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Feb 2013 Journal

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The culture of Viennese Jewry at the fin de siècle (Part II)

From 1848, and especially from 1867, Jews from elsewhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire flocked to Vienna, with its opportunities for economic and social betterment, for life in a modern metropolis, and for a widening of horizons far beyond those of the traditional Jewish communities of the East. The creation of Vienna as a modern city was symbolised by the building of the Ringstrasse, which had begun in the 1850s but came to exemplify the emergence of a new, liberal, modernised capital. For Jews at this time, Vienna seemed to hold the prospect of almost limitless opportunities, and part of their response was the remarkable cultural efflorescence created by the city’s Jewish community.

The most obvious feature of that community was its sheer dynamism, reflected in its rapid growth. From a small, semi-legal settlement of Jews, the community increased by leaps and bounds until it reached nearly 200,000, about one tenth of the city’s population. In 1847, the Jewish population of Vienna was estimated at some 4,000, about 1 per cent of the city’s total population. That number increased to some 40,000 by 1869, to 118,000 in 1890 and to 175,000 in 1910; the city’s total population also increased, but ‘only’ about fivefold.

The dynamism of the community was also reflected in its eagerness to integrate into Viennese life and society. Viennese Jewry contained a high proportion of emancipated, secularised Jews who had discarded the traditional lifestyle and religious practice of their forefathers and adopted the German-speaking culture of Vienna; significantly, Vienna produced relatively little Yiddish culture, and Yiddish was not spoken widely there, at least outside the Leopoldstadt, the Second District.

The acculturation of Vienna’s Jews was among the fastest and most thoroughgoing in Europe; Viennese Jewry had the highest rate of conversion of any European city. However, Jews did not assimilate entirely into Viennese society, to the extent of losing their separate identity and being seen as indistinguishable from other Austrians. They tended to go to the same schools, to cluster together at the University of Vienna (where they were banned from such student bodies as fraternities by the 1890s), to live in the same districts and to enter the same professions. The particular culture and achievements of Viennese Jewry were those of an assimilated Jewry, but one that preserved its social and communal identity.

Jews came to Vienna in three successive waves: from Bohemia and Moravia, from Hungary, and lastly from Galicia (Austrian Poland). These immigrant Jews developed a distinctive occupational profile. Many, especially in the Leopoldstadt, remained poor. But the patterns of Jewish economic activity were radically different from those of non-Jewish Viennese, in that Jews rose in far greater numbers, proportionally speaking, into the middle classes, especially into the self-employed commercial and entrepreneurial class, the liberal professions and the new class of white-collar salaried staff created by modern commercial and financial enterprises.

Jews had been active as bankers and financiers in Vienna well before 1848. They had also traditionally acted as middlemen between the urban and rural markets in Eastern Europe, and were to some extent already urbanised. They were thus well adapted, as traders and merchants, to the liberal, free-market economy that they encountered on their arrival in Vienna during the heyday of liberal economic doctrine. Over three generations, Jews could rise from being small traders or shopkeepers to more prosperous and higher-status occupations in commerce or as independent entrepreneurs, and then into the liberal professions (law, medicine, journalism, academia) or the world of culture and the arts.

The residential patterns of the Jews of Vienna were as distinctive as their professional profile. They mostly settled in clearly defined areas of the city, where the concentration of Jews allowed a distinctive type of Viennese Jewish community to develop. The three areas concerned were the Innenstadt (inner city), the wealthy First District within the Ringstrasse; the Second District, the Leopoldstadt, known as the ‘Mazzesinsel’ (‘matzoh island’) on account of its concentration of traditional Jews recently arrived from the East, often still poor, religiously observant and true to traditional dress and lifestyle; and the Ninth District, Alsergrund, which became home to the new middle class of Jews active in the liberal professions and as white-collar employees in the larger private enterprises (but not the public service, where Jews were notably few).

