Introduction to the Cultural History of Central Europe

Q: History is often seen as something relegated to books. How did your recent trip to Central Europe bring history to life? 

A. I have a deep love of history, and history plays a vital role in German Studies. Of course, it does so in the study of all literature and culture. I can only approach history professionally from the cultural side, and then really best from the perspective of how contemporary culture uses history and historical sites to convey what is important about itself: I ask questions such as, How does “history” play a role in the contemporary experience of a city like Vienna? Does this “history” resemble what actually happened? What does it mean for a city today in a stable, modern democracy to have a statue of a former monarch, now dead for hundreds of years? What is the importance of reconfiguring historical space to make it reference the past but also be useful for the present? How does the modern urban renewal of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—in Vienna’s case, the tearing down of the old city walls and the construction of the famousRingstraße (the wide avenue circling the old city)—become “historical”? 

One of my students said it best. He had studied the cultural history of Vienna with me in an advanced German course on campus, but it was only on the ground that the scale of the Ringstraße and the interrelationship of its buildings became clear. By experiencing different types of space, from old, twisting medieval streets in Vienna’s or Prague’s old city centers to the Ringstraße to modern shopping streets in Prague and Vienna to Budapest’s crucial modern moment around 1896, one gets the sense not just for how spaces worked differently in the past but also how they function together today. 

Two specific examples are instructive. When Vienna moved forward with its plans to build a Holocaust memorial on the Judenplatz (Jew’s Square) in the late 1990s, they knew that a medieval synagogue had been on the site hundreds of years before. They took special care to investigate the site properly from an archaeological standpoint and found that a good portion of the foundation of this synagogue was still intact, now far below the current street level. Today, a high-tech reinforced tunnel leads people from the basement of a building on the side of the square (now home to a branch of Vienna’s Jewish Museum) to a subterranean space where one can glimpse spaces in which Vienna’s Jews worshiped from the 13th to the 15th centuries, before the pogrom that drove them from the city in 1421. Above, at the street level, stands Rachel Whiteread’s striking “Nameless Library” monument to Austrian Jews murdered in the Shoah. 

Another example is today’s Museumsquartier (Museum Quarter), also in Vienna. Located behind the outstanding Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts) and Naturhistorisches Museum (Museum of Natural History) within the walls of the baroque imperial stables, it has housed an ultra-modern museum complex since 2001 that focuses on art from the turn of the 20th century (the Museum Leopold) and contemporary art (the MUMOK or Museum of Modern Art) among others. Within baroque walls, among historicist 19th-century elements, stand two examples of contemporary architecture and within them, modern art. 

Does Vienna stand in the past or the present? The answer is both. 

Q: You visited three of the world’s most beautiful cities: Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. How was your time divided between the three? 

A. As a scholar of German culture whose work focuses on Austria, I designed the course to use Vienna as our starting point, and we spent eight full days there. In preparing for the trip, we looked at a turning point for history, the Battle of Mohács (1526), when the Hungarian army, led by King Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia was defeated by the Ottomans. Louis died at the end of the battle in unclear circumstances. One of the effects of this defeat was that the crowns of Bohemia and then also of Hungary passed to the Habsburgs, who ruled from Vienna. From then until the end of WWI in 1918, Austrian, Czech, and Hungarian cultures were linked together. From the taking of Buda from the Ottomans in 1686, all three cities were central to life in the Habsburg lands. 

From baroque Vienna, with its 19th-century touches, we traveled for three days in Budapest, a city much more focused on the growing industrialization of the mid- to late 19th century. The year 1849 marked the construction of the beloved Széchenyi Chain Bridge, for example. The year 1896 was celebrated as the millennium of the establishment of Hungary; the city opened the first subway in continental Europe at that time. Budapest is a city that straddles the Danube, and the buzz of traffic moving between the old western side, Buda, and the newer eastern side, Pest, is all around you. The city reminds me a bit of an American city, full of energy, a bit gritty and still with lots of development ahead of it. Though a bit dilapidated in places from the scars of WWII and of some neglect under Communism, you can sense that the city is on the verge of something exciting and new. While there, we were also able to visit one of Budapest’s famous thermal baths, the Széchenyi gyógyfürdő, where we enjoyed water temperatures around 100 degrees F while swimming outside in winter. I think the air temperature was about 20 degrees F. 

