In Salzburg, a Fresh Skirmish in the Culture Wars


This article by Michael Steinberg about Joerg Haider's influence on the

Salzburger Festspiel was published last October.   Steinberg, a

distinguished history professor at Cornell University, has written a book

about the history of the Salzburger Festspiel.  I highly recommend this



Note that the events Steingberg discusses took place last summer--well

before the current crisis. Gerard Mortier, the director of the fesitval,

recently resigned to protest Haider's rise to power, and has called for a

boycott of the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's concert.


The Philharmonic was in continual conflict with Mortier's policies.  A

restructuring of the festival's administration has greatly increased the

Vienna Phiharmonic's influence which has benefitted from Haider's politics.

 The orchestra has been given a seat on the festival's administrative





The New York Times

In Salzburg, a Fresh Skirmish in the Culture Wars

October 17, 1999, Sunday

Arts and Leisure Desk  



THE 1999 Salzburg Festival was shrouded in scandal. The shock did not come

from any of the festival stages, which have indeed been more inclined to

turn heads in the last seven years, since Gerard Mortier became director in

1992. With mixed success and to mixed acclaim, Mr. Mortier, who succeeded

the Salzburg-born conductor Herbert von Karajan after his death in 1989,

has sought to de-Karajanize the festival by making it more cosmopolitan and

more contemporary. Mr. Mortier has added Messiaen to Mozart, and

playwrights like the iconoclastic Elfriede Jelinek to such stalwarts as

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who was also the festival's principal founder.


Mr. Mortier's innovations are not news. The shock this past season came

from a declaration of war against Mr. Mortier and the festival's new

profile, delivered at the opening ceremonies by none other than the

President of Austria, Thomas Klestil. Why such an attack from the Austrian

President? Why Salzburg? Why now?


Mr. Klestil was elected president in 1992, succeeding Kurt Waldheim. The

job is largely ceremonial but not entirely. First, the head of state

carries a symbolic identification with the country itself; thus, the

debates over Mr. Waldheim's suppressed Nazi past became synonymous with the

question of Austria's unresolved Nazi past. Second, Mr. Klestil, like Mr.

Waldheim before him, functions as a kind of metarepresentative of the

conservative People's Party. Although the Socialist Party has held onto the

Chancellorship for 30 years, the two parties have governed in a grand

coalition since 1986.


With the reconfiguration of Eastern Europe after 1989, the People's Party's

hold on Austrian conservatism has been challenged from the far right by the

Freedom Party, an anti-immigration faction much like the National Front in

France. But in Austria, a country with a fascist past, this party's

neofascist rhetoric cuts swiftly to the bone. During the summer, the most

pressing question on the level of national politics was whether the

People's Party would consider a coalition with the Freedom Party as a way

to wrest the Government from the Socialists. (That possibility seems to be

ruled out by the People's Party's third-place performance in elections this

month.) Mr. Klestil's ''culture wars'' speech at the opening of the

festival in July was clearly a campaign event.


Mr. Klestil called for a return of the festival to the ideals of its

spiritual founder, Hofmannsthal. In 1918, at the moment of Austrian defeat

in World War I and the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, Hofmannsthal sought

a new symbol for Austrian identity and prominence in Europe. The city of

Salzburg -- as he wrote and as Mr. Klestil quoted at length in his speech

-- lies at the geographical center of Europe. This is true enough. Salzburg

also lies, Hofmannsthal wrote, at the spiritual center of Europe. This is a

far more problematic assertion, since the culture of Salzburg is German,

and Roman Catholic, and historically intolerant of people who are not both.



The new cultural identity that Hofmannsthal promoted thus claimed to be

cosmopolitan but was in fact a German Catholic culture. Hofmannsthal

sanctified this very ambiguity by writing a new version of the English

morality play ''Everyman.'' ''Jedermann,'' which opened the first festival,

on a stage built in front of the Salzburg Cathedral, in 1920, has, with a

few significant exceptions, opened the season every year since and will do

so again in 2000. A mirror of Austrian political conservatism,

Hofmannsthal's ''Jedermann'' claims to speak for everyone but actually

speaks for German-speaking Catholics.


Mr. Klestil stated explicitly that nothing has changed between 1919 and

1999, wrapping himself in Hofmannsthal's key ambiguity: cultural

nationalism disguised as cultural cosmopolitanism. To his invocation of an

''unchanging Austria,'' he added the dates ''before 1938 and again after

1945,'' expelling the period of Nazi rule from Austrian history. (In fact,

the 1938 incorporation of Austria into the Third Reich was wildly popular,

and seemed to a vast majority of Austrian citizens to have accomplished an

alliance between Catholic conservatism and modern power. The city of

Salzburg was staunchly pro-Nazi. There were, of course, exceptions. The

governor of the province of Salzburg, Franz Rehrl, spent most of the period

in prison. Hofmannsthal died in 1929, but his Jewish grandfather caused him

to be classified as non-Aryan according to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. His

name and work were absent from the festival during the Nazi years.)


