A Letter from Vienna. Holding Fast to the Past (“The Statesman”)

A Letter from Vienna

Holding Fast To The Past

The Statesman (Calcutta) 24th July 2011

By Martin Kämpchen

IN the beginning of July, unnoticed by the Indian media, the oldest son of the last emperor of the Habsburg monarchy passed away near Munich. He was 98. Had the monarchy not been abandoned in the aftermath of the First World War and Austria not turned into a republic, Otto von Habsburg would have ascended the throne as the Kaiser of Austria and the King of Hungary. Instead he, as a boy of six, had to flee with his family to a Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean and begin a restless life wandering from one European country to another and even to the USA. Even when Western Europe entered an uninterrupted era of peace after the Second World War, Otto was unable to return home, to the city of Vienna. Fearful that he may fuel a movement propagating a return to monarchic rule, Austria wanted him to renounce his claims in writing which Otto did only as late as 1961. Even then, squabbles and misgivings prevented the former Crown Prince from settling down in Austria. Instead, he became a German citizen and lived near Munich. For 20 years, he served as a Member of the European Parliament. He fought for European unity and became one of the persons responsible for the fall of the Iron Curtain. He worked for human rights especially in East Europe, the erstwhile territory of the monarchy. During the Nazi regime, he refused to meet Adolf Hitler, although invited, and during Communist rule, he fought Communist totalitarianism. Highly educated, multilingual, a statesman-like political figure, revered and reviled alike, he for over half a century was a persistent presence in public life. Austria is officially rather distrustful of its former aristocracy. No titles must be mentioned publicly. But close under the surface, aristocratic symbols and mannerisms are in vogue. Memories of the “k.u.k. (kaiserliche und königliche) Monarchy” abound when you stroll around in Vienna. For example, the inheritors of the erstwhile imperial suppliers of pastries continue to call themselves K.u.k. Zuckerbäcker. It is an advertisement ploy, of course, but it is no less an indication of pride in a hallowed era. This is part of Vienna society’s bizarre charm. After renouncing all aristocratic titles, Austria enjoys a proliferation of secular titles. Everybody who can somehow read and write, Otto von Habsburg himself once joked, is given the title of a “professor”. It was sheer good luck that I happened to visit Vienna when Otto von Habsburg received his ceremonial burial in the crypt of the Kapuzinerkirche, the church of the Capuchin monks, which for many centuries has been the last resting place of numerous emperors and kings. It was highly educative how Austrian society threw to the winds all reservations about the monarchy and celebrated its past with sombre abandon. On the days preceding the burial, the coffin was displayed in the Kapuzinerkirche. A long line of people wound their way inside to pay their respects to the deceased. They were not merely diehard monarchists, however, who see everything good that ever happened in the past. The majority were young people with children and middle-aged couples. The coffin was guarded by men in historical uniforms and helmets which somehow had survived since the First World War. The guards looked a bit like playing roles in a historical costume film. But more important to me was to notice that the crowds were patient and carried themselves with dignity. No scuffles, no loud voices, no wails and no sobbing; nobody creating a “sensation”. The atmosphere was prayerful and serene. On Saturday, 16 July, a festive church service was conducted in the St. Stephen’s Cathedral of Vienna, attended by one thousand invited guests from all over Europe. Thereafter the coffin was carried through the streets of the central part of Vienna to the Kapuzinerkirche. Now that Otto von Habsburg was dead, unable to claim imperial power or prestige, all the symbols and paraphernalia of imperial glory could be exhibited without reservation. Long rows of people in the uniforms of traditional organisations and orders, some with capes, banners or staffs and various other insignia marched behind the coffin. A military band was playing. Once the coffin arrived at the gate of the Kapuzinerkirche, an age-old ritual dialogue was enacted one last time. The herald knocked at the gate with his staff. The voice of a monk was heard: “Who is there?” And the herald would in a long litany reel off all the titles Otto had ~ or would have had. “I know him not!” came the answer. Once again the herald tried, listing all the orders and associations of which Otto had been a member. The same answer followed. Finally, the herald announced: “This is Otto, a sinful and mortal human being.” After this the gate opened and the coffin was ushered inside. The Catholic Church, a spiritual as well as a political power during the monarchy, was able to reveal its spiritual side as well as its worldly glitz. Even though it tells us that we are but poor, mortal men and women, a dozen bishops and prelates in splendid violet attire followed the coffin. The bells of the many churches lining the streets began to toll as the procession approached. With its churches and monasteries half-empty and people who are still believers, turning to less ceremonious expressions of faith, the Church as an institution enjoyed to see the attraction its colourful and festive exterior continues to hold. Some newspapers wallowed in scorn and ridicule about this show of imperial grandeur. But the people in the procession who participated were serious and dedicated. Again, it did not have the air of a costume party or a carnival. This reminded me of the fact that Austria, after all, was a truncated country. Its spectacular imperial buildings ~ the Hofburg, the Opera House, the Burgtheater, the museums ~ then the Ring Street with its parks and institutions of the state and of culture encircling the inner city, are too extravagant for a country with a population of merely 8.4 million people. That is about as many as greater Kolkata. While I got ready to fly back to India from Vienna airport, I realised that, true, such a show of imperial grandeur seems pointless and potentially dangerous as the persons behind it crave to hold back the irreversible march towards modern life. But it is equally true that they reveal a deep human yearning for continuity, for constancy, for something to hold on to in the confusion of modern life. Raising it to a higher level, we are here confronted by the deeply felt human need for certainty within the fleeting flow of time. It is a possibly unconscious and impotent attempt to grasp eternity within our time-bound life. We have no right to scorn or ridicule it.

The writer is a German scholar, based in Santiniketan

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