Austrian Literature – Anything but a “German appendix”?


A few weeks ago, a German colleague asked me in an amicable discussion whether this Austrian research-blog was conceptualized as a form of ‘defence’ reaction towards the integration of Austrian Studies within the ‘German Studies’ area in English speaking countries. My reply was that this blog does not want to alienate researchers of German by emphasizing the Austrian element at all! On the contrary, it wants to affirm the diversity within German Studies. Its aim is to support the understanding that Austrian Studies are part of German Studies in the English speaking world but that they are are based on an understanding of culture and identity that is inherently different from a German understanding in this respect. Austrian Studies project on their own centre that is not necessarily a ‘German’ culture the way it is globally understood.

I could  see where my colleague was coming from, because traditionally, the term ‘German Studies’ used in the English speaking HE systems refers to all aspects of all Germanistiken of all German speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein). This is due to several practical, historical and linguistic reasons and also to a profound and century-long confusion among German speakers themselves as to what was considered to be the German Kulturraum and, as a consequence, the global understanding of a German linguistic and cultural standard. Austria’s historical entanglement with Germany did not help with attempts to differentiate between the two, as both nations effectively and unquestionably shared a position and responsibility in both World Wars, a large part of one specific culture’s ideological, political and linguistic dimension, as well as one specific identity in the eyes of the rest of the world. Given these inextricable links, any post-1945 differentiation from an Austrian side would inevitably have to be seen as an ideologically driven attempt to politically separate one national identity from the other – all in the context of the so-called Opfermythos discourse. Discussing a distinct ‘Austrian cultural identity’ on an academic level had therefore always been difficult, because it would always have to happen in a political context. However, if we want to be slightly polemical in our argumentation and reliant on stereotypes, the public sentiment in both countries today, that also has an impact on the notion of an “Austrian identity”, can be summarized as follows:

For the average German Austria is part of a ‘German world’, because of the shared language; Austria is, in many ways, very similar to Bavaria and, as such, a ‘German region’ at best; Austria is a place where Germans love to go on holiday because of the mild and varied climate, the alpine scenery and the curious dialect: lanuage-wise, Austrian German is mostly percieved by Germans as a dialect and never quite up to standard, even when the Austrian standard, the equivalent of “High German”, is spoken;  Austria is often considered to be a harmless, cute and not quite sharp enough version of Germany; still,  in recent decades, the Austrian economy has leveled with the German economy and both countries have an import and export relationship and exchange of human capital that is busier than ever.

For the average Austrian, on the other side, Germany is first and foremost, “Ausland”, i.e. a foreign country (which is also true for Bavaria, despite regional and linguistic similarities); the national border is taken very seriously and for most Austrians Germans really are different, when it comes to their mentality; Austria’s location in the middle of Europe, its shared borders with Slovenia, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republik, Slovakia and Germany lay out a cultural situation that is understood to be entirely different from the German situation; and finally, the German linguistic standard is percieved to have
a hegemonial dimension, especially since the Austrian, Swiss and Lichtensteinean attempts to establish their linguistic standard varieties alternatively to the German standard were met with reactions from Germany ranging from ridicule to open contempt in some cases. Of course,  the emergence of the smaller German speaking countries’ new linguistic self-understanding was also met with acceptance and understanding in Germany. But in the end, the legitimacy of an ‘Austrian standard variety of German’ is still being disputed on a regular basis.

The term “Oesterreichisches Deutsch” (Austrian German) only entered the linguistic discourse in the mid-nineties, whith for example studies by Rudolf Muhr/ Richard Schrodt/Peter Wiesinger or Ulrich Ammon. Many Austrian language teachers and LektorInnen in the UK and other English speaking countries have since then had the opportunity to claim their right for teaching a second German standard variety, especially since the publishing of the Variantenwoerterbuch des Deutschen (De Gruyter, 2004) which also includes Namibian German vocabulary. That differences in standard language use can have an impact on language teaching and marking, is clear. Most departments in the UK today are  in agreement about how they mark the use of different German standards, for example the use of the Austrian standard variation Jaenner instead of Januar.

The teaching of Austrian literature, however, is a different thing. There are many internationally well-known experts on all periods of Austrian literature in Great Britain, but their work on Austrian literature and culture is institutionally necessarily always embedded in a greater context, be it German literature, culture and history, European Film and Visual Culture, Human Geography, Digital cultures, etc. Obviously, Austria cannot be in the thematic centre of a German department, but in most cases the concentration on an Austrian research theme is closely connected to one researcher’s interest.

 It is important to establish a ‘centre’, so we can all venture into the ‘periphery’.

