New insights into Fin-de-siecle Vienna by David Herman


New insights into Fin-de-siecle Vienna

by David Herman

Review of Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard (edited by Gabriele Kohlbauer-Fritz), 25 March to 18 October, 2015, the Jewish Museum, Vienna

Fin-de-siècle Vienna & A New Genre

In the 1970s and ‘80s a new genre in cultural and intellectual history emerged: books exploring the explosion of artistic and intellectual creativity around 1900 in a number of central European cities. Several features stand out. First, the concentration of creativity in a handful of cities at the highpoint of modernism at the turn of the century. Second, the range of cultural and intellectual achievement. In Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1973), written by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein was located in ‘one of the most fertile, original and creative periods in art and architecture, music, literature and psychology, as well as in philosophy.’ (p.9) In 1980 Carl Schorske’s acclaimed book, Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, ranged from the Ringstrasse and the birth of urban modernism, writers like Schnitzler and Hofmannstahl, artists like Klimt and Kokoschka, great figures of Modernism from Freud to Schoenberg. Vienna, writes Ray Monk in his biography of Wittgenstein (1990), was ‘the birthplace of both Zionism and Nazism, the place where Freud developed psychoanalysis, where Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka inaugurated the Jugendstil movement in art, where Schoenberg developed atonal music and Adolf Loos introduced the starkly functional, unadorned style of architecture that characterizes the buildings of the modern, age.’ In almost every field of human thought and activity, the new was emerging from the old, the twentieth century from the nineteenth.’ (p.9)

Third, there is the fascinating link between creativity and political crisis. Schorske brought together turn of the century Modernism, ‘a whirl of infinite innovation’ (p.xix), with what he called Vienna’s ‘acutely felt tremors of social and political disintegration’ (p.xviii), including, above all, the decline of liberalism and the rise of anti-Semitism.

Starting in Vienna, cultural historians started to explore other great central European centres of Modernism. In 1988 John Lukacs wrote, Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture. In 1990 Mark Anderson edited Reading Kafka: Prague, Politics, and the Fin de Siecle. This was followed a few years later by Tom Keve’s neglected classic, Triad: The Physicists, the Analysts, the Kabbalists (2000), also on Hungarian intellectual culture, but with his focus on the Jewish 19th century roots of Hungarian psychoanalysis and the new physics.

Kafka’s Prague, Freud’s Vienna and the Budapest of Ferenczi and von Neumann were firmly located as the crucible of modernist culture in every field, from art and music to philosophy and psychoanalysis. As a subject this genre had everything: great names in art and thought, radical and extreme politics, anticipating the disasters of the mid-20th century, but their appeal can perhaps be best summed up in two words: Modernism and Jews.

Looking back, one can see that other things were going on in the late 1980s and early 1990s that made this genre so appealing to both writers and readers. It was exactly the moment that Prague and Budapest were being reclaimed as part of central not eastern Europe. In 1984, Milan Kundera wrote his classic essay, The Tragedy of Central Europe, in The New York Review of Books (April 26, 1984). In the same year, Norman Davies wrote his book, Heart of Europe. A Short History of Poland. One way of getting east Europe out of  what the German poet and translator Michael Hofmann called ‘the deep freeze of history’, cut off from west Europe by forty years of Soviet occupation, was to rebrand it, to re-connect cities like Prague and Budapest with nearby Vienna. Only a few years later, in 1989, they were free and could be placed in a new central Europe, part of the EU, only a few miles from north Italy and western Germany.

Perhaps something else was going on also. The emphasis on the extraordinary cultural creativity of fin-de-siècle central Europe had a darker side. It was the creative quiet before the historical storm, just a few years before the Holocaust. The sisters of Kafka and Freud were murdered in the death camps. Gombrich, Schoenberg and Kokoschka fled Vienna, Heartfield, Brecht and Fritz Lang left Berlin. Just as interest in the Holocaust took off in the 1980s and ‘90s, attention turned to the capitals of central Europe where Jews and cultural energy met.  

There were crucial absences, however.  This new genre was right to see the cultural and intellectual history of Europe through the story of a handful of cities. Arguably it could have been told through a few streets whose occupants moved to a few streets in north Oxford and north London, on the Upper West Side and in a few seminar rooms in Princeton and Harvard. But it missed the long civil war between country and city which was one of the defining features of the long 19th century, from the French Revolution to Nazi Germany and Vichy France. These cosmopolitan cities, with their Jews, homosexual and Communists, were islands in a sea of conservatism and nationalism/    

Secondly, they focused on the glamorous capitals of central Europe and were less interested in what happened further east, such as the Bucharest of EM Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Ionesco, the Warsaw of Czeslaw Milosz and Aleksander Wat and Riga where Isaiah Berlin was born in an art nouveau apartment building designed by the father of Sergei Eisenstein. Despite the pioneering efforts of historians like Norman Davies, Tony Judt and Mark Mazower, east and south-east Europe remain on the margins of cultural history.


