Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 23
29 November 1999

R E G I O N A L   L U M P I N G:
A "Kidnapped Central Europe"

Magali Perrault

In the first half of the 1980s, the Czech writer Milan Kundera described Central Europe as "a kidnapped Occident," a "piece of the Latin West which has fallen under Russian domination...[and] which lies geographically in the centre, culturally in the West and politically in the East".[1] In many respects, the Austrian experience between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the Communist bloc in 1989 is the reverse story - the tale of a "kidnapped Central Europe."

During the Cold War, despite the attempts of some of its leaders, such as the long-serving socialist Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, to establish the country as a "bridge" between West and East, Austria (and especially the former Hapsburg imperial capital Vienna) lost many of its connections with its traditional hinterland - even if more than an estimated 2.5 million political refugees passed through the country and 600,000 chose to stay and became Austrian citizens.[2]

To be sure, the story of the Austrian second republic, far from the "tragedy" staged in neighbouring Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Poland, was (and still is) a nearly unmitigated success story - not least from an economic standpoint.[3] Austria narrowly escaped the fate of its neighbours, mostly because of Khrushchev's willingness to compromise and to agree to the neutralisation and the "permanent neutrality" (immerwaehrende Neutralitaet) of the Alpine republic in 1955.

After 1989: back to Mitteleuropa?

From the 1960s onwards, some Austrian politicians and intellectuals, such as the former minister Erhard Busek, had developed connections with dissident circles in Eastern Europe [4] or believed in the concept of Central Europe. But they remained isolated figures in an Austria society mostly contented with (and increasingly complacent about) its "neutral" status.

The revolutions of 1989 changed all this and abruptly forced Austrians to reflect anew on their identity. Pan-Germanism and dreams of Anschluss had by then (and in fact, since the exposure to Anschluss during the Second World War) mostly disappeared from the Austrian political landscape. Therefore, in this context, Joerg Haider's description in 1988 of the Austrian nation as a "monstrosity" or certain post-reunification German declarations to the effect that Austria "constituted a very interesting branch of the German nation"[5] were extremely badly received.

The question "Is there an Austrian nation?" was quickly replaced by an equally delicate question: "Where does the Austrian nation belong?" Austria has, of course, for a long time been considered and studied as part of the Western European region, but the end of the Cold War calls for a reassessment of this widespread perception and a renewed emphasis on Austria's Central European destiny. There are several crucial reasons for this.

Firstly, if Central Europe is a concept based on the Hapsburg legacy, then Austria, and especially "imperial" Vienna, logically and undeniably belongs to Central Europe: it is even the very centre of it. Geographically, Austria is Central Europe, and as the Czechs never failed to remind "Westerners" in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution, Vienna lies east of Prague.

Economically, Austria has a historical interest in Central Europe and has been one of the great beneficiaries of the opening of the former Communist states' economic markets. As a press release from the Austrian Federal Press service recently stated:

Austrian investment in neighbouring countries is buoyant. Since the mid-1990s, capital flows have doubled. By the end of 1998, investment in Eastern Europe totalled ATS 1330 billion, ATS 86 billion coming from Austria. A study of the Economics Ministry shows that new investment by Austrian companies in Eastern Europe (excluding the successor states of the former Soviet Union) rose in 1998 some 3 per cent to ATS 12.2 billion. Most of Austria's capital exports went to Hungary (USD 275 million) and the Czech Republic (USD 240 million). Croatia came third (USD 165 million), and Poland dropped three notches to fourth place (USD 98 million). Slovenia, the main focus of Austrian investment in 1997, came fifth (USD 77 million). The study emphasises that compared to their international competitors, Austrian companies invested on a relatively broad scale. Moreover, the study says, Austria has not yet fully utilised its investment potential in some states.[6]

In the first half of 1999 for instance, about half of Austrian direct investment abroad went to countries of Central and Eastern Europe.[7]

For Austria, Central Europe is also a source of more indirect (and more or less genuine) "soft" security concerns. According to an opinion poll published this week, the three biggest fears of the Austrian population concerning EU enlargement eastward are "unsafe" nuclear plants (for 86 per cent of the respondents - thus reflecting the current controversies around the Slovene reactor of Krsko and the Slovak plant of Bohunice), criminality (54 per cent) and cheap labour (45 per cent).[8] The issue of Carinthia's Slovene minority also periodically re-emerges in Austrian political debates (especially since the governor of the Land of Carinthia is none other than the xenophobic leader of the Freedom Party, Joerg Haider).

