The flag of Austria
And also the No Entry sign used on all European inland waterways
THE WORLD: A TRUCKSHUNTER GEOGRAPHY
Welcome to Austria.
Let’s start with what is probably Austria’s greatest and most pervasive gift to the world…
In the late 1780s, polite Viennese society was rocked by the introduction of a scandalous new peasant dance called the ‘waltz’ (from an old German word meaning ‘to roll’).
Previously, the glittering balls that peppered the imperial social calendar had featured courtly dances like the minuet. But not only was the waltz danced face-to-face; it also required the gentleman to grasp his partner vigorously around the waist.
Raised eyebrows and shocked intakes of breath were no defence. By the middle of the 19th century, the dance had conquered the whole of Europe.
In Austria, the waltz’s most famous rendition is Johann Strauss II’s On The Beautiful Blue Danube, which is played at midnight each New Year’s Eve.
In an equally wayward kind of way, it’s pleasing to note that Austria also gave the world croissants which, despite their fancy French name, are undoubtedly of Viennese origin.
In 1838 ( - or perhaps 1839; food historians have come to blows over the precise year - ) a retired Austrian artillery officer called August Zang opened a ‘Viennese Bakery’ in Paris, where he produced his own, light, version of the traditional tirolean ‘kipferl’. He translated the name into French - ‘croissant’ - and the rest is history.
Croissants caught on everywhere. In Argentina, they’re called ‘medialunas’ (‘half-moons’), in Italy they’re ‘cornetti’ and they’re even very common in Japanese bakeries, where they are covered with a sweet glaze and filled with chocolate.
Vast quantities of croissants are eaten in Poland on St Martin’s Day, November 11.
Paradoxically, although croissants were introduced into Ethiopia (of all places) as long ago as 1902 and have been hugely popular there ever since, they didn’t become popular here in England until the advent of ‘cafe culture’ in the early 1990s.
Which is weird.
From the sublime to….
In 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger posed the question ‘Is a cat locked inside a box alive or dead?’. Great minds have searched for an answer to this question ever since.
So, just for the record (and to prevent truckshunter insomnia), the standard and most classically accepted response - known as the Copenhagen Response - is that the cat is both alive and dead until the box is opened.
So now you know. Probably.
The living are far outnumbered by the dead in Vienna. Its Central Cemetery has 2.5 million plots.
Interpol was founded in Vienna in 1923, an initiative of the city’s Chief of Police. Strictly speaking, ‘Interpol’ is simply the organisation’s telegraphic address but, as the body’s official title is 46 letters long, it’s ‘Interpol’ that everybody uses.
How countries refer to their own police is, of course, an entirely different - and highly colourful - matter.
In Turkey, they’re called ‘asphalt cowboys’. In Australia, they’re ‘Jacks’ (amongst other things); in Germany, they’re ‘bulls’; in India, they’re ‘khaki kutta’ (‘brown dogs’); in Singapore, they are known collectively as ‘The Eye’; in New York City, a cop is a ‘Jake‘ whilst in Portugal, he is a ‘smurf’. In Norway, he’s a ‘snut‘ - a ‘dog’s nose‘, in Russia, he is ‘musor‘ - ‘trash‘ - whilst in Mexico, and several dozen other countries, he is a ‘puerco‘ - a ‘pig’.
The Patron Saint of Austria is St Leopold and its National Day is 26 October, the day it signed the Neutrality Convention in 1955 - which must be about the dullest reason for a National Day anywhere on Earth.
The National Bird of Austria is the eagle, often depicted in broken, black chains.
Most famously of all, though, is Austria’s National Flower - the edelweiss (above) - the mere mention of whose name calls to mind the turgidly mawkish dirge from The Sound of Music.
It’s worth making a short, cinematic diversion here.
The Sound of Music - scandalously referred to by more than one of its stars as The Sound of Mucus - is the most successful musical film of all time, specially (for some reason) in South Korea. In order to reduce the film’s running time and thus allow for more screenings per day, at least one Seoul cinema edited out all the songs.
Austrians will tell you, though (if you care to ask), that the film isn’t exactly an authentic historical record, songs or no songs. Maria came to the von Trapp family in the 1920s and had married Georg by 1927 (not 1938). There were ten von Trapp children and not seven, and the eldest was a boy and not a girl.
