Coming to terms with the past The colony in your head
Austria’s colonial history is generally considered insignificant, and is relatively unknown throughout the population. Even the author was surprised when she found out during a trip to the port of Tianjin in Eastern China that Austria once owned territory here. What’s left over from this time? Searching for traces in Vienna.
By Miriam HüblThe wind whistles around our ears. No wonder, after all we are standing on top of a high-rise building. The sun is shining and above the light layer of smog you can even see the blue sky. Unplastered concrete beams cross above our heads and indicate a last floor that was never completed. The chest-high wall at the outer edges of this random terrace is the only reason why we don't just crawl up here on our stomachs. In my dreams, I sometimes fall off skyscrapers. Still, when I wake up I approach the wall and lean forward.
Until my friends and I decided to take a break in Tianjin and Qingdao for a long weekend, I didn’t even know that this city existed. Let alone the dark past that links my Austria with this place. My gaze wanders over the city, which extends as far as the horizon in every direction, and I know that the queasy feeling in my gut is not only due to the fact that I am leaning over a 150 meter deep abyss.
In a rectangular courtyard, thousands and thousands of the rental bikes that are so popular here in China are lined up. Orange, yellow, green, blue. Opposite, a skyscraper stretches upwards by virtue of its 65 floors; the Tianjin Modern City Office Center. The windows of the first forty floors reflect a sports field, the summer green of the trees and behind it the rest of the city - Tianjin as far as the eye can see. This port city is less than an hour away from Beijing via high-speed rail link, a megacity as it would have been called in the nineties, with almost double the population of my home country. And they say Austria used to own a colony here?
“Although the colonial efforts of the monarchy weren’t very successful, it has to be said that the psychological side-effects are certainly there. And if we want to deal with them, we need to admit that they relate to Austria’s involvement in the colonial system.”
On the other hand having a clean slate with regard to colonialism was helpful during the 1970s, when the objective was to build up relationships with the new independent nations in Asia and Africa. “And not many people are familiar with this area of our history either,” states Walter Sauer.
In the Weltmuseum Wien (Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology) I find some coloured wood engravings depicting the timeline of the Boxer Rebellion, by the end of which in 1901 Austria had acquired a concession in Tianjin just 60 hectares in size. Less than one square kilometre of leased land, a mini-colony, as a reward for the involvement of the Imperial and Royal Navy in the defeat of an uprising by natives – known as Boxers – together with Japan, Russia, the USA, the United Kingdom and the German Empire, as well as France and Italy. Their attacks on the foreign envoys are considered to have been what officially started the war. The wood engravings show the arrival of the international navies at the Taku Forts offshore of Tianjin. They show the cannons firing from both sides, with dead bodies floating in the water. They also show how a peace treaty was concluded in 1901 after a year of battles, maintaining the uneven balance of power in favour of the foreign invaders.
I walk away from the museum. In any case I keep coming back to the same question in my head: why do I find it so surprising that I knew nothing of Austria’s mini-colony? After all it was small and only existed between 1901 and 1917. Maybe it really is trifling information, I think. But if I’m honest, I’d probably have been glad if Austria had been the exception not to have a guilty conscience with regard to colonialism. I mention this thought on the phone to professor of history Walter Sauer. He laughs out loud: “Yes, that’s exactly it!” So the Austrian strategy of denial served its purpose. I ask him whether colonialism left any traces in Vienna. Sauer confirms that this is so.
But his answer’s not what I expected. The thing is, there aren’t any street names in Vienna glorifying colonialism, like Berlin’s Takustrasse for instance, which commemorates the forts off the coast of Tianjin that were shot to pieces by German gunboats. Unlike Brussels, Vienna boasts no statues in heroic poses justifying the atrocities of the colonial rulers they represent. The traces left by European colonialism in Vienna are largely invisible. “Colonial mindsets,” Walter Sauer calls it. What he means is that sense of superiority held by the West over everyone else, who were devalued as uncivilised, with no culture or history. Ultimately these thought patterns are expressed through racism, according to Sauer. “Although the colonial efforts of the monarchy weren’t very successful, it has to be said that the psychological side-effects are certainly there. And if we want to deal with them, we need to admit that they relate to Austria’s involvement in the colonial system.”
That makes the matter clearer but unfortunately no more straightforward. You see, something that’s invisible is also difficult to understand. So how do we begin to deal with a theme that’s practically non-existent in the collective consciousness? How do we liberate the colony within our heads? I put the phone down and head for the university library to search for a book about the involvement of the k.u.k. Kriegsmarine (Imperial and Royal Navy) in Tianjin, which Professor Sauer recommended to me. And while I’m clicking on the “reserve” button, I feel as though part of my question has already been answered. Where do I start? By learning my own history. And that of the others.
This article was first published by the Goethe-Institut China in the dossier “Stadt- und Landgeschichten” (City and Country Histories).