Forthcoming books Partners Reflections

Learning about My Home Country’s History While Working Abroad

I went abroad to learn about living in the US and ended up learning about my home country’s history too.

By Christian Stenico, UNO Press / Center Austria Publishing Fellow

When I moved from Innsbruck, Austria, to New Orleans, I expected to learn a lot about life in the US. What I did not expect, however, was to learn so much about Austria, its history, and its politics. But I really shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, the fellowship that first brought me to the University of New Orleans entailed working at Center Austria: The Austrian Marshall Plan Center for European Studies.

At Center Austria, I work with two other Austrians, center director Günter Bischof and program coordinator Gertraud Griessner. My only American coworker at the Center is assistant director Marc Landry, who hails from Vermont.

For the past two and a half years, my primary duties at Center Austria have involved assisting Bischof and Landry with producing the annual journal Contemporary Austrian Studies (CAS). Though my work on CAS represented my first professional foray into my home country’s history, my job was to help with the more technical aspects of preparing a manuscript: author coordination, footnote accuracy, and adherence to the style guide. Any time I devoted to the actual content of the articles was mostly incidental.

Surprisingly, my most intense deep dive into Austrian history came through my fellowship at UNO Press, which cooperates with Center Austria to publish CAS and the book series Studies in Central European History, Culture, & Literature. In my role as UNO Press/Center Austria publishing fellow, I was tasked with (copy)editing the newest volume in this series, Kreisky, Israel, and Jewish Identity by Daniel Roy Aschheim.

The book focuses on Austrian politician Bruno Kreisky, who served first as foreign minister and then as Austrian chancellor for a record-setting thirteen years. Growing up, I knew Kreisky as a prominent Social Democrat who had enacted important reforms like free schoolbooks for students. I’d learned about him from school and family—my grandfather had adored him as a progressive champion. However, one facet of Kreisky’s life that I’d never been acutely aware of was his Jewish identity.

Working on the book, I learned that Kreisky had the opposite problem throughout his career. While he viewed himself as a progressive, a Social Democrat, and above all else as Austrian, many other politicians and foreign leaders saw him primarily as a Jewish person. This contradiction led to numerous problems and conflicts with famous Jewish people, foremost among them Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and the famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. As I watched the book take shape, it fascinated me with its expert analysis of Kreisky’s Jewishness, which influenced his politics, his foreign policy, and his relationships with the Jewish community in Austria and abroad.

Aschheim originally wrote this book as his doctoral dissertation and did a lot of impressive research to compile it, from unearthing sealed archival documents for the first time to conducting hundreds of hours of interviews with people who knew Kreisky and worked with him. The result of his diligent research is a very comprehensive insight into Kreisky’s fraught relationship to his own Jewish identity and the ensuing conflicts with people whose conception of Jewish identity, be it their own or Kreisky’s, clashed with his.

While editing Aschheim’s manuscript, I constantly discovered fascinating chapters in my home country’s history that I had never even been aware of. For example, I learned that Austria was the primary hub for Jewish migration from the Soviet Union to Israel and that some of today’s tactical police units, like the Austrian EKO Cobra and the German GSG 9, were established in response to Palestinian terrorist attacks, some of which Kreisky had to deal with directly.

Throughout the book, I was intrigued and enthralled by parts of Austrian history that I had known little about—and by the fascinating character of Bruno Kreisky. And I sometimes had to chuckle that I had not learned these things while studying in school back home or reading in a traditional Viennese coffeehouse—but instead while editing a manuscript on UNO campus. Of course, everyone knows that studying or working abroad is an education. Still, usually, we focus on learning about the host country’s history and customs—forgetting that going abroad can also afford us a different view of our own history and culture.

By Christian Stenico

Changed the Austrian Alps for the Louisiana Swamp and love it so far. I like reading books and working on them and I'm happy to be part of the UNO Press team where I get to do both.

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