Austrian Anomalies

Looking for Understanding in France and New York

map of Austria

Credit: Iclipart

I don’t know much about Austria beyond the Sound of Music. Little makes sense to me about Austria despite my efforts to understand. How could the homeland of Marie-Antoinette, who herself struggled under the rigidity of French culture, devolve to such a hierarchical and peevish monarchy less than 100 years after her death? The Austrian court made so very much to do about Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s morganatic marriage to Sophie Chotek, fussing about entrances to parties and seating arrangements at dinners. How could the country become a place so full of rules that created great empathy for Empress Elisabeth, popularly known as Sisi, but destroyed the well-being of her son Rudolf? He killed his mistress and then himself, leaving his cousin Franz Ferdinand to take his place as heir to Emperor Franz Josef’s throne.

How was it that Franz Josef was not inspired to make significant changes after the suicide of his son, the assassination of his wife Sisi by an anarchist, and the assassination of his nephew Franz Ferdinand and niece-by-marriage Sophie by a team of revolutionaries? How was it that just about everyone in Sarajevo on that day in June 1914 knew that Franz Ferdinand was going to be assassinated, and why did such a conflagration take place for a fellow who was something of a twit? How had the land of Mozart and a monarchy run by a seemingly fairly capable woman, Maria Theresa, given us Franz Josef and his preference for the past and his fondness for order?

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How did the land of pastries and the waltz and Gustav Klimt and the woman in gold beget a government unwilling to fork over a masterpiece to a little old lady to whom it rightfully belonged?

Vienna

Vienna
Photo credit: iclipart

Could it be that the best Austria is the one in our minds, or the peaceful, cheerful version we find at the Neue Galerie in New York City where that Klimt piece now resides in a Beaux-Arts townhouse with a first-floor café overlooking Fifth Avenue, where tourists can wait in line for coffees and soup and spatzle and linzertorte after enjoying the woman in gold, the book-laden gift shop, the serene old mansion on the Upper East Side? From Manhattan, we can safely avoid the madness of the Austrian monarchy.

None of this makes sense to me yet, but then, I haven’t been to Vienna. I am reading about it, though; I’ve learned about the demise of Franz Ferdinand in The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King and Sue Woolman; I am learning about World War II and its aftermath in Marjorie Perloff’s Vienna Paradox, and I am finding out things I don’t appreciate about more contemporary Austrian government in Anne-Marie O’Connor’s Lady in Gold, on which the Helen Mirren film, Woman in Gold, is based.

—Lori Tripoli

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