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Erklär mir Österreich

Robert Menasse

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Title: Erklär mir Österreich
Author: Robert Menasse
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2000
Length: 176 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Erklär mir Österreich
  • Essays zur österreichischen Geschichte
  • Erklär mir Österreich has not been translated into English
  • The pieces in this collection previously appeared in numerous, mainly Austrian publications

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Our Assessment:

B- : sharp pieces, but of limited interest (and accessibility)

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The fifteen pieces in Erklär mir Österreich ("Explain Austria to me") were written between 1998 and 2000, and focus largely on the political situation in Austria during that time. The rise of a third political party (the so-called Freedom Party (FPÖ)), led by charismatic but controversial Jörg Haider, challenging the decades-old status quo that saw power shared between ÖVP (People's Party) and SPÖ (formerly Socialist, now Social Democratic Party), caused a great deal of upheaval, both in Austria itself and abroad. In this collection Menasse dissects the problems of the old corrupt social-partnership and the peculiar threat Haider posed.
       Menasse has a sharp, fairly clear style. Knowledgeable about Austrian history and Austrian politics, he is especially good in making historical comparisons -- usefully, for example, dredging up the largely forgotten and ignored spectre of pre-Nazi Austro-fascism. He tries his best to cut through the morass of petty party politics and manages to express himself quite clearly.
       Numerous politicians -- including former chancellors Sinowatz and Vranitzky -- are easily summed up and disposed of, Menasse not standing for any party or partisan hagiography. Austria's pseudo-democratic foundations are brutally exposed and held up to the proper ridicule, and the ineffectiveness (and indeed the cost) of the social partnership is made abundantly clear.
       The pieces -- generally written for magazines and newspapers -- often focus on specific events. Replete with references to already obsolete politicians who only appeared briefly on the scene, as well as changed circumstances the pieces can be confusing to those not intimately familiar with Austrian politics. Menasse's dense, fast-paced pieces squeeze a great deal in -- more than most might want to know. They are often usefully specific -- but this leaves much that must be baffling for an audience not in the know.
       Menasse also makes some more general observations about Austria. Clever stuff, some of it, quite well expressed -- but also too simple. Rhetorical flights of fancy prove too tempting. He makes a great deal of the specifically Austrian failures -- political and otherwise -- but all countries have peculiarities that can similarly be attacked. Austria is no more (or less) special than any other country, as he sometimes says it is. And some of his statements are simply misguided: German democracy may be better-founded than Austria's, but the German state has also failed to live up to democratic ideals on occasion in the past decades.

       There are certainly worthwhile pieces here, especially those explaining the weaknesses of the Austrian political system and the abuses and missteps of the governing parties. However, significant issues -- especially regarding foreign opinion and actions -- from before 1998 (such as the Waldheim affair, only briefly touched upon) and after (including Austrian reparation settlements, the reaction of the EU to the FPÖ becoming a coalition power, and even the controversy regarding apparently misappropriated art) do not receive much coverage.
       All in all it is likely a book only of interest to those who closely follow Austrian politics.

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Reviews: Other books by Robert Menasse under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Robert Menasse was born in 1954.

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