During the last few weeks I was in Austria and Germany. Both countries are consumed by the migration crisis. The media are full of reports and views about it, and most conversations sooner rather than later return to it. Of course the crisis affects all of Europe, but these two countries are in its vortex, though with significant differences between them. What is unfolding in Germany is a moving moral drama, with the person of Chancellor Angela Merkel at its center. There is much discussion about what motivated her to trigger the crisis by opening the country to masses of migrants, mostly from the war-torn regions of the Middle East adding up to over a million in 2015.
As far as I can tell, she had no conceivable political motive—indeed she put her political position at risk. The most likely motive was simply compassion, perhaps triggered by a scene (caught on television) when she talked with a young refugee girl who tearfully asked Merkel to let her stay in Germany. Merkel was obviously moved, didn’t know what to say, and just stroked the child’s back. [I do not know how far religion was involved in Merkel’s reaction—her growing up in a Lutheran parsonage in Communist East Germany finally showing. Like most European politicians, Merkel doesn’t normally “do God”. But in a recent interview she said, surprisingly, that she prays before important decisions.] She is beginning to pay the price for this one: There is increasing political opposition to her open-door policy, by a rising anti-immigrant party (the “Alternative for Germany”) and even within her own coalition (the head of the Bavarian party openly opposes her), and she is also being criticized for making a deal with the unsavory Turkish president to help stop the migrant flow through Turkey in exchange for large sums of money and other concessions by the European Union.
Austria did accept some 90,000 migrants (not too bad for a small country—the United Kingdom offered to take 20,000). But Austria mainly served as a transit stop for the huge masses heading for the promised land, chanting “Deutschland! Deutschland!” Yet the crisis has nevertheless upended Austrian politics. The country has been governed by a coalition of the two traditionally dominant parties, the Social Democrats and the Conservatives. That coalition is now threatened by the unexpectedly growing Freedom Party, which started years ago as a catchment for nostalgic ex-Nazis but has now made more respectable noises (like the National Front in France). While I was in the country the party head was on a very visible visit to Israel. But the main message of the Freedom Party is ferocious opposition to immigration, especially of Muslims. Of course there are quite rational economic and cultural anxieties to which such parties appeal (Americans may think of the people who love Donald Trump). However, beyond the deplorable excesses that find political expression here, there is a legitimate issue that ought to be addressed: the question of the limits of pluralism. And here Austria is different from Germany and many other European countries: Its historical memory is still haunted by another very pluralistic entity: that of the Habsburg empire, especially in the last fifty years of its existence. At least in the Austrian half of the monarchy (in the other half the not so tacit project was a Hungarian nation state) there were some serious efforts to construct a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state. History rarely repeats itself, but that long-vanished experiment provokes reflections relevant to our own time.
The main reason of my recent visit to Austria was a conference at the University of Vienna celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the original English publication of my book The Social Construction of Reality, which was co-authored with Thomas Luckmann, also a native of Austria. The book was characterized by a critic, in an intriguing combination of praise and putdown, as “almost a classic”. Classic or not (to date it has been translated into twenty languages, including Korean and Catalan), the people who organized the conference now call themselves “social constructivists”. Both Luckmann and I have been reluctant to embrace this name. He and I were invited as guests of honor; much to my regret, he could not come because of illness. Much to my sorrow, he died a few days later. I rather enjoyed the accolades (which may reflect poorly on my character) and found some of the papers very interesting. The most entertaining was by Manfred Prisching, of the University of Graz, rather surreally titled “Why are Berger and Luckmann Austrians?” Via our teacher Alfred Schutz (who taught both of us at the New School for Social Research in New York, at some distance from Austria-Hungary in space and time) Prisching tried to place our “constructivism” in the context of the turbulent intellectual context of Austria between the two world wars, out of which Schutz came. Prisching rather plausibly called me “a coffeehouse Austrian”, Luckmann “an Alpine Austrian”. He had a diagram showing the alleged intellectual influences on the two of us, as mediated by Schutz. But the one that really resonated with me was “Kakania”. That is the name invented by the Austrian writer Robert Musil (1880-1942), in a chapter of his enormous but unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities. It refers to the Austrian part of the monarchy, whose institutions were prefixed by kk – kaiserlich-koeniglich (“imperial-royal”)
I have had an amateur interest in the history of the last fifty years of the Habsburg state (roughly 1867-1918, from the establishment of the dual monarchy to its end after World War I, with an extension of its intellectual effervescence to 1938, when what was left of Austria became part of Nazi Germany). The Viennese satirist Karl Kraus (1874-1936) called Austria-Hungary “the dress rehearsal for the Apocalypse”; Hilde Spiel, an Austrian-born writer, called her book about precisely the same period Vienna’s Golden Autumn (1987). Both terms refer to the same reality: a slowly-crumbling empire presiding over an enormous intellectual and cultural dynamism.