What is more, from a "political-cultural" point of view, Austria is in many ways more similar to its former Communist neighbours than to states such as the United States, or even Switzerland and Germany. Political culture is a slippery concept and qualitative evidence of it is less than reliable, yet it still remains a useful analytical tool, which allows for interesting comparisons. For example, in 1989, only 24 per cent of Austrians believed that they had an influence on government, a figure closer to Czech, Slovak, Hungarian or Polish (respectively 23, 22, 10 and 8 per cent in 1992/93) than to German, Dutch, Australian, Swiss or US results (respectively 32, 38, 42, 46 and 58 per cent).[9]

Austria as a model for the East?

Another interesting issue, given this apparent "comparability" of Austria and its neighbours, is the extent to which Austrian political, social and economic structures could be applied and transferred to post-Communist states.

The Austrian inter-war republic was characterised and plagued by the intensity of the conflicts between two political subcultures: a conservative and Catholic tradition on the one hand and a leftist socialist movement on the other hand - a divide which also tended to translate into a regional disparity between "red Vienna" and the more traditionalist countryside. Such a sharp polarisation of political life, even if along different lines, can be found nowadays in countries such as Slovakia and Slovenia.[10] The success of post-war Austria in accommodating two confronting ideologies and establishing a stable and consensual democracy might thus prove relevant and useful to post-Communist decision-makers. (The electoral gains of the ultra right-wing Freedom Party during the elections on 3 October this year will not, it is hoped, fundamentally challenge this view).

From an economic point of view, the Austrian (even if obviously not exclusively Austrian) concepts of "social partnership" or "social market economy" also seem to a large extent more appropriate as an economic and social blueprint for transition and systemic reform than Anglo-American free-market neo-liberalism.

Interestingly, and controversially, the fact that the socialist Chancellor Viktor Klima has started this week to consider the formation of a government of experts (if it proves impossible to renew the grand coalition between socialists and conservatives) suggests that the experience of its neighbours might, in turn, be relevant to Austria. The Czechs, for example, have a tradition of such governments which goes back to the 1920s and was last demonstrated by the appointment of the non-political head of the National Bank Josef Tosovsky as prime minister between December 1997 and June 1998.

A love-hate relationship

The political, economic and cultural links between Austria and Central Europe are evident; yet at the same time, the relations of Austria with its neighbours are marred by ambiguities.

After 1989, Austrian foreign policy became more assertive in the Central European sphere. For example, in June 1991, Foreign Minister Alois Mock was the first (rapidly followed by his German counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher) to suggest the recognition of Slovenia.[11]

Nevertheless (and somewhat paradoxically), Austrians remain deeply reluctant and ambivalent toward Czechs, Slovaks and Poles - particularly toward their potential accession to the European Union. A recent survey shows that only 36 and 31 per cent of Austrians are in favour of Czech and Polish/Slovak EU membership respectively. Slovenia (with 45 per cent support) and especially Hungary (56 per cent) are the two exceptions, easily explained, at least in the Hungarian case, by the historically closer connection between the countries.[12]

Interestingly, these trends actually find a parallel and are reciprocated in the attitudes of post-Communist states toward Austria. According to another study conducted in seven countries of the former Soviet bloc, Austria is judged as "a very attractive country" by only a quarter of the respondents (lower than France - 41 per cent - or Switzerland - 40 per cent) and was the least "popular" Western state, even if it fared considerably better with the Hungarian public.[13]

The declaration on 17 November 1999 by the Slovene consul in Klagenfurt (Carinthia), Joze Jeraj, that he could not understand why Austria had so many reservations about Slovene EU membership is another manifest and eloquent reminder of the profound misunderstandings between Austria and its post-Communist neighbours.

