The Washington Post

February 26, 1992, The Washington Post

Austria’s Identity Crisis

Country battles cultural 'colonization' by Germany

A year ago, with great dignity and quiet humility, Peter Handke, Austria’s foremost living author, accepted the first Grillparzer Prize, an $18,500 award envisioned as one of the country’s most prestigious literary honors.

The 1992 winner proved a more problematic choice.

In his acceptance speech last month, author Hans Lebert accused the German foundation that funds the Grillparzer Prize of seeking the cultural “colonization” of German-speaking Austria.

Lebert concluded his remarks by quoting Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg’s declaration “God Save Austria!,” made in a tearful radio address to his countrymen shortly before Hitler forcibly took this small state in 1938. “God did not save Austria,” novelist Lebert declared, “I therefore implore you… . Save your country yourselves!”

Such heated resentment over German involvement in local letters demonstrates a growing sensitivity in Austria to the cultural influence of Germany, heightened since the unification of the more powerful neighbor’s western and eastern parts in October 1990.

Amid the transatlantic worries about united Germany’s new assertiveness in world affairs, some Austrians are bristling over what they see as German attempts to appropriate their artistic achievements. It is one facet of a more muted anxiety over German influence in the Austrian economy.

Austrian officials have lodged a formal protest over efforts by the Goethe Institut, the German Foreign Ministry’s cultural arm, to include Austrian film and literature in programming at its centers around the globe, often without identifying the artists as Austrians rather than Germans. Bilateral talks resulted in an assurance from Bonn that such practices would stop.

“Most Austrians see themselves as an independent nation, not just as far as statehood goes but also culturally,” said Peter Marboe, the Foreign Ministry official responsible for cultural representation abroad. “Like any country, they simply want that to be recognized as a fact.”

Control of Austria’s leading stage, the state-funded Burgtheater, by German director Claus Peymann has ruffled Viennese feathers since he took the helm there in 1986. Peymann has outraged traditional theatergoers with his updatings of German language classics and granting of leading roles to German actors at the expense of Austrian members of the Burgtheater company.

Derided by some critics as a “Piefke,” the local epithet for a German, Peymann sought to outflank them by applying for Austrian citizenship. But government ministers from the conservative People’s Party thwarted his attempt at cabinet level on Jan. 16, with some opponents alleging his real motivation was to obtain state pension benefits.

The proprietor of a Vienna shop specializing in folkloric Austrian clothing has gathered several thousand signatures on a petition urging the government to turn down an extension of Peymann’s contract when it expires next year. Popular hostility to the director was reflected recently in the headline of a nationalistic tabloid: “Ticket Sales Under the German Peymann Fall Further.”

The sponsoring of last season’s Vienna Philharmonic European concert tour by the industrial giant Daimler-Benz also sparked editorial criticism, as did the purchase by a German company of the distinguished Austrian-based publishing house Zsolnay Verlag.

German media companies command 70 percent of Austria’s daily newspaper circulation, and many prominent Austrian authors opt for publishing their works with firms in the Federal Republic of Germany because they thereby gain access to a far bigger market. Eighty percent of the books purchased in Austria are brought out by German publishing houses.

An estimated 40 percent of Austria’s industry is controlled by German investors, and Germany is its largest trading partner. Though few Austrians are bothered by the linkage of the national currency, the schilling, to the German mark, German involvement in flagship artistic institutions leads some to vent antagonism.

The recent skirmishes in the arts can best be understood through an awareness of the vital role culture has traditionally played in Austria’s self-definition. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1918, the mammoth imperial opera and theater establishment remained intact. When Austria regained its independence after its disastrous experience with the Nazi Anschluss, millions of taxpayers’ dollars were spent to lavishly restore the Vienna State Opera and the Burgtheater, both bombed during World War II.

Since the war’s end, literature has been a frequent battlefield for academics defending Austrian particularity. There have been periodic border frictions in German-language publications over the existence of a separate Austrian literature.

German publications sometimes subsume Austrian (and Swiss) authors without distinction in literary surveys. “German-language literature is rarely spoken of,” said historian Rathkolb. “There is always a tendency to appropriate. Objections to this are swept aside in Germany. When one insists on autonomy, they say it is narrow-minded Austrian sniveling. But precisely in a time of greater European cooperation, consideration should be shown for distinct existing identities.”