As I recall, my interest in Austro-Hungarian history was initially sparked by stories told to me by my father (an officer of the Fifteenth Hussar Regiment during World War I). But this memory continues to be relevant to my current preoccupation with the cultural and political prerequisites of pluralism, defined as the peaceful co-existence of different ethnic and religious communities. Two questions: 1. Why did this “golden” culture flourish under the aegis of the Habsburg state? 2. And are there any lessons to be drawn from the latter’s experiment with pluralism?
The first question has often been raised by historians. As with any important development in history there is certainly no single factor to explain it all. I am reasonably sure that a precondition is a luxuriant pluralism unfolding under a generally benign regime. Anyone wanting proof of the pluralism only has to look at the Vienna telephone directory, which still has an exuberance of Slavic, Hungarian and other non-German names. Tragically there are very few Jewish names, but there would have been many before 1938. Jews played a key role in the intellectual and cultural life of Austria-Hungary, far beyond their percentage of the overall population. (Curiously the Jewish population was roughly the same in Budapest as in Vienna.) The pluralism coincided with the successful development of a modern capitalist economy with its concomitant social mobility. I would venture the hypothesis that the creative energy was released by the tension between a rapidly modernizing culture and a still traditionalist regime (the Habsburg state had existed for roughly a thousand years). Yet the ideology of this state was expressed in its motto—“Ex pluribus unum” (“Out of many one”) .
Sometimes physical space symbolizes empirical reality. The Michaelerplatz (St. Michael’s Square) in the center of Vienna contains three buildings: There is the entrance to a wing of the imperial palace, flanked by some baroque statuary. Right across from it is the so-called Loos House, built early in the twentieth century in the aggressively modernistic Bauhaus style. I can think of no better symbolization than the aforementioned tension between tradition and modernity. On the third side of the square is the Catholic Church of St. Michael. It contains a depiction of the Church standing over the defeated Synagogue, Christianity triumphant over Judaism. The Habsburgs, at least by the period that interests us here, protected the Jews against this traditional and any more recent forms of anti-Semitism. In a curious irony, after the Anschluss of 1938, the Nazis erected a shrine at the entrance to the Loos House, swastika flags flanking a portrait of Hitler, who hated the Habsburgs almost as much as he hated the Jews. Storm troopers stood before the shrine and told pedestrians to raise the right arm in the Nazi salute.
Along with other European countries, Germany and Austria has had large numbers of immigrants since World War II, including many of them from non-Western cultures. Already in the 1950s a joke circulated in Germany: “What is a black Bavarian?” The difference with today is the rapidity and the sheer numbers of the migration, and the fact that it includes many Muslims at a time when radical Islam is an all too real threat, and there are perfectly understandable anxieties (not merely “phobias”) about the cultural and political integration of Muslims. In Austria one may put the question this way: “What is a Muslim Tirolean?” (Tirol is the most culturally conservative province.) In the long range the stakes could not be higher, indeed are existential: The demographic projections for most of Europe are dismal. Theoretically there are only two options: either indigenous European women will have more children, or there will be massive immigration of women with higher fertility. Whatever the problems of the second option, it is more plausible than the first. Let me put it this way: Unless Muslim Tiroleans will be successfully integrated into Austrian society, there will be very few Tiroleans around by the end of this century.
