The city of Vienna should be, if not proud if its history, at least a little more exhibitionist. As the centre of an Empire tracing its lineage back to Charlemange’s formation of 800 AD and at one point the largest land empire then known, Austria grew rich and powerful – two things guaranteed to leave something to posterity.
Of course, the buildings are still there; the Hofburg in the city centre; Schönbrunn outside of it; the cathedrals and the famous coffee houses (albeit reconstituted) are all extant. Yet where these buildings are used elsewhere to display and extol national identities, Austria stands almost aloof from its history, hence the almost absurd collections of crown jewels and Catholic relics stored in the Hofburg Schatzkammer of which only a few make reference to Austria itself.
Part of the problem is that the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian Empire as it became and the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it was still later has a history of weakness or a weakness of history which does not lend itself well to museums. After Napoleon tore up the map of Europe in 1805, Ferdinand IV gave up his pretension to the Holy Roman epithet, but the revolutions of 1848 forced his successor’s hand further, to the dual monarchy of Austria and Hungary and to greater cultural and political freedoms for the long-subdued statelets of central Europe.
For some parts of the Empire, this was a moment of great hope – Timothy Snyder’s anecdotal history of the Hapsburg family at the turn of the twentieth century (The Red Prince) shows elements of the establishment drifting towards a more federal grouping. Nonetheless, the Empire of this time has come down in history as the sick man of Europe before the First World War and had already sealed its fate through its military reliance on Germany.
Vienna happens to be a place where many things happened, and yet the will to remember them seems so weak. The city has a Sigmund Freud museum only through the intervention of an American ambassador, who remonstrated with the Austrian President in the late 1960s that nothing had been done about the city’s most famous refugee. Fortunately, this rich seam of history, which is both Austria’s own and that of many other countries down into the Balkans is not the main draw for the tourists and the city is not forced to rely on it.
An hour or so down the Danube lies Bratislava, or Pressburg in the German and Prosozny in Hungarian. It helps to know the three names, since the latest was adopted only in 1948. Unlike Vienna, Bratislava has always tended to be an outpost rather than a capital (following a referendum in the 1990s Slovakia finally became independent from the Czech Republic) but it has also had many of the most important events in is history happen elsewhere – in Prague in 1989 or in Stalingrad in 1942. Still, these moments are remembered, while the castle has been restored repeatedly after a series of fires.
Amongst the winding streets or down by the modern Eurovea shopping centre, where a long row of tables provides for al fresco summer dining, Bratislava
has as much charm as many a European city. Its valiant attempts to memorialise its Jewish history, including the life of its most famous son, Chatham Sofer, have been partly funded by Israel’s chamber of commerce but are noble for what is really a small town. Despite this, many areas of the city seem quiet and depleted. Slovakia’s reluctance to partake in any bailout of Greece owes a great deal to its being amongst the poorest Eurozone members but one hopes that the inward investment will keep flowing and its pleasant, parochial charms will be maintained.