By Klaus Mayr
While there have been many changes in Europe since the year 1717, one thing has stayed the same: The Austrian chancellor’s mailing address (As a gesture to modernity, a virtual address was added though: www. bka.gv.at). I am writing about the “Ballhausplatz” – one of Europe’s historic centers of power, illusion, delusion, war and peace, love and hate – just like Downing Street Number 10, the Elysée, or the White House in Washington, D.C.
Today, while the building has lost its position as big player in an increasingly globalized world, its staff still goes to work in a truly historic building. In order to keep up the high spirit, it is also to be noted that the White House is almost a hundred years younger than its Austrian counterpart, which is even eight years older than the historic residence of the British Prime Minister. One difference between the building on the Ballhausplatz and the London residence was that Austria simply could not afford its construction in 1717.
Never willing to follow the model set up by the British notion of understatement, the imperial court built it like every other noble palace in Vienna at that time: far too big and far too costly for the overstretched state finances. However, the government managed this crisis creatively by inventing new consumer taxes: First of all, the court increased taxes on alcohol, which had always proven to be an excellent source of revenue, especially around Vienna with its lovely vineyards.
One has to keep in mind that Austria was never a country with a strong temperance movement and the drinking water in Vienna in the 18th century was muddy and toxic. To make things even worse for consumers, a completely new tax was invented – one on beef. To put it in other words: The “Wiener Schnitzel”, made of veal and not pork and certainly not of chicken or turkey, enabled the completion of this famous building. It helped to decorate it with thinly beaten gold, expensive Bohemian crystal chandeliers and Persian rugs. Next time you order a Schnitzel during your stay in Vienna you might think about the financial contribution it has made to our cultural heritage.
Today, the “Ballhausplatz” is the seat of the Austrian Federal Chancellor, appointed by the Austrian President. Formerly, it was the seat of the imperially appointed Austrian/Austrian-Hungarian foreign minister and even earlier, in the 18th century, it was the seat of the “Staatskanzler”. The original name of the building was “Geheime Hof- und StaatsCanzley der auswärtigen Geschäfte“ (Secret Court and State Chancellery for foreign affairs).
After a few years, it was rebranded into the even more mysterious „K.K. geheime Hof- und Staats-Canzley der auswärtigen, Niederländischen und Italiänischen Geschäfte” (Imperial Secret Court and State Chancellery for foreign, Dutch and Italian affairs). The building itself has been enlarged several times since 1717 to host the ever-increasing number of civil servants working there. Despites all the changes, it preserved its original Baroque design, though its interior has been modernized significantly. Commissioned by Emperor Charles VI, who was forced to give up his claim to the Spanish throne and crown, the architect Lukas von Hildebrandt created this building right next to the city walls and close to many other private and public buildings.
The plot of land, donated by Charles, was rather small – the architect really had to squeeze his palace in between brothels, cemeteries, pig stalls and the imperial palace. But the monarch’s whish was his command, and Charles desperately needed this building. After his humiliating defeat in Spain (Spanish War of Succession), the Emperor wanted to create a coherent foreign policy, with all its policy makers working under one roof, which was the original idea behind the Ballhausplatz.
But Lukas von Hildebrandt had his own ideas, too: He created this unique “think-tank” in the shape of a pentagon. One has to know that the number 5 at that time stood for wisdom. Through design he sent a clear message to the public: the emerging centralized state is based on enlightened principles. Since the Second World War, electricity and proper bathrooms were installed, as well as a heating system for all rooms. Before that, only a limited number of them could or would be heated.
Life after the Habsburgs
Keeping up with the Austrian temper, changes do not happen swiftly. The new Republic of Austria dismantled the AustriaHungarian imperial foreign ministry in November 1920, two years after the last emperor had abdicated and the First Republic was created (November 1918). Ludwig Freiherr von Flotow had gracefully represented the liquidated double monarchy until then, and for 70 more years Empressdowager Zita (died in 1989) unsuccessfully regarded it as her obligation to reinstate her family as rightful monarchs. She could not face the fact that the newly established Republic of Austria (and other nations) chose to live on the great heritage of the Habsburgs but did not want to live with them anymore.