And finally, the family set off openly by train for Italy and not secretly on foot for Switzerland.
Austria bequeathed Sigmund Freud to the world - but no-one is quite sure whether this was a good thing or not.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is Austrian as well…
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For years, Austria has marketed itself very well indeed as a sing-song land of jagged, snow-capped peaks, cow-bells, stately cities, wiener-schnitzel, coffee and chocolate cake. You don’t have to scratch very far beneath the surface, though, to uncover some bizarre - and occasionally even macabre - characteristics at which Austrians seem to excel.
Although, for example, Austria gave the world Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Bruckner, Strauss and Mahler - and doesn’t let us forget it - it also gave us a few much less savoury characters which it would much rather we did forget.
For starters, Austria fathered two notoriously cruel dictators - Hitler and Dollfuss (an undersized twerp who seized power in Austria in the 1930s and systematically had all his opponents imprisoned and shot).
The ridiculous Herr Dollfuss
More recently, other rotten apples have soured the sachertorte - sometimes quite spectacularly.
In recent years there have been two cases of domestic torture and incest that left the world stupefied.
In 1984, at the age 18, Elisabeth Fritzl was lured by her father into a dark, moldy, dungeon-like cellar underneath the family's apartment building. The cellar had been rigged up with electronic doors so that she could not escape. He imprisoned her there for 24 years.
She served as his beaten, tortured sex-slave. Her father raped her more than 3,000 times. She gave birth to seven children fathered by him, delivering the babies without receiving any medical care. She cut the umbilical cords with a pair of rusty scissors. Another baby was stillborn.
At his criminal trial for rape, incest, and murder, the respectable Herr Fritzl admitted to murdering one of the children.
Despite having ‘suspicions’, none of the neighbours did anything at all. For 24 years.
More recently, two sisters - Christine and Erika - revealed that they had been similarly imprisoned in a basement for 41 years.
I’ll say that again. 41 years.
They described it - accurately - as ‘a disgusting, dark, barren basement with nothing but filth, a rudimentary toilet, and just a wooden shelf to use for a bed.’ Their father beat them - and their mother, who died in 2008 - with a stick, poked them with a pitchfork, and systematically raped them.
Despite having ‘suspicions’, none of the neighbours did anything at all. For 41 years.
It might seem illiberal to blame Austrian culture for these grotesque aberrations - but there’s more.
After Josef Fritzl's arrest, teenagers used Elisabeth's dank hell chamber as a party pad. The place was full of rat shit, garbage and mildew - not to mention extremely negative associations - after serving as the site of unimaginable suffering for several decades.
The police were finally obliged to weld the doors shut.
* * *
Austria was the only country that actually welcomed being invaded by Nazi Germany.
Since World War Two, Austrians have elected a high-ranking ex-Wehrmacht Nazi officer to President - Kurt Waldheim.
And in a poll conducted in the mid-1990s, 70% of Austrians said they did not like Jews, more than 20% actively loathed them and about 10% found them ‘physically revolting’. Almost half of all Austrians believe that Jews were at least partly to blame for the Holocaust.
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We’re a long way from snow-capped mountains, gushing rivers, clinking wine-glasses and dumpling soup now. So let’s conclude by celebrating the life of an Austrian who, because of his pioneering research, has saved the lives of countless millions of people - although, as we’ll see, his story has a uniquely Austrian twist.
To give birth in a 19th-century hospital was to dice with death. In 1847, 18% of women died in childbirth in Vienna - if they had been assisted by a doctor. The death rate when only midwives were involved was only 2%.
When Dr Ignaz Semmelweiss (below) investigated, he found that in Vienna - as elsewhere across Europe - doctors filled in their time whilst awaiting births by doing post-mortems on the women who had just died. And they never washed their hands.
Despite these startling results, his research was derided and rejected by the medical establishment. (This kind of rejection of awkward new ideas is now called the ‘Semmelweiss Effect’.)
He nevertheless continued to campaign vigorously for improved hospital hygiene until, fed up with this thorn in their collective sides, his fellow doctors had him imprisoned in a lunatic asylum.
When he tried to escape, he was bludgeoned to death.
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Welcome to Austria.
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