It All Makes Sense Now

It has been over a week since the conclusion of the 2014 Centropa Summer Academy. It probably will be many more weeks until I can truly process everything that was seen, felt, experienced and learned during the trip. It is rare that a place can blow you away, exceeding any expectations that you may have. Even more rare is it happening in three different cities.

When we arrived in Vienna, the first thing I was struck by was the sheer beauty of the city. The look of the buildings, the streets, the skyline. The city resembled exactly the way it is portrayed. Vienna showed pride; that it was once the capital of a proud and strong empire, and a dedication to honoring tht glorious past.

One of our erly stops was the Applied Art Museum. At first, I had trouble understanding the rationale for being there. Walking along on a guided tour (led by a reknowned Art Historian) I couldn't help but be puzzled by the endless supply of chairs, of cutlery, of dishware. Why were we here? How did this connect to Centropa's view of the 20th Century? Upstairs there were massive pieces of furniture, chiseled cabinets. The craftsmanship was incredible. I was impressed with a piece that contained a hand done woodworking of the Imperial Coat of Arms. I took a quick snap shot, then tried to find a cool place in the room.

Vienna had an odd sense about it. After the Art Museum, a few friends and I decided to walk through the streets of the city. Enjoy some of the street food. Breathe in the city itself. All were shocked by what we found. The city was quiet. No children playing on the streets. No awkward first dates or public conversations. The city felt like a museum. Frozen almost.

The final day in Vienna, we headed to the Austro-Hungarian Military Museum. The Featured Attraction was the car that Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in; and the clothes the Archduke died in. The car was in impressive condition - still jet black (which made it feel as if it had jumped out of the black and white photos associated with it) the clothes, the bloodsoaked and now brown undershirt worn by the Archduke. After a brief lecture on the events of that day, I began to wander through the deep recesses of the museum. That's when it all clicked.

Deep inside, the museum kept hundreds if not thousands of materials manufactured for the First World War. Austria-Hungary opened the First World War with a declaration of war on Serbia, rapidly swallowing the Continent into a war which would end the vision of history as improving through technology. For the last fifty years, Austria-Hungary's military spending had remained nominal; whereas most other world powers (Germany, Britain, Russia) had increased at least threefold. Austria-Hungary it seems had put their resources into culture. In to beauty. In to art. And surrounding me now were there products of Austria-Hungary switching that production to death. Giant Artillery. Trenches. False Limbs. Kitchenware with the Emperor's image hand painted on. The uniforms of soldiers from various divisions in the war. Simple fabric, not distinguishing marks - the uniform of a private in a massive army. The waist line gives away the person this was designed for; thin, frail, too few Julys before the Crisis.

It struck me all at once. How in 1900 Vienna was seen as one of the homes to Modern Culture; of a place where technology and beauty and knowledge was leading the way into a brilliant new period - the 20th Century. It was supposed to be a period where the Empire held onto its status as a world power; a multi-ethnic society (maybe even rivaling the up and coming USA) which streched across Central and Eastern Europe. Less than a generation later it came crashing down. An assassin's bullet had begun a series of events which would lead to collapse of the Empire, an identity crisis in Vienna, and ultimately the welcoming of one of history's most evil men in Adolf Hitler. And that was only the effect on Vienna. We still had Sarajevo to see.