Book Review: Inside Austria, by Paul Lendvai

Hungarian journalist Paul Lendvai on 50 years of Austrian politics

A Critical Love of Austria

On February 4, 1957 a plane from Prague landed at Vienna International Airport. On board was humble-looking 27-year-old Paul Lendvai, struggling with his broken German. He was one of some 200,000 Hungarian refugees who fled to Austria after the Soviet attack against Imre Nagy’s government during 1956-1957.

After being interned for eight months and prohibited from working for another three years, it was an easy decision for the Budapest-born journalist to take his first opportunity to escape. Fortunately, his new home has treated him well: Lendvai has been a correspondent for the Financial Times, as well as chief editor and a commentator at the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF). He is now head of Europastudio, a monthly, televised discussion platform, and writes a weekly column for the Austrian daily Der Standard.

Inside Austria looks back on five decades in Lendvai’s adopted country. His thirteenth book and Austria’s most successful political title of 2008, Inside Austria weaves history with personal experience, reflections and quotes from his past writings, an intimate history that is both emotive and fascinating. With this book, Lendvai thanks the country that has provided him with the opportunity of a new, better life.

What at first seems to be a glorification falls short of true bias: Lendvai’s look at the darker chapters of Austria’s history is even handed and professional. He deals, for example, with the re-foundation of the republic after WWII, confronting the populist myth that Austria was Hitler’s first “victim.” With careful consideration and insightful criticism, Lendvai has endeavored to look “behind the scenes” before he tells his own story, infused with a belief in the importance of individuals in changing history. Looking at the actions – and failures – of leading politicians, many of whom he has known personally he also pays tribute to Austria’s “founding fathers”: Karl Renner, Leopold Figl and Julius Raab.

Some episodes in Inside Austria have been long forgotten, and readers will appreciate their being revived. Former Federal Chancellor Josef Klaus, for example, who was born in Carinthia and was in office from 1964-1970, was fluent in Slovenian and a progressive on the question of a corporation between both the region’s ethical groups – an attitude completely dissimilar to today’s Carinthian politics.

Lendvai explores Chancellors such as Franz Vranitzky, who was in office for a decade (1986-1997), and Wolfgang Schüssel, who formed a coalition with the radical right, leading to international protests. This “foot in the door” has allowed for the Austrian right’s prominence in government that exists to this day.

The era of Bruno Kreisky (1970-1983) though, outshines all the others. Lendvai devotes four chapters to the charismatic Chancellor, describing him as “the most important politician, who Austria has had in its both republics,” without whom “Austria became smaller, greyer and more boring.”

However, Lendvai also looks at the dark side of the Kreisky era. Anti-Semitism had played an important role, especially in Kreisky’s first government, which included four Nazis. One of them was former Minister of the Interior and Defense Otto Rösch, who was involved in neo-Nazi affairs. Other more recent scandals involving former President Kurt Waldheim and former Governor of Carinthia Jörg Haider are scrutinized as well.

This book is a memoir, an analysis and a warning. A man who understands how dangerous politics can be, Lendvai remains a realist and not a wolf-crier, but nonetheless stresses vigilance and caution. Many of the events described in Inside Austria do not make things easier to understand; but with knowledge and personal insight, you may learn to accept and take lessons from them that will serve us all in the future.

 

Inside Austria
By Paul Lendvai
C. Hurst & Co.,  May 14, 2010

Available at The British Bookshop
1., Weihburggasse 24
(01) 512 19 45 0

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