Austria: Travels with my Aunt behind the Iron Curtain

Austria is a specific case of ordoliberal policies – as indeed each society  is unique. As Walter Matznetter wrote in a recent email (Walter Matznetter was one of my co-operators on the project to study Germanic ordoliberalism): Walter was, and remains, friendly in the best Austrian traditions:

“Vienna as one of nine Länder is different from the rest of Austria, having 25% public rented housing in its stock, plus 23% of social rented housing on top, i.e.48% of sub-market rents, little less than the top providers of social housing, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, with around 50%.”

This, I thought was interesting. The Austrian länder are in some respects as autonomous as those of Germany. Vienna is vastly oversized in relation to the country as a whole so it has not really changed in that respect either. Red Vienna of the interwar years left an enduring legacy of ordoliberalism, but specific to Austria. Walter continues:

“Of course, the conservative-corporatist way of handling things has seen many adaptations to neoliberalist solutions, but “Sozialpartnerschaft” is still important, and only a fraction of social housing has been sold. On the contrary, social housing is being increased, in a neoKeynesian mood to help the labor and the housing market.”

So far from being a small remnant of ordoliberalism it is even today being strengthened! Walter develops this:

“Vienna is growing at a pace “we” (in reality my great-grandfather) experienced last in the Habsburg Empire. Housing market tension builds up, but is still very much alleviated by sub-market rentals, your argument many years ago.”

This was very useful, as well as bringing back a flood of good memories of Vienna. Joci, my Jewish aunt, took me to visit relatives in Slovakia and Hungary and we always took the sleeper from Ostend to Vienna, booking couchettes. They were crowded and uncomfortable but at the time, in my early teens, it was an adventure and I managed to get a reasonable night’s sleep. I remember waking up at daybreak and looking out at the Bavarian landscape and over the Austrian border at Linz and other places along the route.

This was the sister train to the famous Orient Express, the sister train, which in this website, is called the Ostend-Vienna-Orient Express, where a timetable can be seen.  Ostend-Ghent-Brussels-Liege, by which time I usually fell asleep. The train continued through Germany, and had to stop and shunt, presumably to break the train into different destination sectors (I noticed the train stopped at major stations like Aachen and Cologne where shunting took place not that I realised the significance of this at the time!).

By daybreak the train was rolling through Bavaria towards the Austrian border, then down the Danube from Linz to Vienna.

At Vienna we disembarked at Westbahnhof, already then a brand new station to connect eastwards from. The train arrived in mid-afternoon and we went to eat a meal and look around a bit before taking another train eastwards to either Slovakia or Hungary.

What stuck in my mind was the excellent food. Wiener schnitzel which hung over the edge of the plate, coffee and sachertorte. All served in the fine choice of konditorei that Vienna could boast – then as no doubt now. There is a very good website on the Viennese Coffee House which gives a good feel for the nature of the konditori as an international institution.

From Vienna we either took the separate Vienna-Budapest service, or the Vienna-Bratislava service to Slovakia. The border controls in both cases were vigorous. We were, after all, only visiting one country at a time, and this was the Iron Curtain, so we needed entry visas to visit both countries, even though we never tried to visit both Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the same visit. All this was before Bohemia and Moravia split off from Slovakia as a result of the fragmentation of Europe that followed the Prague Spring of 1968. We did not return to Hungary after the 1956 Uprising.

Joci told me that as we cross the border to Austria from Bavaria we might notice that the Austrians are more friendly and open than the Germans, expressed in terms of Gemütlichkeit. She also said that she could not understand why Austrians supported Hitler, and indeed were at least as anti-semitic as the Germans. This BBC history Austria and Nazism: owning up to the past, by Robert Knight succinctly summarises the reasons for this apparent contradiction. See also the Wikipedia item on Austria.

Yet long after the Anschluss it was clear that many Austrians supported it. As late as the 1980s Nazi support was high, as the legacy of the Anschluss had created a residue of considerable Nazi sympathy (see also the article on Jörg Haider and the Wikipedia article on Austrian Nazism). This does illustrate the longer term effects of the Anschluss, and the reason for the sensitive reaction from Germany, then building its position of leadership in the EU.

See also The Sound of Music in which the Trapp family flee across the border to Switzerland. This, too, is challenged as a historical travesty without any consideration of Artistic licence – a popular musical, becoming the subject of a critique because it would not be possible to flee across the mountains to Switzerland carrying their baggage and instruments! It would seem that the whole issue of Austrian Nazism remains even today highly infected.

The 1949 film, The Third Man, with it catchy theme tune (The Harry Lime theme) was always in my mind when we made those visits to Vienna. Even in those days Vienna was the crossroads of Europe, a centre for espionage. I also remember going to the Vienna Woods.  The music of Strauss is everywhere. Zoli, my father, when I was a small child used to listen to the Vienna New Year Concert, and I listened with him on the utility radio in the kitchen and later on TV. These were precious moments for me. Joci was a flapper in her youth, and often went to Vienna from Bratislava, to concerts and musicals.

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