Anneliese Rohrer: Sedition at the Stammtisch

A conversation with Die Presse columnist Anneliese Rohrer about learning to harness citizen anger for political change

Kaffeehaus Anneliese Rohrer

Journalist Anneliese Rohrer at Café Museum / Photo: David Reali

Anneliese Rohrer didn’t mean to start a revolution. She was just trying to cope with the flood of emails that had swamped her inbox.

But we’d better go back a step. It all began with a radio interview…. No, maybe even further back:

“It’s all Josef Pröll’s fault,” laughed the political columnist referring to the former Austrian finance minister who resigned in April at the age of 42 for health reasons. Rohrer and I met at the Café Museum in mid-October to get the full story of the “discontented” who had responded to her call.

In the political turbulence of the Pröll resignation, moderator Claudia Stöckl of Ö3 radio, the third channel of the Austrian National Broadcaster ORF, invited Rohrer for a breakfast interview on her Sunday morning show. Rohrer had recently published a book, Ende des Gehorsams – Beginn von Umdenken (The End of Obedience: Time to Rethink); Stoeckel was curious to hear what she had to say.

“We talked about politics and Austrian ‘spectator democracy’ – they don’t get off their backsides to do anything!”  Rohrer is known for plain speaking – something her admirers treasure. (“You use your high profile in an amazingly open way that has really impressed me,” wrote one supporter following the show.) “I just talked about how I see Austrians’ (political) schizophrenia: It’s not love-hate, exactly, it’s a double standard.  They gripe about the politicians, but the minute they see them in person, they’re very subservient.”

It struck a stong chord with a deeply frustrated public.

After the broadcast, she got a tidal wave of emails.  “People were saying, ‘I’m discontented, and I want to do something, what can I do?’ So I thought, I cannot go one-on-one with all these people. On the other hand, I didn’t want to not respond.”

So she decided to hold a “Wutbürger Stammtisch” – using the Austrian tradition of a Common Table for the regulars at a local coffeehouse or tavern, this time for Outraged Citizens. “I didn’t want to be saying, you griped about it in your emails and that’s enough,” she remembered. “So I thought, why not give these people a chance to talk about concrete things they could do.” She responded en masse to the e-mailers and announced it in her column in the Austrian daily Die Presse: She would be in the back room at the Café Museum on Operngasse, 9May, at 17:00. “It was right over there,” she said, pointing over her shoulder. “I thought maybe ten people would show up,” she said, shaking her head in surprise. Over sixty came.

This was the first of what would be a series of Stammtische, four to date, each group bigger than the last, forcing Rohrer to move from the Café Museum to the larger Café Landtmann, which again proved too small. At which point Kurt Schramek offered his Burg Kino for the 10 Oct. meeting.

By now, the Wutbürger had become the Mutbürger, an important name change shifting the emphasis from “outrage” to “courage,” from nay-saying to action.

Still, the Burgkino event was problematic. The 290-seat theatre was packed, and with Rohrer out of town, the guest moderator felt less free to guide the discussion; attendees became increasingly tense and frustrated. Most agreed it had not been a productive session.

“There is always an element of self presentation, but so far I haven’t seen a very large will to cooperate,” Rohrer admitted. “It’s always the same: a lot of speeches, but no follow up. It’s like the Vienna Forum on Human Trafficking: [actress] Emma Thompson called it ‘the Karaoke of the Concerned.’ People saying, ‘I’ve done this against Human Trafficking, so I know more.’

“But that might come. You have to prioritize; people have to choose their issue. But most of all, they have to start cooperating. Now they sing karaoke and then they go home.  That’s not it.”

Amidst all the frustration, however, what Rohrer keeps hearing is how little concrete information most people have about mechanisms for change.

“Austrians have no experience of citizen action,” she said. “They don’t get it in school. There is so much in the constitutions of the Bundesländer [Federal States]. In Styria, for example, 10 per cent of any community can ask for a Town Hall Meeting at any time to discuss important issues, and the mayor is obliged, within four weeks, to call the meeting. It’s rarely used.”  In Lower Austria, any law can be repealed with 50,000 signatures on a petition. “It’s a lot. But still, it’s there,” she said, “but it has never, ever been used.”  And its existence lets politicians off the hook.

“People say, ‘but we don’t know what to do.’  So who’s fault is that? The media?  In my book, it always comes back to the people. No matter what they say.” These citizen activists desperately need structure. And focus. And Rohrer says she is “prepared to put a lot of energy into this, to get it off the ground.”

The first thing may be to coordinate what’s already happening: The Mutbürger Stammtisch is only one of many initiatives that have come to light in recent months, the most far reaching being the Mein Österreich ( movement of Wolfgang Radlegger and Erhard Busek [see WutSenioren, p.3, in Nov 2011 TVR]. And there are many more. “If all this came together under ‘Mein Österreich’ I’d be fine with that,” Rohrer says.

But while all have significant support, none have the momentum of the Mutbürger. This is the only one born out of it’s own energy. Fragmented, at times bordering on chaotic, these people are very intense. The other groups exist largely in cyberspace; the Mutbürger found each other in a real place, in real time.

In a Kaffeehaus. “This is not a coincidence,” Rohrer agreed. Almost every coffeehouse has a separate room; you can reserve it, meet regularly and map out a strategy.  “Ideally, you have to take this tradition – sitting in a coffeehouse and talking about Freud or whatever – and use it, transform it into action. Turn the Wutbürger into Mutbürger. It’s not only what they think, but what they can do.

“Keep the tradition, change the mentality.”

So is it a revolution?  Perhaps there are lessons from history: When Austrian foreign minister Leopold von Berchtold was told that a Communist revolution might break out in czarist Russia, he was incredulous.

“And who, if you please, will start this revolution?” he guffawed. “Surely not Herr Bronstein who is always playing chess at the Café Central!”

Well, not until “Leon Trotsky” had changed his name.

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