There are very few unambiguous “lessons of history”. And there is nothing more inane than the claim to be “on the right side of history”. Yet the past can provide some clues about what is empirically possible. The “Kakanian” experiment suggests that ethnic and religious pluralism can generate cultural and economic productivity, and that one can construct (at least imagine) political institutions which will protect such pluralism. Habsburg Austria in its last fifty years was full of creative ideas about political reconstructions, such as the proposal to change the dual monarchy to a quadruple one, having the monarch not only crowned in Vienna and Budapest, but also in Prague and Zagreb (and maybe also in Krakow). Such an extension of the so-called Austro-Hungarian “Ausgleich” of 1867 (compromise) to the major Slavic nationalities, was intended by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne, who (terrible irony) was assassinated by pan-Slavic nationalists in Sarajevo in 1914. The last Habsburg emperor, Charles I, who ascended to the throne in 1916 upon the death of the famed Franz Josef, tried desperately to do two things that might have saved the monarchy: He conducted secret negotiations with the Allies for a separate peace (this was stopped by the pro-German chancellor and other ministers). And in response to the proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” about “national self-determination” (an early case of disastrous American meddling “to make the world safe for democracy”), just before the end in 1918 Charles issued a proposal to transform the monarchy into a federal state. (It was too late: encouraged by Wilson’ rhetoric, the Czechs and other Slavic leaders wanted complete independence.) And other creative ideas, such as the so-called Renner-Bauer model of the Social Democratic Party (which proposed a constitution separating national rights from territory), had become obsolete.
Some steps had already been taken: Full equality before the law, regardless of ethnicity and religion. A parliament, which was regularly elected by all citizens, it was often paralyzed by ethnic disputes but nevertheless provided a democratic structure. Far-reaching freedom of the press. The Badeni language law (named after the minister who drafted it), which meant that a language spoken by a certain number of people in a territory would become an official language. Jews given access to high ranks in the army and bureaucracy (except for the highest, which were usually reserved for members of the aristocracy). Curiously, “kakanian” pluralism also included Islam, not through migration, but in Bosnia, which had been acquired by the monarchy in the 1870s but was annexed only in 1908. Islam, the faith of the majority, was officially recognized. There are photographs of Muslim chaplains (imams), dressed in army officers’ uniforms topped with a fez. The Oriental Academy (after 1918, called the Diplomatic Academy), which trained Austrian diplomats, had its students learn at least one of three languages—Turkish, Arabic, Persian. Very recently a law was passed, which in addition to ratifying Islam as an officially recognized religion, decreed that imams would be trained at the University of Vienna, had to be able to preach in German, and could not be supported by funds from abroad. The last provision particularly annoyed the Turkish and Saudi governments, which had respectively paid the salaries of Turkish-trained imams, and funded fundamentalist (Wahhabi) propaganda all over the world.
It is sometimes useful to speculate how history might have taken an alternative course, such as Habsburg pluralism surviving into our time. It is also useful to envisage alternative futures, one in which Austria will somehow resurrect a modernized “Kakanian” pluralism (in which, among other things “Islam will belong in Austria”), or opt for a narrow ethnic nationalism with its concomitant cultural and social parochialism.
In 1989 the last Habsburg Empress Zita, Charles’ widow, died in her nineties in a Swiss convent. I watched a video of her funeral. There was a mass at the cathedral, with the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna officiating. Prayers were said in the major languages of the monarchy. Then the funeral cortege walked the short distance to the Capuchin monastery, where all the Habsburgs are kept in the basement crypt in coffins placed on top of each other. When the procession arrived at the monastery, the front door was locked, the abbot and the monks assembled behind it. The master of ceremonies knocked on the door. The abbot asked “who requests entrance?” The master then recited the so-called long title of the empress—more about this in a moment. The title took around ten minutes to read. The abbot said “we do not know her—who requests entrance?” On that occasion the middle title was omitted. Then the short title was read—“Empress of Austria. Queen of Hungary. Queen of Bohemia.” Again the abbot said, “we do not know her—who requests entrance?” The master replied, “Zita, a poor sinner, your sister.” Thereupon the door was opened and Zita went to her rest.
Back to the long title: I knew what was coming, and was watching and listening closely. The commentator on the video briefly explained each title. Not when it came to the title I was waiting for, no comment at all. I don’t know whether that was the commentator’s decision, or whether he had been instructed to remain silent. Be this as it may, the last Habsburg empress left this world as “Duchess of Auschwitz”. It was a shocking moment. Even I was shocked, though I knew it was coming. I could see part of the audience on the video; some people were visibly shocked.
Thomas Luckmann and I talked afterward. We asked ourselves whether, if we had been in charge, we would have omitted the shocking phrase. We concluded that we would not have omitted it. For a very simple reason: If in the 1940s a Habsburg duke or duchess had held that title, there would have been no “Auschwitz”.