Theses Doctoral

Between Geopolitics and Geopoetics – “Mitteleuropa” as a Transnational Memory Discourse in Austrian and Yugoslav Postwar Literature

Zivkovic, Yvonne

My dissertation Between Geopolitics and Geopoetics – “Mitteleuropa” as a Transnational Memory Discourse in Austrian and Yugoslav Postwar Literature examines how the German idea of Central Europe inspired a new poetics of memory in Austrian and South Slavic literary texts during the Cold War period (1945 – 1989). As early as the 19th century, German and Austrian political thinkers (Fürst von Metternich, Friedrich Liszt, Friedrich Naumann) have framed ideas of Germanic cultural and economic eastward expansion under the term Mitteleuropa. This was countered by a wave of post-imperial Austrian literature after 1918 that nostalgically evoked what had once been the largest multiethnic and multilingual political entity on the continent as Mitteleuropa. Even though these writings offered far from a unifying vision of old Austria, literary scholarship in the 1960s interpreted them as creating a retrospective utopia or “Habsburg myth.” Decades later, a group of Eastern European dissidents resuscitated that same literary idea to attack the Cold War division of Europe.

The dialectics inherent in the Mitteleuropa debate from the beginning (east versus west, Germans versus Slavs, center versus periphery) have continued to shape postwar public discourses on memory, loss and justice. Challenging both expansionist and nostalgic visions of a larger Europe, my dissertation argues that with the radical geo-political shifts after World War II, an alternate memory discourse of Mitteleuropa emerged in the work of writers who questioned previous notions of geographic identity and national allegiance. By looking at the way that iconic writers like Ingeborg Bachmann, Peter Handke, Danilo Kiš and Dubravka Ugrešić utilize the legacy of Habsburg nostalgia in the postwar period to develop their own poetics of memory, I show how they establish a new form of engaged writing, which transgresses the ideological divide that has defined the continent.

I reveal deep ties between the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia and the second Austrian Republic of 1955, dating back to a common imperial past, the persistent ideal of a multiethnic community and an uneasy relationship to dogmatic political ideologies. Both the second Austrian Republic and the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia found themselves in what seemed to be a historical vacuum after the end of the Second World War: Though under completely different political premises, both countries elided uncomfortable aspects of their recent pasts and replaced them with a highly edited version of historical ‘truth.’ In Austria, this meant a self-fashioning as the first victim of Nazi-Germany, and a denial of widespread collaboration in Holocaust atrocities.

In the newly founded federative republic of Yugoslavia, Socialist ideology promoted the image of the partisan hero, but kept silent about crimes committed by the ‘liberators’ themselves. While Austria sought to distance itself from postwar Germany through a nostalgic reference to the Habsburg Empire, the Yugoslav Socialists’ official rhetoric of progress, plurality and unity left no room for inconvenient truths that might ignite conflicts between its numerous ethnicities. For lack of a public debate, the role of critical memory in both countries was consequently taken over by postwar authors and artists offering a different ‘engaged’ literature without succumbing to the pitfalls of ideology. Unlike previous interpretations, which focus on the historical ruptures created by Nazi Fascism and the Iron Curtain, my dissertation shows that Central Europe persists both as a literary network and a cultural community (Kulturgemeinschaft) defined by political debate and civic engagement.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Germanic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Huyssen, Andreas A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 8, 2015