Book Review: Oliver Rathkolb’s The Paradoxical Republic

Historian Oliver Rathkolb’s ambitious review of the post-World War II era, “requiring both sensitivity and thick skin”

Prof. Dr. Oliver Rathkolb | Photo: Mike Ranz

Austria’s Contradictions

In the midst of all the current discussions of European identity, the question of Austria is particularly perplexing, and Oliver Rathkolb’s The Paradoxical Republic is an ambitious attempt at finding an answer.  The book is an English translation of the German Die Paradoxe Republik that appeared five years ago from Paul Zsolnay Verlag in Vienna.

The title itself is ingenious: Austria’s post-World War II identity was  paradoxical from the start, as the first victim of fascism but at the same time, complicit in National Socialist crimes; integrated into the Western European community of nations but somehow with one foot still in the East and having a cultural policy emphasizing art and music from the past.

Rathkolb covers the depth and breadth of the Second Republic in understandable prose. Chapters on Austrian identity, the peculiarities of Austrian democracy, the leadership characteristics of Austria’s chancellors, the media, neutrality, the role of art and culture in Austrian politics, the welfare state, and, of course, the country’s National Socialist past, followed by a final chapter on trends in the country political future.

As histories of the Austrian Second Republic go, this is a very reader-friendly book, but despite the initial euphoria generated by the publication of an English-language translation, this edition does not really hold up to the original German. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, the English edition of The Paradoxical Republic, like the German, assumes a certain pre-knowledge of Austrian history, something that is rare for an English-language readership, and the book would have benefited from a better explanation of this background. Despite its small size, the Republic of Austria has a complex background with aspects that are difficult to grasp. A lot has happened in this little country in the short space of six decades, and some readers may feel either lost or overwhelmed.

Second, although Professor Rathkolb‘s arguments are well argued, taking cross-sections from Austrian politics, culture, and identity as examples to support his main thesis, the result is disjointed. For those who stay with him through a rather episodic journey through the vagaries of Austrian society, politics, and culture, the arguments are compelling. But it’s hard work and may remain elusive for many. So although the German-language edition of The Paradoxical Republic has already become a standard work for Austrian contemporary historians, it is less likely that this will be the case for this volume.

In addition, Rathkolb seems to focus more on the politicization of culture rather than culture for its own sake. So while ostensibly a cultural-political history, it tends to be more political than cultural with, for example, almost no references to popular culture.

The major exception is a strange section with the heading “Christian (Catholic) Popular Culture and the Pummerin.” For reference, the Pummerin is the large bell in Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral and is known as “The Voice of Austria.” The section in The Paradoxical Republic summarizes the film “Die Stimme Österreichs” (The Voice of Austria, 1953) by Ernst Häusserman, a refugee (referred to by Rathkolb as an émigré) turned filmmaker who returns to film Austrian scenes at the behest of the Americans. Rathkolb traces not only the journey of the new Pummerin from a foundry in Upper Austria around the country, but also attempts to show how the bell symbolizes the common “Voice of Austria” and how Austrians have overcome the difficult early post-World War II period to once again be a strong nation. The ambivalence and solipsism of the Austrians, which Rathkolb attributes to the last days of the Austrian-Hungarian dual monarchy in his first chapter, certainly show here.

This emphasis on Austrian political developments and high culture comes at the expense of other equally important aspects, for example protests against a Beatles concert in Austria exemplified by a photo reproduced on page 213, which is not even mentioned in the text. Perhaps this is to be expected in a work of this scope, but one would have wished for an overview not only of the culture of the political elite but also of average Austrians.

The history of post-World War II Austria is an extremely complicated subject that requires both sensitivity and a thick skin. This in itself is one of the paradoxes of modern Austria, and one through which Rathkolb bravely steers his course, offering a sweeping and interesting analysis of major events, even if some are occasionally left out.

Third, the translation is not altogether successful. Produced by a team that included Otmar Binder, Eleanor Breuning, Ian Fraser, and David Sinclair Jones, the book seems uneven and cumbersome at times to native speakers. Despite being grammatically correct, sentence structures still frequently feel like German, leaving a colleague to wonder whether this was due to the original or the translation. An admittedly difficult assignment with so many voices, one wishes there had been a final, steady voice to pull the tapestry together. As is, the weave is lumpy and the seams show.

Finally, there are many facts and figures cited in Chapters 7 and 8 on culture and the welfare state that are not footnoted. Are these all assumed to be common knowledge? Was it simply not possible to find sources? There must be storehouses of data on the Austrian welfare state and one has to assume that better documentation was possible but not undertaken.

That said, Chapter 10 on the Austrian Chancellors is a fine overview of the post-war Austrian political landscape for those not familiar with it. It also raises the important question of why there has never been a female Chancellor, but after mentioning Dr. Maria Schaumayer, the former President of the Austrian National Bank, who declined the position, and the unsuccessful candidacy of former Foreign Minister Dr. Benita Ferrero-Waldner for Federal President in 2004, we learn little about the background attitudes or cultural context.  However, Rathkolb notes that situation for women is shifting at the regional level.

He also cites former Vienna City Counsellor Brigitte Ederer’s appointment of CEO of Siemens in 2005 as a an example of how business is ahead of politics, but does not analyze the deeper cultural and political roots.

In summary, The Paradoxical Republic fills a void in the existing literature about Austria in English and, despite its failings, is a welcome addition to the sparse pickings available. Readers and scholars will welcome it on their bookshelves.


The Paradoxical Republic: Austria, 1945-2005
by Oliver Rathkolb,
Berghahn Books, New York/Oxford 2010  

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