Austrian Haven for Scholars Bounces Back

The Salzburg Seminar, known for lively academic exchange, has benefited from a new director and fellows from former Soviet bloc

THE Salzburg Seminar is known to a postwar generation of knowledgeable Americans and Europeans as a place of vital intellectual exchange and fellowship. Since 1947, some 16,000 mid-career professionals from ages 30 to 50 have gathered to make international contacts and focus on topics ranging from American theater to the economics of Europe to Russian politics.

While the seminar had gained a strong reputation for its frank discussion groups in politically neutral Austria, and for a stunning setting in a pocket-sized castle (schloss) on a swan-festooned lake, during the 1980s it began to lose some of its profile. By 1991, the seminar was $6 million in debt, and its number of sessions had dropped from 12 to six. Critics argued that its offerings and faculty had become bland, reflecting more the comfortable internationalism of the cold war than the lively arts and humanities focus of previous years when scholars, writers, poets, and judges such as Margaret Mead, F. O. Mattheisson, Ralph Ellison, Delmore Schwartz, and William O. Douglas taught.

Yet a recent visit to the Schloss Leopoldskron, as the castle is known, suggests the seminar is bouncing back. For two reasons: the end of the cold war, with its opening to the East, and the hiring of former Middlebury College president and Russian expert Olin Robinson as director.

Replenishing the coffers

Since 1993, Dr. Robinson has pulled the seminar from the brink of bankruptcy by an ambitious fund-raising drive. Donors such as the Kellogg Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and IBM, have enabled the seminar to increase its sessions to 12 again. Moreover, Robinson and his executive board have sought to return the seminar to its roots by adding an American Studies Center partly funded by the United States Information Agency (USIA), and to broaden the program with $2 million from the Sasakawa Foundation for sessions about Asia.

Robinson has also attracted higher profile faculty. This year sessions were chaired by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough on ``America in Our Time,'' well-known religious historian Martin Marty on ``Religion, Ethnicity, and Nationalism,'' and Washington Post senior columnist Jim Hoagland on US foreign policy. Along with European and Middle Eastern fellows, one now finds scholars and officials from Tadjikistan, the Ukraine, Kyrgistan, and the Sudan - some of whom only make $50 a month, and who had never traveled outside their own country.

Tim Ryback, a deputy director of the seminar, says: ``We are going through a real turnaround. We want to do for Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union what the seminar did for Western Europe right after the war.''

The idea of the seminar, founded by three Harvard students, was to find and introduce promising young Europeans, whose continent was in ruins and newly occupied by US forces, to American culture and institutions. To a degree unimaginable in an era of MTV and CNN, Europeans, who were about to receive a Marshall Plan and countless NATO bases, knew almost nothing about American law, writers, scholars, or ideas. Some call the seminar an ``intellectual Marshall Plan'' for Europe. The Harvard founders actually felt differently. They knew their European counterparts would react negatively to any attempt at exchange conducted in a propagandistic or uncritical manner. They also felt certain American experiences and values, such as personal responsibility, were too important to be left to heavy-handed US officials and that exchanges with the coming generation of Europeans should be done by private citizens who would not preach democracy, but rather practice it through open and pluralistic discussions.

Ties to the former East bloc

Through year-round sessions of three to 10 weeks, the seminar proved a place where trust was established. Until the late 1960s, it was one of few places where East Europeans were allowed to come, leading the seminar to be called ``a small hole in the Iron Curtain.''

Today that hole has become an open border. Some 40 percent of the fellows for the coming year's session will be from the former East bloc. ``We see a hunger among those in the East,'' says Peter Olcot, a novelist whose wife Martha taught part of the ethnicity session. ``They are ready to throw off some of their constraints; they want to communicate.''

Jaroslav Skupnik, a sociology professor at Charles University in Prague, said after the ethnicity session: ``I realized 90 percent of my theories may be wrong. This was a terrible thing. But I've come to feel that I now know how to ask different questions. The experiences people brought here completely changed my views - of places like India, for example.''

Martin Marty argues that the post-cold-war era is bringing people back to a basic question: identity. ``Identity is more on the table today. We have to choose from among identities - am I a Croat, a Catholic, a Muslim? In the newly religious states of the former Soviet Union, the discourse tends to be thicker and deeper than we in the West are used to. We have to learn to talk with them. I'm mindful of the saying that when there is no exchange of ideas, blood flows.''

Fellows and fellowship

Camaraderie at the schloss is partly a testament to the building itself, which has terraces, grand pianos in a ``great hall,'' and a beautiful two-tiered paneled library custom-built in the 1920s by Max Reinhardt, who brought artists from all over Europe to the schloss before he was kicked out by Austrian Nazis for being a Jew. Fellows meet and talk until late into the night, framed by the craggy Austrian Alps.

``The dynamics were great,'' says Nadia Ventorini, a professor at the University of Torino in Italy. ``We developed a real fondness for each other, something special.'' Seminar records show that 7,000 of the 11,000 active fellows stay in touch.

The newest element is the American Studies center. ``US attention to East Europe has been mainly free-market, entrepreneurship,'' Robinson says. ``Not much has been paid to universities. We asked USIA to let us do the job on culture Congress has mandated.''

Center director Ron Clifton acknowledges that since the 1950s American studies in Europe have become very strong. He consulted with the European American Studies center to get started, and feels Salzburg can supplement existing programs and be a forum for introducing scholars from West and East to American scholars who will be in residence.

Still, even while acknowledging that the seminar may have turned around, some older fellows and friends of Salzburg worry that over time the seminar may lose part of its soul. For one thing, sessions are now shorter, one week instead of two, and there is concern that the bonding among fellows and the contact after the seminar may be lessened. Also, the seminar and its facilities are now under the umbrella of a conference center, one of Robinson's other changes, and there is concern that the warm community feeling at the schloss, which adds an important invisible element to the atmosphere, may suffer if the place becomes too commercialized.

Robinson argues the seminar will ``try hard to keep a special atmosphere while doing the kind of things needed to remain financially stable.'' Mr. Ryback points out that cofounder Clement Heller recently praised the seminar's direction, breaking a stony silence that lasted 15 years.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.