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Belle Necropolis

Ghosts of Imperial Vienna


Katherine Arens

Since coming to public notice through major museum catalogues and the work of Carl Schorske around 1980, fin de siècle Vienna has been cast as the final bloom of a dying culture. Yet this assessment is itself a historical construct, deriving from the politics of the twentieth century. This volume argues that «Habsburg nostalgia» is anything but backward looking: instead, images from this glittering Habsburg past become evidence of a culture’s sophisticated sense of how and why history is made, in both official and popular spheres. Including the first translation of an original account of Crown Prince Rudolf’s suicide at Mayerling in 1889, Belle Necropolis argues for Austria’s continued reuse of its own history to point the way toward the future rather than simply memorializing a past that only exists as living memories of shared stories, not as a truth in itself. Case studies included here range from imperial stereotypes before 1900 through their adaptations in the film 1. April 2000 and today’s musicals, and from the politics of representing Austria since Rebecca West up through Schorske’s master narrative of the Ringstrasse. Through these studies, Habsburg culture emerges as a culture of commemoration that uses its own past to overcome the limits of a small country seeking a role on the contemporary world stage.
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6. Building the Habsburg Subject: Scholarly Historical Fictions


Scholarly Historical Fictions

The goal of scholarly research is not only the cognition, but also the understanding of phenomena. We have gained cognition of a phenomenon when we have attained a mental image of it. We understand it when we have recognized the reason for its existence and for its characteristic quality (the reason for its being and for its being as it is).

(Menger, Untersuchungen, 43)

The prior case studies suggest that Austria’s uses of history and narrative have been misassessed as evidence of its purported conservatism and unwillingness to innovate, or, in even less charitable assessments, as a blatant sell-out to tourism as a major domestic industry. But such interpretations are all too often based on generalities: Helene Vetsera has to be a grieving mother (and not someone capable of manipulating the crown); Rebecca West’s memories, presented as a travelogue, must represent the Balkans as they really were, not through the lens of specific politics of victimhood; films like 1. April 2000 have to be read as nostalgia rather than satire; popular theater cannot possibly support serious political goals. However, closer attention to such texts as specific interventions into public consciousness and public discourse reveals them as deploying traditional mass media to renegotiate historicist monumentalism and map a newly reimagined Austrian history. Such alternate readings may seem willful, a scholar’s attempts to vindicate Austria from its historical culpability or to overread texts which in actuality speak in overly simplistic ways.

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