Robert Wistrich’s book is about the Jews of Vienna in their golden age, Steven Beller’s about the city’s culture in its golden age. You could be forgiven for thinking that these amounted to the same thing. Not all Viennese Jews were cultural heroes, and not all Viennese cultural heroes were Jews. But the overlap is impressive and in need of explanation. W.E. Mosse’s is about the German economy in its first golden age. The overlap with creative Jews is less overwhelming here but it, too, is worthy of investigation.
Just before the 1848 revolution there were 179 ‘tolerated’ Jewish families in Vienna; with illegal and unofficial residents, that meant a population of about five thousand. By the outbreak of the First World War there were 175,000, the largest Jewish community in Europe after Warsaw and Budapest. Vienna itself quintupled its population during this period, reaching the two million mark by 1914. It was a city of immigrants, as multinational as the empire over which it ruled. It was a melting-pot, but only up to a point. The biggest immigrant group, the Czechs, were absorbed fairly easily, partly by coercion, as Monika Glettler points out in the Pynsent volume, partly because they lacked social leadership and geographical concentration. Unlike the Irish in Britain, they also lacked religious distinctiveness. Hungarians, Slovenes and Croats, much less numerous, were also absorbed. They have remained an integral part of the Viennese scene, as a survey of shop-signs in any street, or even the list of cabinet ministers, from Chancellor Vranitzky downwards, will show.
Jews, too, initially integrated successfully, or so it seemed in the 1860s and 1870s, when Liberals dominated the Imperial government and the city administration of Vienna. Later it turned out that things were less simple. Jews were enterprising, creative, successful, important and influential. They were also disliked and resented. They were in Vienna but only dubiously of it. Indeed their relations with others and amongst themselves showed how rootless the population of this immigrant city was. The Imperial government was remote and bureaucratic, the city government oligarchic, the franchise excluded the working class until 1897 and discriminated against the lower middle class. Anti-semitism was an effective rallying-cry against both the oligarchs and the intruders. Skilfully manipulated by the populist Dr Karl Lueger, it dominated the capital’s politics from 1895 to 1918.
It was directed against ‘the Jews’, elastically defined. Yet, as an entity, as Wistrich shows in his valuable narrative, they scarcely existed. Unlike Prague or Frankfurt, Vienna was not a city with an established Jewish culture. Jews had flourished in the Middle Ages, commercially and intellectually, after which there were three centuries of massacre and expulsion. In Jewish folklore Vienna became Ir ha-Damim, the City of Blood. But since the Habsburg Emperors could not fight their wars without Jewish resources and expertise, a caste of court Jews, privileged in relation not only to their co-religionists but to the bulk of the Christian population, was almost always a feature of Viennese life. The Wertheimers, Arnsteins, Eskeles, Rothschilds and Wertheimsteins, increasingly ennobled, intermarried and converted to Christianity, formed an alternative aristocracy. Nathan Adam Arnstein’s wife Fanny brought the idea of the literary salon from Berlin to Vienna; a series of Jewish hostesses carried on the tradition until the end of the Empire.
But it was not these dynasties that formed the character of the Jewish community of Vienna in modern times. This had its origins in the revolution of 1848 and the waves of migration that followed. The prominent role that Jews played in the 1848 uprisings, the interdenominational enthusiasm that this engendered, the association that arose then between German self-determination and liberalism and democracy, determined the political and cultural loyalties of the Jews of Austria thereafter – at any rate of the Jews of Western Austria. German-Austrian liberalism was, at the very least, their enemies’ enemy, an ally against Catholic reaction and its Slav foot-soldiers. It was under a liberal ministry that full legal equality was finally enacted in 1867. ‘To feel German means to feel free,’ Adolf Jellinek, later to become the leading Jewish preacher in Vienna, had written in 1848.
German liberalism meant not only a political cause, but a cultural ideal: an identification with the classics of the German Enlightenment. ‘Our pride and comfort,’ wrote Heinrich Jacques, a leading Viennese Jewish liberal, ‘are that great treasury of German science and literature, Lessing and Schiller, Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt.’ German culture seemed doubly the culture of freedom: it was not only the language of human idealism, but the gateway out of the ghetto. Indeed language became a weapon – in the hands of the Government, to impose political uniformity, as in the reforms of Joseph II in the 1780s, and in the hands of ‘enlightened’ Jews, to raise the standards of their backward Galician brethren, still sunk in tradition and Hasidic superstition. For the feminist Bertha Pappenheim, the vocational schools endowed by Baron Hirsch, which taught Polish and German and thus undermined the use of Yiddish, were ‘strongholds, often conquered in battle, against the defects from which Galician Jewry suffers as if from a hereditary disease’.
