independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Kevin Myers: What do Austrian children want to be? Pensioners

FELIX Baumgartner is the Austrian madman who last weekend jumped from 24 miles above the earth -- from Naas to Dublin city centre, say -- to make the world's highest parachute jump, during which his body speed exceeded 824mph: 30pc faster than a jetliner. Though his name is the embodiment of the Alpine idyll (Baumgartner means orchard gardener), he is personally the very rebuttal of the Austrian chocolate box image of neat Tyrolean meadows, strudel and edelweiss.

Of course, all national identities embody some central contradictions, but perhaps no people in Europe are as divided between perception and reality as the Austrians. Baumgartner is merely the extreme of an Austrian tradition of ruthless high achievement concealed within an outward display of pathological provincialism and bourgeois parochialism.

Everyone knows about Hitler: but he was sui-generis, whose gross personality disorders could have emerged anywhere. Less well-known is Baumgartner's spiritual antecedent, the fearless Austrian fighter pilot Walter Nowotny, who during World War Two shot down 258 allied aircraft. This equals the combined total score of the eight top individual aces from the UK, the US, the USSR, France, South Africa, Australia, South Africa and Italy.

Ah, yes, the war: don't mention the war. Despite producing proportionately more war criminals than Germany, including Eichmann, the mastermind behind the Final Solution, and Seyss-Inquart, the refined, piano-playing butcher of the Netherlands, Austria still retains an utterly innocent self-image based on pacifism, mountain pastures and Viennese pastries.

Indeed, if anything, Austria has made an even greater dogma over neutrality than has Ireland: since 1945, schoolchildren have been remorselessly indoctrinated about Austria's status as a victim in the Second World War and an intrinsically virtuous and peace-loving state.

Most countries have a comparable myth about their a) uniqueness and b) moral superiority, possibly even Belgium. The Austrian claims to both have been enhanced by the kitsch of Salzburg, and the regular televisual dam-bursts of pubescent vocal syrup from the Vienna Boys' Choir. Yet there is that other Austria, of fearless individualists. There was Jochen Rindt, German-born but Austrian-raised, who was the only man ever to win the World Racing Drivers Championship posthumously. Then came Nikki Lauda, who survived catastrophic burns to become the first champion with no eyelids, one ear and half a face. You can cite Schumacher or Fangio as the greatest driver ever, but for sheer guts my money goes on Lauda.

Austria gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger, arguably Hollywood's biggest box office star for the past 30 years, and two of its greatest and most individualistic directors ever, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. Less agreeably, Austria also presented us with Freud, the creator of the great P-heresies: psychiatry, clinical poltroonery and penis-envy. It gave us Haydn, whose 106 symphonies nearly killed concert music stone dead, and Schoenberg, who effectively DID kill it with his toxic nonsense about atonalism. Yet standing tall above the slime in which he immersed music remain those giants still: Mozart, Schubert and Liszt (technically Hungarian, but culturally Austrian).

And Austria has consistently -- indeed, almost compulsively -- produced brave men who tell the truth. And in the 20th Century, none compares intellectually with Friedrich Hayek who, almost alone, valiantly opposed the floodtide of socialist theories about the role of the state in a nation's economy. Curiously enough, he was second cousin to the greatest mathematical philosopher of the century, his fellow Austrian (and sometime Dubliner) Wittgenstein.

YET conversely, and bizarrely, the Austrian people's desire for a saccharine conformism is embodied in the national motto Schwammdrüber ("sponge it off", ie, sweep it under the carpet). Austrian society remains obsessively inward-looking and even fearful. After Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Austria only grudgingly permitted over-flights by Coalition forces, even though it was a member of the UN Security Council that had authorised war. And many Austrians retain a disabling cultural-dependency on the state. An opinion poll once asked Austrian children what they wanted to be when they grew up: the majority stoutly replied "Pensioners".

But not even Roscommon TDs at their most parochial could have matched the vapourings of the late Jorge Heider, who opposed membership of the EU because, he said, Austria's pure alpine water would be compulsorily piped to Spain, and in return it would get lice-filled yogurt from Madrid. Charming.

And this nonsense went down well with a people who cherish their sacher torte, their timorousness and their timetables. Yet what other country has proportionately produced so many fearless thinkers and adventurers? "Austria is the face behind the ticket office of the world's railways," lamented the journalist Karl Kraus of his homeland. But who is probably standing on the locomotive footplate as the train leaves the station: Novotny? Lauda? Or Felix Baumgartner, the bravest man in the world?

Irish Independent

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