Eternal and Blissfully Unaware: Unser Land mit Unsern Augen (1949) and Austrian Cultural Amnesia after 1945

Our Artwork of the Month in April 2020 was Columbus in der Slovakei (1936), a cultural travel guide by Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski (1888–1961) that introduced Slovak modern art, architecture and, mainly, folk culture to the unaware German-speaking reader. This post is a follow-up: though Columbus was a financial disaster, and almost drove its publisher EOS-Verlag into ruin, Rochowanski pursued the idea of publishing more travel guides of the same sort. Writing to various institutions and government agencies across Europe, he proposed travel guides to the Czech Lands, the Sudetenland, Austria, and the Netherlands in the late 1930s, all of which were rejected amid growing political tensions and a dire economic situation. However, the author eventually succeeded after the Second World War, publishing a cultural travel guide to Austria with the Österreichische Buchgemeinschaft (Austrian book club) in 1949. At this point Austria, whose population had eagerly supported National Socialism, yearned to reinvent itself in an effort to overcome the past, and officials such as Chancellor Karl Renner focused on promoting an Austrian identity that was separate from that of Germany. Against this background, Rochowanski’s second travel guide, Unser Land mit unsern Augen (Our Land with our Eyes), shows that the theme of continuity and rupture, which the CRAACE project focuses on around 1918, recurred around the historical break of 1938–1945. Given that the book had already been written in 1938 but was only published later, as its epilogue reveals, it raises some important questions about new beginnings and a lingering past, which bring to light striking continuities in Austria before and after 1945.

Our Land with Our Eyes: a guide for the urban local

Even though Unser Land was a cultural travel guide, like Columbus, and paid particular attention to architectural landmarks, developments from art history, literature and music, the post-war version vastly differed from its tightly conceptualised predecessor. Leopold Rochowanski, Unser Land mit unsern AugenColumbus was almost six hundred pages long, bound in Slovak linen (with a limited, leather-bound print-run for embassies and officials), included dedications by Czechoslovak government officials and was richly illustrated with works by some of the most progressive photographers working in Slovakia, such as Karel Plicka (1894–1987) and Irena Blühová (1904–1991). Unser Land pales in comparison. Bound in a simple red-and-white paper cover (representing the colours of the Austrian flag) and just under two hundred pages in total, the guide’s design and layout were stripped down to basics and a conventional style. Largely text-based, Unser Land only included a small number of prints on low-quality paper. Mostly taken from Matthäus Merian’s Topographia series, these only faintly relate to the text and give it the appearance of an old-fashioned school textbook, rather than the entertaining guide the book was supposed to be. While, partly, this might have been due to the nature of its publication as a book club edition, which normally appeared in a higher print-run but with cheaper quality, the basic design also serves as a reminder that, at the time of publication, Austria was still reeling from the economic effects of war.

Despite the great differences in design compared to Columbus, however, Unser Land was still written in Rochowanski’s jovial style of travel writing, which guides readers from place to place, accompanied by myths and fables, small anecdotes and an array of personal impressions. This style of narration also reflected the book’s origins in the interwar years, where popular travel guides such as the series Was nicht im „Baedeker“ steht, published in Germany between 1927 and 1928, popularised a new style of travel writing and urban discovery.

Rather than adhering to an idealised narrative of Columbus travelling to a distant land, the place to be explored in Unser Land was the Heimat, one’s own country. In the same cheerful tone as in the Slovak travel guide, the narrator repeatedly asserts that the land to be explored is a well-known place, emphasised in brief episodes that evoke a sense of familiarity. Leopold Rochowanski, Unser Land mit unsern AugenIn the opening pages, for example, the narrator spends an afternoon on the Leopoldsberg mountain just outside Vienna. Sitting in an inn, he closely observes those around him: ‘a rounded face floated above a round but rather agile body, a little hat, almost too little, placed on sideways, like a funny remark on his head, a sumptuous moustache seemed to permanently and readily emanate his last reserves of excitement.’[1] With this light narrative style the observer introduces the visitors and staff of the restaurant, offering an image of jovial Viennese Gastfreundschaft (hospitality) – reinforced with considerable quantities of local wine. There is the old yet elegant waiter, who reads his clients’ wishes on a whim, the clumsy apprentice, the omniscient tourist guide and his devoted followers, and the witty professor who introduces a foreign guest to the local delicacies and dialect. Throughout the narrative, Rochowanski employs short anecdotes to mediate between the impression that these places are familiar, yet also ‘new’ and worth further exploration, tailoring the guide to urban travellers who discover the provinces of their country.

