether Carinthia should join the newish Yugoslavia or stay in a much reduced Austria after defeat in the First World War – was split 59% to 41%, in favour of the latter.

That sense of liminality was far stronger in Trieste, which we visited for a day. The multitude of Italian flags waving about, names like Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, the heaviness of the buildings – these and more speak of an outpost nervously asserting its identity in the face of what it knows are competing assumptions. A quick look at the map shows you that Trieste is an anomaly in Italy, an outpost that is really part of the Dalmatian Coast, a spit away from Slovenia.

In fact, our Austrian guides kept pointing out that many of the buildings are indeed from the late nineteenth century, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. German is still spoken here by many, and the small castle on the bay is a Habsburg construction, making its own futile statement of permanent possession. It was, after all, the major seaport of the Empire. We went searching for a traditional Austrian coffee-house, with its five-metre ceilings, ancient dark timber furniture, and vast space where you could sit all day and talk. To the chagrin of our hosts and after much walking and asking, we found that the last one had closed a while back. The name might have been on the stonework above, but now the stand-and-drink Italian versions were everywhere. Would the old style coffee house return if Trieste becomes once again an Austrian town? Among many Austrians, the wish is certainly there.

Resisting the Politics of Purity

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A town with heavy buildings is one thing, but what about villages in the mountains? Here people have seen the colour of the national flag change more than a few times in their own lives. No wonder, then, that the region itself becomes far more important than any artificial sense of nationhood the shifty politicians from outside might try to impose. But it also generates an obverse reaction, in which ethnic politics are sharpened. It was not so much the trip to an unimpressive Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, as to the partisan memorial in Peršman that brought the ugly underside of local politics to the surface.

Peršman is a large farm up in the hills from Bad Eisenkappel, (Železna Kapla in Slovenian), in the area that is the traditional home of the Carinthian Slovene community. Peršman is also the site of a Nazi massacre, perpetrated just before the end of the Second World War. The Sadovnik family, who lived and worked the farm, had been supporters of Tito’s communist partisans from 1942. On 25 April, 1945, a detachment of SS troops and local police looted the farm, burned it to the ground, and executed seven members of this and the Kogoj families – four of them children. Although photographs were taken and evidence gathered by partisans in the hills, the Austrian authorities never investigated the murder.

That lack of action may be seen as signal of the perpetual political tensions in the area. In the surface at least, it may seem as though the situation now is much better than under the Nazis. Then Slovenian was regarded as merely a German dialect – Wendish – and many people may have changed the endings of their names to from –ic to –itsch. Then many were deported to concentration camps and had their homes destroyed. Then massacres took place.

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Yet, right-wing politics continue today, embodied in a party whose leader, Jörg Haider, once said that Nazi labour policies were praiseworthy and consistently praised Austrian veterans who had fought on Hitler’s side.  Haider, the closet gay, may have died in a car accident in 2009, but it is telling that he made Klagenfurt his home and was state governor of Carinthia on two occasions, alongside national gains. In 2000, his Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) managed 27% of the national vote and formed a coalition government. Subsequent factional fighting led Haider to form a breakaway party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), which once again gained national electoral success in 2008 with almost 11% of the vote. In Carinthia, it continues to be a major party.

The result is that today, Slovene Carinthians are still threatened and bullied. Today, bilingual signs have only recently been erected, even though national legislation long ago recognised the Slovene minority (Haider as governor of Carinthia consistently refused to erect the signs and tore existing ones down). Today, the very act of publishing a newspaper, a pamphlet, a book in both Slovenian and German is regarded as a radical, left-wing act. Today, the Slovene-speaking Carinthians are regarded by many as threats to the ethnic purity of Austria.

Perhaps this type of right-wing, ethnic politics is embodied in what can only be regarded as corruptions of the German word Adel (adjective edel). Its immediate meaning may be nobility or aristocracy, but its semantic field includes what is pure, fine, beautiful and good. That is, these aesthetic, cultural and moral terms have inescapable class associations – much like Plato’s loaded question, ‘what is good?’ Yet the words also have ethnic and nationalist connotations, for what is ‘pure’ and ‘fine’ and ‘authentically’ Austrian does not include ethnic and linguistic diversity – at least according to this type of right-wing politics. And that brings me back to the towering snow-capped mountains, the clean lakes, and crisp air. Here too there seems to be an association, a connotation that the purity of Austria is embodied not merely in its Aryan people and in its German language, but also in the natural environment in which they live.

In light of all this, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Austrian left is enshrouded in a perpetual gloom. At times it may seem so, for they spend a good deal of time bemoaning the gains of the right. Yet I have also met some of the most radical, articulate and activist members of that left – in all parts of the world. For them purity and fineness is not on the agenda, but rather multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-group politics. It is not for nothing that the Peršman farm, rebuilt and turned into a museum and educational centre, is regarded as a focus for cultural identity, as a place for the left to feel as though its resistance is worth maintaining.

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