Interview


Astrid Harz


Vienna - 28 September 2014

01

I met Her Excellency Astrid Harz at the Austrian Embassy in Amman, for my first interview. She has held the position of Austrian ambassador to Jordan and Iraq for three years.

I was able to hold a frank and friendly conversation with this dedicated and decisive diplomat who spoke to me about her passion for her profession, feminism and the city of Vienna.

ON HER CAREER

You were born in Wagna in Styria, close to Graz. You then attended university in Graz where you studied Business. You also began to work while you were still a student: as a television presenter. How did you manage to do it?

I first had the desire to become a television presenter before I even became a student. It was at the beginning of the 1970s; women had begun to appear on television for the first time and it intrigued me. I was about 3 or 4 years old at the time and I said to my mother: “I want to do that.” I liked it a lot because they were very stylish women. I wanted to be like them. So when I was 19, I gave it a try and it worked. But at that time, I already knew that I wanted to do something else.

So it was not your aim to remain in the media…

 Not at all. Being a television presenter is one thing; being a journalist, is another but even as the latter, one’s role remains descriptive. To put it more strongly, a journalist never takes responsibility: if something is written or mentioned or a mistake is made, it has no impact.

And yet, there are committed journalists.

Yes, but they are not the ones who make decisions or have any responsibility. And that was what was missing for me. I enjoy writing; I enjoy the theoretical side; however I also enjoy the practical aspect. And I have always known that I wanted to do something within an international context.

Did you spend anytime abroad during your childhood?

We moved eight times, during my childhood! My father worked in construction. Children react to that in two ways: some say “I never want to do that ever again” and others quite enjoy it. I was the second kind of child. And I had a certain skill for picking up languages easily.

You also speak very good French…

I have always wanted to travel … In fact, I do not really like travelling as a tourist, but rather prefer living somewhere else: I love being able to immerse myself totally in another culture for a while. So I knew I wanted to live abroad. When it came to choosing my course of study, my parents were somewhat influential in guiding me in making a choice explaining that it would always be useful to me. I knew exactly what I wanted.

And diplomacy followed afterwards…

No, by the time I was 20 years old, I knew it was an area I wanted to work in.

It is true that Vienna has a very important past and even a present where diplomacy is concerned. There is the Vienna Convention … It is also in Vienna that negotiations with Iran are now being held.

Yes, absolutely, and when I was 14-16 years old, it was Kurt Waldheim who was Secretary General of the United Nations. It was very important to us because it must be remembered that we have been part of the European Union for less than 20 years (19 years in December 2013). Previously, there was the Cold War; Austria was in a very delicate position: a large part of our borders in regions such as Lower Austria, Burgenland and Styria, were shared with the Eastern bloc. There was no exchange as we know it today. It was much more complicated from a political, economic, cultural and even a societal point of view. Yet Austria being neutral has always maintained contact with these countries, but it was much more strained than presently in the European Union. It was a completely different geostrategic context. And that is why the UN was particularly important to us in terms of recognition of the country. I have always been interested in politics. Since my childhood. I remember asking my mother to explain the principle of a country’s neutrality to me; it was around the same time I decided to become a television presenter. I was 10-12 years old when discussions on the American Pershings were held in Germany …; that interested me a great deal! I wasn’t quite old enough but I loved it all the same.

It is a true vocation for you.

Yes, it came to me naturally. And finally, I have found that as a diplomat, the economy has been very important in recent decades. There is also the cultural aspect of the role. Because apart from reading, I find culture to be really fascinating. And then there is communication and written expression. So I have found a profession that suits me perfectly.

Precisely, diplomacy is no longer practiced as the Talleyrand or Metternich (who was also Austrian, I believe…), once did, what is it about diplomacy that has changed today?

I believe it is not so much diplomacy that has changed, but the world. Diplomacy is a reflection of its times. What has changed the most is the rapidity with which things occur because the means of communication are completely different.

