Vienna discovers its past

Peter Pulzer

  • Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and their Experiences by Lewis Coser
    Yale, 351 pp, £25.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 300 03193 9
  • The Viennese Enlightenment by Mark Francis
    Croom Helm, 176 pp, £15.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 7099 1065 7
  • The Jews of Vienna, 1867-1914: Assimilation and Identity by Marsha Rozenblit
    SUNY, 368 pp, $39.50, July 1984, ISBN 0 87395 844 6

A city without a past is a city without a future. It may exist as a set of buildings, but not as a culture. But not every city with a past has a future, except as a set of buildings. The springs of innovation may dry up, the crossroads that first gave it its importance may no longer lead anywhere. It is then that a city that still has a present most needs its past, but that is also the moment when it has most reason to fear that past. There are no doubt many cities in this condition – with a little insight and a dose of malice each of us could draw up impressive lists. But everyone’s list would surely include Vienna.

All the same, it might be objected, Vienna can hardly be said to be discovering its past. Surely no city in Europe has put its history and its traditions on display for so long and with such loving care, and no country derives a larger proportion of its national income from festivals and exhibitions than Austria. For generations it has been accused of living off the four M’s – Mozart, Metternich, Maria Theresa and mountains. True, but it is equally true that the past thus preserved and restored is reassuring and comforting, one from which the eruptive, the disturbing, the revolutionary and the unorthodox have been smoothed away. The great achievement of post-war Austrians was to convince the world that Beethoven was one of theirs, while Hitler was not.

Now things are changing. The best evidence for this is two exhibitions and their attendant symposia, one held last November, the other still on, that try to come to terms with questions long evaded, and with themes hitherto marginalised in public and official cultural events. Major exhibitions on historical themes are a well-established feature of Viennese and Austrian life, but they have in general been celebratory, not critical. The one commemorating the bicentenary of Maria Theresa’s death in 1980 was a particularly good example of packaged nostalgia. No one admiring the displays would have guessed what a superstitious and bigoted creature she was, who reintroduced torture into the judicial code and who was, as some think, the model for Mozart’s Queen of the Night. The tercentenary of the Turkish siege of Vienna, magnificently commemorated, was also an obvious occasion for acclaiming the triumph of Western Christendom and the Habsburg dynasty. The difficulty of coping with the divisive elements in Austrian history was shown in February 1984, fifty years after the short but destructive civil war. The only feasible solution, it appeared, was two exhibitions, one for each side – though neither, it must be said, was excessively partisan. Many Austrians felt that no good came of picking at the scars of old wounds, when the hallmark of post-1945 politics had been the submersion of all conflict.

One of the components of its past that Vienna had tried to forget was its Jews. The other, which overlapped in obvious ways with the first, was its unique contribution to the artistic and intellectual avant-garde at the turn of the century. The first was the subject of last November’s exhibition, ‘The World of Yesterday’, along with a three-day symposium under the aegis of the Lord Mayor, a Jewish film festival and other public events. The second forms the subject of a splendid show, ‘Dream and Reality’, which opened in March and will continue until October.

In many ways the Jewish exhibition was the more daring event of the two and its success was therefore the more remarkable. Such was the public demand that it was extended from the original two weeks’ run to four. One afternoon the doors had to be closed for fear of overcrowding. In all over thirty thousand persons visited it. Some of these were organised groups of soldiers and schoolchildren, but the bulk of them went because they wanted to, because for anyone under the age of 45, Jewish Vienna, with its 200,000 pedlars and drapers, virtuosi and journalists, doctors and bankers, was not even a memory. It is a blank in the history books, a vacuum in public consciousness, a fragment of the city’s identity on which the generation of the parents is either silent or dismissive.

The centrepiece of the exhibition consisted of a selection of Roman Vishniac’s photographs of Jewish poverty and piety in interwar Poland. Another collection of photographs, less famous, depicted life in the Leopoldstadt – the Whitechapel and Lower East Side of Imperial Vienna. Many of the characters in them were the stereotypes of Jewish folklore and anti-Semitic caricature. They could easily have roused half-submerged prejudices and contemptuous reactions in the viewers. But there were almost none – I stayed quite a long time, not so much to view the exhibits, most of which were familiar, but to observe the visitors. The biggest crowd was always in front of a large map which simply depicted the origins, numbers, routes and destinations of the deportations and the victims of the Holocaust. One might have thought it would all be completely familiar by now, but apparently not. It is one thing to have a vague awareness of it, another to be confronted with the detailed reality. The true dark ages, of which we know least, are always the day before yesterday. How much more so in this instance, where the generation of the participants is united in silence and their children had other preoccupations. The questioners are the third generation, groping to find the gaps in their past.

