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.

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[*] 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).