On Past, on History, and on Idiocy

/ by Gerold Wallner

In the late 1820s and 30s, first plans were devised for a railway connecting the Habsburg capital Vienna, the Italian harbour Trieste and the metropolis of Milano, then part of the Habsburg Empire. In 1854 the last jigsaw piece, the section between Gloggnitz and Mürzzuschlag, the most famous Semmering railway, was opened to traffic. In 1869, in Vienna, the starting point of the Southern Line, the old Gloggnitzer Bahnhof (Gloggnitz station) was replaced by the new Südbahnhof (Southern Railway station), erected from 1869 to 1874. At the end of World War II, the latter was seriously damaged, like its neighbouring station, the Ostbahnhof (Eastern Railway station), former Raaber Bahnhof (the station of the Raab Line to Hungary). Both buildings were removed in the 1950s and exchanged for an elegant, modern construction, a combined rectangular double rail head, connected by a huge light-flooded entrance hall, two stories high.

 

The planners then did not ask for the beauties of the past Gründerzeit (an Austrian equivalent of the German Wilhelminian style) while revelling in the modernity of the post war period which allowed for a renunciation of the pompiérisme of former imperialist and fascist times. But at the beginning of the new millennium, this second Southern and Eastern Railway station (Süd-Ostbahnhof) did not meet the necessities of accelerated hasty modern life: Terminuses were out of time. Through stations were the actual desideratum, and the buildings of the fifties were wrecked, the combined railway stations and the adjacent switching yard station, the post offices for parcel and packet traffic and the central customs offices — all this was replaced by an all European featureless Vienna Main Station.

 

In 1851 a treaty between the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Bavaria provided for a railway from Vienna to Munich. In August 1860 the line was inaugurated, with Maximilian II of Bavaria and Franz Joseph I of Austria as guests of honour. The rail head in Vienna was built in 1858, the Kaiserin Elisabethbahn (Empress Elisabeth Line, now Western Line) connecting Vienna to Linz, and only in 1860 further to Salzburg and Munich. It was bombed in 1945 and dismantled in 1949. The new construction, partly opened to traffic in 1951 and finished in 1954, resembled in style and architecture the Southern Railway Station (though planned and built by other architects and not as elegant and inventive) and was called Westbahnhof.

 

After WW I, the Western line had become the main line of the Austrian Federal Railways, Austria having lost its Mediterranean seaside and harbours of Trieste, Abbazia, and Pola (Trst, Opatija, and Pula – oversea trade and traffic, yacht and domestic tourism, navy) to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1995 the line became known as the TEN project No. 17 (a high-speed line from Paris to Bratislava), part of the Trans-European Transport Network. The Western Line was enlarged to be used by high speed trains and redirected to the new Vienna Main Station. The Westbahnhof was subsequently downgraded to a local railway station without any international connection, approached only by state or privately run local and national lines. Nevertheless, the railway station was regarded as a class-listed building and the reconstruction of the surrounding edifices – after the demolition of the largest post office of the country, connected to the railway station and part of a now abolished common communication and transport system – was to be schemed under the obligations of the protection of historic monuments.

 

So far for the past. Let’s have a look at history.

 

History is not only the academic and scientific occupation with the past, following a strict chronology and causality of events. It is also – and perhaps mainly – an ideological justification of the present: If scholars speak of flint industries or of the agrarian revolution, they insinuate that mankind has always been industrial or revolutionary. They are binding notions of modern political or economic relations of the last three hundred years to events of bygone ten or twenty or thirty thousand years. Recent philosophy – comprising contemplation on arts and reflections on mankind and its systems of thinking and explaining the world from theurgy and magic over religion to science and critique – is full of this approach.