Ringstrasse and the Jews

A third of a century after Schorske’s book, where do we stand? How has our understanding of fin-de-siècle Vienna changed? A new exhibition, Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard (25 March to 18 October, 2015, the Jewish Museum, Vienna), curated by Gabriele Kohlbauer-Fritz and Sabine Bergler, gives us an opportunity to consider a new landscape.

What is immediately striking about the Ringstrasse catalogue is the absence of the great cultural figures we associate with fin-de-siècle Vienna. No Schoenberg or Wittgenstein. Four references to Stefan Zweig, two to Klimt and Freud, one to Schnitzler. Instead the dominant figures here are the great merchant princes, such as Eduard von Todesco, Ignaz von Ephrussi and Gustav von Epstein. This is partly a story of architecture, town planning and grand hotels, but more a story of Jewish financiers, bankers and industrialists, the new urban haute bourgeoisie who lived in the great palaces of the Ringstrasse.

The second dramatic difference between Schorske’s pioneering book and this catalogue is one of emphasis. Schorske’s 91-page essay on the Ringstrasse is the longest in Fin-de-siècle Vienna. Its emphasis is largely on liberalism and especially the rise and fall of 19th century Austrian liberalism. He presents liberalism’s heyday as a moment between the Old Right of church and state and the New Right of anti-Semitic populism. Jews, by contrast, are absent from the whole essay except for one reference on p.90. The catalogue could hardly be more different. Based on an exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum its focus is very much on Vienna’s Jews and liberalism is on the sidelines. This is largely a matter of context. Schorske’s essays were written in the 1960s and ‘70s when American liberalism was embattled, at least as seen by this ‘white émigré’. Over thirty years on, the Holocaust has moved centre-stage in our culture and it is not surprising that it casts a dark shadow over many of the essays in this new catalogue.

So the Ringstrasse becomes a central symbol not only of the new Vienna that emerged in the mid- and late-19th century but of the relationship between Jews and fin-de- siècleAustria. Here lived the great families of the new Jewish haute bourgeoisie such as the Ephrussis, the subject of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010).On the Ringstrasse, writes Gabriele Kohlbauer-Fritz in her chapter ‘Family Stories’, ‘the who’s who of Vienna society gathered in their drawing rooms’ (p.30): ‘industrialists mingled with artists, bankers, and writers, politicians, and actors, Jews and non-Jews, men and women.’ (p31)

But as she also points out, this wasn’t just a story of wealth and achievement. Here also lived some of the first patients of Freud and Breuer, including Cacilie M. from Studies on Hysteria and Freud took his daily constitutional around the Ring. Other young women were sent to sanatoria and spas to help them recover from their nervous ailments. As these grand families assimilated, Judaism played a smaller part in their lives. Of the four children of Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi, for example, only the second daughter Gisela had a Jewish wedding.

Markus Kristan begins his essay, ‘Jewish principals and architects’, with the decision by the young Emperor Franz Joseph to demolish Vienna’s medieval fortifications and develop the land into a magnificent new boulevard of apartment buildings and major administrative and cultural buildings, the symbols of Stefan Zweig’s ‘world of security’ in his memoir, The World of Yesterday (1942). In 1860 the sale of Ringstrasse lots began. Kristan offers a detailed account of the development of the first great cultural buildings and major palaces in the 1860s. Members of the imperial household, high aristocracy and the Jewish upper middle class were the first occupants. However, it was not until the late 1860s and 1870s that ‘the Ringstrasse reached its highpoint.’ (p. 64) This included a mix of magnificent palaces and new public buildings, such as the Austrian Museum for Art and Industry, the parliament building, city hall, the university and the Burgtheater. After this brief historical survey, Kristan continues with a more detailed 22-page account of four generations of Ringstrasse architects, some of Jewish origin.

