Central European architecture: Prague, Czech Republic

A question to be asked is whether the historical and cultural entity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Danube basin and special cultural relationships of the past in any way promoted the expansion of Austrian banks, insurances and other businesses in Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe after 1989.
Robert Musil sarcastically describes in his famous novel “The Man Without Qualities“ the disintegration of Austrian hierarchical society and liberal-rational culture: “Kakania”. “Kakania was the first country at the present stage of development, from which God had withdrawn all credit, all love of life, all belief in itself and the capacity of all cultural nations to spread the useful imagination that they had a task to fullfill.” This Kakania is at the same time a model of an intellectual concept of Central Europe – more imaginary than a real geographically and historically defined area – today. Again Robert Musil: “…after having taken stock of the bulk of Central European ideas, he found out, not only to his regret, that it consisted only of contradictions, but to his astonishment he also realised that these contradictions are melting into each other when you look at them carefully.” “People who were not born then,” wrote Musil about the Austrian fin-de-siècle , “ will find it difficult to believe, but the fact is that even then time was moving faster than a cavalry camel…. But in those days, no one knew what it was moving towards; nor could anyone quite distinguish between what was above and what was below, between what was moving forward and what backward.”

When speaking of the former Habsburg Empire, what is interesting is not “nostalgia”, but the controversy of cultural forces, the mixture of language, culture, politics and economics, the secret ranking between the different “peoples” or nationalities of the former empire and the many images of “the self” and “the others” in this cultural area, the dynamics of particularism and universalism. Ethnic identity was not based on a clearly defined master-servant / oppressor – oppressed relationship, but many-layered. The Czechs were not just the manual workers of the German-speaking Austrians, on the contrary, the most important industry of the empire was situated in Bohemia. In the same way the Slovaks were not just the unskilled workers for the Hungarians. All these ethnic identities were further characterised by social hierarchies and class differences, so there was no clear-cut relationship between oppressors and oppressed, between exploitation and cultural self-assertion. In this tangle of cultures and relationships, it was important who spoke first, in which language, who sat where, who represented whom and where and how and on which rung of the secret cultural ranking ladder he or she was positioned.

Generally, it is astonishing how easily and without any hesitation or shame people claim a position of pre-eminence over other groups. There is interdependence between power and dominance on the one hand, and the world of symbolic actions and forms on the other. Political, legal and cultural inequality in Central Europe was mainly based on the inequality of industrial and technological development, the west-east gradient, the degree of “civilisation”, the difference between Western Christianity, Protestantism and Catholicism, and Orthodoxy and the difference between German-speaking and non-German speaking, and Hungarian-speaking or non-Hungarian speaking residents of the empire. This cultural asymmetry was accepted by all peoples of the empire and was further emphasised by the notion of “progress”: “the others have not experienced progress as we have” – a concept that is still wide-spread in today’s economies in Central and Eastern Europe. The “undeveloped” nations are like children, uncivilised, who have to be tamed and educated. Cultural asymmetry – perversely – thrives on the fact that it is accepted by both sides, albeit with different accentuation. Not just in the Habsburg Empire, sometimes even today, the move from east to west is perceived as a process of assimilation to a “higher culture” and the move from the west to the east, a move rarely taken, offers the chance to be part of a privileged minority. In today’s simple terms: the workers are moving west, the managers moving east.


In a multicultural region like the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the living together of many different ethnic groups in a restricted area automatically created a secret cultural ranking, a symbolic table of more or less advanced or civilised ethnic groups. It is astonishing how persistent these rankings are in the countries that were part of the former Habsburg Empire. How the average Austrian, Hungarian, Czech or Slovak citizen labels his or her neighbours, is astonishingly consistent with the stereotypes of the past, with the empire’s pecking order. There is a cultural consensus on cultural asymmetry, superiority on the one side and claims for emancipation on the other side. For instance, seen from one point of view, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy brought the railways, infrastructure, universities and libraries to Bosnia-Herzegovina, viewed from the other perspective, the empire hindered self-government in the region, emancipation and cultural equality of the Slavs. So cultural asymmetry was the characteristic of the Habsburg Empire and not the kitschy image of multiculturalism with all the peoples of the empire assembled around the throne of the emperor Franz Joseph I.