 

A famous example is the essay of Georges Bataille on Lascaux or the Birth of Art: The Prehistoric Paintings. Bataille treats his object as if he were in a modern art gallery, and the title expresses only that the critic looks with his contemporary eyes on the paintings (if you don’t mind the expression “painting” in this case) and does not venture the slightest attempt to interpret what he sees from a standpoint of the creators of really bygone times. He sees art where we even don’t know if those people wanted to express themselves in the way of artists, or of what they were speaking, what they were expecting when they coloured the walls of their caves with animals. We don’t even know if, in their eyes, they made pictures of animals or made real animals. It is, of course, legitimate that Bataille does not answer these questions, but only the questions that he himself poses. But we must concede, on the other hand, that in his grand essay he does not speak of people deceased and long separated from their descendants; Bataille only speaks of our times, our relations and society, of ourselves and of himself.

 

Thus, for history the past is not ruinous relics of bygone centuries and millennia. History knows no ruins, only sources. For history, the past is the living heritage and confirmation of our way of life. Even where we don’t understand our predecessors – if they really are predecessors, if there really is a logical causal course from what they did and intended to what we do and intend. I deny any such connection and argue instead for a series of ruptures in the development and evolution of man and society – historians of our times and circumstances are obliged to construct this timeline that confirms that everything we do or let happen has deeper grounds in a live past living on in ourselves. Neurologists speak of our Stone Age brains that make us do things in certain ways, as if the construction of nuclear power plants or the theorising of Black Holes were a biological feature, and not a social achievement.

 

Society is no unchangeable constant, improved only by progress. In my view, there were several forms of society, each of them with its own ways of thinking about themselves and organising themselves, their environments, and the relations between them. But in the view of our society, of our actual social relations, all human forms of living together and organising this living together are the same as our own today, only differing by a lesser degree of development and evolution. Thus, it is logical for us — but not for me — to speak of flint industries or of Stone Age art. And if there are philosophers, like Walter Benjamin, who point out the difference and incongruity of art of the ancient and of the modern world, there are also philosophers like George Bataille who declare the unity and reconcilability of all human creation, from the Mesolithic up to our modern times, while disavowing that he has only these modern times in mind.

 

So far for history. It has nothing to do with the past. Now for idiocy.

 

The second Southern Railway station included an underground stop for the Viennese municipal railway. This stop was modernised after the destruction of the old building and, being no longer part of the new main station, it got a new entrance, situated between three museums at the edge of a park.

 

Bad language
In the background of the opposite doorways we find two display cases with relics that were excavated while constructing the foundations of the new main station. In bad German, and in equally bad English, the labels tell the origins of the presented exhibits.

 

It may be alright to remember architectural achievements of former times, even if there are no traces left of those erstwhile buildings that were deliberately removed after severe war damages. In Vienna all bigger construction projects are accompanied by the work of the city’s archaeological department. In most cases, the public takes no notice of them. The troves are generally documented, sometimes preserved in archives or small museums of the boroughs, mostly planted in the earth again after being described.

 

In the case of the first Southern Railway station, we find a special spectacle. After having admired the showcases with the caryatid, we are already a bit suspicious, and when we descend to the platforms of the city train, we are greeted by other vitrines displaying bricks and stuccos and mural ornaments, all orderly described.

 

Tin can
And there is one glass case to top them all.

 

Here we see glass pieces of a chandelier, an ink bottle, an empty can of sardines, as well as bottles of wine and liquor. There is not the slightest reference to any cultural or artistic importance. We are told the simple truth that ordinary human beings have been here, drinking wine, eating fish, filling in forms with pen and ink, as you would expect with a building of the dimensions of a central station and its restaurants, stores, and bureaus.

 

Here, of course, we don’t deal with prehistoric findings; but the approach is the same as that of Bataille confronted with the paintings of Lascaux: We speak of ourselves while looking at the achievements of our forerunners. Though in the present case it is rather ridiculous, it is the same scheme. Bataille wants to make us believe that art has been in mankind from the very beginning. The Austrian Federal Railways want to make us believe that there has always been traffic.

 

Modern art
Interestingly and consequently enough, those exhibits and their labels don’t waste a single word on all the then-new developments and upheavals connected to 19th century railway technology. No word on timetables and the establishing of mandatory time zones. No word on stock companies and state interventions, no word on migrant workers and working camps — only the consent that railways are part of our lives. Consequently, no word on EU traffic policies, either. But we are to admire a rusted tin can. Thus, it is almost a relief to find some contemporary expression of art and of life in the same station.

