Ernst BruckmÖ¼ller, Ernst Hanisch, Roman Sandgruber, Norbert Weigl. Geschichte der Ö¶sterreichischen Land- und Forstwirtschaft im 20. Jahrhundert. Politik-Gesellschaft-Wirtschaft. Vienna: Ueberreuter, 2002. 855 pp. EUR 49.90 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-8000-3859-6.
Reviewed by James Miller (FH-Joanneum University of Applied Sciences, Graz)
Published on HABSBURG (January, 2004)
Changing Seasons: Austrian Agriculture and the Imperative to Modernize
Changing Seasons: Austrian Agriculture and the Imperative to Modernize
The last time someone attempted such a broad overview of Austrian agriculture in the twentieth century was in 1956, but that was hardly a scholarly work, and focused mainly on the decade immediately following World War II. For a remotely comparable book in terms of comprehensiveness, one must go back more than a hundred years, to the massive six-volume work on Austrian agriculture published in1899 to celebrate Franz Joseph's half-century on the throne. That work proclaimed that, "There has never been a fifty-year period in which agriculture has gone through so much change".
In the present work, Roman Sandgruber rightly remarks that this statement applies even more aptly to the two half-centuries that have transpired since that work was written. In 1924 agriculture contributed 14.6% of Austria's gross domestic product, a figure that had dropped to 1.2% by 2000. In 1923, 39.9% of the Austrian working population made their living in agriculture and forestry. By 2001, it had declined to 5.7%. These statistics reflect not only massive changes in agricultural technology and productivity, but also profound changes in Austrian society as a whole. For that reason alone the present volume is welcome. But it has more than just its uniqueness and the importance of its topic to recommend it. It is on the whole a carefully constructed piece of scholarly craftsmanship--which is no surprise given the authors involved.
The book is divided into four large chapters, which are already announced in the title: the political, economic and social history of agriculture, and the history of forestry, each by a different author. As one might expect, there are some areas of overlap between the various chapters, but the authors have done a good job of dividing responsibility among themselves, so there is little unnecessary repetition. On the other hand, the book operates as four separate, independent essays, without a clear set of theses that serve as an organizational structure for the work. If there is a criticism to be leveled at the book as a whole, it is this lack of an overarching analytical framework.
Ernst Hanisch, whose chapter begins the book, makes an attempt to provide such a framework, but he does so only in approximately two pages, which is too little given the work's scope. A better solution might have been to begin the book with a co-authored introduction tying its various parts together. This problem is minor, however, when weighed against the authors' accomplishment in dealing so comprehensively with such a complex topic.
Hanisch has already written extensively on agrarian politics in Austria. Some of the most interesting parts of Hanisch's contribution to the book are those that cast present-day Austrian agrarian politics in a new light. The chapter is divided into two parts, the first topically and the second chronologically organized. The topical section deals with political ideology, starting with the peasantist ideology that originated around the turn of the twentieth century. This world view was directed against the materialist values of classical liberalism, arguing that the peasantry served as a font of values important to the whole of society. Hence questions concerning the economics of agriculture had to be considered in the light of the peasantry's social and cultural importance, not just in terms of what might be the most coldly rational way to produce food. The ideology was also infused with Catholic social teachings, and so was reinforced by the strong alliance between church and Christian Social political organizations.
One of the advantages of this ideology was that it tended to obscure differences between various parts of the peasantry. The divergent economic interests of smallholders and larger farmers could be swept under the ample rug of peasantism. Hanisch does a particularly good job of treating the iconography of peasantism, with some very well chosen and suggestive illustrations. Some aspects of this ideology remain with us today, and peasant politicians, at least in their public appearances, continue to act as if there were a single, united peasantry. But despite the social and cultural importance they credited the peasantry with, the propagators of the peasantist ideology in the Chambers of Agriculture and the League of Peasants were unable to stave off the ravages of economic dislocation associated with the global agricultural depression that set in after 1927. Even the government of Engelbert Dollfuß, peasant-friendly as it was, was unable to halt the decline.
Hanisch also explains the failure of the Ständestaat under Chancellor Schuschnigg to transform its pro-peasant rhetoric into reality. In fact, a commitment to balancing the budget as the magic formula that would cure the depression took priority over all else, and support for agriculture amounted to little more than half measures, according to Hanisch. This, in turn, opened the way for modest Nazi inroads in the countryside.
After the Anschluss, the peasants' attitude remained a rather skeptical one. While they were put off by many aspects of Nazi ideology, they were hopeful that the Nazis would provide stability and economic growth. What they got was a mixed bag that demonstrated the wisdom of their skepticism. The Nazi government initiated measures that transformed short-term debt into long-term debt at modest interest rates. This helped to save a large number of farms that were on the brink of financial ruin. On the other hand, the military, the Labor Service, and the munitions factories vacuumed the countryside of almost all available labor, which drove up the price of hired help. Higher production costs meant that in 1939 farm profits were actually lower than they had been in 1937. Hardest hit were the peasants in mountainous regions.