Two developments gradually put an end to the German-Jewish alliance. The first was that in the realm of politics, as opposed to that of the spirit, the German-speaking population of Austria ceased to reciprocate. With the establishment of a German Empire that excluded the Habsburg domains, the new middle-class generation, especially within the student body, worshipped Bismarck rather than Kant. The pan-German fraternities to which Victor Adler, Theodor Herzl and Sigmund Freud had belonged began excluding Jews and finally declared them to be ‘devoid of honour’ – i.e. unfit duelling partners. The Liberals lost power in 1879, at last facing the reality of a Slav majority in Austria. In the 1890s militant anti-semitism conquered the Town Hall of Vienna. Liberalism was increasingly, if never exclusively, a Jewish affair.
Deserted by German-Austrians, Jews increasingly became dynastic patriots. Too late they discovered that in the competing arrogances of ethnic antagonism they had played a destructive role in siding with one of the players. Encouraged by the Emperor’s repeated denunications of anti-semitism, they rewrote Habsburg history. By 1885 Jellinek could toast the sexcentenary of Habsburg rule by declaiming that ‘the chains which oppressed the Jews in Austria fell at the word of deliverance pronounced by our lofty regent.’ By 1918 Jews, who had a bigger stake than anyone in a multinational state, were among the few remaining ‘Austrians’ in the Empire.
Not only did the environment change for Vienna’s Jews, so did the nature of their community. In the first three decades of free immigration the influx came mainly from the lands of the Bohemian crown – Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia – and from Western Hungary. It was predominantly urban, bourgeois and German-speaking. It merged fairly easily with the Viennese-born élite. From the 1880s the influx came increasingly from Galicia, some of it in search of enlightened culture, most of it simply to escape poverty. The Galicians were more prepared to be Austrians than Germans, more inclined to be socialists or Zionists than liberals. This added a dimension to what Wistrich calls the crisis of assimilation, bringing divisions into the government of the community itself. Zionism was to some extent extent a symptom of a class struggle within Viennese Jewry, a movememt by the newcomers to topple the oligarchs.
There have been many books about the Jews of Vienna, some scholarly, the majority anecdotal. Wistrich’s narrative, which makes sense of the complex strands and uses neglected primary sources, will be the standard work for some time to come. It is, for all its seven hundred pages, eminently readable. Its least satisfactory part is the discussion of Jews in Viennese culture, where he singles out half a dozen leading individuals. Pessimism, impotence in the face of irrationality and ‘prophecy of doom’ (the title of one of his chapters) were certainly there. But this underestimates the forward-looking element in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, and the continuing faith in personal integrity that did not slide into resignation to the extent that he implies. The juxtaposition of decadence and innovation implied by Pynsent’s book catches the balance better.
The cultural élite are also Beller’s topic. They were a minority of Vienna’s Jews, an increasingly small minority as the huddled masses swarmed in. They were overwhelmingly drawn from the Bohemian-Moravian-Hungarian immigration. Galicia provided remarkably few – Joseph Roth, Manes Sperber, Joseph Ehrlich, Siegfried Lipiner – considering that two-thirds of the Monarchy’s Jews lived there. Though almost uniformly hostile to German nationalism, they took it for granted that German was the appropriate language for an enlightened Habsburg citizen.
