Austrianness – I always ask myself:

what is that?

it is absurdity to the power of1

I would most like to be French

not English not Russian


the fact that I am Austrian

is the source of my greatest unhappiness2

It would be hard to find a better example of the connection between art and politics than the relationship between Thomas Bernhard and his own country. The quotes from one of his plays – Heroes’ Square – allow us to suppose that we are going to be dealing with a difficult, stormy relationship in which both sides drown in a flood of mutual accusations and complaints, attacking one another with hateful energy, repeatedly causing each other disappointments. The formula behind this interplay doesn’t however stop at negative traits, because the endless battling is also a sign of deep attachment. Attempts at talking about Bernhard’s work in this context also become a story about the past, about history, a hard legacy and religious complications, a tale about life in a country where these factors in a major way determined and go on determining socio-political realities.

One can look at the relations between Thomas Bernhard and his homeland from two sides, thereby adopting a very Bernhard-like framework for this story. This version of events on the one hand has a typically literary aspect (plays and novels), and on the other is constructed from real life events in which Thomas Bernhard played a key role or which he used as inspiration during the process of writing. It turns out, however, that these two separate points of view are more connected than separate, that in many places that which is real becomes literary and vice versa.

Literary characters, such as Reger from the novel Old Masters, or Franz Josef Murau from Extinction use sharp terms with which to describe their place of abode. And yet, because both protagonists can be seen as the writer’s alter egos, it seems we’re not exaggerating when we posit the thesis that in fact Bernhard would get behind each one of those iconoclastic statements as an author, but also as a citizen. The unsophisticated comments which appear in his cycle of autobiographical novels and attack schools which have socio-nationalistic and Catholic profiles seem like advance warnings of the tirades his protagonists will unleash and cause us to follow similar logic. On the border between literature and reality one should also locate the letters Bernhard sent to various newspapers and in which he made his own political position quite clear. Just analysing the format of these letters points to the similarities between them and the literary output of their author. If one then looks at Bernhard’s public appearances, which often ended in scandal, in reading their descriptions it seems that those taking part in these events had to have the sense that they were living in a fictional world. One could say that the blurred line between fiction and reality in Bernhard’s works also applies to his writing and speaking about politics.

God, honour, nation – these three words in his works, loaded with meaning, remain questionable. In his writing and his public statements, Bernhard has charted almost half a century of their collapse, erosion and attempts at corrupting what they mean. The judgements he made in time looked more and more valid and towards the end of his life, in works such as Old Masters, Extinction and Heroes’ Square they reached a peak of calumny and ridicule. Towards the end, in his last will and testament Bernhard made his peace with Austria, and yet before this happened one of the labels which stuck to him was the term Nestbeschmutzer – he who fouls his own nest.

Politics – An Attempted Definition

An answer to the question of what Thomas Bernhard’s politics were will above all come from the word: everydayness. Born in 1931, he experienced the absurdity of war and National Socialism, and events of that time appear in his works as aspects of a troublesome legacy which is not always easy to manage. In Extinction, Franz Josef Murau recalls how his parents hid Nazis in their Kindervilla, and Schermaier the gardner, denounced by a neighbour, was sent to a concentration camp; in the play Eve of Retirement Rudolf, a judge and former SS officer, holds a private ceremony during which he plays out a show on Himmler’s birthday, dressing his disabled sister in striped concentration camp “pyjamas”; numerous times the author also described the presence of right-wing tendencies in post-War Austria. In his novel Old Masters Roger states that “forty years after the War ended the situation in Austria has once again reached the nadir of moral darkness”3, and the characters from the play Heroes’ Square go on to say:

Oxford is a nightmare for me

but Vienna is for me, every day,

a much worse nightmare

I cannot live here any longer

I wake and have to fight back fears

the conditions today really are

just like in 1938

there are now more Nazis in Vienna

than in 1938

you’ll see

everything will end badly4


the intellectual life in this town

has been choked to death by the meanness

and stupidity of conmen in high places

Ninety percent of all my associates are Nazis

said Father

or are representatives of Catholic

or National Socialist idiocy

they’re all wicked and disgraceful

Vienna is the seat of dumb wickedness5

In the writings of the author if The Lime Works National Socialism becomes one of the nation’s fundamental flaws. The second cause of the undoing of the Austrian nation is the Catholic Church. These two ideologies often work interchangeably and according to Bernhard have a dominant influence on the lives of the residents of this small country in Central Europe, dictating the standards of their thinking and working.

