Austrian Communists and the Intellectuals

by John Dean | July 5, 1954

Of all the Communist parties, both in the East and West, none is in such a peculiar and paradoxical position as die Austrian. Though backed by Red guns and money, it has been unable to obtain more than a steady five percent of the total vote in a country whose unemployment problem among its youth is phenomenal, and whose living standard during the last twenty years has suffered one of the greatest declines of any nation in Europe. Indeed so inept have Communist Efforts become that during the last elections they could find no better campaign issue than increased pensions for the aged. This in a country which has one of the best organized pension systems on the continent. They even went so far as to hide the CP label and to enter the elections under a "people's opposition" tag. For their pains they lost one of their five seats in parliament, and to add insult to injury, the party received fewer votes in many precincts than it had registered members.

Yet though not even the satellite nations stand under such tight control from Moscow (the party machinery is honeycombed with Soviet officers in supervisory positions), there has been no serious attempt at a purge, nor have the tedious and regular self-accusations been a prominent feature of party life. When Comrade Koplenig, chairman of the Central Committee, made his autocritique a few months ago, there was general surprise in all quarters, though Koplenig's tearjerker was mild compared to the usual hysterical prostrations customary in Western Communist circles. And party boss Ernst Fischer did not even bother to withdraw one of his plays right away from the Communist theatre, the Scala, after the official Red army organ in Austria, Die Oesterreichische Zeitung, had accused it of Titoist and bourgeois tendencies, though the play was written as an attack on the Yugoslav leader. A similar debacle for the French poet Aragon would have s been a kiss of death. Fischer, more than the titular party head Koplenig, is the real key to the s Austrian Communist enigma. Ernst y Fischer von der See is the son of a colonel in the old imperial army. His m family, like so many members of the lower aristocracy, was among the staunchest supporters of the monarchy for generations. Given a liberal classical education, Fischer spent his formative years in Vienna's two great literary cafes, the Herrenhof and the Zentral, together with such eminently cosmopolitan men of letters as Zweig and Werfel. Here he developed a lively interest in the literary and political movements of the twenties and became friendly with such leading expressionists as Brecht, Bronnen and Becher, all three today active in the Communist German democratic republic. Somewhere along the line he changed from the orthodox social democracy prevalent among Viennese intellectuals of the time and became a Communist. Part of the Fascist occupation he spent in Moscow, but returned to Vienna in 1945, apparently unharmed and un-indoctrinated, to take over the ministry of education in the first postwar cabinet, a position he held until the break-up of the three party coalition in 1947.

The tone he has set for the party’s executive hierarchy has been responsible for its peculiar shade. For the Austrian CP harbors among its leadership one of the greatest collections of homeless cosmopolitan intellectuals in the world. There is no split here, as in France, between tough street fighters like Maurice Thorez and refined poets like Aragon. Fischer exercises the functions of both, even though his sympathies lie more with Aragon. His translations of Baudelaire are among the finest in the German language, and his plays, though no artistic masterpieces, are a long way removed from the typical products of Soviet socialist-realists. For years the democratic press has been prophesying an early end for Fischer arid his unreliable friends. However, it now seems safe to assume that short of a complete Soviet take over, the colonel's son can go on cutting his unusual capers. (Recently, though, he has been severely attacked in East Germany for his enthusiastic support of Hanns Eisler's Faust Opera, which, shortly before its premiere, was blasted as bourgeois and formalistic and now will not be performed. This disgrace for Gerhardt Eisler's brother is chiefly due to the preponderance of symbolic content in the work.)

Partly this is due to the structure of the Austrian CP itself. . It definitely is not a workers' party; rather its membership is composed of retired officials with imposing sounding titles based on at least a few years university training, and the so-called Lumpenproletariat, made up of unskilled laborers and the perennially unemployed. For them Fischer has become a symbol of comforting familiarity coupled with hope for a better material future. Perhaps that is why corruption in the CP, a vice present in all panties to a degree that staggers the imagination, is treated rather lightly. Everybody knows that party leaders live way above their income. Should anyone be tactless enough to mention this, the frank Communist answer is that sure we're corrupt, but we're nowhere near as corrupt as the others.

It is this veneer of Western style salon Communism that has given form to the party's cultural politics and its attitude toward intellectuals in general, an attitude extremely difficult to bring into line even with the one practiced in Paris or Rome. Not that Communist concessions made to. Western artistic ideas are any greater (Picasso, Dufy, Eluard and Aragon himself are hard to beat), but their thunder against formalism is tempered with a missionary zeal to convert the poor misguided sheep to more orthodox modes of expression.

Victor Matejka, who until 1949 was in charge of the cultural affairs of the city government of Vienna and who now edits the bimonthly literary periodical Tagebuch (published jointly by him, Fischer and Bruno Frey, editor of the CP organ Der Abend) did a remarkably competent job both of restoring the city's badly damaged art treasures and of supporting and encouraging young unknown artists. With practically no money at his disposal he organized exhibitions, bought modern pictures for the city collections and helped wherever he saw talent in need. And even now in his editorial capacity, the art reviews he writes could appear in the New Yorker without much modification. Repeatedly he has called for greater abstraction in painting where this will serve to heighten the inner reality and cohesion of the work. His periodical has spoken in glowing terms of Paul Klee and Marc Chagall. Their reviews about the French type "boulevard" plays, usually castigated as the worst form of Western degeneracy, are milder than in New York or Paris.

