When Chaos Came to Salzburg

Pentecost, the peaceful holiday, had come, and Salzburg was something akin to a city under a state of emergency. By Friday, even schoolgirls from good homes did not make it all the way to school, if they were found to be out and about in the wrong kind of clothes; and heedless apprentices, their hairdos looking like something from a "wanted" poster, were collared in the street and shipped straight off home. Whoever was suspected of being under thirty years of age had little chance of making it across his or her own city, if their looks corresponded to the terrifying image from the spring of 1997 created for the public: rampaging nut-jobs, eating the glass from smashed shop windows and taking shits on the pedestals of monuments listed on the Historic Register. Those people were to be bidden to hurry home and kick back in their apartments for the holiday period; or maybe they would prophylactically be unseated from their bikes and given a word to the wise to the effect that it would behoove them not to be seen in these parts again. By evening the downtown area was dead, and people who'd been wanting to see how a relatively small elite unit of a South American army can pull off the lock-down of an entire city—well, those people didn't need to go to the cinema for that.

On the main approach routes to the city, barricades two rows deep had been set up. Only tanks could have busted through them, but the military intelligence agency had not given notice of the arrival of hostile armor. Anyone reaching the outlying districts of the city had to drive several hundred meters at a snail's pace, past platoons of police, checking things, for the most part good-naturedly, stuffed into leather combat gear, complete with helmets and visors, radios, and every possible weapon that could be employed in shooting or beating. An oppressive silence freighted the air over the city, which had requested this kind of protection and now half-heartedly took possession of it. Even the drunks snuck out of the pubs—totally contrary to their usual way of doing things and to some extent contrary to the nature of their condition—and headed home like whipped dogs, apparently concerned that, otherwise, they would become just that.

This much caution was, alas, excessive, because the police, suffering on account of their combat-ready gear and the unseasonably high temperatures, were under orders to approach the population in a friendly and helpful manner, once they were determined to be the population, that is to say, harmless. Before noon, as I was passing the gaping mouth of the parking deck on the Mönchsberg, there between the stairway leading up the mountain and the canal going through it, I came face to face with a hulking man. One could've thought that he was an actual bull,1 except that other things made him seem like an oafish bank robber who had rendered himself conspicuous by his elaborate disguise long before entering the targeted building. He was wearing a fancy ensemble of head- and microphones, and he must have been hooked up to a dispatcher, for one, and also with the next guard, who was probably also inconspicuously standing out there on the terrain somewhere, and maybe he could even get a direct line to the Interior Minister or to the General Secretary of NATO. When he noticed how I recoiled at his abrupt arrival out of the darkness of the garage, he ripped the stuff off his head with a good deal of effort and called out to me in an attempt to get off on the right foot: "Ois wegn die Preissn, die Deppn!"2

One could readily assert that this attitude had been adopted by broad sections of the populace; why the German hell-raisers needed to come to Salzburg, of all places, to brawl—this wasn't clear to anyone. On the other hand, the idea that they should—"bei eana dahoam," 3 if you please—bash each other's heads in and set fire to their own fathers' cars, not ours, well, this was our citywide consensus. But the Prussians, the Bochum rowdies, the slobs from Dusseldorf—no matter that their arrival had long been announced, and anticipated with such trembling—they did not come. In the three days of the police campaign, fewer than twenty men who were trying to reach Salzburg from the outside and whose intentions could be judged to involve stone-throwing in public were picked up. They were immediately expelled from the city before they even crossed into it.

Salzburg's "days of chaos," for months conjured up as days of terror, were a complete success. This city knows something about excess on the part of its authorities, but this was the first time in its history that a feeling of real peril was spread through the Internet, the medium of virtual reality, a sensation of such scope that the citizenry not only gladly waived its rights and liberties but let itself get caught up in journalistic rabble-rousing that amounted to a plebiscite. The shop-owners in the heart of the city usually never tired of blaming the federal government, the city administration, the "authorities," or the traffic police for the fact that business was getting worse and worse. When they weren't busy sealing up their shops for three days and converting their window displays by means of hammer and boards into impenetrable lean-tos, they scurried about in groveling gratitude and dispensed tea from thermoses to the patrols, as the butchers rushed to distribute Leberkáse sandwiches in packs of ten to the forces of order. The rumor was that the united anarchists of Germany had arranged on the Internet to hold their Pentecost field exercises in Salzburg.

It would be too innocuous an explanation of things just to say that a few people had allowed themselves some Internet fun and proclaimed this "virtual" revolution. That's because the call to storm Salzburg, even if it was a virtual one, led to a state of emergency that was real. There is no need to believe in an administrative plot or to assert that some branch of the police force itself had posted those incitements to rebellion on the Internet, a rebellion that they had been able to nip in the bud with never-before-seen force of arms. That is, if there had only been a bud of that sort to nip! Some observers—indignant at the transformation of which their hometown had proven capable in these peaceful, orderly times—actually thought that this was a case of a war game by the police, who wanted to try out in maneuvers things that otherwise could only be devised in training seminars. But this time the point was not a conspiracy. It was, rather, a delusion. Admittedly, it was one that came just at the right time for some people. As happens so frequently to those who want to believe in the Internet, truth and desire switched places. Reality and hallucination traded spots. The police took this game of fantasy played by some, for reality. This was a reality that suited them perfectly, and that is how a fiction—conceived in front of a screen, for the screen, and tested on the screen and then disseminated over the screen—became fit for reality.

On the Tuesday after Pentecost, when the hooligans who had never been here were gone, several thousand flowers were noticed to be missing from Mirabell Park, some gardens that are located halfway between downtown and the train station. Spurred on by the demagoguery that it was itself promoting, the local paper, the Salzburger Nachrichten, surmised the following: the anarchists, irked at having been blocked by the huge police deployment in the city and at being unable to get their hands on any people to terrorize, had compensated themselves with the flowers as they marched back to the station. At midweek, though, the Parks Department let it be known that municipal gardeners were the ones who had removed the flowers. This was in their job description and they had been doing it every year, so that in the following year there would be room to set out the annuals. Anyway, the virtual murderers were the real gardeners, and that's comforting to know.

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1Pun on the German word Bulle, which means both "bull" and "cop." 2Austrian dialect for "All this on account of the Prussians. Those morons!" 3Austrian dialect for "over there where they live" or "in their own neck of the woods."

Translation of "Wie das Chaos nach Salzburg kam," from Der Mann, der ins Gefrierfach wollte: Albumblatter. Published by Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2009 by John K. Cok. All rights reserved.