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Island of the Blessed

Federal Chancellor Josef Klaus and Bruno Kreisky
at a function in the Wachau, 1970
Source: Bruno Kreisky Archives Foundation, Vienna

"Island of the Fortunate" was an expression used by Pope Paul VI to describe Austria on the occasion of a visit to the Vatican by then Austrian President, Franz Jonas, in 1971. Rephrased as "Island of the Blessed," this characterization became the formative social myth of the seventies. Austria was seen abroad as well as by Austrians as an ideal place where people lived together in prosperity, free of conflict, happily and harmoniously. This myth was supported by a form of politics which succeeded in ducking through the economic crises of the seventies better than other states did, in avoiding work-conflicts through a broad partnership which produced consensus between unions and employers, and in establishing a social security net with relatively few holes.

The catchword, "Island of the Blessed," or "Elysium," crops up usually in political science in connection with the "welfare-state" or "concordance-democracy." "Concordance-democracy" means orienting oneself in decision-making towards institutionalized rules of compromise and proportional representation, Proporz (see Station 2). The decisive political debates were not carried on in public but rather behind closed doors.

The division of the population into two big political camps, Social Democracy and Christian-Conservatism, also contributed for decades to the appearance of political stability in the country. This equilibrium was upset in the seventies. "The clear lines of demarcation between the two camps lost their formative power. People's ties to one or other of the two camps were no longer handed down as self-evident, as had been the case since the formation of the party-system at the end of the nineteenth century. Concordance-democracy began to move in the direction of competition-democracy." (Anton Pelinka, Blitzlichter [Flashes], Vienna, 1999)

Since Austria joined the EU, the process of "de-Austrianization" has been unstoppable. The image of the "Island of the Blessed" has become a dusty memento to the "good old days." The people who hold on tenaciously to "typically Austrian cosiness" (Gemütlichkeit) are those who have long since been run over by the speeding tempo of modernization. Society is divided by the dynamics of globalization into winners and losers, two new camps that mix up all the parties and make the political landscape much less easy to survey and categorize.

Station: Island of the Blessed
(Last update: 02/2006)

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