Oct 2008 Journal

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The proletariat unleashed: Vienna’s Jews and the comrades

Victor Adler, a Jew, founded the Austrian Social Democratic Party in 1889 and became its first leader. He died in 1918, to be succeeded by Otto Bauer, also a Jew. Indeed, it was Jewish liberal thinking that shaped much of the party’s policies.

Although in 1920 the socialists did not have an overall majority in the country, 60 per cent of the Viennese voted for them, and Red Vienna was born. It was Vienna, a province in its own right, which was to be their New Jerusalem. They started on an innovative municipal building programme, of which the Karl-Marx Hof in Heiligenstadt was the most ambitious example. They reformed and liberalised schools. Kindergarten, nursery care and workers’ education classes were all top priorities. Julius Tandler, an eminent physician and also a Jew, who was the city councillor for health and social services, introduced free medical care and greatly improved the city’s health. Regular visits to free dental clinics were compulsory for primary school pupils.

The Social Democrats were the natural home for Austrian Jews, although some, nervous about the ‘Marxist’ element, chose to vote for the Christian Socials, despite the party’s inbuilt anti-Semitism.

At the age of 12, spurred on by my best friend, Lisl, both of whose parents were active members of the Social Democratic Party (and were later to perish in the camps), I was briefly a member of the League of Socialist Grammar School Pupils. On May Day we marched along the Ring, singing stirring songs, reminding the working class of the need for solidarity.

Alas, the socialist dream didn’t last long. By the early 1930s, with massive unemployment and an acute housing shortage, it had already turned sour and in February 1934, after a brief but bloody civil war, it was ended brutally by the victorious Dollfuss, who declared the Social Democratic Party illegal.

So, what about the non-Jewish comrades? Some of them remained loyal to the socialist ideal, but many joined the also illegal Nazi Party, which swelled and flourished underground between 1934 and 1938.

Sadly, at the time of the Anschluss, many who had professed to be ardent social democrats, had been on the best of terms with their Jewish acquaintances, and in many cases had shown them great kindness, turned up in Nazi uniforms or proudly wore the badge which only former ‘illegals’ were awarded. This was true not only of blue-collar workers but also of professionals like doctors and teachers.

What Hitler offered the working class was not just employment and a dashing uniform, but something they found irresistible: power. They, who had been nobodies, often unemployed and ill-educated, were now empowered to despise a whole group of people who, they were told, were not just inferior to them but poisonous vermin, no longer protected by the law. Like all converts, the former comrades had to prove themselves by displaying extra zeal in taunting and humiliating Jews. For the first time, they felt they had truly lost their chains.

The proletariat unleashed was not a pretty sight. Reports of vicious attacks on Jews immediately after the Anschluss, applauded by onlookers, circulated in the foreign press.

There can be no doubt that most Austrians welcomed the arrival of the Nazi era, but the church-going bourgeoisie, who had always supported the Christian Socials, showed greater restraint. They may have been more squeamish or inhibited by their religious beliefs.

The most paradoxical was the attitude of some former illegal Nazis, of which our lodger, Fräulein Oeser, was a typical example. Although a civil servant, she had been a member of the Nazi Party for years - yet it never seemed to bother her that she was living with us, practically a member of the family, at the same time. Like so many others, she had been beguiled by the vision of a Greater Germany led by the Führer with the piercing blue eyes. That her Jews might come to any harm had never occurred to her.

Despite everything that happened in Austria between 1938 and 1945, I’m still grateful to all the people, Jews and non-Jews, who made the city in which I grew up a better place to live in.
 

Edith Argy

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