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Fouling the Nest
A feature article by C. J. Schüler

Related Links

TATblatt – website of the Austrian left-wing newspaper

Widerstand – information about the resistance in Austria to the Freedom Party

Elfriede Jelinek’s home page

Merchandise Links

Novels by Elfriede Jelinek
The Piano Teacher

Women as Lovers

Wonderful, Wonderful Times


Extinction by Thomas Bernhard

Despite the cosmetic resignation of Jörg Haider last week, the inclusion of his right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria’s ruling coalition has left the nation’s artistic community in crisis. Last month the director of the Salzburg Festival, Gérard Mortier, announced that he will leave his post earlier than planned in protest. International performers such as Lou Reed have cancelled appearances in Austria, while conductor Zubin Mehta is reconsidering his commitments to the Vienna Philharmonic: ‘A single act of racism and I’m gone,’ he said.

The new (conservative) Minister of Culture has yet to announce the new government’s arts policy, but Austria’s writers and artists can have few illusions about what to expect. Scarcely had the government taken office when Gerhard Marschall, a columnist on the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten was told to tone down his criticism of Haider and the FPÖ or resign. Marschall was told that he ‘could no longer be afforded, given the current political situation in the country’. Meanwhile Haider has attempted to slash the subsidy to the Carinthian State Theatre in Klagenfurt on the grounds that a regional theatre should be promoting only local authors and local culture.

Abetted by a vociferous right-wing press, conservatives have been waging a savage ‘culture war’ on Austria’s intelligentsia for decades. Their beef is that taxpayers’ money is being used to subsidise artists who offend the good folk of Austria with degenerate modernism and ‘politically correct’ dogmas such as feminism and multiculturalism. Some of these troublemakers, what’s more, aren’t even ‘real’ Austrians?

To add insult to injury, these Nestbeschmutzer (‘nest-foulers’) insist on dragging into the light things that Austria would prefer to forget, besmirching its image abroad – a serious charge in a small country whose most reliable sources of income are ski slopes and Mozart chocolates.

Germans have long since been forced to confront their complicity in the crimes of the Nazis, and it has formed the subject of much German literature from G√ľnter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Christa Wolf’s A Model Childhood to Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. But in Austria, any effort to promote an honest review of the country’s wartime history still arouses violent resentment.

‘Isn’t everyone guilty of something?’ raged Staberl, ‘shock-jock’ columnist on the Wiener Neue Kronen Zeitung. ‘Should we punish the present-day Greeks for Alexander’s conquests? The Turks for twice besieging Vienna? The Swedes for the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War?’

Many of Austria’s leading writers, such as Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek and the late Thomas Bernhard, who have identified with the ‘antifa’ (anti-fascist) left, have found themselves harrassed and vilified at home while feted abroad. Accepting Germany’s prestigious Heinrich Böll prize in 1986, Jelinek recalled how police had dragged Handke from a telephone box in Salzburg, and how a government minister had suggested that Bernhard’s brain be made a subject for medical science because ‘we oppose so many of the beautiful things that are happening here in Austria.’

Shortly after the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss in 1988, a production of Bernhard’s play Old Masters at Vienna’s Burgtheater provoked a furore, dealing as it did with the enthusiasm with which many Austrians welcomed that event. The play’s implication was clear: some of the same sentiment still existed.

Jelinek herself has long been in the forefront of the cultural resistance to the right; her uncompromising stance and harsh, expressionistic writing have made her the bête noir of conservatives of all shades, who have accused her of obscenity and dubbed her the ‘Propaganda Frau’. In 1995, in the run-up to elections, two Romany men were killed in a bomb attack in the Burgenland by a nationalist group called the Bajuwarian Liberation Army. In her play Stecken, Stab und Stangl, Jelinek held the FPÖ responsible for the climate of hatred that encouraged such attacks. The title was itself a calculated provocation: ‘Stecken und Stab’ are the rod and staff in the 23rd Psalm, but ‘Stab’ also puns on Staberl’s name, linking it with that of Franz Stangl, the Nazi commandant of Treblinka.

The FPÖ responded with a poster campaign against Social Democrat Minister of Culture Rudolf Scholten for supporting artists such as Jelinek: ‘Do you love Scholten and Jelinek? or art and culture?’ Jelinek expressed her fear that such targeting put her in danger ‘as a feminist, Leftist and not pure Aryan’ (her father was a Czech Jew), and placed a ban on her plays being performed in Austria. Stecken, premiered in Hamburg that April, ‘should naturally have opened in Vienna,’ she told a German magazine. ‘It touches a nerve here, and each detail is understood immediately. I must say that it won’t be premiered here, because of my cowardice. Not because I’m afraid of attacks or letter bombs, which will come anyway, if they come. It’s simply a feeling of tiredness – I don’t want to be exposed to that poisonous public climate again.’

By 1998, Haider had a new target: the painter Cornelius Kolig, from whom the Social Democrats had commissioned frescoes for the walls of the Carinthian regional parliament in Klagenfurt. Seventy years earlier, the painter’s father, Anton Kolig, had painted murals for the building, which were destroyed by the Nazis. The commissioning of his son was seen as an act of restitution, and the FPÖ was forced to back down. ‘Haider’s strategy in the Kolig affair is comparable to that of the Nazis,’ commented Klaus Amman, director of the Robert Musil Archive in Klagenfurt.

Talking about her 1995 novel Children of the Dead, Jelinek remarked recently that ‘I wouldn’t like to say that writers have the gift of prophesy, but the book came out at a time when no one was interested in making reparation for that guilt; only later did it turn out that these times were not past, but had only been dormant for fifty years.’ She describes Haider’s agenda as the ‘Kitzbühelisation’ of Austria: the airbrushing out of anything – immigrants, gays and lesbians, feminists, political dissenters, and any reference to the country’s Nazi history – that might disrupt the pretty picture of Alpine chalets and the decorous culture of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Yet – as demonstrators gather in Vienna every week, and leading Austrian performers such as the actor Klaus Maria Brandauer publicly debate whether they should leave the country – the supporters of that culture are themselves turning on the FPÖ. In the wake of Mortier’s resignation, Betty Freeman, a prominent American sponsor, was quoted in the Salzburger Nachrichten as saying that she ‘will support the Salzburg festival for the last time in the summer of 2000.’

Copyright © C. J. Schüler 2000


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