For most people outside Europe, Viennese waltzes and former movie star, now California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, are among the first things that come to mind at the mention of Austria. Traditions are strong in the small republic on the slopes of the Alps, but so are its more innovative tendencies.
Austria gave the world Sigmund Freud with his psychoanalysis and, more recently, author Elfriede Jelinek. Even though Jelinek received the Nobel Prize for literature last year, some Austrians are not proud of her work, including the novel "The Piano Teacher," that exposes some ugly effects of a repressive society on human spirit.
"Some Austrians were indignant that such a controversial author would be considered representative of what Austrian culture is," says Lonnie Johnson, director of the Austrian-American Educational Commission, which administers the Fulbright Program of cultural and educational exchange between the United States and Austria. "But when you look at certain institutions such as the ball season, every major organization in the city of Vienna and indeed every major organization in Austria in the course of the ball season, between the first of January and Ash Wednesday will have some type of formal ball or costume ball."
And young people who walk the streets in fleece jackets and blue jeans in the morning will don their black-tie suits and long gowns in the evening to waltz as their ancestors did a hundred or more years ago. This is Austria too.
This year the country celebrates three important events in its history: the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two, 50 years since the end of Allied occupation, and ten years since Austria joined the European Union.
Once the center of power for the large Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria was reduced to a small republic after its defeat in World War One. Following annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938 and subsequent occupation by the Allies in 1945, it regained independence only in 1955. Guenter Bischof, Professor of History at the University of New Orleans, reminds that for half a century, Austria remained a neutral state and a meeting point for two opposing political blocs.
"After 1955 to the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Balkans crisis of the 1990’s, Austria did maintain a strict neutrality and was very proud of her neutral status, which she also used as a means to mediate in the East-West cold war, particularly through providing Vienna as a site for summitry, like in 1961, when Kennedy and Khrushchev met and in 1979, when Brezhnev and President Carter came to Vienna to sign the Salt Two Treaty, the strategic arms limitations treaty," says Professor Bischof.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, European world changed dramatically, prompting Austria to apply for membership and join the expanding European Union. Some Austrians decry the loss of neutrality and point out that their country had been one of the world’s most prosperous before joining the Union. Analysts says that a nation of less than eight million cannot absorb all that it produces and can only benefit from the membership.
"In the long run, the Austrian investments in Eastern Europe will produce much more for Austrian corporations than the government is transferring through Brussels to Eastern Europe," notes Professor Bischof.
In only one decade since joining the Union, Austria has become one of its fastest-growing trading partners. So there is a lot to celebrate this year. One important anniversary, 60 years since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen, comes up in May this year. Many Austrians don’t like to be reminded that more than 100-thousand people perished in the camp near the city of Linz. But a growing number is determined to face their country’s Nazi past and make sure that history does not repeat itself. With that goal in mind, Austria created Gedenkdienst, a Holocaust educational service for young people. The 13-year old organization sends young volunteers to serve in Holocaust-related institutions around the world.
Twenty-seven-year old economist, Stephan Stoev, is currently an intern at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. One of his tasks is establishing contact with Holocaust survivors and Jews who fled the Nazi Austria. Some receive him warmly, he says, others give him a cold shoulder.
"I meet a lot of them and everyone has a different point of looking at Austria today. They are former Austrians and the past they connect with Austria, as you can imagine, is very bitter."
Yet, it is Mr. Stoev’s goal to convince these people that his is not the same country they fled 50 or 60 years ago. Like many other young Austrians, Stephan Stoev believes he can do it.