Travel + Leisure

August 2000, Travel + Leisure

Vienna’s Last Waltz?

Has the political backlash that followed the election of Jörg Haider and his Freedom Party put a damper on Austria's cultural capital?

The advertising slogan that the city of Vienna used for years—Vienna Is Different—took on a decidedly darker hue when the far-right Freedom Party rose to power this winter. Within weeks of the party’s joining a new Austrian national government, 58,000 bookings at Vienna hotels were canceled.

The lucrative convention trade was hit hard, leading the Austrian Hotel Association’s president to plead for the Freedom Party’s leader, Jörg Haider, to “keep his mouth shut for half a year” so the industry could heal its wounds. Expectations of even more cancellations dealt a symbolic setback to the music-loving metropolis—the Vienna State Opera pulled this summer’s scheduled run of The Merry Widow for fear the effervescent operetta would play to a largely empty house.

Even after Haider formally stepped down as party chief in May, the city’s mayor, Michael Häupl, felt compelled to declare: “Vacationing in Vienna is no disgrace. Vienna is a city of world culture. No one need be ashamed to travel here.” Yet the Freedom Party’s call for severely curtailed state funding of the arts has sparked fears that the new government plans a cultural crackdown. Anxious about the ascent of jingoistic politicians with little regard for avant-garde trends, Salzburg Festival director Gerard Mortier warned that the Freedom Party would turn the annual event into a “yodeling contest.” At the august Burgtheater, the Austrian national stage, protesters interrupted a performance to sound the alarm that artistic freedom was endangered.

Placed on the defensive, the Vienna Tourist Board devoted five pages of its Web site to reassuring potential guests that “Vienna is not unsafe, it is not xenophobic, not driven by Nazis.” Indeed, travelers to the city will find no storm troopers in the streets, nor are they likely to encounter violence. But the tensions that helped propel the Freedom Party into national office lie not far beneath the frothy grandeur of a city renowned for its aesthetic refinement.

Austrians frequently point out that, in contrast to Germany, their country is remarkably free of violent acts against foreigners. True. Yet, Viennese xenophobia finds its outlet in verbal hostility. After he publicly criticized the Freedom Party’s entry into the government, the director of the Vienna State Opera, Romanian-born Ioan Holender, received a flood of anti-Semitic letters. And the city’s most widely read newspaper, the Neue Kronen Zeitung, regularly fans fears that the capital is being swamped by undesirable refugees. When I visited this spring, the tabloid’s front-page headline blared in inch-high type: BEGGARS COMING IN DROVES TO AUSTRIA! The story warned that Romanian immigrants were posing as blind-and-deaf indigents, and that allowing Austria’s eastern neighbors to join the European Union would result in a “beggars’ invasion.”

By virtue of its geographic location and its historic ties to Eastern Europe, Vienna is a magnet for people fleeing economic hardship as well as political persecution. Recently, the city has taken in tens of thousands of Bosnians and Kosovars. It’s estimated that 18 percent of Vienna’s 1.6 million residents are foreign-born; if illegal aliens are included the figure could be as high as 25 percent.

It is no secret that the Freedom Party capitalizes on antipathy to this growing population. Last fall, the party’s campaign literature warned that “black African asylum seekers with designer suits and mobile phones pursue drug deals undisturbed” and called for an end to the Überfremdung, or “overforeignization.” The party also scores votes by assailing lavish arts subsidies that have helped Vienna retain the equivalent of superpower status in the cultural arena, even though its heyday as a hotbed of artistic experimentation is long over. Party publications target leading contemporary artists who enjoy state backing, such as playwrights Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Turrini. The salvos against these artists are echoed in the Kronen Zeitung, a pugnacious tabloid in which Haider’s cultural adviser is a columnist. In response, performers as diverse as rock singer Lou Reed and classical pianist Andras Schiff decided to boycott Austria earlier this year. “People have the right to elect someone like him,” Reed said of Haider, “but that doesn’t mean everyone has to get close to him.” Other international arts figures, including Nobel laureate Dario Fo and conductors Lorin Maazel and Seiji Ozawa, reject the idea of a boycott, arguing that it would unfairly punish those Austrians who oppose the government.

For the moment, at least, all top cultural posts in the national government are held by members of the conservative People’s Party, and there has been no dramatic shift in the cultural sphere. But funding cuts have been announced to enable Austria to meet strict budgetary criteria set by the EU, and State Secretary for Art and Media Franz Morak told me that it is now necessary to “do more to bring art to the people.” How this will translate into policy remains to be seen. In any case, it’s likely to be offset by the fact that the city of Vienna, with arts funding to the tune of $200 million annually, has been highly critical of the Freedom Party’s record of aesthetic intolerance. The city-sponsored Vienna Festival, a monthlong extravaganza of theater and music, opened in May under the motto Vienna Open City, and conspicuously included plays in Croatian, Polish, and Russian as well as a performance piece that addressed the fraught question of political asylum.

“The Freedom Party wants the arts to be uncontroversial,” says City Counselor for Cultural Affairs Peter Marboe. “We need to support more experimental arts because, usually, people who are willing to accept art forms they do not agree with are also willing to accept people in a society they do not agree with.”