Thanks to the work and endeavour by many important, excellent scholars in the present and in the past, for example Edward Timms , Ritchie Robertson, Philip Payne, John Warren, Graham Bartram, Allyson Fiddler, Robert Vilain, Judith Beniston, Deborah Holmes, Geoffrey Chew, Robert Evans, Gilbert Carr, Eda Sagarra, Florian Krobb (now editor of Austrian Studies), Janet Stewart, Andrew Barker, Andrew Webber, Ruth Wodak, Caitríona Leahy, W.E. Yates, Jill Lewis, Robert Knight, Robert Pyrah and many more (those whom I haven’t mentioned may forgive me, it is a seemingly endless list with many names that should be on there and it will be completed in the future, in a different context), Austrian literary and cultural studies are thriving in the UK but there is no bigger academic department that is devoted entirely to an Austrian Germanistik, or indeed a Swiss Germanistik. Many universities have academics specializing in Austrian Literature among other topics and themes. These scholars, well-known for their work in Austrian Literature and History, are usually also experts in other areas of German literature, Cultural and Literary Theory or other areas of Humanities reseach. Today, more than ever, they are comparatists, linguists, historians and politcal scientists.

The foreign academic perspective on Austrian Literautre, History and Culture has been extremely beneficial and valuable for Austria’s cultural and political self-understanding. The ties between the English speaking scholars (a list of names for the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand will follow soon) and Austrian Germanistiken are strong and co-operations are manifold. Interdisciplinarity is the new keyword and the Austrian Studies researchers’ profiles show that they have adopted the approach on many levels. As distances shrink on a global level, boundaries between research areas are being lifted and synergies are being explored (Edward Timm’s most recent publication, “Taking up the Torch: English Institutions, German Dialectics and Multicultural Commitments“,  gives an interesting account of these developments from an academic perspetive). For Austrian Literary Studies, however, it means that, now more than ever, it is important to establish a ‘centre’ so we all can venture into the ‘periphery’.

Which brings me back to my colleagues’s question about the need to emphasize the Austrian aspect in our work. In the centre of Austrian Literary Studies stands the understanding that there IS such a thing as an ‘Austrian Literature’. But what is it?

Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler (click here to watch WSD as a guest in an episode of the notorious “Literarisches Quartett” from 1992) remarked in his essay “Exotik des Nahem” (posthumously published and edited by Michael Rohrwasser in a collection of Schmidt-Dengler’s essays, entitled …das fortgeschrittenste Land ohne es zu wissen”. Unbewusster Avantgardismus in Oesterreich), that, in contrast to the case of English speaking literature that consists of a variety of literatures (from Ireland, North-America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa a.o.) or indeed the literatures within the French Créolité, Austrian literature, that is equally influenced by an ‘aesthetic of proximity’ when it comes to Germany, does still not reflect a colonial or post-colonial relationship to its neighbouring country. According to Schmidt-Dengler, to study Austrian literature means to study the particular implications of a socio-historical context that results in deviant aesthetic behaviour:

“Meist erscheint die oesterreichische Literatur unter dem Aspekt der Devianz, der Abweichung von einer Norm. Es empfiehlt sich natuerlich, diese Norm zu ueberpruefen und zu fragen, von wo sie sich herleitet, mit Sicherheit wird die Norm – und gerade fuer aesthetische Phaenomene gilt dies besonders – durch jede Art der Abweichung relativiert. Es geht also heute weniger darum, auf der Eigenstaendigkeit der oesterreichischen Literatur trotzig bestehen zu wollen, sondern vielmehr zu zeigen, dass die Frage nach eben dieser Eigenstaendigkeit oder Besonderheit durchaus erkenntnisfoerdernd eingesetzt werden kann. […] Dass die oesterreichische Literatur auf ganz andere Bedingungen reagiert und nuter gesellschaftlichen Aspekten auf ganz andere Fragen antwortet, als die im engeren Sinne deutsche, ist eine Tatsache, die sich in den Texten niederschlaegt und die auch in deren formalen Eigenschaften erkennbar wird.” (Rohrwasser 2011, 17-18)

I’d also like to recommend the excellent online publication EUROZINE, a net magazine that links up partner journals and publishes selected articles from those  journals. The net magazine has its articles translated in the major European languages, but the main language is English. The magazine features in today’s blogpost because in 2008 it published an article by Austrian critic Daniela Strigl entitled “Literary perspectives: Austria – Anything but a “German appendix”. Daniela Strigl, incidentally, was in London on 7 June to speak about Stefan Zweig’s view on Lord Byron at the conference Stefan Zweig and Britain but also to join me in conversation with Zweig specialist and author Klemens Renoldner about his recently published novel “Lilys Ungeduld” (Folio, 2011) (a recording of the interview will be soon available on austrianresearchuk!).