From “Alt-Wien” to the countryside and back

Unser Land begins in the vicinity of Vienna and also ends in the capital. In Vienna, the tour’s main focus is not on major architectural or cultural sites such as the Albertina or the Ringstraßen development, which are merely mentioned in passing, but hidden gems that even locals might be unaware of. This includes the watch museum, and a number of squares, streets and alleys, such as the Franziskanerplatz, Neuer Markt and Naglergasse, where the narrator peruses amid ‘precious sights, beautiful lattices, hidden wells, [and] little figurines, tucked away in the niches of staircases’.[2] Throughout, the narrative is interspersed by mentions of historical figures, such as Empress Maria Theresia and Antonio Canova, as well as calls to explore ‘off the beaten track’ of museums and major sights.

As the narrator follows recommendations by a local young girl – a süßes Mädel that might as well have stepped out of the work by Arthur Schnitzler– his discoveries are based on personal impressions. Paying close attention to small sights and street impressions, he emphasises working-class life: he shares lunch with maids and coachmen, observes women at market stalls and chats to waiters and street musicians. Yet rather than accounting for any social hardship of this segment of society, Rochowanski’s tour resembles a sentimental image of ‘Old Vienna’ (Alt Wien), in which the city becomes a cosy and timeless idyll, full of warmth and light joyfulness. Modern culture and politics have dissolved entirely as the reader follows a tour that could, indeed, have happened any time: aside from mentioning landmarks such as St Stephen’s Cathedral, none of the surroundings carry specific descriptions, instead arising from the narrator’s merging of picturesque details that never lets one ‘see’ a whole street or building. Rather than offering facts, the narrator conjures an image of his surroundings based on emotions and fleeting impressions that have escaped the thoughts of a professional flâneur.

Leopold Rochowanski, Unser Land mit unsern Augen

Some twenty pages in, we eventually venture outside the gates of Vienna, first visiting nearby towns such as Klosterneuburg and Krems, then starting a round tour from one federal state (nine in total, including Vienna) to the next. Rather than paying equal attention to each, the narrator glosses over some locations in brief, but dwells on others for several pages. The most extensively covered places, aside from Vienna, are Salzburg and Tyrol. Featuring at the centre of the book with more illustrations than any other part, Salzburg becomes the most eminent city on the tour. Yet even though the narrator celebrates it as a place of festivity and culture, there is no mention of its cultural highlight, the Salzburg Festival, which manifested the city’s name in recent memory. Like Vienna, it is instead fashioned as a Baroque citadel, steeped in Italian influences and deep Catholic faith in reference to the city’s position as an archbishopric. In a similarly timeless laudation, the narrator lives among farmers in Tyrol, admiring their simple architecture, the vast alpine landscape and the folk treasures hidden within them – strangely, more attention is in fact paid to the simple structure of a Tyrolean farmhouse than the description of St Stephen’s Cathedral. In the familiar fashion of Heimat photography and film, which developed in the late 1920s and continued unscathed into the 1950s, the narrator overemphasises archaic and ‘timeless’ elements at the expense of modern culture, creating an ‘eternal Austria’ in which the world was whole, cosy, and a generally welcoming place.

Glossing over, looking back: Austrian selective memory post-1945

Thinking back to the narrator’s presentation of Slovakia as a timeless land of folkloric bliss in Columbus, certain parallels emerge. In both cases the narrative guides an urban readership that ventures out to the countryside for touristic purposes. The narrator’s experience is also similar, constructed in interactions with an innocent rural population eager to show their traditions and culture. In the case of both travel guides this framing went in hand with officially-sanctioned national narratives: Columbus exoticizes Slovakia the further the narrator moves east as the ‘native place’ in the modern Czechoslovak State, while Unser Land presents a rural, deeply Catholic country filled with Baroque treasures, which corresponded closely with efforts to revive Austrian identity through tourism after the war, but rooted in a culture of regionalism that had its first boom in the 1920s.

There is, however, also an important difference: despite the main depiction of Slovakia as a rural place, it is never wholly separated from contemporary culture, exemplified by the modern photography used for the illustration, the narrator’s enthusiastic visit to the School of Arts and Crafts (ŠUR) in Bratislava and works of functionalist architecture and surrealist painting. Unser Land, by contrast, omits any sense of modernity. Aside from a brief mention of Josef Hoffmann, Otto Wagner, and the Tyrolean painter Albin Egger-Lienz, Austrian culture seems to exist as a past remnant in its entirety, bolstered by continuous reference to epic poems such as the medieval Nibelungenlied, and extensive passages on the eternal beauty of the Austrian landscape.

