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Power and its victims – a morning in Vienna

A very interesting morning wandering around the Innerestadt (historic city centre) of Vienna, before taking the train to Kloster Pernegg, Lower Austria, for the 14th biennial systems conversations organised by the International Federation for Systems Research.

I’ve wanted to visit Vienna for a long time but have never had the chance until now. I was tired after a busy week so I ended up having a late breakfast and strolling around the streets and some of the more obvious sights. Getting my bearings with the tourist map, I was constantly reminded of just how crucial Vienna has been to the cultural and political life of Europe – just a small number of those mentioned on the map who were resident for some of their life in Vienna included Mozart, Klimt, Freud, Beethoven, Wittgenstein and Strauss; and from the history of systems thinking we can add Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Heinz von Foerster (the latter of whom hated being labelled but was willing to agree that “I am Viennese. That is the only label that I have to accept. I come from Vienna; I was born there, that’s an established fact”). But the overwhelming sense for me in Vienna was its imperial history, its sense as a great capital of many nations and peoples, its own sense of itself as the centre of Europe.

First stop was the Stephansdom, St Stephens Cathedral, a high Gothic building, all spires and sweeping arches. Vienna is so full of tall buildings that despite its height, it just appeared when I went around a corner – quite unlike the cathedrals in so many cities that announce themselves from far off. I found the inside strangely cold and unspiritual. There was a lot of glitter and paintings and beauty, but the figure of Jesus on the cross was almost shrouded in darkness. I spent yesterday afternoon reading half of Philip Pullman’s new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and it reminded me of his contrast between the simplicity of Jesus – the travelling preacher from Galilee, born in a stable and killed for his beliefs in a degrading manner – and the power and majesty of the stories told about that man by the church. Most strikingly, the area in front of the cross and the high altar was completely empty of chairs, no sense that individual worshippers were welcome. Gradually I came to  realise that there was space for individuals, not in the middle but in the many different side areas with little rows of seating and small altars of their own. The place left me feeling very Protestant, with our much greater emphasis on individual spirituality shared in a collective way.

I moved on to the Staatsoper, the famous Viennese opera house. The outside of the building was fairly unimpressive, but I was very pleased to have seen it (albeit in the rain by now), and to see the small square named after Herbert von Karajan, whose Beethoven recordings I have long enjoyed. The inside of the opera house was mostly not open to the public, but I saw brief glimpses of it, and was struck by the opulence of the place. It felt to me that culture and power (or at least money) were closely intertwined here.

Next I went to the Hofburg, the old imperial palace. The scale of the palace came out for me from the fact that it is not a single big building which shows its powerful face to the world (in the way of Buckingham Palace in London) but rather forms a large set of interconnected buildings, complete with its own churches, alleyways, squares and the like. This was almost a small city by itself, and must in its day have been quite formidable. Again the sense of imperial power was very strong – at one point I found a inscription by a 16th century Habsburg emperor (I forget whom and I should have taken a photo) who described himself as Holy Roman Emperor, king of Austria, Hungary, Spain, Burgundy and several other places. No apologies, no ‘by the grace of God’, just a straightforward statement of imperial power as the natural order of things.

Lastly I came to the Judenplatz, and the most striking (and newest) building of all – the recently opened Holocaust memorial. It’s much smaller than the buildings of the square around it – maybe 15 feet or so, not much more than two people’s height – and is simply built from cast concrete but it commands attention. The inscription in front tells you that 65,000 Jewish Austrians were killed during the Nazi period; round the sides are listed all the concentration camps where they went. The key point about so many of the cultural figures I mentioned earlier is that they were Jewish; the Holocaust felt like the final triumph of imperial power over cultural power (albeit after the end of the Austrian empire). Chillingly, there were two police guards in the corner of the square, in front of a Jewish museum – presumably the story of anti-Semitism in Vienna is not entirely ended.

A fascinating morning tutorial in power and its victims, and the relationship between power and culture.


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