Another example of cultural ranking that has survived the Habsburg Empire is the concept of the “Balkans”. Although the region can be geographically defined, culturally it is without borders. It is still a frontier of civilisation, which is defined in different ways by Central European nations, by the Germans, the Austrians, the Slovenes, the Croats and the Serbs: “There – on the Balkans, civilisation, the rule of the law ends, underdevelopment becomes visible” – no nation wants to live there. Culturally, there is no Balkan, nobody wants to live there, everyone is proud NOT to live on the Balkan – it is the others who do live there. This complicated image of “the self” and “the other” in this region makes the Austrians the perceived experts for the Balkans region in Europe because Western Europeans falsely believe that the Austrians see through this maze. This is evident not only in the business world, but also in EU foreign policy and diplomatic missions. Some forms of tourism can be viewed as post-colonial relationships, such as the Austrian who goes hunting for bears in Bosnian forests, a few hours south of Vienna and enjoys his “position of superiority in the wilderness”. On the other hand from the point of view of many Germans, the Austrian mentality already shows clear signs of “Balkanisation”.

Terry Eagleton mentioned in his book “Idea of Culture” that culture is not inherently political at all. There is nothing inherently political in singing a Breton love-song. These things are not innately and eternally political; they become so only under specific historical conditions, usually of an unpleasant kind. They become so only when they are caught up in a process of domination and resistance; when these otherwise innocuous matters are turned for one reason or another into terrains of struggle. The ultimate point of a politics of culture is to restore to them their innocuousness, so that one can sing, paint or make love without the bothersome distraction of political strife. It is true that there are proponents of identity politics who will then have no idea what to do with themselves, but this is their problem, not ours.


Multiple identities were a matter of fact in fin-de-siècle Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg Empire and in many other cities, such as Prague, Budapest, Lemberg/Lviv, Trieste. This development was enforced by increased mobility, urbanisation, industrialisation and modernisation. Why were these symptoms more obvious in Vienna and other cities of Habsburgia than in other European big cities that also experienced ethnical and cultural “strangeness”. First of all, the share of “strangers” in Vienna was in 1900 around 60 % and in Paris 6.3 %. The pressure of assimilation forced the newcomers to constantly move between different cultural patterns and values which reinforced their already extensive disorientation. On top of that the social strata in Vienna were very differentiated as well and were characterised by very different cultural rules, lifestyles and ways of expressing themselves.


But this proximity of different cultures also led to a form of multiculturalism that was linked to specific social strata. The multiculturality that was often embodied in one person was a stimulus for the specific creativity of fin-de-siècle Vienna. One person could choose from various cultural traditions, so that cultural elements from very different traditions were melted and linked in totally new ways. The innovative production of music, literature and art of this time is an indication of that process of melting and linking multiple identities in new ways. Another aspect contributes to the vibrancy of the cultural climate: the marginalisation of peoples, for instance the Jews, because marginalised people have a highly creative potential. So individuals that in themselves carry multiple identities move in several cultures at the same time and are not geared towards one culture only, so they move effortlessly between cultures and can link elements in new ways and produce something totally innovative from this synthesis. Yet in the densely populated cities this cultural and ethnical plurality was also felt as a threat, because the “strangeness “ could be seen and felt daily, which created the fear that soon one could be moved from a socially dominant position to an inferior position in this society. So in order to better define the “strangeness”, artificial “strangenesses” were constructed and exaggerated in order to be able to rid oneself from them as soon as one had properly defined them.


The Central European region has been characterised by a variety of peoples, languages and religions for centuries. It was its special characteristic to find some kind of homogeneity and unity in this plurality. One can differentiate between an exogenous plurality coming from outside – cultural elements that influenced the region, or individual social classes from outside like the Osman presence – and an endogenous plurality from within, a diversity of languages, cultures and people that can be traced back for centuries and is still visible today. A discussion about the ethnic plurality of the region is usually dominated by a national and ideological attitude that sees the disintegration of this diverse region as a logical consequence.


