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The freethinker

The freethinker

The freethinker

He rates monarchies more highly than democracies because, like good farmers, they try to leave behind a working legacy and not just scorched earth for their victorious opponent. Hugo Waldner is a remarkable example of a Bregenzerwald mind.

I must admit, I was sceptical when my friend Josef Rupp drew my attention to him. He himself owed the man a debt of gratitude, because he had helped him and made a few things possible which would not otherwise have happened, such as building a shared cheese-ripening facility for the two companies Rupp and Alma. But that’s not why he said I ought to speak to the man. Rather, his was a remarkable example of a Bregenzerwald mind. A farmer from middle of the Bregenzerwald who has gained his standing in society not on the strength of power or wealth, but as a self-taught man. Also, and this is where my ears pricked up, the man was a monarchist. That persuaded me. I made further enquiries and established that he had for years been the non-party deputy mayor of Egg. He is also well-known for writing reader’s letters to the region’s only significant daily newspaper. His interventions are literary in nature, perceptive and to the point, and written in an erudite, confident style that is rarely seen nowadays. For example: “In his article on 6 July, Mr X, responding to my reader’s letter, asks whether perhaps an envy complex could be the driving force behind representatives of the valley community opposing the Messepark shopping centre, in order to protect businesses in rural communities. Dear Mr X, allow me to reassure you regarding your hypothesis, and tell you honestly and in all seriousness: someone who has several decades of working in honorary positions in local politics for a rural community behind them has more noble reasons for intervening than a presumed envy complex! If envy were your motivation, you would barely last 25 months in local politics, let alone 25 years. Clearly, the driving force here is to preserve the infrastructure and quality of life of the community in which I live, and not to bow to pressure from wealthy investors living in cities. Hugo Waldner, Freien, Egg.”

What kind of a man would I meet there? “Nobility” and “driving force” – this is the vocabulary of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, being used with great confidence in a letter from a reader. The author, Waldner, is now 71, I learned from the newspaper. He is already regarded as a witness of times gone by, because he dates from a time when there were not yet any milking machines in the Bregenzerwald. On the phone, I was taken aback by his sprightly voice, clear as a high-pitched trumpet, and with a slightly defiant, self-assured tone. Once I was sitting opposite him in the Wirtshaus Falken inn in Großdorf, the first thing that struck me was his enthusiasm. Here he had someone who wanted to talk to him, perhaps even argue with him. Someone who perhaps thought differently from him. Was I the publisher of the “Falter”? – “Yes, that’s me”. – “The feared one?” – “If you think so…” Then Waldner laughed impishly and was delighted. What was all this about monarchism and the Bregenzerwald, I wanted to know. Wasn’t the region famous for its historic democracy? Waldner laughed. “Oh, my Goodness,” he said, expressing pity in this fine, down-to-earth expression. There had been plenty of leaders of provincial councils among his ancestors on both his mother’s and his father’s side, he said. They had been absolute dictators, not democrats. “There is no form of government which offers better opportunities for dictatorship than a democracy if it is abused. The local leaders had at least some responsibility.” If democracy means managing society in the interests of the people, I think, then the man is probably a democrat. His monarchist leanings are more symbolic, based mainly on the idea that hereditary ruling families aspire to leave a legacy behind them, whereas democratic parties want, above all, to leave scorched earth for their opponents when they lose power. He has earned his social standing through self-education. Inevitably, you could almost say, Franz Michael Felder also played a role here – in the form of the third generation, his grandson, the clergyman Franz Willam, who, along with the old priest in Großdorf, took the young Waldner under his wing and encouraged him in his ideas. Waldner was not able to have more than a primary school education, but he has made up for that with a lifetime of reading. “If you looked at my books, you would not know whether I am right-wing or left-wing”, he says, mischievously. What gives him the most fun, and has also earned him the greatest respect, is, and always has been, his tendency to have skirmishes with the law. A lawyer has to win, he says, but a farmer can sometimes lose, it’s not a disaster. However, if a farmer wins a legal debate, that is a triumph. In three out of four cases, Waldner won in the regional administrative court in cases against the District Commission. Waldner produces aphorisms and allegories as if he were a character in a story by Peter Hebel. “He who comes last today will be first tomorrow,” he says. “It takes only a couple of seconds”. I drive home impressed. I have met a conservative, not a reactionary. But conservatism in ecology and farming has long since proved itself revolutionary. Hugo Waldner is a freethinker, to use another of Kant’s terms. That keeps him, if not young, at least up-to-date. And certainly original.

Author: Armin Thurnher
Edition: Reisemagazin Summer 2019