If the Jews are the small mystery at the heart of Viennese history, the revolution in art and intellect that it spawned at the turn of the century is the large mystery. Not all of it is now equally mysterious, the more accessible arts least so. Mahler has never ceased to be a boxoffice draw in Central Europe. Klimt, Schiele and the arts-and-crafts designs of Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstätte have enjoyed a revival. But the intellect of the period has long been in exile and its politics subjected to benign neglect. The bulk of the scholarly research on both in the post-war period has been in English, as the names of William Johnston, William McGrath, Carl Schorske, Allan Janik, Stephen Toulmin, Andrew Whiteside and John Boyer testify.[*]

There are a number of plausible reasons for this. The first and most obvious is the great diaspora of Central European scholars brought about by the rise of Nazism in the 1930s – though some intellectuals, like Wittgenstein and Schumpeter, had departed independently of this. They not only left behind a vacuum of creativity that has not been filled: they transferred their crafts and disciplines to the English-speaking world, where they flourish to this day. Their story has been told many times, most recently by Lewis Coser, who stresses the innovative effect that many of them had in their new homes. Before the 1930s, ‘psychoanalysis was a stepchild in the academy’; ‘no historian of philosophy would deny that the coming of Rudolf Carnap and other members of the Vienna Circle deeply influenced the subsequent course of philosophical enquiries’ in America; art history at that time was ‘sporadic and provincial’.

Coser quotes Stuart Hughes’s assertion that the refugee scholars ‘deprovincialised’ America. That is slightly harsh. A man like Walter Cook, of the New York University Institute of Fine Art, who found chairs for many eminent exiles and quipped, ‘Hitler shakes the tree and I collect the apples’, was hardly a hick. Nor could the Cambridge or LSE of this period be considered provincial, however tenuous their grasp of Karl Kraus or Hugo von Hofmannsthal. What is true is that the capitals of the life of the mind were permanently transferred, to London, New York, Chicago and – whether we like it or not – Los Alamos. The intellectual successor states of the Habsburg Monarchy dot the map of the world: few of them are to be found in continental Europe.

There is another reason for this, which is possibly less creditable to the successor states. It is that they have caught up with the moods first launched in Vienna eighty or ninety years ago. The rest of us have become interested in what Karl Kraus called ‘the laboratory of the apocalypse’ because the relevance of what was cooked up there has become more evident. The culture of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna took a long time to cross the Channel and the Atlantic. The Anglo-Saxon liberal world, so secure in its assumptions, so confident of its future until quite recently, had no need of the neuroses and prophecies that emanated from a land where the situation was ‘desperate, but not serious’. Only as our own culture begins to show some of the symptoms that the denizen of any Viennese café would instantly recognise do we need to take seriously the culture that that earlier decay produced. In writing about it, Schorske and others do not merely chronicle the past. Like all worthwhile historians, they mirror their own age. Their choice of theme tells us as much about the North Atlantic world of the 1970s and 1980s as about Central Europe at the turn of the century.

We have to explain, not only why scholarly interest in old Vienna has taken root in the successor states, but why it has failed to do so in its homeland; why Vienna remains largely uncoupled from its intellectual past. The aesthetes, critics, philosophers and composers of the Fin-de-Siècle were all in one way or another in rebellion against the assumptions and the accepted standards of the time. They were disturbers of the peace and in many ways remain so. That they were ignored or even despised in their time, that many of them died in exile – all this encourages continued repression of their role in Vienna. The latest Anglophone chronicler of this group, Mark Francis, has every reason to conclude that his heroes’ ‘reputation is at its greatest outside Vienna’. This is a further incentive for resenting and ignoring them.

