A red-white-red success story of recent and current Austrian history
After the Second World War, it was of particular importance for the newly formed Republic of Austria to establish contacts and good relations with the victorious and occupying powers and to win new friends. It was with this goal in mind that, on 6 January 1946, an “Austrian-American Society” was founded in the Grand Auditorium of Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal in the presence of the Commander of the US Occupation Forces in Austria, General Mark W. Clark. The Society, whose first president was University Professor Dr. Otto Kauders, was followed by an “Austrian-Soviet Society”, with Professor Dr. Hugo Glaser as its first president. Soon, both societies established chapters in the federal provinces according to the sectors controlled by the occupying powers. Gradually, some smaller “Austrian-Foreign Friendship Circles” linking Austria with other countries also came into being. All of these bilateral groupings together formed an important platform for dialogue and project initiation, which allowed the Austrian groups and their respective partner countries to get to know each other better and to carefully prepare the ground for the official governmental talks of the following day. Austrian culture and hospitality were also instrumental in fostering a constantly growing relationship. It was thus the typical Austrian way of “quiet diplomacy” which has ultimately contributed significantly to the successful conclusion of the State Treaty.
Given the cultural focus which these bilateral friendship societies had from the beginning, they were originally organised within the sphere of competence of the Federal Ministry of Education. However, owing to political and administrative difficulties, it was not possible to unite the various societies under the organisational structure of a federation. It was only after the signing of the State Treaty, in 1956, that the Secretaries-General of the “Austrian-American Society” and the “Austrian-Soviet Society” founded a joint Working Group to which, by and by, all of the other bilateral groups acceded. This Working Group was initially not registered with the Security Police Directorate as an association or federation, but was officially regarded as part of the work programme of the “Palais Palffy – Österreich Haus” (Austrian House) where it also had its seat. The chairman of the Austrian House was also the chairman of the Working Group, which eventually comprised more than 20 countries. The Palais Palffy was also the venue for the group’s meetings and events and for the management and coordination of programmes for concerts, lectures and exhibitions. For many years, the popular “Ball of Austrian-Foreign Societies” was held in the Parkhotel Schönbrunn, and an annual Travel Fair with a stand reserved for each society was organised in Vienna’s City Hall in February. The aim of the Fair was to present the host country by means of posters, exhibits and samples of the national cuisine, without engaging in any product promotion activities. At a time when trips abroad were not as booming as today and information was hard to come by, this two-week trade event was so successful that the concept was taken up a few years later by the Austrian Tourist Board, which launched a similar exhibition – also before the start of the tourist season – without including the national societies and on a purely commercial basis. Faced with pressure from this powerful financial competitor, the Working Group ultimately had to abandon its trade activities and concentrate instead on lectures, social meetings, exhibitions, and contact-building, an increasingly important task during the Cold War period. The friendship societies and their platform of dialogue thus helped Vienna to act as an esteemed and successful bridge between East and West. Making new friends and entertaining good contacts was imperative for the building-up of bilateral relations.
Unfortunately, when the Austrian House at the Palais Palffy at one point was faced with financial and organisational difficulties and began to charge an untenable rent for the use of its premises, the Working Group was left without home and leadership. In this emergency, the Austrian Craft and Trade Association (Österreichischer Gewerbeverein) offered the Working Group to use its location as a postal address and its conference rooms for meetings. The Working Group was again chaired by a high-ranking senior official of the then Federal Ministry of Education and Arts (BMUK), Director Dr. Herbert Oppolzer.
In 1986 it was agreed to have the “Working Group of Austrian-Foreign Societies” registered under the Societies Act. In the constitutional assembly, held on 18 June 1986, the delegates from 25 member states – one from each nation – who were eligible to vote at that time elected Director Dr. Herbert Oppolzer as their executive chairman in accordance with the by-laws of the organisation.
The activities of the Working Group included the fostering of domestic and foreign relations as well as lectures and exhibitions. Some outstanding exhibitions were “Children’s Books of the Nations” (“Kinderbücher der Nationen”; at Palais Palffy), “The Artful Poster” (“Das künstlerische Plakat”; Volkshalle, Vienna City Hall), “Public Transport Now and Then” (“Öffentlicher Verkehr einst und jetzt”; Technisches Museum) and “The Beauty of Nature in Prints and Pictures” (“Schönheit der Natur in Buch und Bild”; Tabakmuseum).
