Carpe Diem in the Old Austrian Capital: A Letter from Vienna

Bad news for Melbourne, I’m afraid: in 2018 the Economist Intelligence Unit demoted it from first place in its index of the world’s most liveable cities in favour of Vienna. And this is not a mistake, even though, as a Viennese resident, I do sometimes get letters addressed to me at “Vienna, Australia”, owing to the fact that a new generation of UK school leavers in bureaucratic employment may have copied the location of Vienna a little too carelessly from Google. Melbourne held the top spot for seven years in this index, but all good things must come to an end and there are good reasons why Vienna has edged it out. Some of these reasons also account for the dismal showing of London (forty-eighth on the index) and New York (fifty-seventh), although these two urban behemoths spend a lot of time and money telling us how wonderful they are. But Vienna has three crucial advantages: economically priced and efficient transport, affordable housing and good health care. These of course do not of themselves guarantee the ideally liveable city, so what of the less practical factors that do, engendering a “spirit of place”, a “buzz”, a distinctive culture?

In the boom times of the nineteenth century Ringstrassen era, Vienna cultivated an atmosphere of wine, women and song, although of course they were also times of grinding poverty for an exploited underclass, rampant venereal disease and even more rampant corruption. “Glücklich ist, wer vergisst, / was doch nicht zu ändern ist” (“Happy is he who forgets all about what anyway cannot be changed”) sing Alfred and Rosalinde in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (1874), an apt motto for an age deluged in champagne and bad debts. But the aphorism also reflects a note of fatalism that informs the Viennese mentality and runs right through Viennese history: it is no surprise to find that it was also the motto of Emperor Friedrich III (1415–93), who survived any number of humiliations including the occupation of his capital, only to outlive all his opponents and indeed start the Habsburgs on their global trajectory through astute marriage compacts—Rerum irrecuperabilium felix oblivio.

The good life in Vienna, at least as reflected also in the Wiener Lieder of the taverns, has thus always also had an undertow of melancholy, a frisson of foreboding that afflicts the depressed narcissist, perverse satisfaction for the cynical doomster. And talking of Lieder, on a higher level Franz Schubert’s song cycles Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise rather belie the serenity and charm of so much else that he wrote: the former concludes with the young journeyman drowning himself for unrequited love. The last song of this cycle is a watery lullaby sung pathetic-fallaciously by the brook, which offers the despairing lover the comfort of death—it is arguably the most soothingly melodious of the whole cycle; and at the end of the Winterreise our tortured lovesick hero, after a long period of agonised wandering around the freezing village at night, encounters the ominous hurdy-gurdy man playing monotonously with frozen fingers. For some, this clapped-out musician is emblematic of beckoning death. For others he is inspired by Schubert’s own prognosis of syphilis, a terrifying adumbration of physical and mental decline.

But all this was, and is, offset by the cult of Gemütlichkeit (untranslatable, but roughly “congeniality” or “cosiness”, small, intimate touches of design, service or atmosphere—“happiness in a quiet corner”.) Some people, like the irascible cultural critic Karl Kraus, found cloying Gemütlichkeit exasperating and preferred his loved and hated city to be liveable, but not drenched in sentimentality: “What I demand of the modern city,” he said, “is asphalted and clean roads and a latchkey to a heated appartment with hot water. The cosiness is me.” (It most certainly was not.) Still, Gemütlichkeit is one of the factors that make Vienna liveable and is generously ladled over the tourists like the whipped cream on their Apfelstrudel.

Anyone who time-travelled through Viennese history would feel as if he was on a big dipper, such are the highs and lows. In recent deacades the city has gradually emerged from one of the worst dips, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 followed by civil war, the clerico-fascist corporate state and Nazi rule.

The comfortable, prosperous, republican, politically correct Vienna of today seems a far cry from that grisly past. Austrian Broadcasting evidently doesn’t think so however—week after week Jewish memoirs, Nazi and Holocaust themes feature in the schedules, arguably leading to a degree of guilt fatigue, or, as a leading Jewish intellectual once complained, a harmful representation of Jews only as Opfer (victims). This is a sensitive matter: some years ago, the Austrian Cultural Institute in London organised a celebration of Viennese Jewish culture and invited the great Ernst Gombrich (himself an exile from the Nazis) to speak, which he accepted on the condition he could say exactly what he thought. To the bemusement of the English present and the dismay of the Austrians, he began his talk by saying that he was opposed to the whole idea of the proceedings of which he was the star guest, because the last time he heard talk of “Jewish Austrian culture” was under the Nazis.

