Coming to Terms with the Past The Colony in Your Head

Colonial history – View of Tianjin from a skyscraper
View of Tianjin from a skyscraper | Photo: Miriam Hübl

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 Hübl

The 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.”

Back in Vienna I call Walter Sauer. He’s a history professor at the University of Vienna and specialises in the subject of colonialism and the Habsburg monarchy, as well as African history. I studied history for a few terms myself, as part of my politics degree. And in my capacity as a journalist I also focused on European colonialism – specifically Belgian. It puzzles me that I’ve never come across the k.u.k. (Imperial and Royal) concession in Tianjin as one of Austria’s few colonial projects. Didn’t Austria give up its colonial agenda after a few failed conquest attempts on the east coast of Africa and in the Indian Ocean? I’m sure I’m not alone in having this gap in my knowledge, I think. And I’d like Walter Sauer to tell me why I don’t actually know anything about Tianjin. “The prevailing idea is that Austria had nothing to do with colonialism.” He explains to me that after the Second World War, Austria denied its colonial past to begin with. This was down to two strategic motives: firstly before annexation to Nazi Germany in 1938 they liked to boast that the Habsburg Empire had served as an exemplary role model for German colonialism and therefore aided the rise of the National Socialist German Reich. A theory that they sought to replace as fast as possible after the war with the victim theory, which was why it needed to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

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.
Racism – Austria's colonial history in the Weltmuseum Wien: The ethnological museum in the Vienna Hofburg was renamed in 2013, before it was called Museum für Völkerkunde. Austria's colonial history in the Weltmuseum Wien: The ethnological museum in the Vienna Hofburg was renamed in 2013, before it was called Museum für Völkerkunde. | © KHM-Museumsverband
I’m amazed. And what’s left from this era? What memories are there of the Austrian concession territory in Tianjin and the developments leading up to it? The modern image of Vienna bears no trace of it. The Austro-Chinese community, which numbers around 30 000 people, is well integrated with the majority society, it doesn’t really stand out as a group in public. I find a little piece of China in Vienna near the Naschmarkt in the 5th district. All around the 350 year-old food market, a handful of Chinese restaurants and shops have sprung up. On a grey house wall, someone has spray-painted a stencil image in blue on the wall. 中國城 is written there, China Town, and alongside it: “Wien 5” – Vienna 5. A minimal intervention that certainly has nothing to do with Tianjin. My search in the museum yields better results.
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.
Kolonialgeschichte – Österreichs Kolonialgeschichte im Weltmuseum Wien Österreichs Kolonialgeschichte im Weltmuseum Wien | © KHM-Museumsverband
What the artworks don’t show is what happened before the Boxer Rebellion. The Opium Wars that forced China to open up its ports. The Christian missionary activities, which created new inequalities within the population thanks to the policy of favouring Chinese Christians. The way the majority of Chinese people were forced into opium dependency due to economic considerations. And how foreign powers used their military superiority to institutionalise economic advantages by means of “unequal treaties”. The woodcuts may not show that, but there’s a flag I find in the museum archive. It’s red, the paint seems to have been splattered onto the fabric in hectic fashion, smeared almost like blood. In Chinese characters is written the appellation “Support the Qing dynasty, destroy the foreigners”. It’s the same old story that humanity masters so perfectly: sow hatred and you will reap hatred.

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).