Emil Brix, Director of the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna and deputy chairman of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe talks to Agata Wąsowska-Pawlik and Jacek Purchla.


We are preparing an issue of “Herito” dedicated to Danube. I think the first question should be: “What does the Danube mean to the Viennese, and what does it mean to you personally?”

For the Viennese, the Danube is not really a river. It means a feeling, it means a culture and it may even mean the identity of the Viennese, because of the musical association with the “Blue Danube Waltz”. But it’s not a real Viennese river, because the river does not flow through the centre of Vienna. It only flows through the side of Vienna. There is certainly the sentiment or the idea of belonging to a Danube region. But for many Viennese the Danube is not even seen as an economic factor, although it is obviously an economic factor. Thus, this river is actually the most important identity marker of Vienna, but this has little to do with the fact that it is a river.

So does it mean that among Viennese people the notion of the so-called “Donaumonarchie” is still the decisive association with the Danube and a collective memory related to the meaning of this “Donauraum”?

Well, there is no nostalgia in Austria. The idea of recreating something like a Danubian Monarchy or Republic is not there, because we live in modern times and people only want to be together with other people who they can look up to or they can make profit from, and for the typical Austrian Viennese the rest of the Danube area still has to be developed.

But is this part of Austrian diplomacy? This answer? If I may provoke you – IDM, Institut für den Donauraum und Mitteleuropa, was established in 1953 as Forschungsinstitut für Fragen des Donauraumes. You just followed this idea. So is there any contradiction in your answer, Excellency?

There is no contradiction, because of historic and cultural reasons, it is very obvious, that if you are Viennese you have to base your identity on belonging to this region. The question is whether you call it “Donauraum” or you call it “Central Europe”. And I personally prefer the term Central Europe. This institute you mentioned used to be only called “Forschungsinstitut für den Donauraum”…

…und Mitteleuropa.

Not at the beginning, no. We changed the title to Institut für den Donauraum und Mitteleuropa. That speaks to continuity, because we thought we cannot skip the word “Donauraum”, but we wanted also to use the term “Central Europe”. After the end of communism the board members of the institute discussed this matter. I voted for saying only “Central Europe”, and Erhard Busek to have “Donauraum” and “Mitteleuropa”.

So if not for Viennese, so then for Austrians. Because we want to examine this issue – the meaning of the river, of course – in many areas: cultural, economic. It is, of course, a big symbol, but for Austria it is an important river, I understand.

It is an important river. Johann Strauss wrote this famous waltz, which has become an unofficial anthem of Austria. The river is mentioned in our national anthem. In some countries, just think about it, Vienna is even called Danube. What is the name of Vienna in Slovene? Dunaj! It shows you how close the relation is between the Danube and Vienna and Austria, and actually for Austria all the developments after 1989, after the end of the Iron Curtain, which brought Vienna back into a central position have had to do with the Danube area.

It is why we’re asking. As I remember, the era of Vice-Chancellor Busek and Alois Mock, your foreign minister, so active around 1989–1991, Austria was the initiator of the Pentagonale, the Hexagonale,[1] the conference of the rectors of Danubian universities led by Erhard, it was one of his pet projects, politically speaking. To what extent before 1989 Austria pioneering, which included your book “Projekt Mitteleuropa”, this idea of Central Europe as a common space that tried to overcome and “overjump,” if I may say so, the Iron Curtain was using the Danube as collective memory and a unifying factor?

Absolutely. Before the end of communism it was seen as an argument for overcoming the Iron Curtain, because using the notion of Central Europe was a political issue, but you could use the notion of a Danube area as natural, historic, traditional and thus less controversial term: the river simply flows from West to East. But immediately after we all succeeded in overcoming the ideological separation in Europe, there was no longer the need to talk about political protests, about two halves of Europe which are separated. One example where we immediately saw the difference was the plan for a common world exposition Vienna–Budapest in 1995. The project failed from the very beginning. A lot of people thought that’s because we didn’t understand that the political situation was immediately different after the end of a divided Europe, and people then were much more interested in immediately improving their own lives than in big ideas. When I talk about Central Europe, it’s not about an ideological issue or creating some sort of political protest against anything. It’s much more pragmatic now in this much more European discussion than was ever the case before the end of separated Europe.

Is it possible to say that the Danube played an important role against isolation of the eastern side of the Iron Curtain before 1989? And now the situation is very different, but if it’s different, to what extent can the ten Danube countries, members of the Belgrade Agreement, and in Budapest there is this Donaukommission and so on, forgetting politics and entering culture, collective memories of those ten, based very much on the national interpretation, see it as a unifying or dividing factor.