Gombrich’s provocation goes deep: the Viennese Jews of the nineteenth century were not only arguably the most assimilated in Europe, but among the most prominent business men, and subsequently creators and patrons in all areas of the arts and culture. For such an elite to be turned upon by the society that they had embraced, and much of whose culture they had created, is a psychic trauma of unparalleled proportions for those who survived and even their descendants.

The argument among the scholars generally divides into two schools: those who see the assimilation of Vienna’s nineteenth-century Jews as part and parcel of the rise of a successful liberal bourgeoisie, whereby the crisis of liberalism towards the end of the century drove its prosperous sons and daughters from business to culture as the dominant form of self-expression; and those who see the culture of early modernism these sons and daughters created as specifically reflecting aspects of Jewishness. This battle has been fought out between the adherents of the late and great Carl Schorske (in his book Fin-de-siècle Vienna) and those who take the position of Jewish specificity like Steven Beller (Vienna and the Jews 18671936).

Hugo Bettauer’s famous satirical novel The City without Jews (1924) might at first blush seem to underline Beller’s thesis (a right-wing government decides to expel all the city’s Jews, but is forced to invite them back again when the cultural venues close and the economy collapses). At a deeper level it could be argued that it actually underlines how the assimilated Jews and Viennese culture or society had merged to the extent that racial profiling was a logical absurdity, which is closer to the position of Gombrich and Schorske. Unfortunately logic is not an ingredient of anti-Semitism and the very success of Jewish assimilation was part of what proved so fateful, giving many Jews an illusory sense of security until it was too late. Freud had practically to be dragged to safety in London.

In driving out the Jews, Vienna was cutting off one of its own vital limbs and removing much of what indeed had made the city so “liveable”. As to the major Jewish contribution to modernism in the arts, political marginalisation from the 1880s, leading to radicalisation, and then to despairing alienation, was the response of a degraded liberal elite, regardless of ethnicity, but also of a non-Jewish non-elite layer (Klimt and Schiele were both of humble origin and the latter is the most salient example of alienation expressed through art). Political developments in the city around 1900, when the Christian Social (but formerly Liberal) Karl Lueger became mayor after three rejections by the Emperor, were the result of a popular upsurge of the disadvantaged enabled by an extension of the franchise. To elite liberalism it was a menacing political development which some see as having a reprise in today’s “national populism”. Still, Vienna today hardly looks like the one over which the popular, populist and opportunistic Karl Lueger presided as mayor between 1897 and 1910.

The modest Jewish population of Vienna today has been officially placed at around 7000 (2001 census—but the Israelitische Kultus Gemeinde says there are now many more) and in the last few decades several monuments and a Jewish museum have honoured the Jewish presence in the city’s past. Their fine synagogue (Stadttempel) in the Seitenstettengasse in Central Vienna is significant because it was the only Jewish establishment to survive the Kristallnacht of November 1938, when Jewish properties in the city were attacked or destroyed. Significantly, parallels in the left-liberal press are not infrequently made between the fate of the Jews and that of today’s would-be immigrants from the Middle East and elsewhere, migration now being the hot political topic. The parallels are more than disingenuous and exhibit a regrettable tendency in crusading journalism to exploit the tragedy of the Holocaust to make cheap political points; many of these new migrants do not even qualify for asylum under the Geneva Convention, a fact the Austrian media tries to obscure by referring to all of them as “refugees”. In any case, of all European countries, Austria has one of the highest per capita intakes of asylum seekers, most of whom settle in Vienna.

Today’s (mostly Orthodox) Jewish communities also originated as refugees fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union. Many have settled in the ancient Jewish quarter of the Second District (Leopoldstadt). The assimilated elite in the nineteenth century tended to regard the Leopoldstadt Jews, who were embarrassingly poor and almost all Orthodox, with somewhat patronising disdain. Theodore Herzl, later a founding father of the Israeli state, even once dreamt of a mass baptism of Vienna’s unconverted Jews in St Stephen’s Cathedral. Leopoldstadt is still not very fashionable and property prices tend to be in the lower bracket, although there are fine spacious flats to be had. In its link with an unhappy past the Second District epitomises one of the city’s ironies—it is only named after the Emperor Leopold I because in 1670, in a fit of Catholic zeal, he drove out the Jews living in what was then a flood-prone semi-island on the Danube. The Leopoldskirche here was demonstratively built on the site of the demolished synagogue.

