We met with Cold War expert Oliver Rathkolb to talk about the city’s spy-filled past and how it’s impossible to keep a secret in Vienna

It’s hard to spend time in Vienna’s intellectual or academic circles without bumping into Oliver Rathkolb. Director of the Institute of Contemporary History at the University of Vienna, he is the go-to guy on propaganda, the Cold War and societal analysis.

Today, we were meeting to discuss Vienna’s love affair with spies. I was struck by his kind face and gentle manner as he explained that both Vienna’s history and culture made it a perfect setting for espionage.

The groundwork for spies

In the years following World War II, when the city was split into four zones, the occupying powers, the Americans, British, French and Soviets had the highest concentration of spies. “Especially in the 1st district, a very intense agent race developed,” Rathkolb said.

The location was always important. “Look at the [recently released] documents of the Czech secret service and you see it,” he explained. “The documents are often connected to large bills, paid in cash at the Sacher Bar.” Vienna’s small size and concentration of bars and Heuriger made it easy to listen in on sensitive conversations, especially when the speaker had had a few.

Today’s espionage is much less cloak & dagger and mostly corporate – more surveillance, hacking and digital security breaches. During the 2015 Iran Talks the Palais Coburg was riddled with bugs and the entire surveillance system was hacked. While the international press had a field day, the Austrian Media kept quiet. “It’s not our business,” Rathkolb grinned, “And it’s more or less their own fault. So the topic is suppressed. It’s too hot for the Austrians.”

For Oliver Rathkolb, none of this comes as a surprise; this is a central theme of his book The Paradoxical Republic. Still, it makes him smile. The Viennese do ­enjoy their identity as spy capital, as it reflects the way they see the world: “Everything that happens is either projected onto oneself, or you feel like a total underdog – you’re innocent and everyone else is terrible.”

This unwillingness to feel involved makes Vienna the perfect host for anyone trying to keep secrets. “The Viennese observe, report, but would rather look the other way,” says Rathkolb. It’s a special kind of discretion, “the Austrian style of hotelier.”

Can you keep a secret?

He cited the recent ORF Series about the Hotel Sacher (Das Sacher). “If a drunken archduke runs through the halls naked, it’s important to get him back to his séparée and cloak the episode in silence. Nur keine Schwierigkeiten (just don’t make problems).”

Sometimes it’s hard to tell when Rathkolb is talking about his own experience and when it’s about the political and cultural history around him. But for a contemporary historian perhaps that’s an asset.

“It’s almost impossible to keep a secret in Vienna,” he asserted. “Even if you agree to strict confidentiality, you can be virtually certain that it will be communicated somehow at the next event.”

Even secrets about his own project, the Haus der Geschichte Österreichs (House of Austrian History): “We made a top secret proposal to the administration, and found out at the famous Sauschädlessen of the ex-Raiffeisen boss Chritsian Konrad, the list had already been passed on multiple times.”

It’s a reflection of the tightness of the society, he says. Unlike New York, London or Paris, “it’s much smaller, so it’s easier to act like a big shot and share secrets.”


Where to find Oliver Rathkolb in February

Heldenplatz

As a student, Rathkolb found this place fascinating and his current project, the Haus der Geschichte will be housed in the Neue Burg. “It’s much too big for this city, much too cluttered. But that’s also why it belongs here.”
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Café Eiles

The place was recently renovated and new owners have greatly improved the service. Rathkolb used to live in the area and frequented the café often. It’s got the open plan design of Vienna’s best Kaffeehäuser also with cozy niches.
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Café Diglas Schottenstift

When Rathkolb was at University he spent a lot of time at Café im Schottenstift (the Diglas part is new). He likes having work related meetings at coffee houses and this has been the venue for many of them.
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Café Griensteidl
The board for the Haus der Geschichte always went to lunch here and it‘s a real treat, especially for international guests. Last time they had former Austrian President Heinz Fischer and the Nobel Prize laureate Erich Kandel with them, a great supporter of the project. “That kind of thing just goes over better in a Kaffeehaus.”
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