I hope it’s not a dividing factor, but you are right that we are going more towards a situation where collective cultural memory supports national memory patterns again. These patterns seem to be constructed in opposition to other national memory patterns. I’m not sure whether talking about the Danube can change the situation, although it’s very clear and we’ve always said from the very beginning: a river like the Danube is a good example for the need of cross-border cooperation, because whatever happens at the beginning of the river might have a consequence further down the river. You have to take this fact into account. And the second fact is: for a river, it’s sometimes important in which direction it flows. The Danube flows in the wrong direction, because raw materials which come from the Black Sea and further on have to be transported upstream to highly industrialized Western Europe. As the Danube flows, unfortunately, in the other direction it is not so easy to use the river for economic purposes. But there is one interesting thing: nowadays the Danube is a major route for tourism – the cruises, the bicycle routes. Especially the small cities along the river, not only in Austria, profit from this development. So there is a new economic life coming from tourism for the river and for the whole area, because these people on the cruise ships want to stop and explore the whole region.

Is there any, let’s say, cooperation between these states in terms of culture tourism, to have certain links with the cities and encourage people to visit others?

The ideology of tourism has always been to remain non-controversial, to be harmless. Thus, for tourist purposes the Danube area countries are just a very nice, very happy family with lots of excellent architecture, excellent nature and wines. There are no problems and they’re working together. The cities and countries are market competitors, but still they work together. That’s fine, I would say. That will continue, I don’t see a problem there. The problem is really the political memory, where the Danube plays a role which is becoming, as I said, more national. It’s hard to use the Danube as a common narrative anymore. So I’m not using the Danube much in my writing or talking about the potential of Central Europe anymore. I’m talking much more about other elements of Central Europe than about the Danube.

You recently published a book with dr Erhard Busek – “Mitteleuropa Revisited”. Why?

Because, I’m afraid, we’re facing a situation where Europe might be separated again. And I see that the transformation of Central and Eastern Europe is not finished at all, although it’s almost thirty years after the end of the Iron Curtain. The third reason is, and this may be the most important one, the Western European construction of the European Union is not adequate for a larger European Union. The new member countries from Central and Eastern Europe should have played a role in its construction from the very beginning. Europe is still too much Western Europe. If we do not change the situation, then I’m afraid we get a divided European Union, where you have first-grade and second-grade citizens and member states. And you know better than I do: in Poland, Hungary, but even in Italy, Greece or in Slovakia there are a lot of people who say, “We feel like second-grade European citizens”. In our new book we mention very hard facts, like food products by international companies, which have better quality on the Austrian market than on the Slovak market. But the product has the same name and it often costs the same price, and when you ask the company people why they do this, they say, “Because the taste of the Slovaks is different.” This is terrible. Our book is written against this sort of developments.

It’s important to ask why Central Europe is so hesitant to take real responsibility in constructing this, let’s say, new Europe or new European Union. Because there are now factors or processes that are more dividing and more concentrated on the national. So, is there a matter of responsibility or of Central European ambivalence…

Are you asking me whether I think Kaczyński and Orbán are pro-European enough? They are not pro-European enough, that’s for sure.

I would like to not get into names of politicians, rather societies.

The societies from behind the Iron Curtain, from my point of view, have had different experiences. Look at the question of solidarity in the migration issue, for instance. When you are in Austria, you understand the ambivalence of the situation, because Western Europeans have got used to this sort of migration processes in the last twenty, thirty or forty years. The former Eastern Europeans have little experience with migrants, with the exception maybe of Ukrainian migrants coming to Poland, which we also mention in the book, because it’s always forgotten in the Western European discussions about migration issues. But for most of the Central European countries it’s different, there’s no incoming migration experience. There is also, because of history, a different view on the role of religion. We see it now, because we have in Poland this strong conservative trend of Catholicism again. And this is not by chance. In Ireland or in France or in Austria you wouldn’t have such a conservative Catholic backlash as you have it here. This is also a consequence of history. If we want to stay together as a European Union, we have to live with these very different approaches, try to understand them, and try to respond to them. My feeling is we are not doing enough at the moment. And when we are trying to reconcile differences, we are doing it the old Western European way, with a stick rather than with a carrot.

The ICC plays the role of the national coordinator for the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018. Does culture in Europe help in this situation, and what is your understanding of such initiatives coming from Brussels?

If we want to go forward in understanding our European identity, why we want to live together, we need more cultural promotion, we need more cultural exchange, and we need to discuss whether in the European Union we are willing to invest more in culture. We should make it possible for Brussels to assume competence for cultural promotion, which, as you know, doesn’t really exist now. And the same holds true for educational matters.

I think it is even more important to invest in education, because culture for some means just very big festivals or big events, and I think what we really lack is a bigger participation and understanding of the importance cultural skills have in participation in different kinds of culture. This is the problem nowadays, I think.

Lots of people have this high-culture approach that if you see a classical musician, then it’s culture…

…and when you see a musician on the street, it’s not. Which is, of course, not true.

This is some sort of European prejudice coming from our history. As I see it, culture can play a positive role in what this is about – making sure that we don’t let violent conflicts, especially national conflicts, occur again in Europe.