With the coming of war, the ambivalence of the peasantry intensified. It was rare for a peasant to join the resistance movement, but it was also rare for one to be an outspoken Hitler supporter. Hanisch describes this phenomenon as the "speechlessness of the peasants." Nazi attempts to cultivate an alternative religious culture to that of traditional Catholicism also failed. Resistance against the regime took passive forms, while solidarity with those at the front remained unbroken.
After the war this peasantist ideology was replaced by a more technocratic perspective, which emphasized an increase in productivity through rationalization as the best method to assure the survival of Austria's agricultural population. This so-called "third way" (as opposed to socialist collectivism and American-style agricultural capitalism) continued to present the peasant as something special, following a form of life worthy of preservation for its own sake. This attempt to accommodate Austrian peasant modes of production to a global capitalistic agricultural market proved to be anything but easy. The numbers of people making their living primarily in the agricultural sector continued to decline.
Obviously, rationalization alone had not been the answer. In the 1980s another approach was taken, one associated with the concept of an eco-social market economy. Promoted by Josef Riegler, who united in his person the offices of agriculture minister, Austrian People's Party chairman and vice-chancellor, this new ideological tack presented the peasant as one of the most important actors in the preservation of the environment. The problem was that market capitalism did not have a way to correctly account for environmental costs. If new pricing mechanisms could be created that included the economic impact of ecologically harmful practices, the more ecologically sound practices of Austrian farmers would allow them to compete successfully in the marketplace. In the second half of the nineties, however, this eco-social approach has been overwhelmed by the forces of neoliberalism within the Austrian People´s Party and by the imperatives imposed by Austria's entry into the European Union in 1995.
Oddly enough, despite the declining numbers of peasants, the establishment of the social partnership assured agriculture a powerful place at the table in the postwar era. Because of this neo-corporatist system, by the 1970s agrarian politicians had a much larger voice in national politics than the numerical strength of the peasantry justified. The fate of this disproportionate influence, however, depended utterly on the health of the social partnership. In moving away from this concept as a model for organizing the Austrian economy, the present neoliberal government of Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel seems poised to reduce the power of one of his party's main traditional sources of support.
Hanisch sees a closing of a circle underway here. The smallholders of the nineteenth century were only able to keep their heads above water by diversifying their sources of income, through such activities as domestic industry. The Austrian peasant of the twenty-first century will also have to diversify economically, drawing income from tourism, direct marketing, and secondary employment of all kinds, "limited only by the extent of personal imagination" (p. 71). The state will almost certainly be a less generous partner in this process than it has been in the past.
In painstaking detail Roman Sandgruber traces these developments from a more strictly economic perspective, examining all segments of Austrian agriculture in the process, from potato, milk and beef production to such niche products as pumpkin seed oil and cider. Fortunately for the reader, he cannot keep his interdisciplinary interests in check. So he begins with a digression into cultural history, which examines the changing image of agriculture and the peasantry in Austrian popular culture. He then turns to his main theme, the really quite remarkable increase in agricultural productivity that has taken place over the last one hundred years. Average yields per hectare of basic crops such as wheat and barley have more than quadrupled, while corn yields have seen an astounding six-fold increase in the last eight decades. Wine production has more than doubled, though the real story with wine has been the dramatic improvement in quality that has occurred in the last twenty-five years in the wake of the wine scandal. Milk production per head trebled in the same time span. Productivity increases per unit of land are all the more remarkable, because they have also been accompanied by comparable increases in productivity per unit of labor. The number of persons employed in agriculture has fallen from 1,4 million in 1922 to 261,500 eighty years later.
This increase in productivity came at a high cost, however. Investments in machines, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides increased in percentage terms even more than yields did. The limitations of this kind of intensive agriculture have already appeared. Ecological costs in the form of water pollution, soil erosion and compaction, a reduction in the diversity of species of wildlife and flora found on agricultural land and the destruction of closed ecological systems have all become increasingly apparent. The high ecological costs of intensive conventional farming, as well as increased consumer awareness of them, have contributed to a growing interest in organic farming in Austria. The number of organic farms jumped from 200 in 1980 to almost 100 times that number twenty years later. With now some 10 percent of farms operating organically, Austria leads its fellow members of the European Union in this regard. The human costs of high-input conventional agriculture have also been great. In order to afford these costly investments, larger and larger numbers of Austrian farmers have had to find employment off the farm, while their wives are left with the triple burden of house, field and stall.