Let me cite two episodes that illustrate this attitude. The first concerns Arnold Schoenberg’s bust. In 1955, Schoenberg’s widow offered it to the City of Vienna in accordance with her late husband’s wishes. The only condition attached to this gift was the production of a film about the composer. Sorry, came the reply, we have no money for this. Mrs Schoenberg offered to pay for it herself. Still nothing doing; whereupon she dropped the condition. All in vain: the bust remained in the Library of Congress.[†]

The second concerns the most famous of all the sons of modern intellectual Vienna, Sigmund Freud. His consulting-rooms in Berggasse 19 are now a museum, but this is a private venture, as was the affixing of a plaque outside the house. In the course of a television discussion during the Jewish exhibition last year, one of the participants complained that though a section of the Ringstrasse was named after Karl Lueger, the great reforming Mayor and Hitler’s mentor in the demagogic uses of anti-semitism, no part of the Ring, or any other street, was named after Freud. The telephone rang. Not at all, said a spokesman from the municipality: there is now a Sigmund Freud Park; there had been one for all of a fortnight, though this appeared to be the first public acknowledgement of its existence. It is outside the Votivkirche, a neo-Gothic structure erected as a thanksgiving for Francis Joseph’s escape from an assassination attempt. It consists of an expanse of grass, covering a Tiefgarage (an underground car park). No one lives there, so no one need suffer the humiliation of such an address on his notepaper. The whole episode, from its conception and location to its furtive execution, could have been invented by one of Freud’s patients.

The local reputations of Schoenberg and Freud were only two examples of Vienna’s selectivity with regard to its own past. Others remained equally forgotten. Arthur Schnitzler’s works, for instance, were not reprinted until the 1960s. That the Jews and the avant-garde have come to be rehabilitated simultaneously is not accidental; the connection between the two is also an obstacle to research. It raises questions to which any answer is awkward, even in the more relaxed atmosphere of present-day Austria. Jews – meaning persons of Jewish descent – were certainly prominent in many areas of creativity; some of these, including literature, and above all psychoanalysis, they dominated. But who is a Jew in this context? Few of the creative Viennese Jews of this period were religiously observant or even had a strong sense of ethnic identity. Many converted to Christianity from a variety of motives. Some sought in socialism an escape from a dividing line they resented. How ‘Jewish’ was Ludwig Wittgenstein, a second-generation Protestant, or Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a second-generation Catholic, both with more Christian than Jewish ancestors? The question would not be worth asking had not both of them dropped hints, occasional but unmistakable, that they had not entirely forgotten their origins. Others still, like Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, proclaimed their disillusionment with all the conventional escape-routes – assimilation, conversion, German nationalism, Austrian patriotism. Herzl and those who thought like him assumed that anti-semitism was endemic and ineradicable in European society and politics.

It is evident that this head-counting, or nose-measuring, is in itself an embarrassing exercise. To play down the Jewish contribution is to stand accused of anti-semitism. To emphasise it, paradoxically, is to risk the same accusation. Was it not the favourite cry of Nazis and clerical reactionaries that Viennese culture was verjudet (‘judaised’)? And is not the very asking of the question an implied critique of the cultural life of Austria, which needed such an inflow of exogenous genius to make it burst forth and gain universal renown? Hence it does not surprise that the first scholarly analysis of Viennese Jewry in this period should come from the pen of an American who can, for instance, chronicle the surge of Jews into the city’s higher educational institutions – the Gymnasien even more than the universities – without appearing to grind an axe.

The outsider, especially the outsider from liberal Anglo-Saxonia who has been able to consume the outpourings of this culture without, until recently, having to wonder whether the bell tolls for him too, can answer these questions a little more easily. It is evident that Fin-de-Siècle Vienna was unthinkable without its Jews; equally that the Jews prominent in Viennese culture – a tiny minority of the migrants from the Monarchy’s northern and eastern provinces – became very Viennese. Vienna was not a melting-pot. The various components of its culture did not merge. But they needed each other, as stimulants, admirers, critics and patrons. They formed a small number of circles that constantly overlapped in a handful of cafés, theatres, galleries and journals. It is this underlying unity, whose common feature was rejection, even hatred, of the dominant conventions of life in the Habsburg Monarchy, that emerges, however fitfully, from ‘Dream and Reality’. It is also a tribute to the boldness of the exhibition’s purpose. The Austrian visitor is invited to admire the achievements of men and women whose main concern was to undermine a way of life that has today become an object of nostalgia.