There is, indeed, still a long road toward the overcoming of historical mistrust and enmities in Central Europe. More than ten years on, the "pan-European" picnic organised by Otto Hapsburg in August 1989, which united Austrians, Hungarians and Germans in a common struggle against Communism and the Iron Curtain, unfortunately remains a passing moment of "inter-national" co-operation - the exception rather than rule.

For Austria, the end of the Cold War has meant the end of many certainties. However, ultimately, it gives Austrians a unique opportunity to give up the often problematic role of "bridge" (as the Czech Jan Masaryk once remarked: while in peace time a bridge is full of traffic jams, in war time, it is the first thing that gets blown up [14]) and to fulfil their vocation as part of both Western and Central Europe - or to return to Kundera, as a nation "geographically in the centre and culturally in the West."

Magali Perrault, 29 November 1999


  1. Milan Kundera, "The tragedy of Central Europe", New York Review of Books, 26 April 1984, pp.33-8 (The article was initially published in French under the title "Un Occident kidnappe ou la tragedie de l'Europe centrale", Le Debat, november 1983, no 27).
  2. The Independent, 26 March 1990
  3. See for instance Fritz Weber, "Wirtschaft und Wirtschaftspolitik in der Ersten und Zweiten Republic", in Erich Zoellner (ed.), Österreichs Erste und Zweite Republik: Kontinuitaet und Wandel ihrer Strukturen und Probleme (Oesterreichischer Bundesverlag, Wien, 1985, pp.121-152 or Karl R. Stadler, Austria (Ernest Benn Limited, London, 1971).
  4. See Conor Cruise O'Brien, "Intimations of angst in a front-line state", The Times, 23 March 1990.
  5. Golo Mann, quoted in Alfred Missong, "Autriche: le syndrome de l'Anschluss", in Michel Korinman (ed.), L'Allemagne vue d'ailleurs, (Editions Balland, Paris, 1992), p.138.
  6. Federal Presse Service, BPD (Austria), p.4, no 20/99, 20 October 1999
  7. Federal Press Service, BPD (Austria), p.4, no 21/99, 4 November 1999
  8. ORF (Austrian radio and television), 26/11/99
  9. Fritz Plasser and Andreas Pribersky (eds), Political Culture in East Central Europe, (Avebury, 1996), p.237. This indicator could also, to be fair, be interpreted as evidence of the political lucidity of Austrian public opinion (and the idealism of American respondents?).
  10. See for instance on Slovakia, Martin Butora, Grigorij Meseznikov, Zora Butorova and Sharon Fisher (eds), The 1998 Parliamentary Elections and Democratic Rebirth in Slovakia (Institute for Public Affairs, Bratislava, 1999) and on Slovenia, Igor Luksic, "Political Elites from Conflict to Conflict: the case of Slovenia", in Vladimira Dvorakova (ed.), Success or Failure?: Ten Years After (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Prague, 1999), pp.104-119.
  11. See Viktor Meier, Wie Jugoslawien verspielt wurde (CH Beck'sche, Munich, 1995)
  12. ORF, 26/11/99. As illustrated for example by Brigitte Hamann (Hitler's Vienna: a dictator's apprenticeship, Oxford University Press, 1999), the Czechs probably had a strong claim to be (after the Jews) the constituting others of "German" Austrians during the last years of the Hapsburg empire.
  13. Oesterreich und die EU-Erweiterung: Argumente und Fakten, (2nd edition, Mayb 1999, Institute fuer den Donauraum und Mitteleuropa, Vienna), p.5
  14. quoted in Antoine Mares, Histoire des Pays Tcheques et Slovaque, (Hatier, Paris, 1995) p.312 ; Zbynek Zeman, The Masaryks : The Making of Czechoslovakia, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson; London, 1976) p.197.



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