Newsroom / News / Media / Info Magazine LGP NEWS 02/2020 / Privy councillors, whisperers and spin doctors

Privy councillors, whisperers and spin doctors

Privy councillors, whisperers and spin doctors

In his new book, LGP Senior Expert Counsel Manfred Matzka writes about 300 years of éminences grises on Ballhausplatz. The former Director General of the Federal Chancellery presents the most important protagonists on two pages. 

Consultant, special advisor, head of cabinet, secretary general, spin doctor, thinktank director: there are all kinds of names for those who influence the people in power behind the scenes. They themselves do not step into the public limelight and do not hold any responsibility towards that sphere. They are intelligent, educated, know a great deal or know about specific matters, are prepared to stand behind their boss and work with them. They are valued and supported by this boss, know the environment, its structures, the processes and the people involved, right down to the smallest detail. They never lose sight of the big picture and have staying power, they think strategically and act unwaveringly. They outlast the politicians and, as a result, are important. For as long as there have been states, administrations and ministers, they have been dependent on such persons. 

13 individuals and 3 groups are presented. The first is old Bartenstein. He was magnificent, like how he argued away the promise of Charles VI to marry two of his three daughters to Spaniards, when one of them died. Impressive, like how he offered his resignation to Maria Theresa in such a way that she asked him to stay. He advised her well, did not patronise the 23-year-old, did not flatter her, but strengthened her back against Prussia – ultimately successfully. The finesse with which he made the weak Anton Corfiz Ulfeldt chancellor, because he himself could not be, and then used him for his own ends was masterly. 

Sonnenfels’ brilliant spirit of progress advised the Empress and Joseph II in a rather different way: the son of a rabbi from the provinces, he skilfully proffered an essay to Maria Theresa to mark her birthday before fighting a great battle against torture. In the decisive phase, he fell on his knees before the Empress, parried all the intrigues of the conservatives, used his Masonic contacts, formed networks and, finally, was successful. Without this veritable giant, torture and the death penalty would not have been abolished. 

Even in his youth, Friedrich Gentz became internationally known as a magnificent wordsmith. Vainly, as a small civil servant, he lectured to the Prussian King, was bought by Austria and held his great role as secretary of the Congress of Vienna, where he put on paper what the potentates thought, without being able to say it himself. This brilliant strategist put the new concept of Europe on paper here. Alongside this, he raked in money, took the very young Fanny Elssler as his girlfriend at the age of 65 – and died with an estate of 5 guilders. 

Who advised Franz Joseph? This question fills two chapters. After taking the throne at the age of 18 and not the brightest of men, he was not up to the task and was bullied by his mother Sophie. She made him emperor and wrote on 2 December 1848 ‘We fought a good fight, we weak women’, appointed his advisors and adored him ardently. He was only able to emancipate himself at the age of 42. In his old age, Count Kielmannsegg was his advisor. He was a great administrator and chancellor of a cabinet of civil servants, but the two old men only talked about uniform buttons, flagging, ennoblement and Otto Wagner’s ugly buildings. The small-mindedness of the emperor became tangible. 

An exciting episode comes in the form of how Count Alexander Hoyos set up a no-nonsense clique in the Foreign Office before 1914, how he war mongered the weak Minister Berchtold and how he led to the immediate start of the war in July 1914 in a disastrous double-cross between Berlin and Vienna. The effect of the best lawyer of his time, Hans Kelsen, was quite different at the turn of 1918. The role he played for the Lammash government in the final days of the monarchy is hardly known. This book offers a detailed exploration of his contributions to the Austrian constitution: his ability to combine the legal text with the political concepts of the rule of law, legality, popular sovereignty and the balance of powers seems more relevant today than ever before. 

His sinister counterpart is section head Hecht, who shows how the interaction of political will and compliant jurisprudence eliminated democracy. He unearthed the War Economic Empowerment Act, tinkered with government by means of ordinances, prepared party bans, formulated the spin on the ‘self-dissolution’ of parliament, and procured the legality of the 1933 constitutional breach. A similar spirit is evident in the case of Walther Kastner, who, as a previously illegal Nazi, became chief aryaniser of industry in 1938, but who came back immediately after 1945, rehabilitated by VP Minister Krauland, who made him chief restitutor of the companies he aryanised. And alongside this, he built up a huge art collection. 

In the book, he is followed by Heinrich Wildner, who brought the Chancellor’s Office back into a functioning state in 1945 and exploited the tensions between the Chancellors (Renner, Figl) and the Foreign Minister (Gruber) with masterful bureaucratic intrigue, both for himself and for the Office. He knew everything, even the truth about Waldheim as early as 1946, and deliberately overlooked it. Eduard Chaloupka, who was Director General of the Federal Chancellery and head of the Cartellverband at the same time, perfected the power of the CV in the administration, along with its incredible network and the methods and techniques of penetrating the state apparatus. And the story of him having himself painted into the official picture of the State Treaty is truly something else. 

He stands in contrast to Hans Thalberg, the most silent of all advisors in the book. A Jew, an exile, resistance fighter while he was emigrated (while others hid within their country or became Nazi henchmen), he started off hostile, as a young diplomat in the midst of these two groups, but then became one of Bruno Kreisky’s most important advisers, especially in Middle Eastern politics. 

This is the end of the individual biographies. A chapter on the ‘Republic of Secretaries’ describes the role of the cabinets of Klaus (where it becomes clear that the young people from Mock to Klestil and Graff were reformers) and of Kreisky, where advice from Lacina to Petritsch, from Jankowitsch to Kirchschläger took on very specific forms with a figure who outshone everything else. The situation starts to decline in the 2000s: content is becoming more and more meaningless, sales are becoming more and more important. That is why we no longer need political advisors anymore, that is what the consultants came for, a group which has trigged expenditure of a total of 2 billion euros over the last 20 years. 

In the last chapter, which goes as far as the ‘Covid-19 Future Operations Clearing Board’, we read about the interplay between total ‘message control’ and official government, the disastrous increase in the power of ministerial offices and the smashing and ‘cleaning up’ of administrative structures that have grown into being, the failed experiment of secretaries-general, the dominance of press conferences and media consultants over the law and the opaque influence of money-backed lobbies. 

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