Beller sets himself a simple question: why were so many of the Viennese cultural élite from the 1880s onwards Jews – persons of Jewish descent, that is to say, including the converted and the children and grandchildren of mixed marriages, since ‘on a subjective level, public and private, Jewish descent was known and significant’? Others before him have faced the question. Some simply recorded the fact, like Jakob Wassermann, a Jew himself, who arrived in Vienna from Germany in 1898 and was flabbergasted at ‘the hosts of Jewish physicians, attorneys, clubmen, snobs, dandies, proletarians, actors, newspapermen, poets’. Anti-semites attributed all they disliked about Vienna to Jewish domination; apologists turned the coin round and compiled anthologies on ‘the Jewish contribution to ...’ In recent times it has seemed in bad taste to do a head-count of intellectual or artistic Jews, lest one be thought to be treading in the Nazis’ footsteps. For Carl Schorske, for instance, in his influential Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, the explanation lies in class, not ethnicity. The intellectual middle-class Jews of Vienna, he argues, were not a special category: ‘the numerous and prosperous Jewish element in Vienna, with its strong assimilationist thrust, only strengthened’ the trend in which the local bourgeoisie sought acceptance; so, too, the Jewish inter-generational move from business to culture was ‘but a special case of middle-class ... upward mobility’.
Politely, but firmly, Beller takes issue with Schorske. On the contrary, he asserts, the liberal bourgeoisie of Vienna owed its character and achievement in this crucial period precisely to the fact that it was predominantly Jewish. He is careful not to overstate his case. By no means all Viennese of genius were of Jewish descent: the dominance was greatest in psychology, philosophy, literature and social and political thought – though in economics only after the First World War. It was considerable, but by no means overwhelming, in music. It was moderate in the natural sciences. It was fairly negligible in art and architecture, no doubt thanks to the taboo on graven images. Moreover, it was strictly time-bound: before the 1880s, few artists, musicians and writers were Jews. We are therefore talking of a second-generation immigrant phenomenon.
To prove his case he gives us ten tables, tracing, through the records of the academic high schools (Gymnasien) of Vienna, the religious affiliation of those who attended them, their fathers’ occupation and their university careers. There has been earlier research into these data by Marsha Rozenblit and Ivar Oxaal, but Beller builds on it. His conclusion is unambiguous. What he defines as the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ – the male self-employed in industry, finance and commerce and members of the liberal professions – was disproportionately Jewish: 30 per cent in Vienna in 1910, compared with a population share of 10 per cent. In the top classes of the Gymnasien, among those that qualified for university entry, Jews also made up at least 30 per cent. In three of the 11 Gymnasien Jewish pupils were in the majority. In the Gymnasien of the central districts, where most Jews lived, Jewish pupils make up almost 40 per cent of the sample, but 65 per cent of those who had ‘liberal bourgeois’ fathers, with a rising tendency from 1870 to 1910.
Of the pupils who went on to university during these years, Jews were almost equally distributed between the law and medical faculties, whereas Catholics favoured law over medicine by four to one: a degree in law was a prerequisite for entry into the civil service. In the other faculties, principally philosophy and the sciences, there was little discrepancy. Among non-Jews, there was a considerable tendency to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, whether into the public service (civil or military) or law or medicine. What is significant about the Jewish sample is the much greater proportion of sons of businessmen who went on to Gymnasien and university compared with Catholics, and the much greater proportion in this category who switched to the professions. The move from the capitalist to the intellectual wing of the liberal bourgeoisie in Vienna was a Jewish speciality. Hence ‘the “Jewishness” of cultural life was a function of the place of Jews in the educational system and liberal society.’ In what may claim to be the central passage of the book he concludes that Freud, the son of a merchant from Moravia who went on to read medicine, and his followers, ‘could hardly help being Jewish, for their career plan in the Viennese context was a Jewish one’.
The statistics, then, answer one question: how Jewish was the Viennese middle class? They do not, of course, answer the more interesting and difficult one: can we explain the character of Viennese culture during this brief flowering by its Jewish component? Beller is sceptical that there is a ‘Jewish mind’. He cites anti-semites who have at times accused Jews of being too abstract and materialistic, at other times of being excessively mystical. But it does make sense to ask whether there are common features to the way members of a particular minority think at a particular time in a particular place. Here we are back at the peculiar relationship between Jews and liberalism, which in Central Europe meant Jews and German culture. The formative impact on the Jews which we are talking about here was that of assimilation, the process, over several generations, of moving from segregated Judaism to a merger with general society. Equally formative was the incompleteness of the process, leading Beller to the paradox that ‘assimilation was itself a Jewish phenomenon’; it was an ideal, not an achievement. Given that, he would have done better to speak of acculturation – the adoption of external norms; as it is, we have to remember that when he speaks of the assimilated, he means the not quite assimilated.
