I must start getting acquainted with my doctoral thesis NOW. No, this is not true, i should have started ages ago. But I didn’t – leaving Vienna for a year ist quite a big decision. The scaryness-factor doubles every minute. I leave my relationship and social network behind, and behind means that the Atlantic and parts of the Gulf of Mexico will seperate us for ten months. I’m not leaving for a few months of erasmus partying in a random European city. My destination is New Orleans. Imagining what this will be like fills my days, no wonder I’m not capable of doing much apart from this right now. Writing the occasional article for PROGRESS or doing one or two things for the Student’s Union (my political energy is now focused on getting the candidates for the doctorial program at WU Wien (re)elected) is all I manage, and this is just welcome distraction from what I should be doing – putting up my tents in the library and getting to work.
As I am through with most procastination activities I have in my repertoire, only blogging was left, so here is my new plan: I will tell my incredibly large audience about my thesis. I will blog about every single progress or set-back. I will bore the hell out of you (and me), until you (and me) embrace my thesis to the utmost. We will love and cherish it. And I will finally start doing something. Here we go:
What is my thesis about?
Austrian-American relationships are quite an exotic research topic. Many scholars wrote about the transformation of the relationship between Germany and the US, but Austria is sort of a neglected case, I think. (Maybe I am totally wrong about this, I’ll check this out in the next weeks) One of the few scholars who dedicate their work to this issue is my co-advisor Günter Bischof. He is chair of Center Austria at the University of New Orleans and a profound expert on the issue. Maybe due to his own migrational history, he is not only interested in political history or social structures, but also in individual stories and biography research. He encouraged me to choose a topic like this for my thesis: I’m writing about Austrian War Brides and their lives in the US. When I explain my subject to Austrians, it usually takes some time until I described what and why I am writing about, so in
brief not so brief:
During the occupation era of allied forces in Austria between 1945 and 1955, social interaction between soliders and civilians helped forming attitudes towards entire nations. The US forces were known als benevolent occupiers, those who grew up during this period remember chocolate and chewing-gum gifts from GIs. Especially in contrast to the sovjet occupational regime (or at least in contrast to what was heard and thought of the sovjet occupational regime), the civilians in Salzburg and Upper Austria were more or less okay with having the Americans around. But the evolvement of gender roles during the occupation period is quite an interesting one: The post-war Austrian population was short of two cohorts. First of all, around 65.500 Austrian Jews were murdered in the Nazi-Regime, another 120.000 were forced into exile. Many intellectuals went to the USA and stayed there, as the Austrian government was not very keen on inviting them back or even apologizing for the atrocities Austrian authorities committed during the Nazi era. Secondly, there was a huge lack of men in post-war Austria. 240.000 Austrian Wehrmacht soldiers died, another 500.000 were prisoners of war (I need to re-check the source of this numbers). To get the dimensions of this right: According to Statistik Austria, Austria had a population of just about seven million in 1951. 740.000 men would compose around 20 percent of the whole male population. Quite a lot, isn’t it?
The Austrian nation, just like the German one, was therefore perceived as feminine. According to Petra Goedde („GIs and Germans“), this helped alleviating the tension between the allied forces and the defeated Germany – the majority of German civilians who interacted with the GIs were women. Thanks (?) to specific gender roles, women were generally thought innocent of any war crimes as their place in society was strictly defined. Women were mothers, housekeepers, daughters, not soldiers. This engendered role concept did not allow women to be wartime actors, they were victims of the male wrongdoers of society. Because of this, the interactions between female Germans and GIs were more relaxed than between German men and American Soldiers. Women were victims, not enemies. The same is true for Austria. Although there is a small difference – Austria was said to be Nazi-Germany’s first victim, so the defeat of Austria was labeled „liberation“.
Nevertheless, if a women started a relationship with an American solider, she was always accused of being a prostitute. Mainly the remaining men and the fiercest defenders of conservative sexual moral (e.g. the catholic church) complained about the immorality of those intercultural relationships. If Austrian women started relationships with American soldiers, they put their own integrity at risk. But their criticism did not stop these encounters to happen. Of course, prostitution-like relationships were also part of the post-war reality like platonic or romantic relationships. Ingrid Bauer, one of the few austrian researchers who are familiar with the topic of occupation and gender-relations, puts it this way: „In short, it was about domestic, communicative, and sexual ’services‘.“ (Bauer 2007:77), the women found the undamaged men attactive – „It was a question of ‚intact‘ men, without war injuries, who demonstrated calmness and success at the same time.“ (Bauer 2007:71), Bauer concludes.
Long story short – the approximately 70.000 GIs, who were in Austria by the end of 1945, left traces. Some had illegitimate children with austrian women, some chose Austrians as wifes. Here is, where my thesis starts: Those War Brides emigrated from their country of origin to a compleatly foreign nation – the United States of America. They left everything behind: Possessions (although most of them did not have many), friends and family. They did not know anybody in the US but their husbands. Many of them did not even know the language. Nevertheless, the packed their stuff and went away – forever. Many of them thought, they would never see their relatives again.
Although there is abundand research on the topic of war brides in the US (I am currently getting an overview on this – my newest purchase is „Entangling Alliances – Foreign War Brides and American Soldiers in the Twentieth Century“ by Susan Zeiger, I keep you posted on how I liked it), the Austrian wifes are not being covered until now. My thesis should shed some light on these women and the experiences they made during their lives. With the method of biographical interviews, I try to reconstruct their lives and the strategies they chose to make their way in their new home country.
Embracing the topic should be easy enough, as those women were much braver than I was when they made the decision to leave Austria. I will be coming back after ten months, they went to stay forever. And still, I worry like hell. Will there be anybody to talk to? To hang out with? Does anybody get my sense of humor on the other side of the lake (not that I have much of it…)? Can I even communicate things the way I want? Even this short blog post makes me deeply unhappy about my very mediocre lexis and writing skills in English. Did the Austrian War Brides worry about the same things I worry about now or were their realities too different to mine? Are their any culture-specific strategies to cope with emigration? Or at least with a part time stay far, far away? Hopefully, I can adopt some of their tricks. I am looking forward to interviewing these women, I really hope that I can find enough who are willing to share their memories with me.
Bauer, Ingrid; Huber, Renate: Sexual Encounters across (Former) Enemy Lines, in: Bischof, Günter; Pelinka, Anton; Herzog, Dagmar (Hg.): Sexuality in Austria, New Brunswick/London: Transaction Publishers 2007, S. 65-101
Goedde, Petra: GIs and Germans: culture, gender and foreign relations, 1945-1949, New Haven: Yale University Press 2003
Zeiger, Susan: Entangling Alliances. Foregin War Brides and American Soldiers in the Twentieth Century. New York/London: New York University Press 2010