The Rise and Fall of Vienna’s Jews

A History of Habsburg Jews, 1670–1918

by William O. McCagg Jr.
Indiana University Press, 289 pp., $27.50

Judentum in Wien: Sammlung Max Berger November 12, 1987–June 5, 1988

catalog of the exhibition at the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien,
260 pp., ASch320

The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria

(revised edition) Peter Pulzer
Harvard University Press, 357 pp., $14.50 (paper)

The Viennese: Splendor, Twilight and Exile

by Paul Hofmann
Doubleday/Anchor, 346 pp., $22.50

Vienna and the Jews, 1867–1938: A Cultural History

by Steven Beller
Cambridge University Press

Our image of fin de siècle Vienna is encrusted with clichés. In the sediment of cultural residue left behind by the Viennese art shows at the Centre Pompidou and the Metropolitan Museum, films like Colonel Redl, and magazine article popularizations of the fine work by Carl Schorske and others, the image is endlessly reproduced of Vienna waltzing itself toward the abyss. In these clichés, only a few clairvoyant génies maudits—Karl Kraus, Freud, Mahler, Schnitzler—are exempt from the genial complacency of Viennese Gemütlichkeit, while in the underworld of rooming houses, taverns, and cafés lurks the odious paper-hanger and failed art student. The cliché is completed by dubious identifications between their fin de siècle neuroses and ours. E.M. Cioran has written that the disappearance of imperial Viennese culture prefigures the collapse of Western culture itself, and the Italian critic Claudio Magris has said that the civilization of Austria was modernism’s last adventure before its exhaustion in the postmodern. Thus modish 1980s angst vests itself in the decadent glamour of dubious historical antecedents.

These clichés, first coined in Hermann Broch’s description of the Viennese renaissance as a “joyous apocalypse” and Kraus’s phrase about Vienna being the “proving ground for the world’s destruction” have made Viennese cultural creativity synonymous with neurosis and decadence. Even in Robert Wistrich’s wise and sober book reference is made to “the fin de siècle mood of helplessness in the face of political irrationality: the uncanny sense of an approaching demise which threatened both the Austrian monarchy and one of its most important and vulnerable constituent parts—the Jewish community of Vienna.”

When the accent of cliché falls on political impasse, decadence, and self-delusion, the dynamism of Adolf Loos’s and Otto Wagner’s architectural modernism, the sheer adventurousness of Freud’s theories, the daring of Mahler’s symphonic explorations, Arthur Schnitzler’s lucidity and Egon Schiele’s pitiless eroticism are all reduced to symptoms of ambient cultural neurosis. What is forgotten is the defiant and liberating challenge they all offered to the embalmed art and science of the nineteenth century. The images of sickness and decadence have to be chipped away before Vienna can be seen as the birthplace of modernism rather than just the deathbed of empire.

Ridding the old empire of its barnacles of cliché is of some contemporary moment. If the cold war is truly ending then Europeans may wish to reclaim cultural identities in Central Europe that were last extant under the Austro-Hungarians. Since World War II, the idea of Mitteleuropa—of a common cultural spirit linking Eastern and Western Europe—has survived in the mind as a spiritual protest against the line Yalta drew across the European heartland. In the Gorbachev era, this idea of a common European cultural home has become a fashionable theme of colloquies and conferences. Yet if the idea of Mitteleuropa is to become something more than a nostalgic utopia it is important to understand the history of the defunct empire …

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