Whose Austria?

By Marsden, Gordon | History Today, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Whose Austria?


Marsden, Gordon, History Today


Worldwide, people are gearing up with thoughts of the coming millennium. But for the people of Austria thousand-year commemorations have been decreed four years early. All through 1996 celebrations have been based upon the fact that on November lst, 996, the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto Ill, issued a document - a deed of investment for his vassal in the central Danube, Henry of Babenberg, which contains the earliest extant use of the term 'Ostarrichi' - Old High German for 'Osterreich'. The term 'Austria' had come into being - but what has it meant over this thousand-year period?

Central to answering that question is the two-venue exhibition currently being held in Lower Austria under the auspices of the province's Cultural Affairs department. Put together by a team of academics led by Professor Ernst Bruckmuller of the University of Vienna, 'Ostarrichi - Osterreich, 996-1996: Menschen, Mythen, Meilensteine' (Man, Myths and Milestones) adds a dimension to the commemoration that goes beyond a 'Best of Austria, aggregation of art and culture or a mere narrative of historical highlights over a thousand years. Instead it raises intriguing - and sometimes unsettling - questions about the history of nationhood and national identity.

On the face of it the omens for an exhibition hooked onto Otto III's land grant of 996 were not that promising. Neuhofen - the 'Niuvanhova' of the document - was a sparsely populated area of woods and farms of a certain strategic importance in an area that the Emperor was building up as a bulwark against further incursions from the east by the heathen Magyars, but no more.

Even today it remains little more than a village of some 2,500 inhabitants by the side of the river Ybbs - but Neuhofen has been catapulted into prominence this year by the anniversary and the decision to create a purpose-built centre there to stage part of the millennium exhibition in its symbolic birthplace. Forty miles away is the second half of the exhibition, in the considerably larger town of St Polten, which has been designated as the new provincial capital for Lower Austria.

There have been other sensibilities and perspectives to take account of as well. 996 means little to the western provinces of Austria - to Vorarlberg and the Tirol, both of which did not come into the Habsburg patrimony of 'Austria' until the late Middle Ages. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the Tirol has preferred to focus its historical contribution on 500th-anniversary celebrations in and around Innsbruck, centred on their own favourite son, the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519), (on which there was a separate Cross Current piece in the September issue of History Today).

For five centuries the Habsburgs strode across European history as a constant, colossal factor, whether in rise or decline. Yet often, they - and 'Austria' - occur in English-language history as off-stage: important but unexplained. This is one reason why History Today has used the opportunity of the Austrian Millennium to take a fresh look at them and the country central to their power.

But the other reason is more fundamental. The fluctuations in boundaries, identity and aspirations that the history of 'Austria' reveals have implications not just for a revised view of what is today a modest-sized country in Central Europe, but also for reassessing the nature and development of the European nation-state project.

Professor Bruckmuller and his colleagues have seized this opportunity well with this exhibition. What in lesser hands might have been a mere puffed-up antiquarian exercise, here becomes a dialogue with the visitor to test and challenge hypotheses and stereotypes against case histories from a thousand years. In the Introduction to the weighty catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, this comes over very clearly: ... we cannot look here at any single one date of the state's foundation . . …

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