Daniela Strigl is an expert for 20th century Austrian literature as well as the neo-Romantic period; she is a lecturer at the University of Vienna and has published a.o. on Marlen Haushofer (known for “Die Wand“, a novel about solitude in a confined space mixed with surreal elements, in which a woman in teh 1960ies finds herself trapped alone in a hunter’s cabin in the Austrian mountains underneath some sort of giant invisible spherical bell jar that prevents her from leaving the cabin’s vicinity) and on Walter Buchebner, a poet and writer from Vienna that forms the focus of a translation experiment by two of our authors, Martin Prechelmacher and Geoffrey C. Howes.

But Daniela Strigl is not only an academic and a critic, she also is one of the judges on the “Ingeborg Bachmann Wettbewerb“-panel that meets in the Carinthian capital Klagenfurt every Summer. There are quite a few fascinating Literaturwettbewerbe and Literaturtage taking place in Austria every year, think for example of the “Rauriser Literaturtage“. But the “Bachmannpreis” as a media-supported and cleverly promoted literary spectacle with an international reputation, being broadcast on Austrian and German television, still gets the most public attention.

Eurozine’s introduction to Daniela Strigl’s article points out that even in 2008 and despite critical commercial success literature from Austria is still categorized as German literature insofar, as very often no distinction is made in terms of an author’s national context:

“Though still routinely referred to as Germans, Austrian novelists have experienced a recent run of critical and commercial success. The “difficult” prose of the past has been replaced by a focus on story-telling, with women writers producing no less interesting work in the genre than the new male “narrative miracles”. Yet experimentalism is by no means out: darkly humorous and self-referential “writer’s novels” are also booming. In the latest essay in Eurozine’s series “Literary perspectives”, critic Daniela Strigl surveys a contemporary Austrian scene at the top of its game.”

Daniela Strigl’s openly critical article touches on several animosities between Germans and Austrians, also in a polemical way. It shows that the discussion about what an Austrian Literature really is, is more prevalent than ever in a globalized market. But click here to read for yourself!

And enjoy July!


Comments RSS
  1. Simone

    Allow me a word or two about the linguistic part of your text. The current version of the ‘Variantenwörterbuch’ does not really cover the German used in Namibia, even though it might be mentioned as an aside. However, the new edition, which is going to be a completely overhauled ( ) is going to add not only the German of Namibia, but also the ones of the Mennonites and of the Romanians, while, of course, keeping the focus on the regions that are already covered in the first edition.

    Additionally to this project, that focuses on vocabulary, a second group of researchers busies itself with writing a ‘Variantengrammatik’ ( ), i.e. a volume that describes the differences in grammar that exists between the regions. Other than differences in vocabulary, those in grammar are poorly covered in the literature and hardly known in the population, so this is going to be an interesting project, too.

  2. leifhendrik

    I had not thought about Namibian variants of German: your mention of them was just one small but very interesting piece of this well written article. I especially appreciate the links to relevant related topics.

  3. Thank you both for your comments, it will be interesting to see how new developments on the research of linguistic variants in German will also influence the general dicsourse about teaching German, teaching within the area of German Studies outside German speaking countries and finally, about the language itself.

    Simone, you are cordially invited to contribute a review of both initiatives to this blog, if you like!

  4. Simone

    Heide, can you get in touch with me via e-mail and give me more information about the form the review should have?

  5. Elisabeth Attlmayr

    Thank you for a very interesting and to the point article!
    I personally always urge people not to use the word ‘Hochdeutsch’, as you could argue that Austrian German is Hochdeutsch, as it is certainly not Niederdeutsch…. most non-specialists do not really realize how the term came into being after all…. it does give people pause if they are inclinded to be judgemental about the ‘dialectal’ nature of Austrian German, at the very least.

  6. Robert Dassanowsky

    Thank you Heidi for articulating this !
    Austrian Studies certainly does reside within Germanophone studies.Too often, however, with the broader understanding of “German language,” Austrian literature, art, film, etc is folded into German culture, or is deemed German. This is what the Austrian Studies Association (ASA)––and on Facebook (the former MALCA-Modern Austrian Literature and Culture Association) in the US and internationally is concerned with. Particularly as non-German speakers are aware that there exists, for example, strongly diversified Francophone and Hispanic/Latino/a Studies. This understanding has not developed strongly enough in academe outside of German speaking countries: Austrianist is perhaps the more accurate moniker for a Germanist examining Austrian culture and society.
    Best regards,
    Robert Dassanowsky
    President, Austrian Studies Association

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