Georg Gaugusch has a more specific focus: ‘Jewish real estate ownership in the Vienna city center and the Ringstrasse area until 1885.’ His very detailed essay tells the fascinating story of how Jews won the right to buy property in Vienna in the mid-19th century. What happened subsequently was a social revolution. Within a few years almost half (44%) of the private buyers of lots on the Ringstrasse were Jewish (p.101). In addition, writes Gaugusch, ‘41 percent of the architects and 28 percent of the contractors who bought lots were Jewish.’ Gaugusch backs this up with fifteen pages of maps and tables illustrating exactly which lots were bought by Jews, who they were and what their occupations were.

After some formidable number-crunching Gaugusch sets to work interpreting these figures. He points out that before 1848 Vienna was dominated by the ‘first society’: ‘the imperial family and the aristocracy, a Catholic conservative group of estate and land owners, from whose ranks came top civil servants, army officers, and diplomats.’ (p.105) The Ringstrasse symbolized the rise of a new wealthy class of industrialists, bankers and financiers. The old city centre of Vienna was occupied by the ancient regime so the building of the Ringstrasse crucially allowed this new financial class access to an important new residential area. ‘In 1885,’ he concludes, ‘the proportion of Jewish owners on the Ringstrasse was around five times as high as it was in the old town, not counting the public share.’ In 1853 Jews owned 17 houses in the old town. By 1885 Jews owned 155 buildings on the Ringstrasse (p.120).

Here Gaugusch comes up with further fascinating analysis. He looks at where these new buyers were born. 17% of the Jewish buyers were born in Vienna. Almost half, by contrast, came from Moravia, Pressburg, or western Hungary and another large group came from major urban centres in Bohemia or Germany. However, ‘there were very few from small rural Jewish communities.’ (p.107)        

This is fascinating social history. No wonder the exhibition is called Ringstrasse: Ein JüdischerBoulevard. But, of course, it wasn’t just a matter of ownership and the emergence of a new class. It is also how this was perceived by non-Jews in Vienna, rich and poor.    

Two later essays develop this theme. First, in her essay, ‘Appropriation of “Jewish” Space’, Louise Hecht looks at the story of Palais Schey, named after Friedrich Schey, a Jewish,-Hungarian wholesale merchant and banker, and its largely Jewish tenants. Through this example she explores how others saw ‘the massive Jewish presence on the Ringstrasse’ as ‘an insidious attempt to Judaize Vienna and corrupt Christian tastes and mores.’ (p.249). Already around 1869 one anti-Semitic writer and journalist wrote of ‘A brand new Jerusalem of the East’. In 1870 Franz Friedrich Masaidek wrote of ‘The Ringstrasse – the Zion Street of new-Jerusalem’.

Albert Lichtblau addresses this issue in a more comprehensive essay, ‘Targets of anti-Semitic populism: Wealthy Jews and the Vienna Ringstrasse’. Lichtblau’s essay is not especially original but it is superbly illustrated both with anti-Semitic caricatures and quotations. He falls back on familiar notions of anti-Semitism: the concept of the other, resentment at a new class of rich financiers, what was seen as the sexual threat of Jews. However, he offers a clear narrative and he spells out issues which are only hinted at elsewhere.

These are some of the most striking essays. There are more specific pieces on a wide range of issues: from the new grand hotels on the Ringstrasse to welfare institutions funded by residents, from the engineer Elim Henry d’Avigdor to the story of a picture from the Todesco-Lieben collection, ‘Entry of Charles V into Antwerp’, confiscated by the Nazis in 1938.  

This exhibition catalogue stands out in various ways. First, it is superbly illustrated. Some of the photographs, perhaps especially some of the more luxurious apartment interiors, are breathtaking (see, for example, an apartment in the Palais Schey, c1890, p.258 and Adolf von Sonnenthal in his apartment, 1892, p.158). Second, it offers a number of carefully researched essays about the Ringstrasse, some focusing on particular individuals or themes, some using the Ringstrasse to explore larger issues such as late 19th century anti-Semitism or the development of Vienna between 1848-1914. Put together, these fill in many gaps in our knowledge about the Ringstrasse, Vienna and Austrian Jews. However, none of these essays have the conceptual ambition or originality of authors like Schorske or Keve (about Hungary). Thirty five years on from Schorske’s Fin-de-siècle Vienna we await a new conceptual leap which can take this accumulation of empirical research and further develop our understanding of late 19th and early 20th century central European culture, the birth of Modernism and its relationship to Jews and anti-Semitism.

David Herman is a freelance writer specialising in Jewish cultural history and mid-20th century refugees. He has been a regular contributor to Prospect, The New Statesman, Standpoint, Salmagundi, PN Review, The Jewish Chronicle, The Jewish Quarterly and Jewish Renaissance.



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