In Austria, you have to be either Catholic

or National Socialist

nothing else is tolerated

everything else is destroyed

and this means 100% Catholic

or 100% pure National Socialist

In Austria you must be Catholic6

It’s easy to realise that in a country populated almost solely by National Socialists, who are also at the same time 100% Catholic, words such as God, honour and nation begin to mean things they shouldn’t necessarily mean. Warped, transformed meanings of such words define the political landscape, one which Bernhard actively observed and criticised. It seems that another answer to the question “What was politics to Bernhard?” could be “A game.” The author, studying human lives as never ending performances, seeing and describing human existence in theatrical categories, also saw politics in the theatrical space, the stage, the show, the spectacle. An example of this sort of perception can be seen in the play Elizabeth II, in which characters meet in order to admire the ceremonial visit of the British monarch or the play The President, in which the First Lady, while dressing in front of a mirror, utters the words:

To wake


become the First Lady

First Lady

she combs her hair

First Lady

Then our faces are

just as grey

she applies make up

To slip into

the role of the First Lady7

Reger’s thoughts travel along a similar trajectory when he speaks about society which acts as the audience: “Such a beautiful country, (…), and yet such a deep moral quagmire, said, such a beautiful country, and yet such a staunchly wicked people. What is most scary is that individuals can only be passive observers, paralysed, unable to resist in any way.”8

Political provocations

In spite of the words quoted above, Bernhard rarely remained a “passively gaping audience member” in the face of political game playing. He protested against official lies and challenged the actions of politicians, often becoming the subject of scandals in the process. A few times he managed to even play a key role in events which involved major politics. One of the most famous “performances” the author took part in was his speech when receiving the Austrian National Prize in 1968, when he said:

The state is a creation which from the outset is condemned to failure, its people to infamy and imbecility. We are Austrians, we are apathetic; we are life utterly disinterested in life, we are megalomania as future in the process of nature. We have nothing to say other than that we are worthy of pity, that through our imaginations we have lapsed into philosophical-economical-mechanical monotony. We are the means to the delivery of downfall, creatures of agony, everything has to be explained itself to us, we understand nothing. We inhabit a trauma, we are afraid, we have a right to be afraid, we already see, though still indistinct in the background: the giants of fear. What we think is afterthought, what we feel is chaotic, what we are is unclear. We need not be ashamed, but we are nothing either, and we deserve nothing but chaos.

On behalf of myself and on behalf of all other laureates, I express my gratitude to all who are present.9

The giving of this speech ended in disaster. The furious Minister of Education, shaking his fist at the author, called him (in Bernhard’s own words) a “dog” and exited the ceremony, along with many representatives of culture and politics. Before exiting, he is said to have shouted “Even so, we are proud to be Austrian!”. In fear of another scandal, the next award was sent to Bernhard by post. After 1972, Bernhard refused any more awards, publicly stating that he wouldn’t accept the Nobel Prize either. These sorts of behaviour and comments addressed at Austria, appearing ever more often in his texts, made him the target of numerous attacks from politicians. In 1985, after a premiere of The Showman at the Salzburger Festspielen festival, the minister of finance Franz Vranitzky publicly stated that the way in which Austria is presented in the show are unacceptable. Werner Schneyder, a cabaret performer, took up this phrase, asking therefore whether any performances of Bernhard’s plays should be funded from public sources. Herbert Moritz, minister of education, also joined the debate. The author of The Showman replied in no uncertain terms in his text Vranitzky. Eine Erwiderung (Vranitzky. A Response) published in Die Presse, in which he stated that “The country in which cabaret performers stand side by side with politicians is perversion on a European scale.”10

Performances of Thomas Bernhard’s plays often went hand in hand with political scandals. In 1975, the premiere of The President in Stuttgart (four days after the pre-premiere in Vienna’s Akademietheater) took place at the same time as the trial of the Baader-Meinhof group in the Stammheim prison. The line from Bernhard’s play “Mit den Anarchisten wird jetzt kurzer Prozess gemacht” took on a whole new meaning.11 The stage was parodying the hysteria raging within the political establishment: “Alle haben Angst/ alle/ alle/ in diesem Staat herrscht nurmehr noch die Angst / Everyone is afraid/ everyone / everyone/ This country is now ruled by nothing other than fear.”12 There is also a thin thread linking one of the members of RAF with the premiere of another play by Bernhard, also political in tone. The topic of the play Eve of Retirement. A comedy about the German soul was kept secret until the day of the premiere. The main protagonist was Rudolf Hoeller – a head of court and former SS officer. This was a veiled attack at the Baden-Württemberg president Hans Filbinger. Filbinger called Claus Peymann (theatrical director and friend of Bernhard) “a terrorist sympathiser” when Peymann collected donations for dental work needed by Gudrun Ennslin (RAF) and made sure he lost his job as theatre director. In the end, however, he himself had to retire, before Peymann was removed from his theatre, when his shameful past during WWII came to light. And so the writing of Eve of Retirement was in some way an act of revenge, which happened to end the politician’s career.