As a result of various cuts in the budget of the Craft and Trade Association, the task of organising meetings of the Working Group became increasingly difficult. At that time, the “Association of Austrian University Graduates” (Verband der Österreichischen AkademikerInnen) invited the members of the Working Group to use its premises for their meetings. The Palais Palffy served again as the postal address of the Working Group. In the general assembly of 21 June 1989, the head of the Department for Bilateral Affairs at the Federal Ministry of Education, Arts and Sports, Director Dr. Jutta Seifert (later Dr. Unkart-Seifert) was elected as the new President of the Working Group, which at the same time also changed its name to “Association of Austrian-Foreign Societies”.
This move allowed the Association to hold its meetings free of charge in the Ceremonial Hall of the Federal Ministry’s Building at Freyung 1 in Vienna’s first district. Under the new cooperation scheme, it was also possible to procure funds to support events organised by the Association under the title of “Cultural Activities with Foreign Countries” or to coordinate cultural projects with all of the societies associated with the Association.
Cultural events of individual societies were sponsored by covering the costs for the rental of ballrooms or by providing suitable rooms in the Ministry. Once a year, day excursions by bus or boat to regional exhibitions were arranged, in which members of the embassies of the different societies took part. As it became more and more difficult to recruit the requisite number of participating societies for joint projects, and with membership fees being the sole (meagre) source of income, these excursions to the regional exhibitions were the only activities during this rather quiet period in the history of the Association.
1997 – present
In early 1997, there were 40 bilateral friendship societies, when a radical personnel and organisational change brought about an unimagined upswing and growth. In a general assembly held on 3 April 1997 in the Audience Hall of the Federal Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, a new board of directors was elected, which was composed largely of active employees from various institutions under public law who were also professionally involved in bilateral matters. In line with the competence of the aforementioned Federal Ministry, Director DDr. Claus Walter was elected as President, and Dr. Gerhard Rainer, Deputy Director General and Ambassador in the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Dr. Oskar Wawra, Head of the Division for International Affairs of the City of Vienna, were elected as Vice Presidents. The new Board implemented a number of changes:
- The official address of the “Association of Austrian-Foreign Societies” (VÖAG) was established at the Federal Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs in accordance with a decision issued by Federal Minister Elisabeth Gehrer on 13 May 1997.
- It was decided to send regular newsletters to all member societies and partners as an important part of the Association’s communication activities.
- The Board endeavoured to raise funds in order to strengthen the activities of the individual societies and to meet the increasing need for contacts with friendly nations and their diplomatic missions in Austria.
- Following an initiative launched with a view to founding new bilateral friendship societies, membership figures doubled within 3 years.
- The starting Internet boom was used to interlink all societies, associations, public law institutions and business entities.
- At the request of the Board of the Directors, the three Presidents of the Nationalrat accepted the invitation to act as members of an “Honorary Presidency” of the Association for the time of their parliamentary function.
- As a financial contribution to projects operated by the member societies and as a visible sign of recognition, a PaN (Partner of All Nations) Prize was created.
- First contacts with the umbrella organisations in other countries were established. Strategic links were also created with the “Union of Austrians residing abroad” (Weltbund der Österreicher im Ausland), chaired by President Dkfm. Ing. Gustav Chlestil, and the “Association of Austrians abroad” (Auslandsösterreicherwerk), under the leadership of President Fritz Molden.
In the general assembly of 22 April 1999, which took place in the Municipal Council Session Room of the Vienna City Hall, these amendments were, of course, highly acclaimed and encouraged the Board of Directors to follow the present path, which was successful and supported by many institutions of public life. This function was imperative during the time of the “EU sanctions” against Austria and once more turned the Association and its bilateral societies into an important platform for dialogue in difficult times. Another successful move was to gain the approval of the nine regional governors to act as “Honorary Board of Trustees” for the time of their public function. Numerous trips of delegations to friendly countries or visits of foreign delegations in Austria underlined the Association’s fundamental principle of active involvement in international understanding. The Association’s general assembly of 19 November 2001 in the Budget Session Room of the Austrian Parliament thus developed into an intercultural celebration party and was honoured by the attendance of two Presidents of the AustrianNationalrat, the First President of the Vienna Regional Diet (Landtag), numerous Ambassadors and, of course, the representatives of the meanwhile 100 bilateral friendship societies. The amendment of the by-laws approved by the assembly was related to the organisation’s new name: “Federation of Austrian-Foreign Societies – PaN” (“Dachverband aller Österreichisch-Ausländischen Gesellschaften – PaN”) and to the dual function of this Federation, being both a union of bilateral friendship societies and an autonomous association aiming to promote international understanding, to strengthen friendship among nations, and to contribute to the emergence of a peaceful human society.