The great majority of the creative Jews of the golden age did have mental affinities, whatever the individual differences between Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Arnold Schoenberg, Otto Weininger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. They felt an imperative to penetrate through a veil of appearance to a core of truth, to understand and explain, to assimilate aesthetics and ethics and to elaborate a code of personal integrity. Hence Mahler’s campaign against schlamperei (the slovenliness of routine), hence Freud’s choice of Oedipus as a role model – not the self-mutilator or the incestuous son, but the riddle-solver. Non-Jews shared these qualities: Adolf Loos in architecture, Egon Schiele in painting, Ernst Mach in physics. Beller’s thesis rather undervalues their autonomous role, though it is true that they were now a minority within the cultural élite and the non-Jewish middle class. Nor did all Jews fit the rational-liberal stereotype. Some, like the poet Peter Altenberg, would have been more at home in the Place Pigalle. Others, like Friedrich Eckstein – typically, the university-educated son of an industrialist – moved from vegetarian Wagnerism through theosophy to the occultism that in Vienna became the property of racialist cranks like Guido von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels. Both Wistrich and Beller think him beneath their dignity, but he features in Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s essay in Pynsent.
It is, however, their liberalism that accounts for the cultured Jews’ collective alienation. No sooner had they come of age than the German speaking middle class turned to nationalism and, increasingly, racial anti-semitism, thus splitting the cultural élite. In Vienna Christian Social anti-semitism, philistine and vulgar, defeated it. Much of the Jewish creativity in Vienna was not only of Vienna, but against it. Kraus, Freud and Schnitzler were ‘trying to counter the threat to the life of the mind’ that Vienna now symbolised.
Fin-de-Siècle Vienna has become like Liberty shopping-bags, a consumer cliché, a safe nostalgia for yesterday’s avant-garde. But there is a case for yesterday. The Café Heinrichshof, where the Jewish industrialist Fritz Wärndorfer put five hundred crowns on the table to start up the arts-and-crafts Wiener Werkstätte, was bombed during the war. The Café Central, where Trotsky played chess and Karl Kraus quarrelled, has been ‘restored’, for tired housewives to rest their feet over the tabloids after a hard morning’s shopping. Nothing wrong with that, but it is not the way it was. Beller’s is a bold, exciting and largely convincing attempt to explain content in terms of origins. It is not the last word, but it will take its place as a major contribution.
Mosse, too, is concerned with an élite. Like Beller’s cultural heroes, its members were a double minority, both within the wider Jewish community and within the wider German haute-bourgeoisie. Unlike Beller’s élite, they flourished over a period of four to five generations, in some cases through long-lived dynasties, but again unlike Beller’s, seem to have embarked on terminal decline even before their enforced dispersion in 1933. While the artistic-intellectual emigration from Central Europe left a vacuum which has still not been filled, the successes of the German economy both during and after World War Two suggest that the economic elite’s distinctive expertise had ceased to be essential by the time Hitler came to power. But, like Beller’s subjects, they had a problem of identity. Just as the writers and artists of Vienna insisted they were part of German culture, but found themselves cut off from its dominant values, so the German-Jewish economic élite, integrated into the network of industrial and financial power, remained in important other respects outsiders. How and why they rose to the top Mosse has described in his Jews in the German Economy. The present book delineates the arriviste’s main problem: what to do on arrival.
As with the Jews’ cultural role so with their economic. The scholarly reaction to anti-semitic stereotyping has been to deny there was anything special about it: quantitatively different, perhaps, but not qualitatively. In his first volume Mosse demonstrated that this is not so: by reason of their social position, their resources and their connections they helped to shape German economic life in quite specific ways. This meant that even when successful in terms of their primary function they remained a recognisable, eccentric, even isolated sector of the moneyed middle class.
That minority among them which remained religiously observant, even Orthodox, had no problems with that status. Others, from a mixture of opportunism and conviction, embraced Christianity. The rest, who had only residual religious faith or none, faced a dilemma. Should they recognise that the Jewish religion had no further meaning to them and, as secular or deistic German citizens, ‘adapt to, and obey, the Christian form, since it is now the dominant one’, as Abraham Mendelssohn put it when explaining to his daughter Fanny why she had been baptised? Or should they – like Walther Rathenau, who ached for full acceptance – refuse to desert a disadvantaged minority or to ‘evade reproaches or burdens’? Either way, it was difficult to win. The baptised Jew who had, in Heinrich Heine’s phrase, bought his entry ticket to European civilisation could gain limited acceptance in the public service, exclusive clubs, in rare cases even the Army. But he remained, in fortune and men’s eyes, a Jew. And thus the private lives of these public men continued to deviate from those of their Gentile peer group.
