Thursday, February 16, 2012

Vienna and Antisemitism

In reading about Vienna in the 19th century, I've become aware of the simultaneous development of two groups emerging together. I meant to focus on the secular-Jewish intellectual class, which included some of the wealthy bankers as well as middle-class Jews. But it seems that you can't learn about this fascinating Jewish community without also being aware of a political, populist Austrian-German nationalism with a strong antisemitic bias as well as a bias against many of the non-German nationalities of the Austrian empire.

From the 1890s, anti-liberal leaders assumed a great deal of political power, especially the antisemite Karl Lueger who was elected mayor of Vienna in 1895, and despite the Emperor's efforts to block him from office, became mayor in 1897. Antisemitic theories and actions became widely accepted and influential. After World War I they grew predominant in both Austria and Germany as is very well known. Less well known: their origin in Austrian 19th century policies and politics and the interplay between the conservative and Jew-hating ideas with the earlier liberal thought, Jewish intellectual and commercial success, and conservative antisemitic thought.

One thing I find disturbing is that every Jewish success was spun into a negative stereotype by the antisemites of the time. Jews were blamed for success in owning and running banks (the antisemites founded their own alternative postal savings bank). Jews received opprobrium for being writers or for owning newspapers. Most hated was the liberal and influential Neue Freie Presse, founded in 1864, edited from 1908 to 1920 by Moriz Benedikt, and ultimately put out of business by the Nazis when they took over Vienna in 1938. The antisemites criticized Jewish doctors (who perhaps became doctors because not all professions were open to Jews). Jewish university students were attacked and expelled from fraternities and other organizations that had formerly permitted them; Jews had a hard time rising in academic professions and musical institutions.

Yet many Jews put aside their Jewish identity when they wrote poetry or stories, composed music or plays, conducted, developed philosophic or other academic theories, or patronized a variety of arts. They led a normal, secular life, attempting to work around the forces that excluded them, marginalized them, or attacked them.

Despite the danger of the stereotypes, I am going to mention a few of the famous members of the Viennese intellectual community in its great times, with an extremely brief summary of how antisemitism affected them. I'm not an expert, I'm just beginning to read about this.

Sigmund Freud grew up in the secular-Jewish middle class. His intellectual leadership in developing theories about the human mind is still acknowledged even if the details have been revised or rejected. In reading the chapter on Freud in Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture by Carl E. Schorske, I learned how important to Freud was discrimination against Jews, both in terms of his career and his personal development.

Stefan Zweig was a widely-read and very popular author. His autobiography, The World of Yesterday, written when he was in flight from the Nazis and in despair about the loss of everything he had cherished, painted a fascinating nostalgic portrait of the atmosphere of Vienna before the Nazis. He put it in the best possible light, attempting to show, I think, that the Jewish writers and thinkers were able to overcome the forces that attacked them -- at least until the final disaster overtook them. Zweig's works seem to be undergoing a reevaluation: for a long time, he seemed dated, and now people are republishing and reading his novels and stories.

Theodor Herzl, a journalist for the
Neue Freie Presse, is now of course mainly known for the invention of political Zionism and his pursuit of support for his dream of a homeland for the Jews. While he was originally rather indifferent to his Jewish identity (according to a number of things I've read), the ascent of Lueger in Vienna and the Dreyfus case, which he covered as the Paris correspondent of the NFP, caused him to rethink what he'd believed. His realization was a fascinating development in the context of the freedom that Jews had thought they possessed. He was ahead of his time in recognizing the force of antisemitism in many parts of Europe. Interestingly, according to Zweig, his newspaper, which had a general following, did not allow him to publish anything about Zionism.

Gustav Mahler, composer and conductor, accepted conversion to Catholicism in 1897 perhaps as the price for advancement in his career as a conductor. In that year, he was appointed as Kappelmeister in Vienna. His enemies continued to attack him, though I think it's fair to say that his music transcends all this.

Gustav Klimt, surely the most famous artist from pre-World War I Vienna, became a victim of antisemites without even being Jewish. According to Schorske, his dramatically original work was at first accepted, but soon became very controversial, and in a fight about murals to be installed at the university, he was the victim of a lot of vicious anti-modern sentiment, including being accused of siding with the Jews.

Klimt's two portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer (who belonged to the Jewish community, which often patronized his art work) received a great deal of attention a few years ago when Adele's niece won a judgement that returned several paintings to her that had been among the ill-gotten gains from Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

The people I've named are only a few of the famous figures living in Vienna who made important contributions, including many others from the secular-Jewish community. For some, identity was very complex, as there had been intermarriages and conversions for several generations (but antisemites might not have cared) -- examples are Ludwig Wittgenstein and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal.

Lueger, when challenged for having Jewish friends, evidently said that it was up to him to decide who was Jewish. I'm not sure what exactly that meant. All I know is that Hitler thought he was fabulous.

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