Exploitation of hot-button issues like immigration and avant-garde culture is only part of the reason behind Haider’s success. His party has derived much support by pillorying the cozy postwar arrangement under which Austria’s Social Democrats and the People’s Party have dominated political life for decades. Disillusionment with the status quo helped the Freedom Party capture 27 percent of the vote.

Nonetheless, many Austrians are angry with Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel for agreeing to a coalition with the Freedom Party, which they see as helping to legitimize a group that had no place near the levers of federal power. For months after the government was installed, thousands of protesters marched every Thursday evening in the city’s First District, encircled by the monument- and shop-lined Ringstrasse. In front of the cream-colored Hofburg, the former imperial palace, anti-government activists set up a white tent that they called the Embassy of Concerned Citizens to serve as a focal point for discussion and for gathering signatures on a petition demanding new elections.

Theaters organized debates and readings inspired by the watershed political change, and still more events have taken place in galleries and at the universities. The façade of the gold-domed Secession building, a relic of Vienna’s fin de siècle cultural efflorescence, was plastered with anti-government artworks that changed biweekly. Massive banners proclaiming WIDERSTAND (resistance) hung in front of the Academy of Visual Arts (which twice rejected Hitler’s application to study architecture) and in front of the School of Applied Arts, where the celebrated Wiener Werkstätte designer Josef Hoffmann taught.

The ferment has by no means interrupted Vienna’s panoply of opera, concert, and theater performances (the Merry Widow cancellation excepted). But in the election’s aftermath the political offerings have been equally varied—to the point where, for many weeks, every evening could be spent at a civic event devoted to the political situation. Many of these events have had the cerebral air of a grad school seminar. Given that Vienna was the place where psychoanalytic theory was first formulated, I attended a late-night reading from Freud’s 1921 work Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. “It makes clear the fascination that Haider exercises and the behavior of his voters and the protesters,” said playwright Klaus Händel. Perhaps. The reading was part of a series entitled “Unsettled Austria,” held at the state-funded Volkstheater. “Many people feel challenged and provoked by this government,” said the series organizer, Karl Baratta. “Suddenly, everyone is talking about politics.”

Two nights later, I visited an art gallery in a former 17th-century palace where a group of artists and professionals were meeting every Monday to discuss the political situation. That evening, an essay on fascism by French philosopher Jacques Derrida was on the agenda. On a separate evening, I decided to skip a talk—at the house where Freud once lived—dealing with the “interplay of psychodynamic and political processes” in contemporary Austria. Instead I dropped in on a heated symposium, held at the Technical University, that addressed the question “Is Jörg Haider a fascist? A Nazi? A liar?” Five hundred people filled the lecture hall to find out.

A similar surge of activity is under way in the virtual realm, involving dozens of anti-government Internet sites. “Enormous creative potential has been unleashed,” says Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, chief curator at the city’s Jewish Museum. “It’s unbelievable how much effort individuals are investing in terms of work and thought.” Many current activists were children during Austria’s last wave of civic-mindedness, when president-elect Kurt Waldheim was accused of having hidden his wartime role in a German army unit that oversaw the deportation of Jews to death camps.

During l’affaire Waldheim, segments of the Austrian media and some officials attributed criticism of the president to an international Jewish conspiracy. This time, while some are angry at the EU for rejecting a democratically elected government, “there’s a different quality to the debate,” said Armin Thurnher, editor of the liberal Vienna weekly Falter. “Many people in this country say, ‘Thank God we’re in the EU,’ and want to show there’s another Austria that did not vote for this coalition. The European dimension offers hope that democracy will prevail.”

There is also hope that the change in government may, paradoxically, ease Austria’s lingering resistance to facing its Nazi past. After years of pointing fingers at the Freedom Party for fomenting nostalgia for fascism, the Social Democrats recently apologized for having absorbed many former Nazi Party members into their own ranks. A federally appointed historians’ commission, set up by the previous government, is researching the extent to which property was expropriated from Jews after Austria’s 1938 annexation by Germany. “In Vienna, everybody says, ‘Let’s complain about the greedy victims who want their property back,’ ” says Ariel Muzicant, a leader of Vienna’s Jewish community. “But it looks as if this political situation might move things forward.”

Already, the new government has expressed a willingness to compensate forced laborers interned in Austria under the Third Reich. And later this year, authorities plan to unveil a major memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Designed by the British artist Rachel Whiteread and located in what was once the city’s Jewish quarter, the monument stands atop the remains of a synagogue destroyed by a pogrom in 1421. A massive concrete cube, it bears the imprint of countless book pages, as if it were a library turned inside out. The haunting work is meant to recall the absence of Jews and the culture they helped create.

For some Viennese, Whiteread’s work captures an important but largely unacknowledged aspect of contemporary life. “In Vienna, one lives in the past, with many ghosts,” says Isolde Charim, a professor of philosophy who has been active in anti-government protests. Speaking with cautious optimism, she adds that the latest international uproar enveloping the city has had a “pedagogic effect”: in the end, it may help to promote a more tolerant atmosphere. “It’s a difficult battle, but things have started to change.”