Among these deviant characteristics Mosse singles out a continuing adherence to liberal political principles, including free trade and internationalism, a fairly well-developed social conscience and an inclination towards cultural and learned avocations. These led, in turn, to a strong involvement in philanthropy and patronage. Whether this involvement was fed by Judaic traditions or formed a reaction to exclusion from high politics and high society cannot be finally established. Indeed, until we have research as detailed as Mosse’s on equivalent Gentile strata, his claims must remain to some extent hypothetical.
It is because they were clearly less marginal than the Viennese avant-garde that it is more difficult to slot the Jewish economic élite into German society as a whole. Were they a privileged group with some special problems, or unloved outsiders, shunned and discriminated against? On the last page Mosse comes gently off the fence in favour of the first: ‘So far as their disabilities were concerned, they could place their hopes in the future, a future mercifully concealed fromall.’ His picture does, however, have implications for our understanding of modern Germany. The society and polity he portrays are less modern, less bourgeois, more hierarchical, more segmented, than some of his former colleagues from East Anglia have claimed.
Much of Wistrich, Beller, Mosse and Pynsent is biographical, as cultural history is bound to be. They would be gratified by the retrospective confirmation of their theses in autobiographies. Elias Canetti, born in Bulgaria, was even less of Vienna than those who were Habsburg citizens. But when he arrived there at the age of 19 he soon acclimatised: ‘The young people I associated with hadn’t been to war. But they all attended Karl Kraus’s lectures and knew The Last Days of Mankind – one could say, by heart.’ Indeed it was at a Kraus reading that he met his wife, Veza. He was less keen on Freud, whom he thought too interested in individuals, ignoring the masses, the subject of his own Crowds and Power. But that was in part a generational difference. What Canetti does give us is a glimpse of Vienna’s small but vigorous Sephardic community, all but ignored by Wistrich and Beller. The spirit of Kraus pervades his book, whose title alludes to Kraus’s journal Die Fackel (‘The Torch’). A writer in this fastidious tradition deserved a less slangy and incompetent translation.
Marie Langer could have stepped straight out of Beller’s pages. Her maternal grandfather was a horse-trader. Her father owned a textile factory in Bohemia. She herself attended the Schwarzwald Lyzeum, a progressive private school for intellectual young ladies, which meant that most of the pupils were Jewish, and went on to read medicine. ‘I came from the sceptical, atheistic, Jewish bourgeoisie. Though I am ashamed to admit it, I say so with a certain pride.’ The scepticism did not last very long:
When I was 16 I had a religious crisis. At first I attempted to take up the Jewish religion, but met with opposition at home. Later, during a long and painful Good Friday I tried the Catholic religion. Afterwards I became a definite atheist and later a communist.
In Latin American exile she led a life of great courage and self-sacrifice, first in Argentina, then in Nicaragua. But her judgment did not improve. In Argentina she had led a breakaway from the Psychoanalytical Association ‘to rescue psychoanalysis and put it at the service of a shared goal: the advent of a socialist society’. She died in 1987, still confident that Fidel Castro would establish psychoanalysis on a sound footing in Latin America.
Towards the end she conceded she might have suffered from ‘narcissistic idealisation’: ‘We acted as if we were going to change the world.’ An epitaph on an epoch. If only she had read, marked and inwardly digested Schnitzler’s great The Road to the Open, where Bergmann/Schnitzler delineates the moral self: ‘When I want to have a well-ordered world, I must create one for myself. That is hard for someone who is not God himself.’ And then the greatest of all commandments: ‘to look into yourself as clearly as possible, to shed light on the deepest recesses; to possess the courage to follow your own nature; not to let yourself be misled. Yes, that must be the daily prayer of ever decent person: never let yourself be misled.’ Too late, of course. The shopping ladies have taken over at the Café Central.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.