We then traveled to Prague, where we spent three and a half days. Prague has been largely untouched by war since the 17th century, though naturally it has developed quite a bit as it became a truly modern city. Still, it has a magical feel about it, with its castle on a hill across the river from the main part of the city. The famous Charles Bridge over the Vltava River here was quite a contrast to Budapest’s suspension bridge: the Charles Bridge was completed in the mid-14th century during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. In Prague we also had the somewhat peculiar opportunity to visit the Jewish Museum, a collection of six synagogues that started its history as a museum after an urban renewal effort in the early 20th century threatened most of the old Jewish quarter. After Germany invaded what remained of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Nazi leaders decided to preserve the museum and its collections out of other motives. The Nazis’ perverse systematic and bureaucratic cataloging in pursuit of their racialist ideology saved the synagogues that make up the museum from destruction, which include one of Europe’s oldest, the so-called “Old-New” Synagogue (late 13th century). Once again the trip provide
d opportunities to appreciate the multilayered quality of historical space, from buildings used for religious purposes to a museum space devoted to the preservation of a culture to one maintained by those devoted to its destruction to today’s spaces, again operated by the local Jewish community. 

Q: What learning experiences seemed to stand out most for your students? 

A. I think I would guess the opportunity to visit the Staatsoper in Vienna to see Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro—an opera many of them knew from Humanities 120—was a highlight. They all knew the orchestra well, of course, since the Vienna Philharmonic, which visited Centre’s campus in 2010, draws its musicians exclusively from the orchestra at the Staatsoper. A number of students also shared with me that moving within spaces they had read about or heard about—squares that had seen pivotal speeches and mass demonstrations, the window out of which the representatives of the Habsburgs were tossed, which began the first stage of the Thirty Years’ War, the Ringstraße, and many more—helped them understand the material in a way that significantly enriched the complimentary readings. Others were traveling to such destinations for the first time and came back with a deep understanding of an area they found somehow missing in their own educations. Still others said they understood the true value of speaking other languages for the first time in a deep way. 

Another evocative moment was visiting the statue of the Czech duke known around the world as Good King St. Wenceslas on Wenceslas Square in Prague. This square saw protests in 1969 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia the year before as well as massive demonstrations during the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989. A leader of that movement and the former president of both Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, died shortly before our trip. The statue to St. Wenceslas (or Václav in Czech) had become a popular memorial in honor of Václav Havel. The connections between the saint’s importance for the Czech national myth, the square that bears his name and on which his statue stands, and the dissident and post-Communist leader who shared his name tied many course themes together. 

Q: Why choose to study the Habsburg dynasty? Is this of special interest to you as a scholar? 

A. My scholarly work focuses on Austrian literature of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, so the Habsburgs are not part of my scholarship per se. However, the novels and plays I work with—and German literature and culture more broadly—have a very considered, very profound historical nature about them. One cannot, of course, ignore the Holocaust and its significant role in the cultures of Germany and Austria and those of Central Europe more broadly; however, German culture has also cast its eye further into the past. For the Austrians, the Habsburg reign of about 750 years left far too deep an imprint for it to be ignored. And through the Habsburgs, I was able to enrich the course with travels to Budapest and Prague as well, where we examined pre-Habsburg history, the importance of the Habsburg imperial domination, and Czech and Hungarian history after 1918, which was generally quite different from that in Austria. 

Q. What’s next in terms of travel study? 

A. For my part, I’ll be traveling to Berlin and Brussels this summer to take part in the annual Fulbright German Studies Seminar. It will focus on German identity in a European context. In other words, it explores to what extent European integration results in a European identity that exists alongside a German national identity. It’s early, I think, to come to definite conclusions on the topic, but it’s one that fascinates me as a comparatist focusing on German culture, especially since regional identity within Germany (and Austria) is considered fairly important. The seminar will focus on all aspects of the question, from political institutions to demographics to cultural practices and social organization and will involve American scholars from across the country and from all disciplines related to German Studies (history, political science, geography, religion, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, etc. in addition to German). I’m honored to participate and I look forward to bringing my experiences in the seminar back to Centre’s campus immediately in a new course I’ll be teaching in the spring—German 370: Issues in Contemporary German Culture. 

For students, I’m currently planning a number of trips. I hope to take a small group of advanced German students to Berlin in the summer of 2013, I look forward to directing the Centre-in-Strasbourg program again, and I hope to offer another CentreTerm trip soon, maybe as soon as 2016. I plan to base this next CentreTerm course in Germany and Poland; it will engage the Holocaust in a significant way. 

Interviewed by Michael P. Strysick, Director of Communications

By |2012-04-19T13:04:43-04:00April 19th, 2012|News Archive|