Otto Bauer, a Social Democrat of Bohemian Jewish origin, became the first democratically legitimized foreign minister on the Ballhausplatz in 1918. The legacy of his family looms on, at least among cultural insiders. His sister, Ida Bauer, is better known as Sigmund Freud’s patient Dora. Freud even published a case study about Dora, “Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” On a The “Kongressaal”, the venue of the Vienna Congress AI 32 different note, his nephew Kurt Herbert Adler led the San Francisco Opera from 1953 – 1981 and established it as one of America’s leading opera houses. What else has changed? Most art historians agree that the color of the present exterior might not be the same one as in 1717. We assume that it was pink back then, just like Schönbrunn, the summer residence of the imperial family. Both Schönbrunn and the Ballhausplatz shine today in so called “imperial” yellow as every tourist expects from a typical Habsburg building. The reason for this “corporate design” is easily explained – the color was cheap.
The current federal chancellor, Werner Faymann, has been in office since 2008 and therefore is (as of 2015) the second-longest serving prime minister in the EU; some kind of record in crisis ridden Europe. Gone are the days, however, when Prince Wenzel Anton von KaunitzRietberg served as chancellor for 40 years and his grandson-in-law, Prince Klemens Wenzel Lothar von Metternich, stayed in office for 39 years before being forced to step down by a rather bloody revolution in 1848. When Metternich was forced to flee to London, the building closed one special chapter in its history: He was the last office holder to live with his family in the building – just like the U.S. president still does at the White House today. That he lived there is a slight exaggeration; since torn between running European affairs and courting his numerous mistresses, he hardly ever slept at the Ballhausplatz, especially in 1814/15.
For almost a year, at the Congress of Vienna, he and other diplomats and statesmen redrew the European boundaries, drafted a peace treaty which effectively secured peace for a hundred years in Europe. Henry Kissinger has portrayed Metternich brilliantly in his book “A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822”. First published in 1957, it is still a classic in diplomatic history and read all over U.S. universities. The scale of long-serving ministers also has another end: During the tumultuous years of our short lived First Republic (1918-1934), one prime minister served just for one day: Walter Breisky is fondly ignored as Austria’s fourth prime minister, serving from January 26th to the 27th, 1922. He then became President of the National Statistics Institute.
Today’s job for an Austrian prime minister comes without many perks; no official residence, no servants, no special food, just long hours, telephones that never stop ringing and daily harassment by the press. Democracy turned the table and long gone are the days when the government was able to control the press: Following Austria’s experience with the notoriously paranoid Metternich the freedom of press was enshrined in the Austrian constitution.
However, some things have not changed in the building: A picture of Maria Theresia (Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Hungary, Croatia, Dalmatia, Slawonia, Queen of Bohemia, Queen of Lodomeria and Galicia, Duchess of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuskany … and at least 35 more titles) still dominates the Steinsaal, the Chancellor’s greeting and meeting room. As mother of 16 children, she was busy all her life defending her paternal heritage against Prussia and its confederates, raising her kids and reforming a nation. By 18th century standards, she was also unusually happy in her marriage with her adored husband, Emperor Franz Stephan.
Despite the fact that a bloodless revolution deposed the Habsburgs in 1918, the picture of another prominent member of this 600 year-old dynasty still dominates the central power room in the chancellery. It is Franz Joseph, who has been gazing down on the prime ministers and other cabinet members of the Austrian governments during their weekly meetings. Franz Joseph, ruling the largest nation in the heart of Europe for 68 years, personifies the “good old days” in Central European history. His grandfatherly look, his ultra-slim wife Sissi (her waist size was less than 14 inches!), his tragic family life (his brother was shot by revolutionaries in Mexico, his son murdered his underaged lover and committed suicide, his wife stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist, his great-grand-nephew and Crown-Prince assassinated in Sarajevo, thus triggering WWI), as well as his exceptionally long reign have turned him into a popular hero even 100 years after his death.
Today, people tend to ignore that his reactionary policy, his unwillingness to reform, his complete incompetence as military leader, his insistance on keeping up the alliance with Germany, led by bellicose Prussia, and his ignorance of social problems ultimately led to the collapse and dissolution of the multiethnic Austrian-Hungarian monarchy into her constituent nations in a bloody war.
Twenty-Five years later, as bombs had partly destroyed the Ballhausplatz in World War II, the Second Republic had to find a new “language” for the building. Oswald Haerdtl restored the structure of the building and politicians who already had been active in the First Republic between the world wars restored the political structure of Austria after its liberation in 1945. Today, the Chancellor faces new challenges and while working, he is reminded by a Latin inscription in his office, that “Austria erit in orbe ultima” (“AEIOU”: Austria will be forever).
Klaus Mayr currently works at the Federal Press Service of the Federal Chancellery of the Republic of Austria. As a trained historian, he regularly leads tours of the famous building on the Ballhausplatz.