When an empire ends, what do the people in the former land do to celebrate their history? Do they embrace it, or do they completely move away from the past?
In Austria's case, we can see their powerful and influential past in the works of art in the world-class museums. We can see the past in old Habsburg buildings and old Habsburg clothing and artifacts and old Habsburg sarchophagi. All of these things and places are valued at various millions of dollars.
Our group gets to see all of this, and often not even in our spare time. We get to see it DURING CLASS. We just hop on the U-Bahn or an S-Bahn and then we are looking and learning about something that most of us cannot even begin to afford. Sometimes all we must do is walk for five to ten minutes. Vienna was once the center of a huge empire, and these experiences grab us and yank us back into the past.
To say that the Habsburg Empire still influences Vienna would be an understatement. The Hofburg Palace – the Winter Residence of the Habsburg family – is a five-minute walk from our American Institute. Connected to the Hofburg is the Schatzkammer (the Imperial Treasury) and the National Library. The Schatzkammer has portraits of Habsburg rulers and Austrian rulers; it has the Habsburg crown and the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor (a position that was occupied by Habsburgs for hundreds of years) and the famous Habsburg chains with the symbol of the Golden Fleece; it has swords and long, hand-knit robes of every color, so thick that you may need to do some squats in the gym before wearing it around your palace. It is simply massive.
The National Library is about as Baroque as possible, heavily decorated with gold and bright colors, emboldened with emotional cherubs and biblical figures and voluminous cumulus clouds. Books line the walls, yet the aesthetic of the building would make it difficult to focus on any scholarly work. Maybe all of the cherubs actually encourage you to work harder?
In the southern part of Vienna, Schönbrunn Palace – the former summer palace/residence of the Habsburgs built in Rococo style – beckons numerous visitors every year to gaze upon its exceptional gardens and robust Rococo design. To be honest, the decadence is overwhelming. But for an Empire that counted 52 million people in 1914 just before World War I, a palace needs to convey power. That’s how a monarchical system (or any system built on inequality) survives. The empire had more land before 1914 as well. The Habsburgs were the ruling family of Spain, Bohemia, Hungary and German lands and what is now Austria. We may not learn about them in American History classes, but the influence of this family cannot be understated.
This, of course, gives us an interesting lesson as a group. We learn about the Habsburgs and Austrian history along with politics and ethnic diversity of the past 100 years in Vienna and all of Austria. It is strange to think that Vienna was far more powerful just 100 years ago, and it makes me wonder what America will be like in 100 years. Will we relinquish our power? Is this necessarily a bad idea? If we do relinquish our power, who are our Habsburgs? What would be the main tourist attractions – our Hofburg, our Schönbrunn, our Schatzkammer?
I suppose we already see it to some degree. Empty, crumbling factories in the Midwest; empty mills in Eastern Oregon; leaking roofs and decaying buildings in poverty-stricken areas of big American cities; the demolition of sports arenas and stadiums across the country to make way for new sports arenas and stadiums.
Luckily for us, our group is able to visit these incredible places in Vienna. Vienna is better now than it was hundreds of years ago in matters of human rights and democracy, but the possibility of seeing what a former Empire used to be is something that our group may never forget. Hopefully the future of America is as promising as Vienna is right now.