Notwithstanding periodic expulsions of Jews, Vienna has a long-standing tradition of immigration. Even in the Middle Ages the Danube brought traders, whose settlements in the Inner City are reflected in street names. The Jews came, were expelled and then filtered back when emperors, foreshadowing the theme of Bettauer’s novel, discovered that expelling them aggravated rather than ameliorated their financial problems. Until quite recently, most contemporary immigration to the metropolis was not greatly different from that of the nineteenth century; in those days workers came from within or just beyond the borders of the old empire—Polish craftsmen, Hungarians, Romanians, Friulians and Czechs in the construction, catering or health sectors, Serbian or Slovak servants or cleaning ladies and so forth. However, these newcomers all came from Christian societies and the new factor, which is the principal cause of local concern that has given rise to a right-wing coalition government and erosion of the Socialist vote in the traditionally Socialist capital, is the burgeoning population of Muslims, now 700,000 in Austria.

Some 19 per cent of Austria’s nearly 9 million inhabitants are immigrants or have a “Migrationshintergrund” (which in Austria means that at least one parent was born abroad). In Vienna 50 per cent of primary school children have a mother tongue that is not German, and the Muslims often come from conservative families that resist integration. They may also be anti-Semitic, a cause of some embarrassment to multicultural ideologues. The Socialist city council, preferring politically correct platitudes over action, seems reluctant to grasp the nettle of young people imbued with fundamentalism. However, a Socialist teacher has now broken ranks and described in her best-selling book Kulturkampf im Klassenzimmer how too many Muslim pupils refuse to respect her authority as a teacher on the grounds that she is a woman, call her a whore to her face because she lives with her partner, and disdain learning because, they say, “the Koran teaches us all we need to know”. This and similar anti-integrationist attitudes hinder educational attainment and bode ill for the future.

The extraordinary impact of this rather courageous teacher’s book is an Austrian example of what has recently happened in Sweden, namely that public discourse is finally catching up with what very many people think privately about the potentially adverse effects of ostrich-like official attitudes, identity politics and loosely controlled immigration in recent years. Conservative Islam represents the very opposite of the assimilation practised (except by ultra-Orthodox Jews) in the nineteenth century, although one shouldn’t forget that the policemen on patrol in the Favoriten district, where the Czech brickies resided, were expected to speak Czech up to the 1920s. (The thriving, and now international, Wienerberger brick concern was founded in Favoriten in 1819.)

Identity politics, the multicultural shibboleths on the Left opposed by anxiety or Islamophobia on the Right, offend against a tradition that used to turn people into “Viennese” within a generation. (“Look at the phone book,” as we used to say when there were phone books.) With a growing population of around 1,900,000, the number of people in Vienna with what is officially called a “migration background” is rising towards 50 per cent. The 15 million tourists that now visit Vienna each year are often served in one way or another by someone from one of the 182 nationalities represented in the city, although one should point out that the city hall’s industrious statistical nerds tell us that Bahrain, Lesotho, Tuvalu, Brunei and Tonga have each supplied fewer than five of their citizens. Most tourists now are not of a generation that experiences “the past in the present” of Vienna, except vicariously or superficially. Like Venice, with so many trippers clogging up the streets and the sights, it is in danger of becoming a glorified museum, though it is saved from Venice’s fate by the international organisations (UNIDO, IAEO, IOSC, OPEC and so forth) which make the city outward-looking as well as inward-looking.

Fears about immigration tend to be dismissed by Vienna’s liberal and socialist establishment as irrational and dangerous, given Vienna’s past. But there is a difference between those in the past who wanted nothing better than integration and those today whose attitude to Western culture and society is fundamentally hostile, yet are quick to claim their entitlements as new arrivals. The vivid diversity of Viennese culture is not necessarily a plus for them as it is for multicultural ideologues. Anyway it takes a generation to learn the art of being Viennese, of combining self-irony with civic pride, and a “golden Viennese heart” with the black arts of intrigue and “Schmäh” (untranslatable, but roughly “duplicity”, either as harmless fun or with malicious intent). Culturally Vienna has always been a little narcissistic, a phenomenon shared with the tourists through an explosion of Kaiser-kitsch, Klimt-kitsch, Mozart-kitsch, Strauss-kitsch. The kitsch-determined fate of Strauss is perhaps appropriate, as he was arguably the first pop star, so ardently pursued by besotted female fans wanting a lock of his hair that he took to sending a clipping from his poodle instead (happily its fur was also ravishingly dark). That was an excellent Schmäh!