There were Jews in other areas, such as Mariahilf and Neubau (the Sixth and Seventh Districts) and the leafy outlying districts of Währing and Döbling (the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Districts). Though there was an established pattern of upwardly mobile Jews leaving the Leopoldstadt for more prosperous areas inhabited by a more assimilated community, the Jewish population of the Second District was continually replenished by immigration. The patterns of Jewish residence clearly bear out the middle-class profile of the community: Jews were thin on the ground in working-class areas, just as they were relatively few among those Viennese employed in heavy manual labour. In this they were quite unlike the other great immigrant group, the Czechs, who remained anchored in Vienna’s industrial proletariat.

Education was the escalator that bore so many of Vienna’s Jews up into the professional middle classes. This is evident from the very marked over-representation of Jewish students at Vienna’s Gymnasien; the Gymnasium (grammar school) was the elite educational institution that opened the way to university entrance, to a degree in law or medicine, to a career in education or to the skills and qualifications that enabled young Jews to embark on careers largely closed to the proletariat or lower middle class. Only establishments which put up specific barriers could keep Jews out: the Benedictine-run Schottengymnasium with its religious bias and the Theresianum, which catered for the scions of the aristocracy. Otherwise, Jewish students flooded into the Gymnasien, like the prestigious Akademisches Gymnasium in the First District, where between 1875 and 1910 Jews regularly made up 40 per cent of the students.

These figures were matched by the Franz-Joseph-Gymnasium in the First District, and by the Maximilian-Gymnasium in the Wasagasse in the Ninth District, where the proportion of Jews doubled from 33 per cent in 1875 to 66 per cent in 1910, and were exceeded by the two Gymnasien in the Second District, the Erzherzog-Rainer-Gymnasium and the Sophien-Gymnasium, where Jews made up between two-thirds and three-quarters of the students. Even among the poorer Jews of the Leopoldstadt, a powerful impetus towards social and economic betterment through education was at work. Though the Austrian educational system was a closed system that made it difficult for children from lower-class families to rise in society, Jews were exceptional in being able to use that system to propel themselves into the higher reaches of society.

From the Gymnasien, Jews proceeded in large numbers to the University of Vienna, where they were famously over-represented in such fields as law, medicine and the arts and humanities; it was the celebrated professor of medicine Billroth who publicly introduced anti-Semitic discourse into academic life at the University of Vienna by protesting at the number of Jews from the East. By 1910, Jews made up 37.5 per cent of students in the Faculty of Law, 21.6 per cent in the Faculty of Philosophy, and 51.2 per cent in the Faculty of Medicine. The result of the mass influx of Jewish students into these academic disciplines was that Jews went on into the middle-class professions and white-collar salaried employment, where they played a leading role as consumers of culture. Some, like the many noted Jewish writers, artists, scholars and other intellectuals, became creators of culture, giving rise to the phenomenon of Viennese Jewish culture.

The success of Jews in the fields of education and culture can in part be explained by the tradition of learning long established among the People of the Book. To this should be added the impact of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century, and the opening up of the narrow world of the Eastern Jews to the liberal, humanist culture of the German-speaking world. From this sprang the veneration shown by Jews towards such figures as Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven, which impelled much of Central European Jewry to embrace German-language culture so enthusiastically.

From the 1870s, Vienna’s Jews were confronted by the growth of a new, racial anti-Semitism, both in the form of the Pan-Germanism advocated by Georg von Schönerer and in the specifically Viennese phenomenon of Karl Lueger’s Christian Social Party, which swept to electoral success in the 1890s. The assimilated Jews responded by creating the Österreichisch-Israelitische Union, affirming their rights as Austrian citizens; those who despaired of assimilation espoused Zionism or Jewish nationalism. With the collapse of the Empire in 1918, Vienna became the capital of the rump state of Austria, where Jews were an increasingly beleaguered minority. Nevertheless, Vienna’s cultural scene continued to be heavily influenced by its Jews, from the concert hall to the cabaret, from the theatre to the lecture hall and the psychoanalyst’s couch, until the Anschluss put an end to Vienna’s status as a leading European centre of culture.

Anthony Grenville

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