Un-Happy Austria, or, the Problem of ‘German Studies’

The culture and literature of Habsburg Mitteleuropa has been co-opted by scholars and become an academic “Lost World”

I must admit, I am an Austrianist – a title that often receives odd reactions from my German (and even Austrian) colleagues in what in the English-speaking world is called German Studies. Here one is supposed to be dealing with the entire German-speaking realm, but in fact is not.

Take Switzerland, for example: Here, German Studies addresses little beyond the hackneyed use of a few plays by Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt for everything from intermediate-level readings, to the representation of post-war tragicomic theatre. The single chapter in nearly all the textbooks looks like an afterthought.

The non-presence of Liechtenstein is also inexcusable, as size has little to do with linguistic or cultural importance. Yet, how many Germanists anywhere include it in an explanation of the Congress of Vienna or mention the uprising against annexation by the Third Reich?

The strangest, however, is the marginalising of Austria and the dismissing of Austrian German, which the former President of the International Association for German Studies (IVG), Peter Wiesinger called “not a poorer German,” but a “different German.” It is discomforting that such a defence is even necessary.


Academic narrow-mindedness

Why must we still deflect the perennial question, “is there an Austrian literature?” by pointing to decades of conferences and publications, or by protesting the introduction of Austria as “an embarrassment in German literary history”, as the great Viennese Germanist Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler once sarcastically put it. All this suggests an insulting academic narrow-mindedness that no other language area studies would tolerate.

This bias goes largely unquestioned by academics in U.S. Germanic Studies. Although several factors are at play, notions that territorial or population size matter (perhaps NATO and early EU membership as well), are the leading causes – along with ignorance and indifference.

Which is bizarre, given that German is not a uniform language and the German-speaking world is not just Germany (or even two Germanys, as it had been for much of current academic memory).

It is rather a wide, differentiated landscape of language variations, cultural experiences, and artistic creativity that has led to the very concept of Germanic Studies. Many departments include Dutch, Yiddish, and even Hungarian in the mix.

So it is hardly for Austria that the –ic suffix has been added. Given higher education’s increasingly politically-correct terminology, this state of affairs is an academic “Lost World”, complete with linguistic/cultural dinosaurs stomping the intellectual earth while everyone seems to be looking the other way. And the unabashed absorption of so many Austrian writers or filmmakers into German culture, particularly in the U.S., is nothing less than cultural co-opting.

Despite Ariadne Press, the singular American specialist of Austrian literature, and Austrian culture-friendly publishers like Berghahn Books of Oxford and New York, and Pushkin Press in London, such annexation is frequent.

For example, an excellent recent bilingual anthology of twentieth century German poetry, which attempted to ground the art in socio-political experience, includes such major Austrian poets as Friedrich Achleitner, Ilse Aichinger, H.C. Artmann, Ingeborg Bachmann, Christine Lavant, Erich Fried, Friederike Mayröcker and others. Aside from indication of birthplace (slyly done by city, not country!) in the biographical notes, there is no attempt to recognise these poets as Austrian, and using their reflections born of a different national/cultural/linguistic focus as representing Germany is simply wrong.

The German-language poets included from outside of German language nations suggest that what is being presented here is actually German language poetry. But this is not explicit, and the single image of the Brandenburg Gate communicates something rather different.

One might argue about the concept of Austrian identity, doubtlessly helped along by the postwar fostering of an Austria distinct from the Anschluss and the German nationalism characteristic of the monarchy and the First Republic. Austria, unlike Bismark’s Germany has always been a cultural nation, a dynastic entity, evolving over its thousand-year history into a German-language-dominated, but very multi-culture empire under the Habsburgs.

Indeed, the term, Mitteleuropa (Middle Europe) a code word referring to this Habsburgian legacy, particularly in the post 1918 world, has recently been replaced in official Austrian materials by Zentraleuropa (Central Europe) to suggest a more geopolitically neutral identity for Austria and its neighbours in a progressive EU frame.

But this is just word play, as the long imperial relationships with its neighbours to the east continue to influence Austrian culture even today, in the melting pot of its republican history and the “Eastern European” immigration since the fall of Communism.

This strong polyglot flavouring (which includes reunited families, guest workers, refugees, but also social/ethnic tensions and xenophobia) alone makes it impossible for the field of German Studies – German-language-centred as it is – to believe it includes Austria on any but a secondary if not marginal level.


Needed: a healthy marriage, or a divorce

Austrian Studies should have long ago emerged in European language and literature departments.

Still, there have been breakthroughs. Colleagues informed me last summer that Austrian Studies is becoming a popular field at the University of Vienna and elsewhere in the country. I have even heard that the term I favour – Austrianist – is finding approval among some academics.

But what is an article about Austrian culture without mention of the ancient quote “Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube” – Let others make war, you happy Austria, marry. I cannot help thinking of Heidi Hartmann’s comment regarding Marxism and Feminism: “Either we need a healthier marriage, or we need a divorce.”

Perhaps it is the Austrian multicultural idealist in me, but I believe there is yet room and hope for an equal partnership.


Robert Dassanowsky is Professor of German and Film, and Director of Film Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, U.S.A.. He serves as the current president of the Austrian Studies Association.

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One Response to Un-Happy Austria, or, the Problem of ‘German Studies’

  1. DeEon Warner March 25, 2013 at 6:49 am

    I agree whole heartedly. Few cultures have as cogent of an argument to be recognized separately like Austrian. From the Baltic, to the Caspian, and across to the Atlantic, the resonance of Austrian culture can be felt across the continent (the globe if we’re honest). Even in the sphere of ideas, that same resonance can be felt. Psychology would hardly be the field it is without that influence, and Economics has an entire field of study named after the Austrians. I think that this resonance is also resultant of the cause of Austrian’s anonymity. The Austrian culture is a take it or leave it affair; unlike other cultures (we Americans for instance) that have brashly forced their influence on others. So, while some cultures fly high and bright, gaining the attention of all, others are behind the scenes making everything just that little bit brighter.

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