Already in 1876 the geographer Friedrich Umlauf pointed to the positive and negative consequences of the plurality of Central Europe. He concluded that firstly that was the reason why the monarchy was a phenomenon of contradictions. Secondly  the historical memories of Austria, Poland, Germany and Hungary flowed together along the Danube and thirdly it was impossible to clearly define the settlement areas of the various cultures and peoples. In fact the monarchy consisted of several entities of various sizes, from kingdoms  to free cities. Still in the 20th century Central Europe was seen by some  as “ a miniature Europe” , e.g. the historian Jean-Pierre Rioux, so that in their opinion a “proper” national identity like in France could never have developed.


Despite so many cultural contrasts a common way of communication developed among certain communities and social classes in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Despite belonging to one culture one participated in other cultures. Bela Bartok called it “crossing and re-crossing of melodies”. This often resulted in bi- or multilinguality. Many people spoke more than one “mother tongue” and thought in more than in one language. So reducing the national identity to only one language was an artificial construction in this region. Especially in cities like Vienna, Budapest, Prag, Czernovitz, Trieste, Ljubljana many inhabitants were multilingual.


Central Europe can today be seen as a laboratory where processes have taken place that are of greatest relevance for us in the age of globalisation and cultural networks. All these processes do not contribute to greater understanding of differences, but they make strangeness more visible by daily exposure. Socialisation processes do no longer take place in a narrowly defined social organism, but in a global society and by that they become richer but also more complex and problematic. Politics can no longer serve national interests only. The construction of individual and collective identities becomes more open and varied, but also less stable and less secure. The experience of new strange cultures contributes to insecurity, individual and collective crises and conflicts. This is exactly the same situation we find in Vienna around 1900. Then many reacted with simple nationalistic ideologies and few with naive multiculturalism. Globalisation promotes and accelerates cultural exchange and by that attempts to create similar conditions worldwide. Yet it confronts people constantly with new cultural contents and “strangenesses” and by that provokes resistance. These processes are comparable to the dense cultural systems of the Central European microcosm and they already provoked radical thoughts in 1900 and led to a process that made traditional presumably secure order systems obsolete.

Lawrence Goodwyn, famous for his work on the social history of the USA, coined the term „populist moments“ which is a historical constellation where sudden social changes, a modernisation that is dictated by anonymous interests, destroys  a collective way of life. The historical example would be the North American farmers that suffered through the development of the railways and financial capital. There are strange parallels between this development in the 19th century and today when large parts of the world are affected by the consequences of globalisation. When emotional ties of groups of people to the traditional way of life are suddenly severed, “populist moments“ are created. That is the time for populist politicians. Populist parties pretend to be closer to the people than the established mass parties, especially at a time when the relationship between traditional parties and people is disturbed. At a time when liberal democracy is seen as the only viable form of government, parties as the representatives of the people are viewed with mistrust. But especially nowadays the range of possibilities for politics to influence developments is as narrow as never before. Global economic competition, transnational institutions, lobbies, majorities in parliament heavily restrict the room for manoeuvring. On top of it today’s problems are so complex and new as never before. Maybe because of that politics together with the media has become a kind of substitute lacking any real action. That means that the populist moments are here to stay. Populists catch “the man in the street where he is now and they leave him there”. Leo Loewenthal called it “inverted psychoanalysis“: A good psychoanalyst makes himself redundant because he teaches his patient to get rid of his fears and neuroses and by that the patient becomes autonomous. The populist does the contrary: He enforces the unconscious fears and neurotic restrictions of the people in order to tie them to himself. Their dependency is the populist’s asset.


Müller-Funk, Wofgang, Kakanien revisited, in: Müller-Funk, Wolfgang / Plener, Peter / Ruthner, Clemens, Kakanien revisited. Das Eigene und das Fremde (in) der österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie, A. Francke Verlag Tübingen und Basel 2002

Eagleton, Terry, Idea  of Culture, 2000

Kandel, Eric, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present, 2012