A decidedly bigger scandal, which the duet of Bernhard-Peymann was responsible for, was the staging of Bernhard’s last play at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Commissioned for the hundredth anniversary of this theatre on Ringstrasse, the play caused a real storm in Austria. Even before the premiere, parts of the play had been leaked to the press. Their contents were enough for protests to come from a range of sources. Bernhard was attacked with phrases such as “Hinaus aus Wien mit dem Schuft” (“Get this scumbag out of Vienna”) (Joerg Heider, FPOE-Obmann). The Vice-Chancellor and VP-Obmann Alois Mock said: “Wenn ich zustaendige Minister waere, wuerde ich dagegen aufstehen, dass so etwas auf dem Spielplan steht” (“If I was a minster responsible for such things, I would have stopped it from being staged”), and Bundespraesident Kurt Waldheim stated: “Ich halte dieses Stueck fuer eine grobe Beleidigung des oesterreichischen Volkes…” (“I think the play is a shameful affront to the Austrian nation”). Bernhard refuted the accusations by stating: “Ja, mein Stueck ist scheuslich. Aber das Stueck, das jetzt drumherum aufgefuehrt wird, ist genauso scheusslich”13 (“Yes, my play is horrible. But the play which is going on all around us is also horrible”). The premiere of Heroes’ Square was one of the most difficult in the annals of Burgtheater, which hadn’t probably staged anything as openly anti-Austrian before. Starting with lines such as: “The individual always got it over the head from the state”14 or “When you choose a politician in Austria of today you can only choose some corrupt swine”15, ending with unchecked tirades against the Austrian state and nation.

no you cannot forget

that you find yourself in the most generally dangerous state in Europe

where doing the dirty is a holy obligation

and where civil rights are trodden into the ground


in this most awful of all countries

you can only choose

between black and red swine

an unbearable stink is everywhere

from Hofburg and Ballhausplatz

and the parliament

across this whole damned and corrupt land

he calls out

This little country is a big mound of manure16

Austrians together as a whole

today are a brutal and stupid people

In this town anyone who isn’t blind

has to be driven to madness each day

looking in the direction of Burgtheater

All that this poor enslaved nation has left

is its theatre

Austria is nothing more but a stage

on which everything is demoralised rotten and broken

bit part actors who hate themselves

six and a half million lonely and abandoned

six and a half million idiots and madmen

who are constantly screaming for the director

The director will come

only to push them over a precipice in the end17

what these people have done to Austria

cannot be described

a cesspool without soul or culture

its stink wafting all over Europe

and not only the whole of Europe18

The scandal surrounding Heldenplatz caused a real war to erupt around its author, worsening his health and as a consequence, probably being on of the factors leading to his death. There were even fights over Bernhard in the streets of Vienna. In some way, his words turned out to be prophetic, as spoken by one of the characters from the play:

where everything stinks of decay

and everything calls for destruction

the solitary voice has become pointless


every day we speak against it

and write against it

but that which is said and written against it

is not heard and not read

Austrians do not listen and do not read


Austrians have become a completely indifferent nation

In relation to its catastrophic situation

This is their unhappiness and their disaster 19

Political Finale

Even though Thomas Bernhard felt calling upon the Austrian state was as pointless as a solitary voice calling out in the wilderness, until the end of his life he continued to express his opinions and did not spare his fellow Austrians the wrath of his tongue. His two final novels, Old Masters and Extinction, are both rich in phrasing which is stunningly similar to the passages from Heroes’ Square. They perhaps did not cause consternation as potent as the expressions of outrage which accompanied his public premieres, but they certainly confirmed the peak of his disillusionment with his homeland, which had become Bernhard’s signature message. Sitting on a bench in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Reger concludes: “Today’s Austria is a chaotic shit pile, a little nation dripping in laughable megalomania, forty years after WWII ended still totally amputated, having reached the absolute bottom”20, and Franz Josef thinks to himself, standing over the graves of his parents: “Pricelessness is a phrase, villainy a driving force, and deceit is the key to today’s Austria (…). Waking each morning, we should be mortally ashamed of this Austria of today.”21 It is impossible not to notice that at heart all these insults have what Germans call Hassliebe – a very powerful feeling which combines love and hate. Franz Josef says: “We keep on and on repeating that we love this country, when we actually hate this country”22, something repeated by Reger: “You have, sir, no idea how much I love this country (…) and yet I absolutely detest the present state. I want to have nothing to do with this state in the future, it makes me feel sick every single day.”23 It is hard to come by a more apt expression by any protagonist of the author’s own opinions. In Bernhard’s novel these words are spoken by an 82-year-old man, while the author himself was not to last that long, living in hate of his homeland. Thomas Bernhard, who mostly described his own country as a hell, never moved away from it. He travelled widely, but always returned, often to Vienna – that “worst” of all possible cities. He owned three houses in Upper Austria, and their purchase and restoration forced him to make many sacrifices. He set almost all of his works in Austrian locations, often those closest to his own homes. His characters use typically Austrian speech, have classically Austrian names and eat Austrian dishes, food the author himself was fond of. Thomas Bernhard kept on writing about a country he loved. His testament was something he left for a state which he loathed:

… nothing of what has been published during my life, nor from what I leave behind after my death, regardless of where it might be found and in what format, none of what I have created or written is to be performed, printed or even read in public within the borders of Austria in the time set by international copyright laws… After I die, not a word of anything I leave behind is to be published, not even my letters or notes.”24


Agata Wittchen-Barełkowska – Polish philologist, theatre scholar; collaborated with among others Teatr Dramatyczny m. st. Warszawy, Art Stations Foundation by Grażyna Kulczyk, Malta Festival, International Cochran Piano Competition and Teatr Nowy in Poznań, where she created and conducted her own educational programme dedicated to audience development. Head of Festival Office at 4th International Festival of World’s Classics, organized by Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Łódź, Poland. She has been publishing in i.a. Teatr, Didaskalia, Ruch Literacki, Kwartalnik Artystyczny, and Czas Kultury. Wrote her PhD dissertation on Thomas Bernhard oeuvre Recipient of Stipendienstiftung der Republik Österreich, thanks to which she carried out six-month research in the Thomas Bernhard archives in Austria. Author of a monograph entitled Kategoria teatralności w dziele Thomasa Berharda.

1 Thomas Bernhard: Heroes’ Square. trans. Grzegorz Matysik. In: Thomas Bernhard: Dramaty. vol II. Kraków 2004, p. 431 [trans. into English for the purposes of this article by Marek Kazmierski].

2 Ibidem, p. 363.

3 Source: Thomas Bernhard: Dawni mistrzowie. trans. Marek Kędzierski. Warszawa 2005, p. 155 [trans. into English for the purposes of this article by Marek Kazmierski].

4 Heroes’ Square, op. cit., p. 390.

5 Ibidem, p. 393 [trans. into English for the purposes of this article by Marek Kazmierski].

6 Ibidem, p. 391 [trans. into English for the purposes of this article by Marek Kazmierski].

7 Thomas Bernhard: Praesident. In: Dramen 2. Werke 16. Hg. von Manfred Mittermayer and Jean-Marie Winkler. Frankfurt am Main 2005, p. 138.

8 Old Masters, op. cit., p. 155.

9 Marek Kędzierski, “Dawni mistrzowie: Witold Gombrowicz i Thomas Bernhard.” Kwartalnik Artystyczny, no. 4, 2007, p. 91. [trans. into English for the purposes of this article by Marek Kazmierski].

10 Thomas Bernhard: Vranitzky. Eine Erwiderung. Die Presse, 13.9.1985. See: Thomas Bernhard. Werkgeschichte. Hg. von Jens Dittmar. Frankfurt am Main 1990, p. 297.

11 Baader-Meinhof Group – the first name for the Red Army Faction (RAF), a radical Leftist terrorist organisation, operating in Germany from the 1970s. In 1972, leaders of the group Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ennslin and Holger Meins were captured and placed in the jail in Strammheim, which ended the first stage of RAF’s activities.

12 Joachim Hoell: Thomas Bernhard. Muenchen 2000, p. 104. (“Wszyscy się boją/ wszyscy/ wszyscy/ w tym państwie panuje już tylko strach”.)

13 Thomas Bernhard. Werkgeschichte, op. cit., p. 330.

14 Heroes’ Square, op. cit., p. 432.

15 Ibidem, p. 437.

16 Ibidem, p. 465.

17 Ibidem, pp. 409-410.

18 Ibidem, pp. 415-416 [trans. into English for the purposes of this article by Marek Kazmierski].

19 Ibidem, pp. 416-417 [trans. into English for the purposes of this article by Marek Kazmierski].

20 Old Masters, op. cit., p. 180.

21Thomas Bernhard: Wymazywanie. Rozpad. trans. Sława Lisiecka. Warszawa 2004, p. 535.

22 Ibidem, p. 535.

23 Old Masters, op. cit., p. 181.

24 Marek Kędzierski, “Po śmierci Thomasa Bernharda.” Literatura na Świecie, no. 6, 1991, p. 4. [trans. into English for the purposes of this article by Marek Kazmierski].