 

An equally astonishing folly is to be regarded in the Western Railway station, as a whole. What we saw in the city line stop, we see there in large scale. The Western Railway station is a class listed building (I don’t want to discuss the policies of UNESCO. For further information see https://newleftreview.org/II/88/marco-d-eramo-unescocide). There are some interesting arguments concerning the domestic decision of listing the façade and entrance hall of the station. To reinforce my arguments, I recommend two articles of the critic and lecturer Jan Tabor, published in the Viennese weekly “Falter” #50 from 2009 “In den letzten Zügen” (In the Final Throes; the German pun can’t be translated) and #47 from 2011 “Dieser Zug ist abgefahren” (This Train Is Gone, a pun, too).

 

While the Southern Station exhibits, in the surroundings of the neighbouring city train stop, only parts of some withered past in its historic and archaeological context, the Western Station is preserved as a relic in itself. That means – though it is formally renovated – it is stripped of most of its former functions as one of several main stations in town, and preserved as an architectural showpiece as a whole. Jan Tabor deplores, in his articles, that the demolition of the Southern Station and the listing and subsequent renovation of the Western Station reflects an orientation, political and social, cultural and ideological, of Austria to the West.

 

The West stands for progress, leadership, development and production, whereas the South (and the East of course, the Southern Station was also an Eastern Station) is a symbol for leisure and laxity, where nothing really works, but where you can find the pleasures of dolce far niente. Equally the South and mainly the East stand for political enmity or lack of confidence, but that goes without saying. And they also stand for the arrival of immigrant workers and poverty amidst the well-to-do era of full employment and Wirtschaftswunder and thus for xenophobia and ethnic and racial bias, as well. Where the South is looked at benignly, it refers to the development of the domestic tourism while another Wirtschaftswunder, that of the Habsburg Gründerzeit, was on its way. This nostalgic approach has been subject of several exhibitions all over the country and tells only of the good olden days of the monarchy’s gentry and bourgeoisie and reaches only as far as the Semmering Mountains.

 

Western station, hidden.
The orientation towards the West is best symbolized by an inscription opposite the station, in commemoration of the place’s former name. It was baptised Europaplatz (Europe Square). But alas, all international trains nowadays avoid this symbolic place and run past it through an underground tunnel that leads from the town’s border directly to the new main station, and from there to the next international destination. And when you take the tramway to the Western station, you won’t see it, when you arrive.

 

Western station
The station is hidden behind an architectural monstrosity and squeezed between this one and an equally hideous building. Thus, the poor old building looks framed and out of time, a ruin of former ages, now adapted to some usefulness.

 

It is astonishing, in the fate of the two railway depots, that it seems taken for granted that people will find dealing with history and the past interesting. A ruined building, ruined by the demolition of its surroundings and by the aching weight of its new surroundings, ruined by the minimalization of its original place, is presented as something to be preserved, on ideological grounds. It appears as an architectural misfit between the two giant buildings, and of course not as an example of misguided and unthoughtful urban planning. For it has its honoured place in the metropolis’ protected list of buildings. And the other ruined building, ruined by its ultimate demolition, offers some remnants of its debris as archaeological trophies, and nobody asks if we are being kidded.

....
Gerold Wallner

, born in 1953, lives in Vienna, occupied with the bourgeois and civil society, its arts and politics, both actively and passively. Publications: Gültige Aussagen. Was ist die bürgerliche Gesellschaft und warum hat sie keinen Bestand? (with Petra Haarmann and Jörg Ulrich), G. M. Tamás, Kommunismus nach 1989. Beiträge zu Klassentheorie, Realsozialismus und Osteuropa, translated and edited by G. W., Carl Michael Bellman – der Beginn der modernen Dichtung in Schweden, translations of Bellman’s songs from Swedish into German. lamentationes, poems, and in illo tempore, short stories at www.gerold-wallner.info 


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