CRITICS of the festival ideology, Mr. Klestil went on to say, not pulling

his anti-Mortier punches, insist on a ''democratic'' understanding of

culture, ''and that means: confrontation instead of harmony, provocation

instead of agreement, spectacle instead of fidelity to the work,

'demolition drama' instead of humanistic, spiritually elevating theater.''


Mr. Mortier reacted furiously. First he wrote Mr. Klestil a personal

letter, which went unanswered. Then he gave press interviews. He branded

the speech a campaign act and told the Austrian newsmagazine Format that

Mr. Klestil's position was closest to that of the Freedom Party.


''This is not only about me but about the situation of culture in

Austria,'' Mr. Mortier said. ''This speech is a signal.''


Mr. Mortier implied that Mr. Klestil was employing a principle of art and

harmony to reinvigorate the fascist idea of a harmonious and beautiful

population. He implied as well that the speech's strategy was to flatter

the neofascist sensibilities of voters who might not feel able to vote for

the extreme right with a clear conscience but who could now vote for the

People's Party and have their secret anxieties addressed.


''This is deeply alarming,'' Mr. Mortier continued. ''What is being asked

for here is the kind of art that lies, and alongside that an attempt to

limit Austria to a small fraction of itself. As if Alban Berg were not

precisely as Austrian as Mozart.''


Mozart, who was born in Salzburg, has always been the town and festival's

mantra and mascot, and Mozart himself, Mr. Mortier added, had become

''sweetened'' and ''marzipaned'' in the service of this false esthetic. Mr.

Klestil's speech, Mr. Mortier said, was ''a fatal reminder of the Nazi



''Under the Nazis, the Salzburg Festival and a false interpretation of

Hofmannsthal's ideas were both used to legitimize the regime,'' Mr. Mortier

continued. ''If you're going to invoke Hofmannsthal, you have to know what

you are doing and interpret him critically.''


Here Mr. Mortier cut to the quick of Austrian discursive confusion.

Hofmannsthal called his agenda ''conservative revolution.'' This was not a

Nazi program. But its cultural nationalism had certain things in common

with the Nazi ideology.


Hofmannsthal's posthumous exclusion from his program, on the ground of his

partial Jewish background, now allows conservatives like Mr. Klestil to

invoke his name not only as a bastion against fascism but also as a symbol

for an essentially anti-Nazi Austrian past. This is a ludicrous historical

and political self-indulgence. On the other hand, to call Hofmannsthal

himself a ''prefascist'' (as Format says Mr. Mortier did, though not in the

published interview) is equally ludicrous. The term is itself a

contradiction in terms, as it claims to identify a mental set that is not

fascist but that leads necessarily to fascism.


But Mr. Mortier's example of Berg was dead accurate. In the brittle years

after 1945, the composer Gottfried von Einem was driven from the artistic

directorship of the Salzburg Festival for programming Berg's opera

''Wozzeck.'' In addition, Mr. Mortier pointed out, Einem had tried to bring

in Bertolt Brecht to direct some of the festival's theater productions.

''We're once again in the same situation,'' he said.


In fact, last year Mr. Mortier hired Frank Baumbauer, the artistic director

of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, as director of dramatic

productions. In the aftermath of the Klestil speech, Mr. Baumbauer oiled

the fires in an episode Brecht himself might have written, telling a

reporter from the Suddeutsche Zeitung, a leading Munich newspaper, that he

would like to ''wring the neck'' of the president of the Salzburg Festival,

Helga Rabl-Stadler, whom he described as ''unbearably stupid.''


Ms. Rabl-Stadler shares top management with Mr. Mortier, but not easily,

for she is decidedly in the Klestil camp. She publicly objected to one

recent production, which, according to the news weekly Profil, had sent the

festival's conservative, Munich-based public back home with ''sour faces.''

The Salzburg program had become, in her words, ''much too big-city.'' This

kind of remark, as Mr. Baumbauer seems to have understood, is politically

loaded in Austria, where the big city, Vienna, is consistently attacked

from the right for its cultural hybridism, which for the political right

means cultural pollution.


MR. BAMBAUER wrote to Ms. Rabl-Stadler, saying, ''You know very well that I

didn't mean literally to do it.'' Ms. Rabl-Stadler spent a few weeks giving

press interviews about how speechless she was, never before having lived

under a death threat.


At this point, the practical issue at hand for the movers and planners of

the Salzburg Festival is the question of Mr. Mortier's succession. His

contract expires in September 2001. There is no talk of renewal. A search

committee has been formed, and that in itself has -- not unexpectedly --

been controversial. One of the original members, Ioan Holender, the

director of the Vienna State Opera, resigned after elected officials of

Salzburg (including the mayor and the provincial governor) objected to his

participation. Too big-city.


The search may be both aggravated and educated by this summer of frayed

nerves. The storm unleashed by Mr. Klestil's speech should make it clear

that this festival does engage issues of modern cultural identity and

difference in a country that is completing the century without having come

to terms with its history. The new director will need to address these

issues with political and historical responsibility.