The exhibition begins and ends with architectural dreams and financial realities: the newly-completed Ringstrasse, the monumental boulevard built along the line of the old fortifications, and the housing schemes of the socialist municipality in the 1920s; the stock-exchange crash of 1873 that ended the brief liberal euphoria of which the Ringstrasse was such a prominent expression, and the collapse of the Credit-Anstalt in 1931, one of the last nails in the coffin of Austrian democracy, the prelude to the Dollfuss dictatorship, the civil war and the bombardment of the workers’ flats. Both the beginning and the end demonstrate the fragile economic basis on which Viennese creativity rested, and the extent to which art and thought were in the public domain. Almost every artistic statement was explicitly or implicitly a political or ideological one, evoking reactions in the press, in parliament, from censors, ministers, civil servants, the Church, even the Court. Even the search for a private sphere, which preoccupied so many of the writers and artists, had to be publicly undertaken in a state where the individual was a subject, not a citizen.

Abstract and literary ideas are the most difficult to present pictorially and the displays dutifully devoted to Schoenberg, Freud, Wittgenstein and Musil leave the visitor little the wiser. The pride of the exhibition is twofold: the Klimts, Schieles, Kokoschkas and Gerstls, many from private collections and including Klimt’s unfinished Beethoven frieze, not seen in public since before the First World War; and a huge, expertly mounted survey of furniture, glass, ceramics and metal ware from the Wiener Werkstätte founded in 1903 and wound up in 1932, a victim of the Depression.

Some critics complained that many of these exhibits were permanently on show in Vienna anyway, in many cases better displayed in their usual homes than in the cramped conditions of the Künstlerhaus. That was surely to miss the point, for here they can be seen and understood in context, and the interconnections with the spirit of the times appreciated. To pass from Freud’s interpretation of dreams to Klimt’s dreamlike eroticism in ‘The Kiss’, from that to Klimt’s (rejected) mural for the University’s Faculty of Medicine, in which the patients are not the halt and the lame of the hospital ward but souls in torment, and from that to the unvarnished sexuality of Schiele’s couplings is to come face to face with a unity of time and place. The same unity links the architectural puritanism of Adolf Loos (‘no eyebrows,’ the Emperor complained of his anti-Palladian house facing the Imperial Residence), the linear discipline of Josef Hoffmann, obsessed as he was with rectangles, parallels and black and white contrasts, and the linguistic puritanism of Wittgenstein and Karl Kraus. All were against metaphysics, against ambiguity, against sloppiness, against cliché; and, like Mahler at the opera, against routine.

Courage failed the organisers in the sections on politics, for here truth is still close to the knuckle. Hitler, too, was a child of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, welcomed more warmly in his day than many of the heroes of ‘Dream and Reality’. One could emerge from the exhibition and be scarcely aware of this. The anti-semitism that suffused late Imperial politics and which was part of a larger set of anti-intellectual and anti-modernistic attitudes gets the most cursory treatment. Yet if ‘Dream and Reality’ teaches a lesson at all, it is that the id and the super-ego of the Viennese spirit are symbiotically related.

It is difficult for a contemporary Austrian to have a clear sense of how he connects with his past. There have been too many attempts at clean breaks and new starts: in 1918, in 1934, in 1938, in 1945. Is the Third Reich part of Austrian history or isn’t it? The answer for most Austrians is yes and no. The 40th anniversary of the re-establishment of an Austrian Republic in 1943 has been officially celebrated as a liberation. But for many Austrians, Major Reder, the war criminal recently released and publicly welcomed by the Minister of Defence, is an old soldier who did what a man had to do. Even the recent episode of Dr Josef Mengele’s corpse is not without its Austrian Connection.

Austria and Vienna have many pasts. ‘The World of Yesterday’ and ‘Dream and Reality’ were attempts, evidently successful, at a refocusing; one that is in any case going on independently, at any rate among the younger, better-educated urban population. As recently as the 1960s, neo-Nazi lists got up to a third of the vote in student elections. Now their support is negligible. Support for pluralism, racial tolerance and civil rights is now highest among those strata that, before the war, were the chief enthusiasts for the ideologies of the Far Right. Discovery of the past, especially one’s own, is part of the process of self-emancipation – as more than one Fin-de-Siècle Viennese would have been ready to point out.

[*] The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History 1848-1918 by William Johnston (University of California Press, 1972); Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria by William McGrath (Yale University Press, 1974); Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture by Carl Schorske (Weidenfeld, 1980); Wittgenstein’s Vienna by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin (Simon and Schuster, 1973); The Socialism of Fools: Georg von Schönerer and Austrian Pan-Germanism by Andrew Whiteside (University of California Press, 1975); Political Radicalism in Late Imperial Vienna by John Boyer (University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[†] This episode is related in Von der Kunst Osterreicher zu sein by Hans Thalberg (Böhlau, 1984).