Technology does play a role, everything is faster…

That is true, the life of an ambassador was previously conducted according to exchanges with the head of state. When Maria Theresia of Austria brokered the marriage of Marie Antoinette, she sent a messenger on horseback to Paris with letters for her ambassador and her daughter. The ambassador also did the same in reverse. That did take quite a while! Today it is a lot faster! And information and communication have become widespread. Previously, only a few select individuals such as diplomats, courtiers, or, in the republics, politicians and perhaps certain individuals occupying senior positions in the ministries, were privy to information and exchanged it. It was only in the 19th century, that we saw the emergence of a critical press and of politics on to a public platform, starting with Zola who wrote about the Dreyfus affair. It was no longer the preserve of a select few.

So now, with Facebook, Twitter … the role of social media is even more significant…

Yes it is, as can be seen with the Arab Spring.

Are these interferences more difficult for you to manage?

Public opinion now plays a key role as opposed to the past when politics was the preserve of the elite and the opinions of the people were considered unimportant… Everybody is affected by the changes to diplomacy. For example, a company no longer has the time it once would have had to think about strategy, to make decisions… Diplomacy is not subject to particular changes. It must adapt to the times. And that is what it has always done. These interferences are not a huge inconvenience. We are faced with a situation which is the same for everyone: we live in a world where there is a lot of information and we have the means of communication that we did not previously have; there is also the participation of the people which is positive. My career has obviously helped me in understanding how important information is. It may be easier for me than for older colleagues. Because it is true that the current level of information makes life more complicated than it previously was for everyone. Today, there is so much information available that it makes it difficult to select what is necessary sometimes. It is not a problem for me: I enjoy making decisions and I am not very patient. I take some time to consider and then make a choice.

Except that, in some cases, diplomacy needs grey areas to operate

Yes, and it is a necessity that I shall always defend. And it is true that it is not always obvious. People say transparency is necessary. But it is up to you draw up a barrier and say that you have nothing to declare, even at the cost of appearing uninformed, clueless… I do not believe in image, or in a created image, at least. It is not in my nature and I cannot go against my nature. I consider myself to be an open, impatient individual who takes action, who likes taking decisions, who is not afraid of assuming responsibility, and it is difficult to create an image that is not natural when you have a character with rather prominent strengths and weaknesses. My in depth understanding of the media has enabled me to understand that sincerity pays. What is most important to me is being in tune with myself. I was shocked to learn that Mick Jagger’s girlfriend committed suicide. I found it quite terrible: She was a woman who had a good career, it could be assumed that she had the “guy” she wanted … There are so many people who have cancer, who are unemployed  … I do not know; I have never even read any article about her in Vogue or any other magazine, but that to me, is an indication that there was something wrong in the life of the individual. And that is something I do not want for my life.

You speak about your life as a woman. Diplomacy still remains a heavily male-dominated environment although more and more women are becoming diplomats and ambassadors. What has your experience been?

I remember quite clearly being asked by some ambassadors who were in their sixties at the time, why I had made such a choice, on my entry into the Foreign Office. According to them I was not ugly and might as well have gotten married… So it certainly wasn’t easy!

ON FEMINISM

Did you have any mentors? People who motivated you?

