Initial thoughts on Gemütlichkeit

Gemütlichkeit is a German word that just keeps coming up in descriptions of Austria. At first, I thought it was a pretty simple concept. My go-to online dictionary offers meanings like comfort, coziness, congeniality, sociability, snugness, and “an atmosphere of comfort, peace, and acceptance.” This makes sense, and I often see the word in travel guides or ads for particular restaurants and hotels.

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Ah, the Austrian idyll.

But then I started seeing the word pop up in history books and articles about Austria, and I began to realize that it has larger cultural implications. What they are, exactly, I’m not sure, but I’m starting to put together ideas.

Right now I’m two-thirds of the way through Lonnie R. Johnson’s Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends, which I will go ahead and enthusiastically endorse as a thoughtful guide to European history for a general audience. One of the things I love about the book is that Johnson doesn’t use terms without defining them and talking about their implications.

This is his take on the development of Gemütlichkeit as a cultural phenomenon: “The casual, roundabout way of doing things or the ability not to take life too seriously–the phenomenon usually referred to as Gemütlichkeit–is one criterion for distinguishing southern German Catholics, like Bavarians or Austrians, from Northern German Protestants, and it can be traced back to attitudes rooted in the traditions of Baroque piety. The Protestant work ethic was based on postponed gratification; the Catholic ethic of Gemütlichkeit obviously was not” (143). 

Now that’s kind of a lot to unpack, but stay with me, because I think it’s worth it. He’s talking about the North/South cultural split between vaguely-Germany and vaguely-Austria, before either place could properly be called a nation, in the century following the Reformation. In addition, he’s placing the larger cultural concept of Gemütlichkeit within the framework of Catholicism, because, as he says, “Roman Catholic religiosity…emphasized the omnipotence and glory of God and the vanity of human endeavor” (143). This is explicitly in contrast to the “Protestant work ethic” that developed from Martin Luther. So, if a geographical region is predominately Catholic and believes that human endeavor is vain, because we cannot understand the ways of God, then, he suggests, that region might, over the centuries, develop a culture of Gemütlichkeit. That’s how he gets from the Reformation to the word that is widely used in advertising today. Whew. 

Now, in this passage Johnson is mostly interested in distinguishing “German Protestant culture” from “Austrian Catholic culture” (in the eighteenth century, no less) and is using both Gemütlichkeit and religion to do so. Fair enough. I am more interested in the cultural phenomenon as it differs from my culture–the intensely work-driven American society. (NB: Of course, the development of our work-centered culture is directly related to the Protestant work ethic. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard my German professor refer to America as “this Puritan society” on more than one occasion!)

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That lady above looks pretty happy in her blazer, but it’s a very different image from the Austrian scene–with coffee mugs replacing beer, and a laptop replacing that awesome accordion. I recognize that both images are a fantasy-product designed with a consumer in mind, but the latter picture is explicitly designed to appeal to Americans, as an image of an “American businesswoman” (Google image search that, and you’ll find countless examples just like it).

To a certain extent, this image is our ideal, or, as I can’t speak for all Americans, my ideal–to work hard, to be taken seriously, and to be happy. Now, I don’t plan on entering an office environment, but as a twenty-three-year-old, goal-oriented, oldest child, overachiever, the idea of “the casual, roundabout way of doing things” is not all that appealing. I live intentionally and take life really seriously–as do my parents and most of my peers–and I would credit the successes in my life that I am most proud of to a combination of hard work and determination.

On the other hand, comfort and snugness do sound good.

So, will I find Gemütlichkeit in Austria, like the tour guides claim? In what form? Will I come to love and understand it? I’ll let you know.

Oh, and lest I forget, the German version of “The Bare Necessities” from Disney’s The Jungle Book–“Probiers mal mit Gemütlichkeit.” Enjoy!

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