The wealth of culture that the Jewish community of Vienna developed in the short period of its flourishing - between the middle of the nineteenth century and its destruction by the Nazis - is the more astonishing as Vienna had no Jewish community of any size before the mid-nineteenth century. Jews were banned from what was then the imperial capital until the revolution of 1848 and were not fully emancipated from all restrictions of residence until 1867, as part of the reforms that followed Austria’s defeat by Prussia in the war of 1866.
Viennese Jewry was a cultural centre of European-wide significance in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the very concept of ‘fin-de-siècle Vienna’, with its avant-garde association with the dislocations and dissonances of Modernism, was in very large measure dependent on Viennese Jewry. For it was that community which was responsible for producing much of the city’s culture, in the form of its artists, composers, writers, theatre and film directors, as well as providing a large part of the audiences, readers, visitors to exhibitions and other consumers of culture, not to mention the producers, impresarios, gallery owners and art dealers who were the facilitators of the cultural scene.
The Jewish contribution to the culture of Vienna in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries extended across the range of cultural and intellectual activity. It encompassed a large number of famous names, as in the field of literature, to take just one example: Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Felix Salten, Hermann Broch, Franz Werfel, Elias Canetti, Friedrich Torberg, Hilde Spiel, Hugo Bettauer, Joseph Roth, Peter Altenberg, Stefan Zweig, Vicki Baum and Richard Beer Hoffmann. No list of Vienna’s Jews can omit the composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, the conductor Bruno Walter, the director Max Reinhardt, the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, the lawyer Hans Kelsen, Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism, and Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis. Then there are the cabaret artists and university professors, the journalists (not least Moritz Benedikt of the Neue Freie Presse), the feminists and photographers, the salonnières and sociologists …
This cultural flowering took place under historical and cultural conditions that were particular to Vienna. At the time of the full emancipation of the Jews of Austria in 1867, Vienna was still very much a city marked by the triumph of the Counter-Reformation in the seventeenth century and the Baroque culture that it produced there. This was most obviously true of the dominance of Catholicism and the Catholic Church, the religion of the Habsburg establishment, whose buildings and monuments occupied a prominent place on the city’s skyline, as it was of the influence of Catholicism on Vienna’s popular and high culture. Yet in the sixteenth century Vienna had been very receptive to the Reformation and a significant proportion of its citizens had been Protestants.
The triumph of the Counter-Reformation in the seventeenth century also saw the triumph of the Catholic house of Habsburg, which, apart from its hereditary rule over its Austrian lands, also held the office of Holy Roman Emperor and thus assumed the leading role in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. In 1521, the Austrian Duchies had come under the rule of Ferdinand I, a staunch Catholic from Spain. Ferdinand and his successors proceeded against religious dissenters with severe measures, aiming to squeeze Protestantism out of Viennese public life. That process was largely completed by the time of the second siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1683.
This had serious consequences for the character and quality of the civic life of Vienna. The city, like other European cities in the later Middle Ages, had begun to develop an autonomous urban civic and political life, centred on its burghers, merchants and traders. This segment of Viennese society, independent economically and in its politics, was also independent-minded in its welcome of the reformed Protestant religion and of the new ideas of humanism and rationalism that spread with the Renaissance. It was that entire spectrum of independence that was repressed by the forces of the Counter-Reformation and by Habsburg power.
Protestantism disappeared, and with it went Viennese municipal self-government and the budding free Viennese Bürgertum, bearer of the values of sturdy independence, free-thinking self-reliance and political autonomy. Instead, Vienna was to become the seat of the imperial court, where the high aristocracy held sway alongside the Catholic Church, with its overriding hostility to modern trends of thought. Vienna only regained its civic self-government in the mid-nineteenth century.
The resurgence of Catholicism had negative consequences for the Jews. The Jews of Vienna had experienced periodic bouts of persecution and expulsion over the centuries: the city’s great Catholic preachers, from Johannes Capistranus in the fifteenth century to Abraham a Sancta Clara in the seventeenth, had been notably hostile to Jews. In 1669, Emperor Leopold I set about expelling the Jews from Vienna, a prohibition that was not formally overturned for nearly 200 years. The Habsburgs needed Jews to finance their wars but treated them with scant respect once they had outlived their usefulness. Samuel Oppenheimer, Leopold I’s court banker from 1680 to 1703, acted as both financier and military contractor, making possible the war that saved Christendom from the infidel Turk in 1683. But when he died, the regime cancelled its debts to him and declared his bank bankrupt.
The culture into which the Jewish community of Vienna developed after 1867 still contained defining elements from the Baroque. The lavish ostentation of Baroque Catholic religious architecture and decoration helped to create a highly visual culture that appealed strongly to the senses, unlike the modest austerity that marked Protestant, and in its way also Jewish culture. The sensuous aspect of Vienna was noted by all observers, with its visual pageantry, its artistic pretensions and its sheer love of enjoyment and self-indulgence, which was assisted not a little by the city’s centuries-old association with its vineyards and their products.
But this pleasure-loving front concealed a profound awareness of the transitory and illusory nature of existence, which found expression in the Baroque metaphor of life as a dream. The Viennese were famed for their light-hearted charm, but that apparent frivolity contained an underlying element of fatalism, deriving from a sense of the unreality and impermanent insubstantiality of life, as well as an alarming propensity for brutality. It was, appropriately, in Vienna that Sigmund Freud conceived his project of the interpretation of dreams and his exploration of the influence of instinctive drives on the human mind.
After the defeat of the Turks in 1683, Vienna emerged as the capital of a great empire. However, Austria remained a disparate agglomeration of territories held together solely by the fact that they were ruled by the house of Habsburg, which relied for its legitimacy on the dynastic tradition whereby rule over its territories passed from one emperor to the next. Habsburg Austria was, first and foremost, a dynastic unit and for the Habsburgs dynastic interests took priority. The dynasty supplied the unifying factor binding together its many subject nationalities; consequently, when Habsburg rule collapsed in 1918, the Empire vanished from the map.
The Habsburgs derived unrivalled prestige from their position at the head of the Holy Roman Empire. But dynastic tradition and religious sanction could not supply the efficiency and cohesion required of a modern state. Austria never succeeded in meeting the challenges of the modern era. In the late eighteenth century, the reforms of Emperor Joseph II, which included the first declaration of tolerance for Jews, ended in failure. After 1789, the French Revolution confronted the Habsburg Empire with demands for popular democracy and for autonomous self-government for national groups; but the Habsburg autocracy never conceded the first demand, while the second would have spelt the break-up of the multi-ethnic Empire. The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 was followed by a long period of reaction under the chancellorship of Metternich, broken only by the revolution of 1848.
But that revolution failed. Its suppression was followed by another decade of absolute rule under the new emperor, Francis Joseph, until defeat in the Italian war of 1859 forced the start of constitutional reform, a process that culminated in the instalment of a liberal parliamentary regime after Austria’s defeat by Prussia in 1866. Even that, however, proved to be a false dawn. After the economic crash of 1873, the liberals were forced into retreat; in the 1890s, they lost control of Vienna, their stronghold, to the avowedly anti-liberal and anti-Semitic Christian Socials. The growth of radical nationalism and the failure of liberalism formed the background to the development of Viennese Jewry in the decades before 1914; along with the glittering prospects opened up to Jews by the modern metropolis, these factors created the matrix from which Viennese Jewish culture emerged.
This article is an abridged version of a lecture given at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on 12 September 2012. Part 2 will follow next month (Ed.).