Most obviously, this image of Austria corresponds with the touristic image that Gundolf Graml has recently shown to be at the centre of efforts to rebuild Austrian national identity after the Second World War.[3] By focusing on the beautiful landscape and cultural sites from medieval and Baroque times, the associations of Austria with much more recent National Socialism could be circumvented. Presented as the ‘true Austria’ they bolstered national identity, while promoting the country for tourism. But Unser Land had in fact been written in spring 1938, which coincided with Austria’s annexation to the Third Reich in March that year.

I wanted to comprehend all of Austria, down to the last tree and the longest Schneehand, which knocks on the heavens and pales in front of it. It was like an assignment to keep guard, to transmit affection and encouragement, sorrow and support, an unnameable feeling of a visit and a goodbye.[4]

While admitting that ‘many things’ had changed in the decade between the writing and the publication of the book, Rochowanski asserts that he did not omit or change anything from the original version. Moreover, the choice of seventeenth century engraving was precisely for their power to ‘remind us of that which is no longer, which has been erased not because of the war but the recklessness or speculative business of merchants and builders. Such a destructive character has not been eradicated to this day, and repeatedly robs us of what is valuable.’[5]

Signs of cultural amnesia

If we take the author’s word for it, and the text written in 1938 was indeed published unchanged in 1949, what can it tell us about Austria’s approach to the unfathomable years of the Second World War and its preceding years? Bearing in mind that the author was not a Nazi-sympathizer by any means (nor, for that matter, of the authoritarian regime of Engelbert Dollfuß that preceded it), but a man with a Jewish wife who had eschewed all kinds of political connections throughout the interwar period, Unser Land sits strangely amid the historical and social ruptures leading to the Holocaust and the Second World War and the attempts to overcome them.[6] Indeed, the whole narrative of the book creates an Austria in which a Jewish population or an urban modernity – two things that were often conflated by conservatives and reactionaries – seem to never have existed.

This starts with the book’s title, which twice uses the possessive ‘unser’ (our) to indicate that the guide was for local readers who wanted to get to know ‘their own’ country. The fact that ‘our’ semantically separates one’s own from something ‘other’ inevitably recalls the exclusive meaning that the definition of ‘Austrian’ had gained by the late 1930s. Developing since the First World War and pushed especially by the Dollfuß regime, Austrian national identity after 1918 focused on rural, Catholic and alpine folk traditions that ostensibly excluded parts of the population. That the book could be ­­– was ­– published unchanged save for an epilogue after 1945 indicates that this exclusive image of Austrian identity was not in fact ‘reinvented’ after 1945 but seamlessly picked up again where it had left off before Austria’s Anschluss to the Third Reich. Indeed, Unser Land was not alone with this: several other guides, such as Ernst Marboe’s Das Österreichbuch (1948), followed a similar trajectory of picturing Austria as a rural, traditional place.

Taking this into account, Rochowanski’s revelation that Unser Land had in fact been written in 1938 only underlines that a homogeneisation of Austrian culture was not an effect of the Second World War, but already happened in the years before the Anschluss. This affirmed the narrator’s claims for an unchanging Austria: the Second World War becomes a mere blip in the face of an eternal and old, and by extension legitimatised, nation – all the more relevant at a point in time when Austria was split among the Allied forces and administered in separate sections.

Yet the guide’s image of a beautiful and cultured Austria that had ‘always’ existed could only be constructed at the expense of other aspects of culture: that of the modern, urban haute bourgeoisie. This conjunction also explains the curious fact that Unser Land omits any sense of the cultural achievements of the fin de siècle and the interwar period, even though the text was penned by an author so closely intertwined with Viennese modernism. The omission of seminal figures such as Gustav Klimt, as well as institutions such as the Viennese Workshops, indicates that modern urban culture was, at this point, incompatible with and foreign to Austrian identity. By drawing on pre-modern history, cultures and myths in which the actual date of its creation reaffirms a continuity across and beyond National Socialism instead, Unser Land constructed an image of eternal Austria as a mono-ethnic German nation. In effect, minority groups and modern culture were ostensibly erased as a cultural fact before and after 1938.

Julia Secklehner

[1] Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski, Unser Land mit Unseren Augen, (Vienna, 1949) p. 9.

[2] Rochowanski, Unser Land, p. 22.

[3] Gundolf Graml, Revisiting Austria. Tourism, Space, and National Identity, 1945 to the Present (New York, 2020).

[4] Rochowanski, Unser Land, p. 193.

[5] Rochowanski, Unser Land, p. 194.

[6] From letters exchanged with regime officials it transpires that Rochowanski was excluded from the Reichsschrifttumskammer because of his wife Katja’s Jewish heritage but could avert persecution through personal connections to NS-publishers and was allowed to work as a proof-reader, later again as a writer, during the war.


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