Fascinated With the EU

For Johannes Pollak, teaching is a Scholar’s Chance to Have an Influence on the World

International Relations Prof. Johannes Pollak: “The EU skeptics are all knocking on the door.” | Photo: Dora Sacer

“The only interesting thing about me is that I hate caraway and dill,” said Johannes Pollak by email, accepting an interview. Which suggested, of course, that nothing could be further from the truth.

So on a Wednesday, at 12.45, a reporter found herself at the entrance to the European Integration Research Institute in the Prince-Eugen Strasse, in Vienna’s 4th District. Up the elevator to the second floor, it was still a bit too early. But this didn’t seem to matter – Pollak gestured through the milk glass door to come on in.

Medium height, smart and sporty, Pollak greeted me with a charming smile and an offer of coffee. Then he briskly tidied up a little space on his small extra table, making the mountains of paper a bit smaller.

Then he sat opposite, waiting expectantly. My turn. I noted that he was dressed in black from head to toe, black jeans, black shirt, black socks, black shoes. Existential gloom? Viennese obsession with death?

“There’s no ideology behind this, unlike what people tend to think,” he insisted, “It’s just that one doesn’t have to worry about clothes making a good match.” For Pollak this is a way of reducing contingency – in philosophy, the opposite of necessity. For ordinary mortals, black can also simply mean elegance. What Pollak has as well.

In contrast to the ‘simply black,’ a colorful riot of books, papers, articles, and folders packed the shelves, covered the desk, and towered in piles on the floor – simply everywhere.  It was pleasing both to the eye and ear to see the huge amount of knowledge these papers contained, and then to listen to such a lively mind. Pollak is eager to learn and know a lot, and at the same time enjoys his work with the Institute for European Integration Research.

“The whole integration process is really fascinating to me,” he said. “It’s amazing that countries who went after each other, went for the jugular in 1945, are now joining,” he said, intrigued by how things can change. Since 1951, when the European Coal and Steel Community was formed, the goal of a united Europe has helped keep the peace between member countries, and overcome problems which nation states were unable to solve. Austria in particular, he says, has profited “enormously” from being part of the EU. Since joining in 1995, the country’s economy has grown 1.8% to a high of 2.3% a year, according to the OSCE, up from 1.5% in 1990.

“Of course there is always room for improvement, but Austria is much better off since it entered the EU,” said Pollak. And even the skeptics are coming around.

Switzerland, for example cannot “close themselves towards the economic union.” Even though it is not a member state, it has many bilateral agreements with the EU. “They’re all knocking on the door,” he said with a smile.

Despite his interest in the evolution of the EU, Pollack’s position with the Austrian Academy of Sciences was not where he thought he would land.

“It was never my plan to work here,” Pollak said. “It just happened.” Having done postgraduate work at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, Pollak earned his PhD in political science and philosophy at the University of Vienna in 1996, with a thesis on “Problems of Political Identity for the European Community of Countries.” This was followed by a Master of Science in Political Theory at the London School of Economics.

Described as a “workaholic,” by colleagues, Pollak is not only an active scholar but also an extremely active professor. He teaches at the Universities of Vienna and Salzburg, as well as Webster University.

“Lecturing is one of the few influences I can have on the world as a scholar,” Pollak said. Teaching, and especially providing the possibility for interpretations, offers him the possibility to “awake the critical mind” of students – and vice-versa. Pollak believes that professors too can profit from students, who make them question their own assumptions. And above all, Pollak recalls “these wonderful moments” when students make him aware of something new. Clearly, he enjoys teaching at Webster, where he has found many intelligent people, and the education is “professional and goal-oriented.” Webster falls short primarily, he says, in research, where the university still needs to take the “first steps.” The location of Webster he also finds a disadvantage, as students have more difficulty making contacts and generally taking advantage of the intellectual and professional resources of the city.

One suggestion might be for Webster to organize job fairs. “It would be great for students to get the chance to making first contacts,” he said.

Pollak is a great lover of opera, and went almost every week during his student time. “But I don’t like going there anymore,” he admitted. “The people annoy me and the productions are often bad.” A remark like that makes one suspicious, particularly in a city like Vienna, with one of the great opera houses of the world. But Pollak is a tease, and has mastered the art of deadpan humor to the point where it is hard to be sure…

For instance, on the subject of family.

“I’m a convinced single,” he said with a grin. Even though he loves children, he claims he doesn’t want his own, as “they only make noise.” He laughed. Right.

Pollak spends his free time reading old travelogues from northern hemispheres and setting off on travel adventures. He loves Iceland, but also likes Florence very much, where he spent a visiting fellowship at the European University Institute.

Over all, Pollak seems like a happy man. “I am,” he admitted. “I am pleased with my life. Everything just happened. I learned that it is not necessary to sketch out one’s life in advance.”

And just like everything that happened in his life, so probably his next goal – as soon as he comes back from an upcoming fellowship in London – will emerge as well, perhaps a full professorship somewhere, possibly in the UK.

So it was clear that there was considerably more to Univ. Doz. Mag. Dr. MSc. Johannes Pollak besides his dislike for caraway and dill. A cheerful single who prefers operas on CD and reads novels only during flights when “it’s impossible to read serious literature,” Pollak is more than a routine teacher or scholar.

An adherent of Aristotle, he is on an eternal search for his ergon, his life work – and for Pollak, knowledge is a virtue.

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