In November 2018, to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Austrian Republic, a new museum was installed, the House of Austrian History, in spaces formerly occupied by the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
When it first opened there was considerable interest in the British press in the venture, above all in the events leading up to its creation. As the Economist noted, the museum neatly encapsulates Austria’s often fraught political life. The project was initiated with the support of the Social Democrats – and its reading of history is certainly more aligned with the social democratic view of Austria’s past – but with the People’s Party and the Freedom Party now in government, the longer-term future of the institute is still not certain.
Although the question of future funding and support is important, it is worth dwelling on what the House of Austrian History actually tries to do. For it presents a social history of Austria since its founding in 1918. Much of the first part of the exhibition covers the 1919 elections and the setting up of the new Republic, reminding the visitor that it was one of the first states to enfranchise women. The exhibition then presents various aspects of social life in interwar Austria, before then moving on to the dictatorship of 1934-1938, the period of Nazi rule, the economic miracle of the later 1950s and 1960s, the ‘branding’ of post-war Austria, membership of the European Union, as well as more recent issues such as language disputes between German- and Slovene-speaking Austrians in Carinthia, the treatment of Roma, and the Syrian migration crisis of 2017.
In one sense the House of Austrian History is clearly meant as a provocative intervention in the Hofburg, burdened with the deferential pieties of the Habsburg heritage. The ticket office alone, a portacabin that stands in jarring contrast to the imperial architecture of its surroundings, communicates this intention.
There is plenty of textual material, but a key emphasis is on the role of images not only as documents but also as narrative vehicles. The exhibition deserves particular credit for emphasising the multiple ways that images can be interpreted. It presents photographs of pro-Nazi rallies, for example, and highlights the ways they have been subsequently manipulated to strengthen their message. One particularly interesting set of images relates to images of military action in the Tyrol during the February 1934 civil war. As the display suggests, these and other examples perhaps tell partial accounts, swaying the viewer’s understanding of the events depicted. More generally, too, the exhibition examines ways in which governments orchestrated the use of images as instruments of propaganda.
In comparison with Germany, Austria was a latecomer when it came to critical understanding of its own history. Whereas the process of ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ (coming to terms with the past) was a major theme in German culture and politics after 1945, Austria successfully presented itself as the first victim of Nazi Germany. It was thus spared painful self-scrutiny; but this was perhaps only delayed rather than avoided. The catalyst was the election of Kurt Waldheim as President in 1986, for during the campaign, murky details of his wartime military service in Yugoslavia and Greece emerged. The precise nature of his involvement was never entirely clear, but the so-called Waldheim affair raised for many, including the Jewish World Congress, the wider question of the evasiveness of Austria about this darkest period in its recent past. It is perhaps only logical, therefore, that the centrepiece of the exhibition is the ‘Waldheim Horse,’ a 4-metre tall wooden horse bearing an SA cap that was fashioned by Alfred Hrdlicka in 1986 as a ‘monument to the disappearance of memory’ – a reference to the fact that Waldheim evaded questions by confessing he had ‘forgotten’ crucial episodes during this time.
The prominence given to this episode is indicative of the desire of the House of Austrian History to present an uncomfortably critical view of the past. It is worth comparing it with another much-discussed exhibition on Austria that was mounted in the Wien Museum in 2009-10: The Struggle for the City: Politics, Art and Everyday Life around 1930. The focus of interest of that earlier exhibition were the achievements of Vienna’s interwar Social Democratic municipality; conservative counter-currents, leading up to the Dollfuss-Schuschnigg dictatorship and, in 1938, Anschluss with Nazi Germany, were certainly covered, but pride of place was taken by ‘Red Vienna.’ In keeping with the fact that the House of Austrian History is about Austria as a whole, Red Vienna receives little attention. The fact that for many outsiders, interwar Austria is most usually associated with the radical politics of the council – including its architectural programme – reveals how partial our perspectives can often be.
The exhibition touches on many aspects of daily life under Austro-Fascist and Nazi rule, such as the routine introduction of forced labour, press censorship and persecution of the Jews. It includes a large poster that used to be on display in Auschwitz, and which described Austria as the first victim of the Nazis. As early as the late 1970s, the exhibition notes, this was no longer recognised as appropriate. One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is the way it foregrounds the difficulty of finding the right language. A brief display discusses the merits and weaknesses of the different terms for the 1934-1938 regime: Austro-Fascism, corporatism, authoritarian corporatism, dictatorship, Dollfuss-Schuschnigg dictatorship. Each of these captures something important but also misses out something equally important. A more general point could be made here, of course, to do with the fact that we invariably discuss the particulars of history with the language of abstract generality.
For all its critical self-appraisal, there are some notable omissions, which are themselves indicative of the sensitive terrain this institution has traversed. There is little reference to the fact that the Dollfuss-Schuschnigg regime identified the state as an explicitly Catholic state, and that this was also held to legitimise its authoritarian policies. Austrian National Socialists are treated as fifth-columnists intent on overthrowing the state with campaigns of terror (culminating in the 1934 assassination of Dollfuss) and, later, with the threat of invasion by Nazi Germany. Yet this underplays the extent to which conservative Catholic intellectuals sought to undermine the new state from its inception. For their tireless campaign of delegitimization of democratic rule arguably prepared the ground not only for the dictatorship of the 1930s but also acceptance of Nazi rule. Given that the Catholic church still plays a powerful social, cultural and political force, one can see that there are limits to self-critique.
One can see a similar instance in relation to a much more recent episode, relating to the Freedom Party and the European Union. While it acknowledges that there was some considerable debate before Austria entered the EU, the latter is presented as an unalloyed good. Yet when, in 2000, the Freedom Party entered into a short-lived coalition with the People’s Party to form the national government, Austria was subjected to diplomatic sanction by the rest of the EU. On this episode the House of Austrian History is silent, even though, with its espousal of the rights of migrants and minorities, it is implicitly critical of the Freedom Party programme. Indeed, a small part of the exhibition is devoted to the issue of language, specifically, the demand in the 1970s for linguistic recognition by the Slovenian minority in southern Carinthia, where Jörg Haider, leader of the Freedom Party rose to power. It includes a poster from 1972 by the ‘Carinthian Homeland Service’ (motto: ‘For Volk and Homeland’) that declares: ‘There is no Slovenian Carinthia.’ A neutral observation on the accompanying label that ‘this was originally the strongest voice against recognition of multilingualism’ is provided in German and Slovenian.
The Dollfuss-Schuschnigg years are sufficiently distant for a critical analysis to be ‘safe,’ perhaps, whereas contemporary events, even though they bear an echo of those earlier times, are treated considerably more gingerly. Given the current political landscape, such caution is all too understandable. But to make clear its position, the exhibition concludes on a joyful note: Conchita Wurst’s 2014 controversial victory in the Eurovision Song Contest.
The House of Austria History is a welcome new development, and while it may be constrained by circumstances, deserves support for its brave intervention into the public understanding of Austrian history. One might wish that other countries attempted a similarly unstinting examination of their pasts since 1918.
 ‘The Story of a Horse,’ The Economist, November 17, 2018, 90-91.