Strauss is an example of a uniquely Viennese amalgam of the universal and the local, so expressive of the genius loci that the Nazis decided it would be more prudent to doctor the birth register to conceal his partly Jewish origins than to defame his music. As I sit in the Café Dommayer, where Strauss first gave his matinée concerts for the burghers of Hietzing, I sometimes silently raise a glass of Veltliner to Vienna’s timeless musical superstar. What better antidote to the world’s calamities so urgently pressed upon me by the café’s gratis offering from the international press than to honour the man who celebrated the first great stock market crash of modern times (1873) by writing carpe diem into Die Fledermaus? (A military bandmaster had in fact celebrated it even more brazenly by writing a Krachpolka as the market tumbled, a dance on the grave of rotten capitalism.)

Glücklich ist / Wer vergisst … it is easy to be pessimistic about the world, but not about Vienna. Trump, Gasputin, Kim Jong-un, Nicholas Maduro, Jean-Claude Juncker are of course not helpful to the digestion; but if the world is really going to hell in a handcart, Vienna, the capital of (just about) neutral Austria seems rather detached from it. Or could it be that the fatalist’s view is a sort of insulation as heretofore, namely: “If you are travelling on a sinking ship, you may as well travel first class”?

Nicholas T. Parsons is the author of Vienna: A Cultural and Literary History (Signal Books/ Oxford University Press). He wrote on the fashion industry in the September issue.


8 thoughts on “Carpe Diem in the Old Austrian Capital: A Letter from Vienna

  • Jody says:

    Absolutely brilliant essay!! I loved it. Having living for 12 months in Wien and having travelled there rather frequently from time to time I completely identify with the sentiments in this piece. The population changes have made both my husband and myself reluctant to go there again. I know for a fact the locals don’t like the multicultural ideologues. And the Austrians have largely themselves to blame for preferring dogs to having children – a tendency I’ve noticed since 2009 when we first started going there.

    Sitting on a tram one day my husband drew my attention to a muslim family; she was clothed head to toe (it was stinking hot!) and there were several kids in toe. She was sitting on a side seat of the tram and the boy, about 7, bent over and did up the bottom button on her ‘coat’ because HE was concerned about her modesty. I felt sick; my husband felt sick and I see no change from this any time soon.

  • en passant says:

    Instead of listening to Strauss, watch Cabaret as the portent of your future and that of Austria. “… the boy, about 7, bent over and did up the bottom button on her ‘coat’ because HE was concerned about her modesty.”
    This is the new oppression being invited in everywhere.

    Beat the rush and move to Hungary

  • whitelaughter says:

    “Theodore Herzl, later a founding father of the Israeli state, even once dreamt of a mass baptism of Vienna’s unconverted Jews in St Stephen’s Cathedral” – this claim has turned up in a couple of Quadrant articles….but I can find it nowhere else on the web. Source please!

  • Salome says:

    I had cause to spend a few weeks in Vienna in the mid-80s and then again in the mid-90s. I was in love with the place, but I recall expats (mainly people who’d gone there to study) saying that it became claustrophobic after a while. Looking back on that time, I think they were right. Still, the trains and trams are just brilliant, and is there another city in the world with a bus stop called Psychiatric Hospital?

  • Jody says:

    I haven’t seen that Bushaltestelle, Salome, but well remember the unusual names on Wiener U-Bahn Linien: 6, “Allgemeine Krankenhaus” (General Hospital). and 3, Gasometer. There is also a Gasometer in Berlin, I think. And District names: Favoriten (mentioned in this article) and Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus: we used to catch the 57A bus home, which was heading to that destination. It was one of several routes we could take with Vienna public transport to get home!!

    It’s true that the locals think Vienna is rather stifling at times; it’s a comparatively small and compact city and easy to traverse on foot from one end of the Innere Stadt to the other. But it’s QUALITY not QUANTITY!!!!!! I could have lived there permanently in a heartbeat – but not now because of the ‘migrant’ populations which seem to have overwhelmed its Wienerische culture.

  • Les Kovari says:

    Only 700,000 Muslims, it is only a fraction of the Muslim population we have in Australia.

  • en passant says:

    Give our politicians just a little more time …
    There are now 15,000 displaced ex-Islamic State citizens looking for somewhere to set up a new butchery shop …

  • Julian says:

    This is a fantastic essay. Well done. Keep up the good work.

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