- Belle Necropolis: Ghosts of Imperial Vienna by Katherine Arens
Belle Necropolis: Ghosts of Imperial Vienna by Katherine Arens places at its center neither a group of canonical Austrian texts, nor a particular literary genre, nor a school of thought, but rather the cultural process of mythmaking in Austria as it takes place from late imperial Austria to the present day. Such mythmaking, Arens argues, is already functioning powerfully in the late imperial era, even as its purposes, contexts, and rhetorical strategies have been rendered unrecognizable by nationalist historiographies and the triumph of the nation-state. Understanding mythmaking matters because it leads to a recovery of a history and a historical sensibility, turning a little-appreciated cemetery into a beautiful necropolis. If those who trivialize Austrian mythmaking win, even the dead are not safe.
Belle Necropolis stands behind its theoretical proposition with textual analysis from the outset. Indeed, it opens with a manuscript from an Austrian baroness that performs its own mythmaking on what might be reckoned to be among the most overexposed events of late imperial Austrian history—the murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolph and Mary Vetsera at the former’s hunting lodge in Mayerling. But in translating, annotating, and closely reading this manuscript “from the crypt,” which is published as a whole for the first time, Arens shows how its source, Baroness Helene Vetsera, the mother of Mary Vetsera, retells the events leading up to Mayerling in ways that mourn the dead, exonerate (some of) the living, and seek to preserve the [End Page 155] family name, which Mary’s surviving sister still carries. Thus, the Baroness’s Denkschrift is anything but trivial. Much more, given the regime’s own Mayerling disinformation campaign, it is an essential contribution to the mythma-king of the story, a story that “is central to modern memory of the Habsburgs and Austria-Hungary.”
The example of Baroness Vetsera guides the approach of Belle Necropolis. That is, Austria rewrites its past not to produce a “true tale, but rather a plausible one.” Scholars of Austria, it follows, should be more attentive to the plausibility in the stories that rework the Austrian past and less obsessed with the question of their veracity. Where late imperial Austrian mythmaking is concerned, scholars have much to gain by grasping that the old Habsburg myths are not fixed but are continually being reshaped to address new Austrian realities.
From the moral standpoint alone, this is a welcome perspective. After all, one hardly need to be Karl Kraus to note the bad faith of current-day, Habsburg-bashing critics who rage against contemporary presentations of imperial culture as exercises in empty nostalgia driven by the tourist industry, even as they make their careers off of denouncing such nostalgia. But Belle Necropolis validates the mythmaking approach to studying Austria suggested by the inaugural reading of the Vetsera manuscript through its five subsequent chapters, presenting case studies that range from the “Habsburg wraith” Jörg Haider to Carl Schorske’s “Modernist fin de siècle.” In chapter 3, for example, Arens reads Rebecca West classic’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as an instance of how a classic text of wartime Europe could invoke Austria’s imperial past to explain the current suffering of Yugoslavia. Like Empress Elizabeth, whose assassination West recalls from her childhood, Yugoslavia is the victim of Habsburg power and German aggression. For West, the Balkans are a mythic, not a European space, a (female) place, one shaped by (male) Austrian imperialism, a terrain upon which Europe draws its maps.
Rebecca West adapted a central myth of late-imperial Austria—the life and death of Empress Elizabeth—to tell a plausible tale that helped English-speaking readers make sense of the continental wartime conflict as it played out in the Balkans. Yet in still more striking ways, post-1945 Austria itself produced a revisionist Habsburg historiography—or what is termed “nostalgia”—to recast its Habsburg past in ways that were “not necessarily a denial of the guilt of collaboration” with National Socialism but “a necessary precondition for thinking in forms...