The fact that people in Austria now feel truly Austrian is in part due to a German car - the Volkswagen Beetle. That is the first finding of an Austrian Science Fund FWF project that is examining the extent to which consumer goods have influenced the formation of the Austrian nation. The project reveals that, in the decades crucial to the nation's creation, the Volkswagen became an object of identification and integration for the Austrians. The next stage will investigate the influence foodstuffs have had on this process.
It would be difficult to find much evidence that foundering car sales in the current financial crisis are shaking the Austrian national identity to the core. However, a project by the Department of Social and Economic History at the University of Vienna on "Products and the construction of the Austrian nation" is now demonstrating that the strong presence and wide distribution of a particular brand of car in the post-war decades lent significant support to the construction of a shared feeling of Austrian identity.
The car that achieved this was the German VW Beetle - a product that neither originated in Austria nor was "made Austrian" through the use of country-specific advertising, for example. Nevertheless, the Beetle was the first car that vast swathes of the Austrian population could afford and was therefore responsible for integrating a large proportion of the country's inhabitants into the motorisation process. For the Austrians, this in turn generated a sense of collective identification with "their" Volkswagen, which also strengthened the general feeling of unity.
A Symbol on Four Wheels
"After the war, Austria wanted to adopt all the trappings of a modern, Western nation and chose the U.S., the consumer nation, as its inspiration. That meant that the motor vehicle, and the passenger car in particular, served as a collective symbol of social and technological progress. Making cars available to the masses became proof of the fact that the country was on its way to becoming a middle class nation with high purchasing power", explains project leader Dr. Oliver Kühschelm.
In 1957, the Austrian market saw the launch of its very own "Volkswagen" - the Steyr Puch 500, Fiat model, an affordable car produced on home soil. This car, said to be particularly well suited to tackling the Alpine landscape, was intended to assume this symbolic identity for the entire nation. But the Austrian car par excellence, the true "people's car", remained the Beetle, as this project shows - in 1958, its best year and just shortly after its market launch, the Steyr Puch achieved a share of only around 12 percent of new registrations, while the Beetle retained a fifth of new registrations for a considerable period and, in its heyday, enjoyed up to 27 percent.
Germany - in or out?
That made the VW Beetle by far the most widely used car in Austria and its strong presence on the roads resulted in it becoming a symbol for Austria, as Dr. Kühschelm explains: "The Beetle became a collective symbol of the population's shared driving experience and also the achievements made by the country as a whole, and was thus a key pillar in supporting the construction of the national identity. At the same time, it embodied the ambivalence of the process behind the formation of the Austrian nation. At first glance, this rests on distancing itself from Germany, but on closer inspection, it nevertheless incorporates a marked appreciation of things German."
So far, the project has focused primarily on the significance of cars, the acquisition of which is generally preceded by an intensive period of deliberation. In the next stage, attention will turn to foodstuffs - relatively cheap products that are required on a daily basis. In the future, the FWF project will reveal how coffee from Julius Meinl, Almdudler and fast food from McDonald's have helped to define the national consciousness of the Austrians.
Dr. Oliver Kühschelm
University of Vienna
Department of Social and Economic History
1090 Wien, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 4277 - 413 33
Austrian Science Fund FWF
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt
Copy Editing & Distribution
PR&D - Public Relations for Research & Education
Campus Vienna Biocenter 2
1030 Wien, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44