This socio-cultural dimension of agricultural change is expanded upon by Ernst Bruckmüller in the third chapter. Bruckmüller argues that in the course of the 20th century Austrian peasant society was transformed into a rural society in which peasants are actually in the minority. An entire social system has withered away in the process. Peasant society was founded on the peasant household and holding--the Hof --with its well-developed patriarchal hierarchy, rigid gender roles and emphasis on preservation of the Hof at all costs. In the village power was ordered on the basis of the size of the holding or the role of the individual in village institutions such as the church or school. These social patterns were reinforced by traditional religion and folk tradition, which Bruckmüller also examines.
In the new rural society, gender roles blurred. Patriarchy, while by no means dead, is increasingly being undermined. The preservation of the Hof is for many contemporary rural families no longer the single most important goal. Taking its place is the desire to secure opportunities for the next generation, ones that may well be found off the farm. Now power in the village is, to quote Bruckmüller, "much more a matter of education, social competence and business acumen than the size of the holding" (p. 416). Peasant society simply does not exist in its traditional form any more.
Some twenty years ago I had occasion to work for a month on a farm in Salzburg. On a memorable occasion, the septuagenarian head of the household, in the midst of an animated discussion, stood up from the table at the local tavern, struck his breast and proudly declared, "Ich bin der Bauer!" For him, the pronouncement still had profound meaning, because of all the traditional associations being a Bauer carried with it. The old man died a few days before this review was published. Operation of the Hof has been taken over by his son, who is unlikely ever to make a similar statement, at least not with the same level of meaning attached. That fact alone is a measure of how much the life of the village has changed just in this one peasant's lifetime. It is a transformation that Bruckmüller, Hanisch and Sandgruber brilliantly sketch for us.
While the first three chapters of the book have many points of convergence, the fourth chapter appears tacked on in some ways. It deals almost exclusively with the economic aspects of Austrian forest history, with few connections made to the social, political and cultural themes touched upon by the other three authors. Norbert Weigl argues that the forestry industry was the foundation of Austria's economy in the interwar period, particularly regarding exports. Yet he concedes that the collapse in lumber prices on global markets after 1928, which became especially acute in the 1930s, made forestry a rather weak foundation to build upon.
The low profitability of Austrian forests was not, however, a problem in the eyes of the German leadership as they contemplated invading Austria. Indeed, the rich supplies of wood provided one important reason for invading. With the Anschluss, the problem of insufficient demand for wood disappeared overnight. Germany's massive building program devoured timber resources. Austria's foresters began cutting at unprecedented rates to keep up with the demand, cutting at as much as 163 percent of the replacement rate in 1940. This turnaround had a political dimension, as well. Whether Austrian foresters became Nazi sympathizers already before the Anschluss, or whether they converted out of opportunism after it, is a question Weigl in unable to answer. He does, however, state that once Austria was incorporated into the Reich, 94 percent of her foresters became party members.
The emphasis on production over conservation continued into the postwar period, as lumber was desperately needed for purposes of reconstruction. Only beginning in the 1960s were some isolated voices raised calling for greater emphasis on sustainability. By then Austria's forests had already undergone decades of degradation, with decreasing fertility of the soil as one consequence and increased susceptibility to disease as another. It was not until the 1980s, however, that concrete measures were undertaken to reverse these trends. Closely related to this change was a new concept regarding the ends of forestry, summarized under the heading of multi-use husbandry. This new approach recognized the many different functions forests serve in addition to supplying lumber, including their role in water resource management, tourism and recreation and maintenance of ecological equilibrium in general.
As a stand-alone essay in the economic history of Austrian forestry, the chapter is quite successful. As a companion to the other three chapters, it is less so. It lacks their interdisciplinary breadth and scope of analysis. The statistical information included to back up the argumentation often appears a bit undigested, especially compared to Sandgruber's chapter. This, however, is a very thick tome, and it was almost inevitable that some of its parts would be stronger than others. Taken as a whole, it is a wonderful addition to our understanding of twentieth-century Austrian history and belongs on the bookshelf of every serious student of the topic.
. Österreichs Landwirtschaft: Der österreichische Bauer im Dienste des Wiederaufbaues (Vienna: Sator Verlag, 1956).
. Michael von Kast, ed., Geschichte der österreichischen Land-und Forstwirtschaft und ihrer Industrien 1848-1898 (Vienna: Perles, 1899-1901).
. Ernst Hanisch, "Bäuerliches Milieu und Arbeitermilieu in den Alpengauen. Ein historischer Vergleich," in Rudolf G. Ardelt, ed., Arbeiterschaft und Nationalsozialismus in Österreich (Vienna: Europa Verlag, 1990), pp. 583-598; see also his Der lange Schatten des Staates: Österreichische Gesellschaftsgeschichte im 20. Jahrhundert (Vienna: Ueberreuter, 1994).
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James Miller. Review of BruckmÖ¼ller, Ernst; Hanisch, Ernst; Sandgruber, Roman; Weigl, Norbert, Geschichte der Ö¶sterreichischen Land- und Forstwirtschaft im 20. Jahrhundert. Politik-Gesellschaft-Wirtschaft.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.