Civics Class

I remember taking Civics class in Junior High School and learning how government works. Government has always fascinated me and later, in law school, I took both local government law and international comparative law, studying the interplay within the United States’ governmental hierarchy, as well as the different systems and forms of government around the world. Ultimately, as you might know, I spent my entire legal career dealing with the relationship between government and its citizens, primarily through the Power of Eminent Domain and the Police Power, and I also moonlighted as a City Attorney and became an elected official, Mayor of Miami Shores.

So, it might not surprise you that we would tour the halls of government here in Vienna which, after all, is the capital of Austria.

The parliament building – essentially, the Austrian Capitol building – is literally just down the street from our apartment, a 5-minute walk. It’s a magnificent structure on the Ringstraße, completed in 1884 as the Imperial Parlament of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph. The architect designed the main structure in the Neo-Classical style,…

…mimicking the Parthenon and going so far as to include a statute of Athena in the plaza out front.

Here’s a model with the roof removed, turned 90° from the view of the façade, above. The interior is divided into two chambers. Originally, the chamber on the left was for the upper house, the “Herrenhaus,” and the chamber on the right (in the foreground of the photo of the model, below) was for the Abgeordnetenhaus, the lower chamber.

After WWI and the dissolution of the vanquished Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1920 Austria changed from a monarchy to a constitutional, democratic republic. At that time, the Federal Council, a body resembling our Senate, took the place of the Herrenhaus and the National Council, a body resembling our House of Representatives, took the chambers of the Abgeordnetenhaus.

Here’s the view inside the Parlament after passing through the portico. Those columns were all handmade from single pieces of locally mined marble and all but two of them survived the explosion of a bomb that crashed through the glass roof during WWII (which was originally stained glass).

Another bomb landed in the chambers of the Herrenhaus, completely destroying the original decor, but the chamber of the Abgeordnetenhaus was untouched and still looks the way it did in 1884. Here it is, complete with 10 statutes of ancient Greek politicians overlooking the proceedings:

In the gift shop on the way into the Parlament, I bought a book entitled, “Mark Twain: Reportagen aus dem Parlament 1898/1899.” It’s in German and English and is the compilation of newspaper columns written by Mark Twain for Harper’s Magazine during the time he lived in Vienna.

According to Twain’s report, the lower house of the Imperial Parlament at that time, the Abgeordnetenhaus, was made up of 425 deputies representing 19 or 20 states, speaking 11 different languages and belonging to at least 6 major parties!

No doubt, this is the result of the patchwork of lands and peoples that made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, as Twain relates, it led to a body that had trouble finding common ground to accomplish anything.

When we visited the chambers of the Abgeordnetenhaus, our guide explained that this situation persisted right up to the time of WWI, showing us this seating chart from 1911, detailing how the deputies had to be seated by language so that interpreters could translate the proceedings for them. The three main languages were: German (yellow); Czech (red); and, Polish (blue). But there were also contingents of: Ukrainian (purple); Slovinian (also blue); Croatian (gold); Italian (green); Romanian (orange); Russian (light purple); Serbian (brown); and, Yiddish (grey). It must have taken an hour to just welcome the delegates to the proceedings each morning!

Today, the official language of Austria is German and most people also speak English. There are no longer 425 delegates in the lower chamber; its successor, the Nationalrat (the National Council) consists of 183 representatives and the Bundesrat (the Federal Council) is made up of 62 members representing 9 Austrian states.

The current constitutional government of Austria is not all that different from that of the United States, both having a popularly elected President who is the Head of State charged with implementing and enforcing the law and who also serves as the Commander-in-Chief of the military. Both countries also have a bicameral, federal legislature that enacts the laws and a court system to interpret and apply them.

Austria and the United States differ, however, in the make-up of the Cabinet which, in Austria, shares executive power with the President. In the U.S., the President chooses his Cabinet, subject to confirmation by the Senate, and it answers to him; in Austria, the Chancellor (the head of the political party that has formed a parliamentary government) selects the Cabinet. Another significant difference is that each U.S. state has equal representation (two Senators each) in the upper chamber; whereas, in Austria, the states are represented proportionally to their population.

As a result of the destruction of so much of the original Parlament building in WWII, the larger legislative body, the National Council, was moved into the Federal Council’s rebuilt assembly hall after the war and the National Council’s original chambers (shown above) are now reserved only for special assemblies and events.

Here are the renovated chambers of the National Council:

We got to sit in the representatives’ seats since they were not in session on the day we visited.

The Federal Council was moved into much smaller chambers nearby. Here’s a picture of their assembly hall:

As I mentioned, the Federal Council is made up of representatives of the nine Austrian states. These legislators are not elected by the citizens; they are appointed by their respective state legislatures and the same goes for the governor of each Austrian state. The United States used to have the same system, but it was changed in 1912 by 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Next door to the Parlament is the Rathaus, the Vienna City Hall buiding. You’d never guess it though, it looks more like a cathedral. Here it is from the Ringstraße:

We took a tour of the Rathaus. Here’s another photo from the backside from the courtyard; 2,000 people work here in the city government:

The city of Vienna is also a state and its mayor and city council have a dual function as governor and state legislature, which explains why there are so many employees and so many council seats – the city of Vienna has 100 councilmen! Here’s a photo of the city council chambers:

The Rathaus, which was built in the Neo-Gothic style at the same time as Parlament next door, 1872-1883, stands in great contrast, architecturally, to that building. The construction of these buildings and the other public structures along the Ringstraße in the 1870s and 1880s undoubtedly placed a great financial burden on the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, I’m guessing, had more than a little to do with its decline.

But, as a tourist in the 21st Century, I’m glad that when it came up for a vote…

…the only person that mattered at the time, Emperor Franz Joseph, voted “Ja,” decreeing, famously, “Es ist Mein Wille” – that is, “It is my will.”

It is also his legacy.

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