Lost Worlds: Reviving Nostalgia for German Central Europe?
Whether it is remembered as the ‘lost German East’ or as an idealised, multicultural region like Galicia, Germans and Austrians have a complicated relationship with Central Europe. As the locus of German culture and crimes, Austrian and German nostalgia for German Central Europe is often regarded with suspicion — if not dismissed outright.
Still, the relationship to Central Europe will never fully dissolve, as it is integral to the identities of so many Germans and Austrians.
Today, the ethnocentric, apologetic and naïve approaches typical of the Cold War era are rare. A new nostalgia is emerging, and it is of a very different nature.
Two recent publications give insight into what a reflexive engagement with the past might look like.
For anyone familiar with the authors’ previous works, both books are rather unusual. The first, The Dead Body in the Bunker: Report on my Father, was written by Martin Pollack. Pollack is an Austrian journalist born in 1944, who became renowned for his factual travel accounts of Eastern Europe and his depictions of Jewish life in particular. This new book contrasts with his previous work in that it is essentially autobiographical. Moreover, Pollack identifies himself as the descendant of a Nazi and member of the German minority in Slovenia – something he had never mentioned in his previous work.
The second publication, entitled Habsburg: The Library of a Lost World, is by the Romanian-German writer, Richard Wagner. Born in 1952, Wagner has resided in the Federal Republic since 1987. He is best known for his contemporary novels, which problematise the inequality of east-west relations and tackle tough topics such as prostitution and the migration of the Sinti and Roma. Wagner is known for his opposition to the conservative romanticisation of his native Romanian homeland, Banat. His latest turn to nonfiction and focus on the ‘lost world’ of the Habsburgs is therefore rather astonishing, as well.
At first glance, the two books have little in common.
Pollack unearths the story of his biological father, Rudolf Bast, who was a high ranking member of the SS and the Gestapo. Bast was found murdered in a bunker in Yugoslavia, not long after the end of the Second World War. Using archival evidence, Pollack painstakingly retraces his father’s footsteps. This is interspersed with him revisiting his own childhood memories and experiences: Although he never knew his father personally, Pollack enjoyed a close relationship to those who had known him. His connection with his loving grandparents who turn out to have been unrepentant former Nazis, forms a subplot to the main text.
Central to the book is Pollack’s father’s ethnic background, as a member of the German minority in the enclave known as the Gottschee — part of contemporary Slovenia. Bast’s presence during the war in Poland, Slovakia and Russia as part of a “mobile killing unit” (Einsatzgruppe) is another focal point. Pollack’s work is a conflicted reflection on his family’s connection to eastern Europe, as well as his own. Like his father before him, he too spent time in the region — though at a different time, and with entirely different objectives and consequences.
In this way, Pollack articulates the tension between the power of his father’s legacy and his rejection of it. His father and the past undeniably cast a shadow on Pollack’s post-war life. Yet his father remains a stranger to him as ‘the body in the bunker’. Pollack does not even bear his surname.
In this sense, Pollack’s work is similar to other ‘coming-to-terms’ books of his generation. Yet his is admirably achieved, devoid of self-pity while acknowledging the emotional challenge of writing and researching this topic. This is reflected in his use of progressively more personal names: the formal, ‘Rudolf Bast’; then, ‘mein Vater’ (my father); and finally, ‘Vater’ (Dad). These evidence Pollack’s gradual recognition of his connection to his father.
Stylistically, Wagner’s Habsburg is a very different sort of text. Composed of a series of short, thematic chapters with images, Wagner attempts to resurrect the sunken Habsburg Monarchy in referencing not only its political, literary, intellectual climate, but also its material culture. Indeed, discussions range from key political and literary figures to landscapes and towns. The text also include recipes and poems. The chapters are snapshots, which, together, give a broader perspective. As one nears the end of the book, the chronology from 1989 to the present becomes evident, as well.
Still with its frequent biographical references, its subjective yet highly argumentative tone, the book bears some resemblance to Pollack’s very personal account. Like Pollack, Wagner reminisces without pathos. While initially readers might deem it a product of restorative nostalgia, Wagner maintains an ironic and distanced — even scornful — tone. For instance, the celebrated Austrian literati, whom he quotes, are dismissed as the Monarchy’s gravediggers; Vienna is described as the dull and unwilling capital of its own, multi-ethnic ‘backyard’.
Wagner highlights the contradictions inherent in labelling Central Europe ‘Habsburg’ — insofar as it was far more than that. But the legacy of the Habsburgs is nevertheless his main concern and his book underscores its significance. He himself is part of this legacy: as a Romanian-German citizen he went, in the late 1980s ‘from the periphery to the centre’, from Banat to West Germany, long after the fall of the Monarchy.
Both books are entertaining if nothing else. Pollack’s work has elements of a crime story, with readers asking themselves, ‘how did the body end up in the bunker?’ Wagner’s style is witty and clever, though only appreciable to those who can decode his innumerable, intertextual references.
Still the reason these accounts are invaluable is that they give a picture of German Central Europe without idealising or denying its continued existence. They are, in effect, a critical evaluation of German Central Europe in its multifacetedness. Both texts are, in this sense, ‘thick descriptions’ of the region which take account not only of history, but also human emotions. In short, they are the best that contemporary Germans and Austrians can offer; they are personal, engaging and reflective accounts that encourage us to rethink and perhaps even harbour a nostalgia for ‘German Central Europe’.