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Oct 2002 Journal

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Fin-de-siècle template (editorial)

When an animal is about to be attacked, it can either fight or flee. A third - rather hypothetical - response is to be prescient and adopt protective mimicry - i.e. camouflage - to escape the attention of the predators.

The laws of society being more intricate than those of nature, Jews have evolved a more complicated array of defence mechanisms - although these are simply variations of the three 'archetypes' of fight, flight or mimicry.

The full panoply of widely differentiated responses was on display in the Vienna of around 1900. These could be diagrammatically represented by a semi-circle inscribed with the legend 'flight' on the left, 'mimicry' in the middle and 'fight' on the right. 'Flight' in this context is not to be understood as physical escape, but as flight from Jewish identity.

The most extreme form of escape in this meaning of the term is Jewish self-hate, notoriously exemplified by Otto Weininger. He argued that all Jews suffered from moral leprosy and that only one Jew - Jesus Christ - had ever overcome this inborn stigma. Weininger put an end to his own life in the early twenties, but other less pathologically self-critical Jews continued to command attention. One such was Karl Kraus, who purported to see behind Herzl's dream of Jewish statehood a naked ambition to snatch the crown of Zion. Likewise, Kraus's Great War play The Last Days of Mankind largely depicts Austrian Jews as war profiteers and draft-dodgers.

Unsurprisingly, Kraus also followed the trend among Austro-Jewish intellectuals of converting to Christianity. Another prominent convert was the father of the philosopher Karl Popper. What motivated Popper Senior to cut the umbilical cord was the feeling that separateness in matters of religion constituted an affront to the mass of his fellow Austrians. (Karl Popper was to follow in his father's footsteps, defining himself as someone born to Protestant parents who deprecated all forms of racism, including Jewish racism.)

However, for all that conversion as well as intermarriage were becoming increasingly fashionable, they did not make significant inroads into the Austro-Jewish mainstream. The bulk remained moderately observant, married co-religionists, took a sceptical view of Zionism, and endeavoured to keep their daily speech free of Yiddish inflections.

But mameloshn was not to be denied. The Yiddish theatre movement emanating from Eastern Europe produced intermittent echoes in Vienna. The Austro-Jewish bourgeoisie, however, greatly preferred Goethe to Goldfaden and looked down on Yiddish as jargon. Poorer working-class Jews did not share this preference but were not overly receptive to Dybbuk-style theatrical fare either. Their taste was catered for by the actor-playwright Heinrich Eisenbach, who wrote jargon-tinted vaudeville sketches set in exotic locations. (His King of the Sahara featured a Prime Minister Chochem, a Lord Chamberlain Shamas and a Greek white-slaver Parachides.) The self-mocking tone in which Eisenbach's dialogue was delivered - commonly called Jideln - aroused the ire of respectable middle-class Jews and the august Centralverein denounced his farces as grist for the mills of antisemites.

If Eisenbach drew Jewish working-class audiences, Viktor Adler appealed to the working class as a whole. An Armenarzt - a doctor who gave free treatment to the poor - Adler was to Austria's Social Democrats what Keir Hardie was to the British Labour Party. Influenced by him, a sizable number of Austrian Jews conceived a rosy-hued vision of a classless New Jerusalem.

An entirely different vision of Jerusalem - as the capital of a resurrected Jewish homeland - was put forward by the Austro-Hungarian Theodor Herzl. Herzl did not make many recruits in Austria early on; even so, the Zionists gradually gained support, and in the inter-war years wrested control of Vienna's Kultusgemeinde from the Assimilationists.

By then, the World Zionist Movement had split between a majority of moderates and a minority of hardline followers of Jabotinsky (among whom another Austro-Hungarian, Arthur Koestler, was prominent).

Karl Kraus memorably dubbed Austria 'the laboratory for the end of the world' - a bon mot which, given Hitler's Austrian provenance, was quite apt. It could also be argued that in its array of widely differing responses to the 'Jewish Question', Viennese fin-de-siècle Jewry prefigured the worldwide fragmentation of Jewish opinion that we witness today.

next article:The Diasporists