For Heinz Fischer, loving his country means caring about peacekeeping, education and reviving the lessons of history.
Not many people know where to find him. Past the Portiere and through the courtyard, up the winding steps of the storied Amalientrakt of the Hofburg palace, former President Heinz Fischer’s office is stately, but far from showy. After a hearty handshake, he eyed us as we began setting up for the photo. “How long will you need?” Three minutes. “Three minutes can be made use of,” he said striding back to his desk. Fischer is not one to waste time.
Since his term ended in 2016, Fischer has kept very busy. In 2018, most of his efforts are focused on the centenary of the Austrian Republic, with events, readings, concerts, publications (all listed at oesterreich100.at). The culmination will be the opening of the Haus der Geschichte Österreich (Austrian Museum of Contemporary History) on November 11, followed by a ceremony on the anniversary of the founding, November 12, 1918.
It’s hard to imagine a better person for the role. Not only did he spend 42 years in parliament (with a 4-year gap), he has an encyclopedic memory of almost every event and meeting of his life. His first job in parliament was in 1962, for the 2nd President of the National Council (Nationalrat), Friedrich Hillegeist. He joined the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and in 1971 was himself elected to parliament. After serving as Minister of Science in the 1980s, he became Council President in 1990 and in 2004 was elected President of the Republic.
Having accompanied both Rudolf Kirchschläger and Thomas Klestil on foreign trips as president of the National Council, Fischer was well prepared when his time came.
“I was aware that these visits were meaningful on both a political and an economic level.” All in all, he says the switch from National Council President to Federal President was a relatively “harmonious” shift.
Not everything was so easy. His visit to China was exhausting, he said, and while the Chinese were very attentive, they were also sensitive. “If anything goes wrong, it’s not as easy to iron out as with a president you know from Germany.”
One experience he’ll never forget was in 2013, when Edward Snowden was seeking asylum from the United States and rumored to be on Bolivian President Evo Morales’ jet. After being denied landing in Germany and France, Morales contacted Vienna. “I found out Morales had landed in Schwechat, a decision which I had nothing to do with. But I knew him, so I drove over. At the airport, he embraced me.” Morales told Fischer that he had saved his life. “No matter what I said, he wouldn’t be convinced otherwise,” Fischer laughed.
“When I took office on April 25, 2004, I knew that my term would end on July 8, 2016 in the late morning, around 11:00.” That helped him really use the last years of office, and also plan for the time after. He started teaching at the University of Innsbruck, as well as became president of the Adult Education Centers of Austria, the Volkshochschulen. “Further education has always been important to me.”
In January, he and former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon founded the Center for Global Citizens, a non-profit with the goal of empowering women and young people through peacekeeping efforts, education and safety initiatives.
And the current populist wave? Fischer looks at the big picture: “Where are we now, at what point in history? We can consider ourselves fortunate that it’s been 72 years since the end of WWII, in which we have mostly enjoyed peace.” It was Europe’s determination for peace that led countries to work together to begin with, but “the resolution is getting weaker and weaker. Because that generation is gone and even the second generation is no longer on the political stage.”
Fischer is an optimist by nature, some say too optimistic. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not realistic, which requires laying the facts on the table and talking about them with the public.” It was impossible not to be impressed by Heinz Fischer’s love for his country. It’s not patriotism per se. It’s more humble than that.
“I’ve always been proud of Austria,” he said with a nod. The country has a lot to offer, “Österreich kann sich sehen lassen.”
Where to Find Heinz Fischer in February
This vast nature preserve in the 13th district encompasses nearly 25 square kilometers of woodlands, fields and hiking trails. Fischer grew up in Hietzing and learned to ski on the nearby Roter Berg; the area evokes fond memories of his childhood.
Fischer loves the 8th district. It’s where he and his wife have lived for decades, visited the Theater in der Josefstadt and strolled along Lange Gasse. Come dinnertime, Fischer’s venue of choice is this beloved Gasthaus, renowned for its inventive renditions of Styrian specialties.
This rustic tavern in the 1st district right off Tuchlauben is one of Fischer’s favorite haunts, both for the food, and also just for meeting with friends and colleagues. The menu seemingly has not been updated since the 1990s, which adds to its no-nonsense charm.
Austrian National Library
On February 22, the “treasury of knowledge” will be celebrating its 650th birthday with a grand ceremony; Fischer will attend, along with current President Alexander Van der Bellen. All year, the national library will have special events surrounding the anniversary year.