City of Blood

Peter Pulzer

  • The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph by Robert Wistrich
    Oxford, 696 pp, £45.00, June 1989, ISBN 0 19 710070 8
  • Vienna and the Jews, 1867-1938: A Cultural History by Steven Beller
    Cambridge, 271 pp, £27.50, August 1989, ISBN 0 521 35180 4
  • The German-Jewish Economic Elite 1820-1935: A Socio-Cultural Profile by W.E. Mosse
    Oxford, 369 pp, £35.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 19 822990 9
  • Decadence and Innovation: Austro-Hungarian Life and Art at the Turn of the Century edited by Robert Pynsent
    Weidenfeld, 258 pp, £25.00, June 1989, ISBN 0 297 79559 7
  • The Torch in My Ear by Elias Canetti, translated by Joachim Neugroschel
    Deutsch, 372 pp, £13.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 233 98434 8
  • From Vienna to Managua: Journey of a Psychoanalyst by Marie Langer, translated by Margaret Hooks
    Free Association, 261 pp, £27.50, July 1989, ISBN 1 85343 057 9

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in