That we understand each other better. In my opinion, we need to always use knowledge and research as a base and on that base build culture projects that transfer this knowledge and research to a higher level.

You know, this is the reason why I’m absolutely against this year’s European Year of Cultural Heritage, because it’s not asking these essential questions, it’s not really being discussed why we are doing this in the European Union. It’s only saying that we should cherish our diversity, and we should invest more in restoration of architecture and protect the environment. These are the wrong questions. Certainly, we should invest more in making sure that we restore our built environment, but talking about culture is talking about very political issues, not only about re-painting the façade of a great parliament building or whatever. We are using this year in a totally wrong way. We avoid asking the difficult questions about culture in Europe. I would have loved to say, “Yes, we need such a year to really talk about culture publicly, because we are still mainly using it in the service of national interests of identity shaping; and culture is more than just a Sunday lunch concert for middle class Londoners or Varsovians. What do we really do about religious diversity in Europe, how do we really deal with Islam in Europe?” These are essential issues, very political issues. Instead of that we invite to nice concerts, because it’s the European Year of Cultural Heritage. That’s absolutely wrong.

Full agreement, but I should emphasize that the Polish national coordinator and the Polish perspective is different. It is, as you said, putting the real stress on the problem of intangible heritage and memory. One of the conferences organized by the International Cultural Centre is this September’s conference dealing with the European Heritage Label. Excellency, you know, presumably, what the Austrian participation is as far as the list of European Heritage Label sites is concerned?

[laughs] No, I don’t know.

Your sites selected for the label are: Carnuntum on the Danube and, paradoxically, two neighboring complexes – Hofburg and the residence of your Prime Minister – as the place where the 1815 Congress of Vienna was held.

Yes, they are all very close to the Danube, that is true.

Yes, but it is, symbolically, once again…

…related to the idea of a big Danube monarchy.

“Donaumonarchie” and so on and so forth.

But, you know, officially it was never called the Danube Monarchy. Never. In all of its history, this name was never officially used, only by journalists.

And historians.

And later on by historians. But I think at first by British and American journalists reporting from Vienna in the 19th century, they used the term. It also started to be used more often when there was the compromise with Hungary in 1867, when it became the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. And then it was sometimes called the Danube Monarchy, because both capitals are on the Danube.

We are discussing the issue in Kraków. To what extent is Kraków related to the Donauraum? And to help you a bit, just a reminder that wine trade in Kraków in the 15th century was based on the contacts with Krems an der Donau. The question is, to what extent would it be reasonable to come back to the early 20th century idea of constructing a canal connecting the Danube and Vistula? To what extent would it be, also politically, a kind of an important step to reintegrate Central Europe?

It’s obvious that Kraków belongs to this region and the Danube area for every reason that I may think of. I also have the feeling that people in Kraków know this too, they are proud of this tradition and they make use of it as well. You are right, there were these trade routes which went from north to south. This was actually the reason why there were all these projects of a canal connection between these two big river areas, basins. Politically, it would be a very good symbol for reintegrating Central Europe to start a new discussion about connecting the Danube and the Vistula. Most people say it’s not economically viable to do this. But why not dream about making it possible, because it’s something that would support this interrelation as much nothing else would. Whenever I’m in Kraków and I see of the Vistula the promenades on the river banks, which were constructed under the Emperor Franz Joseph, I feel that actually this is not the end of history, but maybe it should be the beginning of the history of bringing together these two rivers.

We will publish a picture, not just a picture of Your Excellency, but also of those boulevards.

The Danube River should have a bright future, but I won’t use it as an ideological term, as it was sometimes used in history. Fortunately, I would say, we’ve lost a lot of this ideological ballast we had as Central Europe and we can be much more pragmatic now.


[1] The Central European Initiative (CEI) – an institutionalized form of sub-regional cooperation between the countries of Central Europe and South-Eastern Europe initiated in 1989. The project is derived from the Four-Faced Initiative (Quadragonale), established in Budapest on November 11, 1989 by Austria, Yugoslavia , Hungary and Italy. After the accession of Czechoslovakia in 1990, the initiative was known as the Pentagonale, after Poland’s accession in 1991 – Hexagonale. Under the current name, it has been operating since 20 March 1992 at the initiative of Austria.

About authors

Emil Brix

Diplomat and historian: currently Director of the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna. After 1990, he served as Austrian Consul General in Cracow, Director of the Austrian Cultural Institute London, Director General for Foreign Cultural Policy at the Ministry for European and International Affairs of Austria, Austrian Ambassador to the UK and Austrian Ambassador to the Russian Federation. He is deputy chairman of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe and member of the governing board of the Austrian Research Association. PhD University of Vienna, Dr. h.c. of the Drohobych University and of the Babeș-Bolyai University. He published numerous books and articles on Austrian and European history of the 19th and 20th centuries.


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