Not really. I am very independent. I find it difficult to identify with a group. I am very individualistic and do not possess a need to be in harmony with others at all times. Obviously, I do want things to run smoothly in a team, in the family, … But I have no need to share the opinion of others even with people who are very close to me. For me, we may very well disagree on some things. I find it normal. Hence, it is not always useful in networking… I have also always been openly feminist. On International Women’s Day, I read an article in Madame Figaro, titled “Has feminism become cool? “. Well … feminism has always been trivialized, in German speaking countries at least and it was even worse in Austria than Germany since it is a small country that has been conservative for a long time. I believe we still need feminism. I am also the Austrian ambassador to Iraq. On the 25th of February, in Iraq, the Al-Maliki government sent a bill to Parliament which included a request for the marriageable age for girls to be lowered from 18 to 9 years! I felt so outraged! Following that, I discussed the issue with some Austrian journalists I had known for quite some time. And they finally wrote a small article saying it was not perhaps the best idea. But it was not until the 8th of March that the Human Rights Watch commented on the issue! I found that to be truly outrageous! I have been profoundly influenced by the books of Simone de Beauvoir. For me, they were a revelation. And then there was Elisabeth Badinter, who wrote a lot of very intelligent things on the issue. Even in her last book, she said that women must struggle against their thirst for perfection. Presently, all possibilities are available to us and this has led us to believe that we need to do everything. That is why I believe feminism is still necessary: the fact that you can do everything does not necessarily mean that you should! For example, I have often been asked “Why did you not get married, why do you not have anychildren?” by many people… It would have been very difficult for me to have a family. I would not have been able to forge the career I now have. I slept for between 12 to 20 hours a week for many years! I would never have wanted to have any children under such circumstances! If it were a man, it could be explained and he could say “I accept or do not accept” but not to children. Hence, as a woman, you can get married or have children although doing so in some careers remains difficult. I attach great importance to my independence and my profession: I would never havewanted to follow my husband and take care of children. I therefore could not ask the same thing of a husband. Hence, yes and as Elisabeth Badinter wrote, it is impossible to have everything and be perfect at everything. And that is what I blame women’s magazines for: their focus on “superwomen.” It is why I believe the struggle (I do not like the word “struggle” but I have no other alternative) has not been won. Yes, things have improved, but there are still so many countries in the world where women are treated in an appalling manner. And if we women do not insist on the need for change, who else will? What has always shocked me more than the trivialization of feminism is the belief that “feminism is against men.” I do not believe it is the case. Because ultimately, the changes which have occurred have also been of benefit to men. It was previously the man who was responsible for everything in the family resulting in economic pressure. I also see a lot of men in Europe who like to spend time with their children: my father spent a lot of time with me on weekends although he worked a lot: he always had time for me.

What other things are you interested in?

I am an avid reader. A great reader! I am a big consumer of books and magazines… I read everything: political magazines and those which are provided with daily newspapers such as the Financial Times, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Figaro, Le Monde… What bothers me is that the focus of magazines such as Elle, Vogue …  leans towards the feminine, super glossy side knowing that all their photos are retouched! I find it a bit tiring even though I am a woman who attaches great importance to her physical appearance. Because even women who work do not always have the time, energy or resources to care for themselves to such an extent. It is something I know about: I spend a significant amounton it but there are things I am not prepared to do. For me, it is too mainstream. Just about beauty and what Elisabeth Badinter criticized so much in her latest book, the illusion that everything is possible and this quest for perfection which  has been imposed on  women. And then the umpteenth story on how to find the right man! I have also always been passionate about social issues. There are so many important issues that I find it shameful for a businesswoman to be solely occupied with trivialities such as Botox in her spare time,… I think we should be able to expect commitment from privileged women most of all. Because women who must raise their children alone, who have rather tedious jobs, cannot be expected to make significant contributions to societal issues. I do not think it is really fair. Women who have a comfortable life need to think about these sort of things.

Do you think they should get involved in politics?

No, that would be asking too much. According to my analysis, the political parties in Europe are a part of the problem, not the solution. But everyone has something to contribute to society. I recently read an article also in Madame Figaro, on the investment of time and financial resources of women in high positions. The French woman occupying a high position invests between €2 500 and €3 500 per month on her appearance. Those from London and New York spend even much more! I found it really shocking! I would admit that I am a dedicated user of La Mer cream which costs a fortune but there is a limit! I enjoy going to the spa but reducing a woman to her appearance is wrong because there are so many things they could get involved in and there are so many women who are involved taking the initiative to help underprivileged children, for example  … And I believe that is important.

ON VIENNA

Let us talk about Vienna now. How would you describe it to someone who had never been there before? What is its soul, its essence?

