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Book Reviews

The long shadow of the past: contemporary Austrian literature, film and culture

Literary historian Katya Krylova’s timely study postulates that Austria’s memory culture has changed significantly since the year of the so-called ‘Waldheim-affair’, 1986, and she sets out to survey the impact of the political turmoil surrounding the person of President Waldheim on Austria’s memory culture by analysing representations of remembrance of Austria’s National-socialist legacy in contemporary literary, filmic and architectural works. Krylova’s approach is firmly anchored in established Austrian Cultural Studies: when, in 1986, newly elected state president Kurt Waldheim had been deemed an accessory to National-socialist war crimes based on his rank and tasks in the Wehrmacht by an International Historians’ Commission (p. 4) ̶ – something he lastingly and strongly denied, claiming he had no knowledge of the crimes against humanity committed by his unit in the Balkans and Greece – Austrian artists and intellectuals instigated a movement of discursive resistance that is known today as the ‘third Austrian myth’, the myth of ‘the other Austria’ (K. Fliedl, Das Andere Österreich. Eine Vorstellung, Munich: dtv 1998, p. 207 f.). Adopting this well-established literary study approach and in a reverential scholarly nod to Memory Studies grand dame Aleida Assmann, Krylova aims to survey the contemporary dimension of this ‘other Austrian’ collective memory discourse by looking at the works of three authors (Elfriede Jelinek, Anna Mitgutsch and Robert Schindel), three film-makers (Ruth Beckermann, Margarete Heinrich and Eduard Erne) and a host of conceptual artists and sculptors (among them Alfred Hrdlicka, Ulrike Lienbacher and Karen Frostig). In five chapters that are crafted around the central tropes of Austrian memory discourse – melancholy, nostalgia for Heimat, silence in the face of past crimes against humanity, historicizing guilt and staging missing memory in the urban space – Krylova demonstrates her impressive skills as cultural historian in painstakingly detailed accounts of the historical, political, geographical and social Austrian conditions at play at the time of the artwork’s production or at the time the work is set to play in. In this way, the study provides a very useful introduction to the realm of memory discourse in the context of Austria’s fraught relationship with its Second World War-past, that goes beyond a mere historical account of the gradual resurgence of Austria’s politically engaged civil society in the 1990s. Where Krylova provides close analyses of the works, she is at her best: they are very well executed and full of interesting references to relevant sources of the literary and the European memory discourse (e.g. Svetlana Boym, Pierre Nora). Her readings (e.g. of Elfriede Jelinek’s play Rechnitz. (Der Würgeengel)) exemplify the core motivation of her study: to highlight the haunting presence of history in the contemporary Austrian public sphere.

What the study falls some what short of, unfortunately, is an overarching theoretical framework to help a reader who is less informed about the status of a collective memory discourse in the context of present-day Austria, to gauge the relative importance of such aesthetic confrontations with the past. Judging from Austria’s most current political situation in the context of a global and European shift to the far right, the artistic brushes that the Austrian writers, film-makers and sculptors discussed by Krylova have had with the public’s persistent tendency to forget do not seem to have had much of an impact. They are not discussed explicitly in the context of Austria’s contemporary political landscape, apart from a few promising paragraphs at the beginning of the introduction, where Krylova opens an argumentative bracket (that then isn’t really closed) with her discussion of the Austrian presidential elections in 2016. Krylova’s detailed accounts of the multiple pervasive strategies of artists and scholars to increase public awareness of the past will provide the reader with a wealth of individual references to the diverse ways of making the public remember, but it leaves one a little lost with trying to identify the study’s common methodical denominator.

Taking a more universally oriented and more pronounced discourse-analytical approach, for example, may have served the study well. Krylova’s decision to steer clear of a ‘transcultural’ perspective in her approach for the sake of a focus on ‘the nation “as the master unit of analysis”’ (p. 20) leads to the problematic omission of well-established discourse-analytical tools in the field of German Memory Studies, such as the framework of researching the psychological connection between trauma, repression and guilt, based on Alexander and Margarethe Mitscherlich’s seminal study The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behaviour (1967). Recent research has confirmed that in today’s German and arguably also in Austrian society, too, perception filters are at play that still prevent people from accepting society’s responsibility in its historical dimension (cf. G. Brockhaus in Psychotherapeut, January 2018, Volume 63, Issue 1, pp. 38–48). No study that deals with the aspect of collective silence in the face of Nazi war crimes and atrocities can afford to disregard the psychological work that has been done in the context of the German-speaking discourse of coming to terms with the past. A more rigorous discourse-analytical approach could have helped to combine Krylova’s informative readings of different bodies of work from various spheres of art. And her interesting individual case-studies of representations of memory, or the absence thereof, could have been brought together under an approach that regards artists as ‘discourse-makers’ in Michel Foucault’s sense. Thus, not only the actual artistic performance but also the works’ reception histories and scholarly echoes as well as their effect on the public and political discourse could have been summed up rather neatly.

Overall, Katya Krylova’s study can be credited with providing a fresh overview of the difficult legacy of Austria’s WWII-past in more recent works of literary and visual art and in the surge of memorials in the urban space. The book will be very useful to anyone who is looking for a panoramic snapshot of early twenty-first-century Austrian artistic production that explicitly deals with the aspect of remembrance and the Holocaust. Readers looking for an analysis of the correlation of the politically engaged spheres of the contemporary arts with Austria’s current political landscape in a wider European context, however, will have to look elsewhere.