Matejka is as fine an illustration of the paradoxical nature of Austrian Communists as one is likely to find. Before the war he was a respected Catholic art critic, who held a responsible position in the cultural committee of the Dolfuss organized labor union. Arrested immediately after the Anschluss in 1938, he spent most of the war in and out of concentration camps. Where and why he lost his faith and was converted to Communism is still a mystery. Luckily he was johnny-on-the-spot when the Russians came and was given his highly important post. He too is supposed to be one of the leading candidates for the axe, when and if the expected purge comes, though it is eternally rumored that he is none too happy about his present position and would like to find a way of quitting the party before it is too late.

Just how far the Tagebuch will go in the quest to catch Austria's intellectuals in the Communist net is illustrated by a very revealing article written by the official party art critic, Johann Muschik some time ago. It is a sort of index to writers and artists acceptable to the Communists with detailed reasons for admittance and rejection. On first reading, the list is really quite remarkable, for not only does it include Rilke (though not his imitators), in itself surprising enough when one considers that the Soviets never had much patience with sensibility and sensations not usable in the class struggle, but also, though with apparent misgivings, Kafka and to some extent even Joyce. True in the latter two cases Muschik leaves himself room for a later withdrawal by roundly condemning the schools that have sprung up around the two names as unrealistic and passive, but the mere fact of their being mentioned emphasizes the enormous difference in approach between .the Austrians and their nearest comrades, the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany.

The cultural pages of the two official East German papers, Neues Deutschland and Taegliche Rundschau, are filled with articles about the necessity of a "positive" point of view in Socialist art. It is not enough to criticize the decadent West. The time has come to sing the praises of the workers who have made this possible. Again and again authors are exhorted not to use characters in their plays and books who originally come from the bourgeois classes, but to get their inspiration from the proletariat. This, incidentally, was one 'of the main points of censure against Fischer's play. There the characters are drawn from the author's own social background, the heroes as well as the villains. Yet in spite of this, no such pressure is exerted on the Austrians to conform. Of course every time word came from above, a slight realignment did take place, but never a decisive one.

A good example is the party theatre in 'Vienna, the Scala. It was formed in 1948 by Communist actors who had spent the war in Switzerland, where they had helped make the Zurich playhouse the best German theatre of the time. Its leading members like Karl Paryla, Wolfgang Heinz and Erika Pellikowsky are on par with the finest actors now playing on any German stage. In the course of the years they have established themselves as a' repertory company of some merit whose most glaring fault is the introduction of the party line into almost everything that wanders across their footlights. Even a highly political play like Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro had its little Communist twist to make sure that the point drove home. At the end, a highly excited youngster comes up to Count Almaviva and excuses the premature beginning of the fireworks by crying out that "youth cannot wait."

Dutifully the Scala has produced plays by Stalin prize winners about Russia every so often, but the greater part of their program has been devoted to popular classics of Austrian literature, a great deal of Shakespeare and Shaw, and a number of modern American plays like Odets Golden Boy andDeep Are the Roots. Complaints that more room should be given to Russian plays have, at times, been quite vociferous. But Heinz and Paryla know that their theatre will only be emptier than it already is, if they indulge too often in this form of party loyalty.

What, then, has been the achievement of all these extraordinary concessions? To what extent have the Communists been able to convince Austrian intellectuals of the value of their cause? Again the answer is one of abject failure. At no time since 1947 have they been able to dent the solidly anti-Moscow front presented by the Austrian intelligentsia, who, as a class, would seem to have even more reason to listen to the Communist inducements than the working population. Their economic situation is 'nearly desperate. Of all income groups they rank among the lowest. Spiritually they feel themselves td be at the edge of the Western orbit and often unfairly neglected by other countries and especially by their own government and people. However, an overabundance of experience with totalitarian governments and an extreme dislike of all forms of political pageantry and spectacle, something the Communists love almost as much as the Nazis used to, have served as a most effective vaccine. The other important factor in the party's lack of success is Marshal Tito. His break with Moscow caused an internal rupture in the Austrian ranks, which, though not noticeable in the total vote, was mainly intellectually inspired. A sizeable number of party functionaries, who had spent the war with the Yugoslav partisans, quit and joined the Social Democrats. How many Titoists stayed on, no one knows. Certainly if ever anyone was ripe for a purge, it was Ernst Fischer and Co. Yet the blow never came.'

Westernized CP newspapermen, writers and critics still meet their democratic opposite numbers in the cafes of the inner city to spend hours with usually idle and unpolitical conversation. The Russian controlled Austrian national radio gave jobs to men like Erich Neuberg, who runs a cellar theatre in one of the cafes on the Ringstrasse in which last year he put on the only play by Stalin prize winner Valentin Katajew not shown in Moscow, and right after that scheduled Sartre's Red Gloves. Hoffman, theatre critic of the Soviet-run Oesterreichische Zeitung, only avoids his Western colleagues first nights, when his bosses are watching.

Of late the social gulf has widened somewhat as the verbal barrages have become sharper. But the general picture of Western European cultural life remains. Far from being the only sharp, intelligent and alive men on the scene, as in Koestler's novel, The Age of Longing, the Communists here are at least as spiritually unsure of themselves as the partisans of the West. Many of the so called "London" Communists, long since disgraced in East Berlin and removed from all positions of importance, have found a tolerant acceptance and even work in their own field, among their Austrian comrades. And though, as all good Communists should, they too deplore the country's sleeping sickness, they turn a pale yellow at the thought of having to return to the German Democratic Republic.

How long this state of things can last is anybody's guess. There can be little propaganda value in letting it continue, quite the contrary. On the other hand, the Russians may be convinced that the general apathy of party leaders is an effective enough barrier against any really serious deviations, and that the continued occupation of the country by the Red army makes any hope of winning elections on a secret ballot well nigh impossible, no matter how the party is run.

This article originally ran in the July 5th, 1954, issue of the magazine.

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