First of all, there is an extraordinary quality of life that can also be experienced if you were only spending a day or a weekend there. You do not need to live in Vienna in order to experience this quality which is the best in the world according to a Mercer study published earlier this year. Its extraordinary quality of life is certainly due to its perfect public transport system and its cleanliness. There are no issues with pollution as there currently is in Paris! Its quality is extraordinary for a city of almost 2 million inhabitants at present. Vienna has also become a modern city that has a lot to offer everyone, young people, those whose interest lies beyond Austria. Because it has become very multi-cultural. It is a very modern city, a very open one with an omnipresent past. A well-preserved past. That is the source of Vienna’s charm. You also have all the restaurants you could want. That was previously only possible in London, Paris or New York. Now, all kinds of cuisine are available.

It is a city which has a rich history but which has not stifled creativity. It is rooted in modernity.

Finally, it has not remained there. It took some time because Austria was quite a conservative country and change began to occur in the 1970s. We remember our Chancellor at the time, Bruno Kreisky. You either liked the Social Democrats or disliked them; you either liked Bruno Kreisky or disliked him. But it must be admitted that Kreisky and his government brought an enormous open mindedness to Austria. They had to face a great deal of resistance in the 1970s against the law on abortion which was very liberal and has remained unchanged from that period and is now considered normal in the civilized world. The first free school books followed by  free access to universities for children of the working classes was introduced at the time,  in order to promote access to universities,… And that was a paradigm shift: it helped modernize Austria. And then there was our joining the European Union, the end of the Cold War … That really changed Austria and Vienna. It is a city with a very liveable scale. It is a small country but it has a beautiful nature. Austrians attach great importance to cleanliness and protecting the environment.

What would you recommend to a woman on her own? I can already be certain that walking around in the evening would not be a problem…

I would recommend a hotel in the city centre, a map of Vienna and going out and about. The best way of exploring the city is on foot! In Vienna, once you see the city centre, you’ve seen the main feature. Everything is available there, all the shops, cafes, museums, the opera,…It is all very concentrated.

How do you cope with travelling?

I previously had to travel quite a lot for my work, take planes, sleep in hotels, … it was stressful. So when on vacation, what I enjoy the most is to returning  to my apartment in Vienna’s 6th district, which I am currently renovating:  it is a small apartment on the 7th floor with a small terrace and is presently  my favourite destination. Besides that, my favourite cities are Paris and Naples.

You lived in Paris, I believe, when you were the Press Counsellor at the Austrian Embassy in Paris.

Yes, Saint Germain des Pres, next to the Ecume des Pages library, next to the Café Flore. And the 6th arrondissement, it was lovely!

And why Naples?

It is a seaside city and I love the sea.  There is also so much to do from a cultural point of view; there are excellent shops … I know, even my friends in Rome tell me that I am crazy, that it is so dangerous! But I have never had any problems, ever! I must admit that I could survive in three countries: Austria, Italy and France. There is everything I need in these three countries!

How do you prepare for a journey?

Meticulously! As a perfectionist … I do not understand how anything was possible before Google! I am addicted to it! When I am having dinner with friends, and they do not know where to go, I bring out my Blackberry and when asked what I am doing, I say “Asking  the Google God! “.

Astrid Harz’s adresses and her comments

For culture freaks:

For book lovers:

  • Nationalbibliothek: simply magnificent – see website
  • Burgtheater: the bookstore Leporello and their restaurant Vestibul – see website
  • Morawa: a bookstore behind the Stephansdom – see website
  • Leporello: beside their outlet in the Burgtheater, there is one next to the Stephandom on the Stephansplatz – see website

For the tea lovers, two addresses located behind the Stephansdom:

For classic music lovers:

  • Wiener Staatsoper – see website
  • Wiener Musikverein: the venue for the renowned New Year’s concert. the Golden Hall has probably the best acoustics in the world – see website

For food lovers:

For shopping lovers:

  • R. Horn for sublime bags in the Austrian tradition – see tip
  • Mühlbauer for hats and ready-to-wear – see tip
  • St Charles pharmacy, cosmetics and beauty parlour – see tip

For spa addicts: