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The Rise and Fall of Vienna’s Jews

Who created the liberal movement in Austria? The Jews. Who betrayed and abandoned the Jews? The liberals. Who created the German Nationalist Movement in Austria? The Jews. Who left the Jews in the lurch and indeed despised them as dogs? The German nationals. And just the same thing will happen with the socialists and the communists. Once the dinner is ready to be served, they will chase you from the table.

Wistrich, unlike Berkley, reveals how clearly the Viennese Jewish leadership understood the anti-Semitic enemy. In this connection, Freud’s analysis of anti-Semitic hatred as castration anxiety directed by the uncircumcised at the circumcised seems vulgar and heavyhanded, compared to Rabbi Bloch’s account, in a speech made to the Reichsrat in 1890, of the shameless, polymorphous opportunism of anti-Semitic discourse:

Nothing can help the Jew. He will never give satisfaction no matter what he does. If he spends too much, he is ostentatious, a spendthrift; if he spends too little, he is called stingy, a miser. If he keeps aloof from public life, he is lacking in public spirit; if he takes part in political life, he is an impertinent intruder. (Laughter)

It was in Vienna, too, that the definitive analysis of anti-Semitism as a projection of feared elements of the self was made, by the wildly unbalanced but brilliantly perceptive author of Sex and Character, Otto Weininger:

Whosoever detests himself; that he should persecute it in others is merely his endeavor to separate himself in this way from Jewishness; he strives to shake it off and to localize it in his fellow creatures and so for a moment to free himself of it.

Weininger, a tortured Jew who committed suicide in 1903 at the age of twenty-three, also forced into the open the question of whether Jewish assimilation was motivated by racial self-hatred. This association of assimilation with Jewish self-hatred runs through both Berkley and McCagg’s book. McCagg writes that “the overriding tendency of European Jewish history in the nineteenth century was one of national ‘self-demolition.” No other national racial, or linguistic minority within the empire tried so hard to leave its past behind; no other minority was so thoroughly engaged in what McCagg calls both “self-denial,” and “self-hatred, as it is often too narrowly labeled.”

Doubtless there were assimilated Jews—Otto Weininger was an example—who were, in Max Nordau’s cruel characterization, “a cripple within and a counterfeit without.” But assimilation need not entail self-hatred. Who was more assimilated than Herzl prior to 1897, and didn’t his version of Zionism derive largely from his assimilation of German romanticism? What about Freud? As Robert Wistrich shows in the wise and balanced chapter he devotes to the subject, Freud could not even read the Hebrew phrases his proud stetl-born father inscribed in the family Bible. The son dressed like any other Viennese professional; observed few if any Jewish religious or dietary customs; remained suspicious of Zionism and Jewish nationalism in all its forms; and yet as he wrote in 1928 he was always conscious of “an inner identity, the familiarity of the same psychological structure” that bound him to his own people. So that in an introduction to the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo, Freud wrote in December 1930:

If the question were put to him: since you have abandoned all these characteristics of your countryman, (language, religion, nationalism) what is there left of you that is Jewish? He would reply, “A very great deal, and probably its very essence.”

Doubtless with figures like Freud in mind, Beller argues that “assimilation came to be the continuation of Judaism by other means beyond the Jewish identity.” Again in hindsight, this may seem a particularly self-deluding attempt to have it both ways, yet at the time, Jews had reason to believe that Jewish stoicism, individualism, and passion for the word were not lost in assimilating into Gentile culture. Instead, Jews could feel they were both carrying the banner of Central European Enlightenment and preserving the core of Jewish values. Only at the end did they realize that they were carrying the banner alone. With this realization came the conviction that they had abandoned their heritage.

William McCagg rightly objects to the view—which George Berkley comes close to endorsing—that Jewish self-hatred, self-delusion, and division were contributing causes in their destruction. Jews must be considered, McCagg writes, as “absolute victims.” Any other position is “just too awful to discuss.” Indeed. But why can’t Jewish self-hatred be discussed? Why should Jews be asked to be less self-hating than other groups? A passion to blend in, to be accepted, even at the price of abandoning one’s past are not necessarily unhealthy psychological characteristics for minority groups. For the Ostjuden particularly, assimilation and migration to Vienna offered a ticket to modern life, an escape from what McCagg calls “the vicious circle of Orthodoxy, destitution, and lack of education.”

In any case what’s wrong with a little self-hatred, even among Jews? A capacity for self-contempt is a useful attribute in a realistic personality and this need not exclude dislike of aspects of one’s race or religion. Why, in addition to all the other burdens Jews are required to assume for their terrible history, should they be asked to be monochromatically proud of themselves and united in the face of fate?

Yet Berkley insists that the Viennese Jews should have been prouder of their Jewishness and more united in its defense, behind Jewish institutions. “Had the Viennese Jews been cohesively organized before the Anschluss, they might well have been able to conciliate or at least moderate the hostility of some of their enemies,” particularly the Catholic Church. Possibly. But just as there is no reason to suppose that secular assimilation must mean self-hatred or self-disavowal, so there is no reason to suppose that Jews could or should have united in the face of the common enemy. Unlike Berkley, McCagg manages to avoid the cruelty of hindsight:

Nowhere, moreover, was a clearly “correct” Jewish policy possible. All too often, indeed, what had seemed perfectly reasonable from a “Jewish” point of view in 1848 or 1858 was proven by a ground-swell change in 1900 to be the opposite.

Only in the light of 1945 does Jewish factionalism in Vienna seem foolish, divisive, or self-deluding. Before the First World War, such debate and division were a sign of the community’s vitality and confidence. If the history of Vienna’s Jews says anything it is that debate about what it means to be a Jew is intrinsic to Judaism. Jews will always be debating what forms of assimilation to the Gentile world are possible or desirable, whether a Jewish state is or is not desirable, what form of accommodation, if any, Jewish faith should make to the secular world. These debates are inextinguishable—even in the face of mortal danger—because they raise conflicts of principle which admit of no definitive resolution. Robert Wistrich’s scholarly book is an exhaustive analysis of the debates that pitted the premodern Ostjuden against the assimilated, the religious against the secular. The excellence of his book lies not in a central thesis—since there isn’t one—but in the high quality of scholarship, the sensitivity to nuance, the desire to map the entire Jewish response to the crisis of the empire in all its complexity. He lays out these divisions, while also devoting chapters to the institutions—the Kultus Gemeinde, the Austrian Israelite Union, and the Kadimah—which brought Jews together in forms of cultural self-defense.

William McCagg brings out the extent to which Jews were divided not only as Jews, but also as citizens of Austro-Hungary, sometimes siding with the German minorities, sometimes with national majorities in the madhouse of Central European nationalism. Some of the extreme and fevered creativity of the Jews can be attributed to the anguish of being trapped between their traditional allegiances to Germanic culture and the emergent languages of Central European nationalism. McCagg writes perceptively of Kafka’s predicament as a German-speaking Jew in Prague, living through the Czech nationalist revival:

Kafka’s apparent slavery to words—the agony with which slowly, slowly he followed words first into aphoristic expression, later into stories and never-completed novels; his inability to decide; his failure to finish; his extraordinary sensitivity to double meanings—all this can be associated with the “inbetweenness” of the Jewish world in which he grew up.

Believing until the 1880s that their future lay in close identification with the dual monarchy, with the person of the sovereign, and with the German language, Jews ended their time under the monarchy by putting distance between themselves and the German element in it, and becoming more identified as Poles, Czechs, and Austrians, Germans or Hungarians. Nearly half the Hungarian Jews, for example, listed German as their mother tongue in the 1880s. By the eve of the First World War, only one fifth did so. They now spoke Hungarian, and it was a Hungarian Jew, Vilmos Vázsonyi, who was the most outspoken nationalist spokesman of the prewar era. For only a minority of Jews was Jewishness a primary identity; for most others, being Viennese or Hungarian or Czech counted for more—with the inevitable result that after the empire’s collapse into the post-Versailles nationalities, Jews were more divided than they had been prior to emancipation in the 1860s. Why should we expect anything else?

To regret that the debates and the divisions in Jewish life were not stilled in time is in fact to regret the intrinsic contestability of what it is to be Jewish. To lament that the Jews of Austro-Hungary did not see what was coming is to add to the heavy burden of Jewish messianic destiny, the absurd requirement that they be more prescient than other peoples.

In the light of the Waldheim affair, it was inevitable that someone would take up the argument as Berkley does, that Austrian anti-Semitism was more virulent than the German kind, and that “the Holocaust from Hitler on down was even more of an Austrian phenomenon than a German one.” Since the German state engineered the Final Solution, this seems a ludicrous suggestion. The most influential anti-Semitic tradition in Austria, beginning with Georg von Schönerer, was pan-German, and the ideological roots of hatred of the Jews were from the anti-capitalist, völkisch, anti-feminist, anti-egalitarian political romanticism common to Central Europe. German-Austrians shared in it, but they had no monopoly on it. So did Polish peasants, as Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah unforgettably reminds us. To think that the Holocaust had its roots in the “disinterested meanness” of the Austrian psyche, that it was Austrian because Hitler was an Austrian, and because the most successful anti-Semitic party in Europe before 1914 was located in Vienna, is to make the Holocaust incomprehensible.

The death machine enlisted Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, French, in short people from most of the nations of Europe, including on a few terrible occasions, Jews themselves. To single out the Austrians for a special distinction is meaningless. It was the Anschluss, made possible in large measure by the craven acquiescence of the Soviet, French, and British governments, that licensed the appalling ferocity of the Viennese crowd toward their Jewish neighbors in March 1938. It is uninteresting, in a climate of general barbarism within Central Europe toward Jews, to debate whether the Viennese were more or less ferocious than the synagogue burners of northern Germany. Like most epigrams, the saying, the Germans make good Nazis but lousy anti-Semites, the Austrians make lousy Nazis but first-class anti-Semites, does not illuminate the question’s real complexity. Both participated—sometimes as lousy Nazis, sometimes as good anti-Semites.

Most of the roots of Austrian and German anti-Semitism were identical: petty bourgeois anxiety at the pace and violence of capitalist modernization in Central Europe, projected onto Jews as scapegoats; traditional Christian anti-Semitism mixing explosively with post-Darwinian, high imperial doctrines of racial inferiority and with the higher nonsense of German völkisch romanticism; European-wide anxieties about the cultural decadence of the great empires, for which Jews were blamed; and geopolitical fears about Germany’s place at the frontier between Europe and Asia. Both German and Austrian anti-Semitism have their roots in fear of the German Volk being overwhelmed by the Slavs and Ostjuden of eastern and southern Europe. This German fear is classically evoked in the historian Treitschke’s articles published in Berlin in 1880, in which he speaks of “year after year there pours over our Eastern frontier…trouser-selling youths, whose children and children’s children are one day to dominate Germany’s stock exchanges and newspapers.”

Yet there are differences between the Austrian and German cases, and here Peter Pulzer’s classic study of political anti-Semitism in Austria and Germany, recently republished with a new introduction, is a far better guide than Berkley’s book. North German anti-Semitism festered in a climate of imperial triumphalism, following on Bismarck’s unification of the Reich, while Habsburg anti-Semitism brooded on failure and on defeat at the hands of Bismarck’s Prussians at Königgrätz in 1866. It gained most, though by no means all, of its adherents among the German minority that felt threatened by the explosive nationalisms of a multi-national empire in decay. Hitler’s Anschluss was thus “retribution for Königgrätz,” the revenge of south German (note, not Austrian) “völkisch ideology over the classical nationalism and chauvinism of Prussia and the North.” But this revanchist ideology, cradled in Austria, only awakened strong German support after the peace of Versailles, when Germany tasted the humiliation already instilled in Austrian consciousness. “It was the self-appointed task of this ideology,” Pulzer goes on, “to destroy every vestige of the Liberal civilization painstakingly and uncertainly built in Central Europe in the previous hundred years.” Indeed, as both Pulzer and Beller make clear, by the late 1920s, the only remaining believers in liberal civilization in Central Europe were the Jews. In neither Germany nor Austria were the roots of this restraining culture of liberal universalism deep enough to withstand the nihilists and the street agitators.

The other vital contrast between the German and Austrian cases concerns differences in Allied approaches to their denazification after 1945. As the historian Robert Knight has argued,2 Allied occupation, the mass destruction of the cities, and the Nuremberg trials forced the German people into a degree of recognition of what they had done to their Jewish neighbors, friends, and colleagues. In Austria, on the other hand, the Allies, the Soviet Union included, licensed the fiction of Austria being the Nazi’s “first victim” and thus enabled a country to embark on the voyage into amnesia from which it was shaken awake, if only to indignant denial, by the international campaign against Kurt Waldheim. Austrian anti-Semitism cannot be understood unless the part played by Western complicity in Austrian amnesia is recognized.

Just as Austria cannot be understood in isolation, so too the fate of its Jews cannot be understood alone. All of the books under review help to redress the neglect of the decisive contribution of the Jews to the cultural achievement of the empire; but all of them fall prey to the tendency of Jewish studies to treat the Jews in isolation from the other objects of loathing in Hitlerite ideology. Anti-Semitism, as an ideology, never travels alone; on its own, hatred of the Jews is a relatively weak ideological component; for an ideology to mobilize people into groups it must offer a vehicle not only for hatred, but also for pride and positive identification. It must appeal—this is true even of anti-Semitism—to the best in people as well as the worst. Thus, as Pulzer argues, “hatred of the Jew was a result as much as a cause of the increased urge to völkisch solidarity.”

For anti-Semitism to work up the courage to pass from cruel words to vile deeds, it must find other enemies too: Marxism, liberalism, parliamentarism, and democracy must all be seen as destroyers of völkisch virtue in order for Jews to begin to be endangered. In this constellation of phobias, Jews are increasingly portrayed, along with homosexuals and emancipated women, as violators of Germanic sexual order. As Paul Hofmann rightly observes, “Hitler’s early memoirs contain visions of swarthy Jews taking advantage of blond Teutonic maidens and pulling the strings of prostitution and white slavery in Vienna.” As both Wistrich and Pulzer observe, Georg von Schönerer despised feminism and said it was supported only by “women who have failed in their calling as women or who have no wish to answer it—and Jewesses. They naturally get the support of all the old women of the male sex and of all feminists, that is those men who are no men.” Because of its homophobic and misogynistic penumbra, anti-Semitism should be seen not merely as the socialism of fools (i.e., anticapitalism directed at Jewish scapegoats) but also as the anti-modernism and anti-individualism of fools as well. And then, fear and disgust at Ostjuden were closely allied to geopolitical fears of the invasion of Slavs and Poles pouring over the eastern frontier.

Anti-Semitism became powerful only when it served as the carrier of other phobias, sexual, political, and social. Jews are always picked out by gunsights which range over other targets—Slavs, gypsies, mental defectives, and so on. I wished that all of the books under review had devoted somewhat more attention to Jewish attitudes toward the ambient cluster of racial and sexual phobias in Viennese culture. Were we to find, as might be reasonable if regrettable, that Jews held more or less the same gamut of opinions as other Viennese about homosexuals, Slavs, gypsies, and feminists, then Jews were entrapped, more than they knew, in a constellation of phobias that included themselves as targets. Was this one reason why none of the Nazi victims was ever able to make common cause? What must count as the most terrible, and also most puzzling, of the anti-Semites’ victories is that, despite the fact that Jews were not the only ones who were hated and despised, the Jews came to feel—and had reason to feel—that they stood alone.

Vienna’s contemporary Jewish population is small and aging. The town is very nearly the city without Jews that the journalist Hugo Bettauer imagined in a prescient satire written in 1922. Bettauer’s story is told in Paul Hofmann’s informal but informative book. In his satire, Bettauer imagined what would happen if the Jews were expelled from the city: it immediately declines into drab provincial somnolence, the people frozen in folkloric alpine dress and shabby south German complacency. The prescient satire has come to pass, but not as the author expected. He imagined a fairy tale, Pied Piper of Hamelin style. Reality decreed otherwise. Three years later Bettauer himself was shot and killed by a Nazi sympathizer; thirteen years after that, professors, doctors, and lawyers who happened to be Jewish were forced down on their knees by the same genial, complacent, and provincial neighbors to clean the streets with toothbrushes. Freud’s aging sisters were led off to die in Theresienstadt. Of the 300,000 Jews still in Vienna in 1936, only about two hundred were left when the Red Army entered the Austrian capital in 1945. Today in that city without Jews, the old Jewish cemeteries, a jumble of cracked and faded headstones, worn by the wind, canopied with leaves in summer and shrouded in snow in winter, are patrolled by guard dogs that howl and snarl on their rounds, to keep the desecrators at bay.

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    Times Literary Supplement, October 3, 1988.

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