People who know me know that I’m an Austrophile. This means that I have eaten more schnitzel in twenty-four years than most people will in a lifetime, that I remember Falco and Mozart as the world’s two greatest musicians, and that I won’t pass on a Sound of Music reference but am quick and a bit too defensive in pointing out that Austrian culture means a lot more than a 1965 Julie Andrews flick. It also means that I will read most anything relating to a small Alpine nation state with the population of Virginia and the landmass of Lake Superior.
Here’s a compilation of some Austro-happenings I’ve read about since leaving Austria in July.
Four hundred sloganeering garden gnomes were stolen overnight in the Austrian province of Vorarlberg this summer. Dressed in blue jeans and plain black t-shirts, the “Coolmen” gnomes held campaign signs in their crossed arms and stared confidently through pitch black sunglasses from their clamped posts on light poles. The gnomes were originally part of a promotional ploy by Austria’s Social Democrats (SPÖ), seeking to win a few votes in a traditionally conservative province. Now they’re just victims in the most Austrian news story ever.
It’s been called the Austria’s great triumph that the world still thinks Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German. Depending on who you talk to about the matter, you will hear that this confusion just one in a number of conventionalized global historical misnomers—like the heroics of Christopher Columbus or July 4 as the date the Declaration of Independence was signed—or the result of a dastardly national PR scheme aimed at distancing Austria from complicity in National Socialism.
Austria’s role in the Holocaust is a national conversation in many ways still waiting to happen, a giant purple elephant perched on an Alpine peak. Like Germany, Austria has long held a “Don’t memorialize the criminals” policy, keeping places like Hitler’s birth house somewhat under the radar in efforts to deter Nazi sympathizers from assembling. The policy sounds nice in theory, but has left many victims feeling short shrifted in the national consciousness. The move to memorialize Hitler’s former home might mark a step in the opposite direction.
A herd of cows killed a hiker in Tirol. The province is of hundreds of thousands of cattle and outdoors enthusiasts, so this bit of news isn’t entirely uncommon and might not seem newsworthy, but the hiker was German, which necessitates at least a small degree of suspicion of foul play.
It’s true that Oktoberfest is a German celebration, taking place annually in Munich. But if many Austrians had it their way, Munich—the Bavarian culture Hauptstadt—would be assumed as capital of Austria and Vienna would be left to the Hungarians, Czech, even the Germans. With its high-end Lederhosen and Dirndl boutiques, countless beer gardens, and zealous sense of Lebensfreude—like joie de vivre on a high-carb diet—Munich might be the capital Austrians have long wished for but never had.
Austria’s Islam Law Islamgesetz has been in place since 1912 and grants Islam recognition status equal to Catholicism, other branches of Christianity, and other religions like Judaism and Buddhism. This is a big deal for a Catholic country. But concern over Islamic extremism has resulted in changes to the Islamgesetz, including the disallowing of foreign funding for Imams and the announcement of a standardized German-language translation of the Koran. The proposed amendments have already been met with as much controversy as one might expect.
I read of these events with a piqued sense of interest because they remind me of what it felt like to live in Austria, a country convinced of its identity but also convinced that its changing. You could say that Austria is very sure of what it is, not quite sure of what it was, and uncertain as to what it will be. The hills are alive.