• Austria's Bridge to the World

    Federal Ministry of the Republic of Austria - Vienna

    The Federal Ministry of the Republic of Austria sits in a centuries-old building on a thriving street in one of the oldest public squares in Vienna.

    The Federal Ministry of the Republic of Austria sits in a centuries-old building on a thriving street in one of the oldest public squares in Vienna. In the Alois Mock-Saal hall, where I and eight other journalists recently gathered as part of an Austrian-American Media Fellowship, a fresco widely considered one of the most important historical artworks in Austria adorns the ceiling. Crafted between 1848 and 1850 by Beidermeier painter Leopold Kupelwieser, the elaborate 23-paneled behemoth features scenes from Austrian history.


    But, like the building whose ceiling it graces, some of that history is in need of revision.
    "Against the background of the time when it was created, the partly idealizing series of pictures, which does not always correspond to today's historical knowledge, has a more counter-revolutionary identity of the entire state," reads a pamphlet painstakingly describing each image. "On the basis of individual events, various rulers, and the virtues programmatically associated with both, represented in the form of allegorical figures, the viewer should be brought closer to Austria's mission and greatness, as well as the evidence for the past fulfillment of the values represented."*
    It's easy to present a partly-idealized version of a country's history, although harder of course to painstakingly recreate it through twenty-three intricate panels on a ceiling. But as Austria strives to position itself as a key player in solving Europe's most pressing issues - from the Ukraine war, to the nuclear insecurity, to global environmental threats - it's also taking a hard look back at its complicated past.
    During my fellowship with the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, I had the chance to speak with Dr. David Schriffl, the head of the Ministry's historical division, about confronting the building's, and country's, secrets face on.
    "It's important for the ministry to take care of our history, and the house, and look back openly at the darker parts of our history," Schriffl told me as we stood beneath the fresco.

    An elaborate fresco depicting an idealized version of Austrian history adorns the ceiling of the Federal Ministry. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Despite the long history of the square which surrounds it, the Ministry has only been at Minoritenplatz 8 since 2005. That's for two reasons; first, until 1997, the building served as the seat of the Government of the Province of Lower Austria; second, until 2005, Minoritenplatz 8 didn't exist.
    The building now known as Minoritenplatz 8 was previously known as Herrengasse 11, which, long before it housed the Government of Lower Austria for nearly two hundred years, was the site of a home once owned by the Habsburg-era noble family, the Stubenbergs. After centuries of sales, changing allegiances, and a perceived lack of loyalty brought exiles and seizures, the house at Herrengasse was remodeled and later used as the Italian and Belgian chancellery in the late 18th century. It served turns as the seat of the chancellery of the new Venetian and Polish regions of Austria, the Italian court chancellery, and later, the police censorship office. The house was ultimately demolished in 1845 and rebuilt for the Lower Austrian provincial government.
    "Although it was designed to blend in with the royal palaces nearby, this was built not as a palace, but as a place for work," Schriffl said of the three-floor building with two courtyards.


    Architect Gerhard Lindner managed to combine the distinctly Venetian glamor of the surrounding city center - listed on UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage List - with the necessities required for a modern foreign service in the new building. Part of that renovation involved reversing the building's axis to allow closer access to the Ballhausplatz governmental quarter, and the creation of the new address, Minoritzplatz 8. Today, the Ministry occupies the two buildings formerly known as Herrengasse 11 and 13, connected by a glass bridge.


    "The Foreign Ministry, which used to be distributed over six different locations in Vienna, has now been re-united in one place. Today we work under a single common roof, or to be more precise, it is actually two roofs connected by a bridge of glass," Federal Minister Dr. Ursula Plassnik said at the official opening of the newly-renovated building in 2005. "This bridge has also become a kind of visible symbol for the new Ministry for Foreign Affairs for what we are doing - namely building bridges between Austria and the world."


    "For a total of 286 years the official address of the Austrian Ministry for Foreign Affairs was Ballhausplatz 2," Plassnik said. "Thus it was not without a certain feeling of sentimentality that we left the old premises."

    View from the glass bridge connecting the two buildings of the Ministry. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Those old premises at Ballhausplatz served as the primary headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the setting for several critical moments in history. Between 1814-1815, Austrian diplomats hosted the Congress of Vienna to determine a new European order following Napoleon's defeat. Engelbert Dollfuss, the fascist chancellor of Austria was assassinated in his office by Nazis in Ballhausplatz in 1934. His successor, Kurt Schuschnigg, after failing in his attempts to keep Austria an independent state, gave his resignation speech at Ballhausplatz before being arrested by the Gestapo and remained in concentration camps for several years. (He was liberated, spent several years in the U.S. as a professor, and died an old man in Innsbruck with historians still debating his legacy.)


    "Part of the work we're doing, a large part, is telling the full histories of the civil servants who were forced to flee, or were taken, during the war, and the other civil servants who turned them in," Schriffl told me.


    A plaque in the building bears witness to this effort.


    "In memory of those members of the Austrian foreign service who, loyal to their fatherland, fell victim to national socialist persecution. Your example is a binding legacy for us and for future generations," it reads.


    Schriffl will be issuing a full report when his research is complete. Once it is finished, the Ministry that has seen so many changes over the centuries, and the building that flipped on its axis, might be due for another mural, this one depicting events that might more closely correspond with today's historical knowledge.


    *Research documents in German were translated via Google. Something not right? Please get in touch.

    A plaque bears witness to atrocities committed against members of the foreign service. Photo by Molly McCluskey.