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Hitler's Viennese Waltz | The Nation

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Hitler's Viennese Waltz

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"Austria had many geniuses, and that was probably its undoing."
    --Robert Musil

About the Author

Paul Reitter
Paul Reitter (reitter.4@osu.edu) teaches in the German department at Ohio State University.

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Hitler's Vienna? It is certainly a sobering thought. After all, at the turn of this century, Hitler's Vienna, that is, fin de siècle Vienna, is remembered by much of Western culture as Klimt's Vienna, Freud's Vienna, Mahler's Vienna, Wittgenstein's Vienna. But what happens when we acknowledge that many of fin de siècle Vienna's golden cultural accomplishments were animated by disgust? What happens when we recognize that many of them were gestures of protest against the Viennese ills that led Hermann Broch to describe turn-of-the-century Vienna as "the world-capital of kitsch" and "the gay apocalypse," and Karl Kraus to label it as "the research laboratory of world destruction": brassy, state-sponsored aesthetic pomposity; widespread Biedermeier provinciality; ubiquitous institutionalized corruption; state-sanctioned sexual hypocrisy; surging nationalism and anti-Semitism? Not as much as one might reasonably expect. Contemporary studies of fin de siècle Vienna tend to emphasize its exalted immediacy, the large degree to which its geniuses--Klimt, Freud, Wittgenstein, et al.--have shaped our aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities. Even if such studies duly note that these exceptional figures generally despised their fellow Viennese and displayed what one critic called "Viennese self-hatred," the Vienna they present us with is characterized mainly by cultural efflorescence.

Witness the case of Carl Schorske. Published in 1981, Schorske's collection of essays, Fin-de-siècle Vienna, instantly became a classic; it is both widely read and of very considerable significance for academic discussions of Viennese culture. Schorske does not neglect the profane context out of which sublime Vienna emerged. His argument, in fact, is that the architects of Viennese Modernism belonged to a small group of "sons" who scorned their bourgeois fathers' flagging liberal politics and epigonic aesthetic values. Ultimately, however, Schorske pushes this un-Modernist Viennese mainstream into the background. And yet a more consistent analysis of Viennese culture would spoil the fun. For if the city's virtues were portrayed as intertwined with its ominous problems, our proximity to it would not be so flattering.

In contrast, the idea of Vienna as "the research laboratory of world destruction" neatly articulates the upshot of Brigitte Hamann's refreshingly dark new contribution to Viennese studies, Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship. Hamann has managed, remarkably enough, to write a book that is both a detailed social and intellectual history of fin de siècle Vienna and a flowing biographical narrative; as her subtitle suggests, she argues that Hitler's years in the city (1906-1913) were fatefully edifying ones for him. This, of course, is not exactly a novel assertion. Hitler makes the point himself in Mein Kampf, in which he offers elaborate panegyrics to Georg von Schönerer, the rancorous anti-Semite who founded the Austrian Pan-German movement, and to Karl Lueger, who was the fantastically popular anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna when Hitler arrived there. But Hitler's testimony in Mein Kampf is far from reliable, so a case still needs to be made for the claim that Schönerer and Lueger were his political teachers. Hamann, a seasoned biographer, does not simply confirm information that Hitler supplies. She shows that, contrary to his own claims, Hitler's encounters with Schönerer's ideas and with the cult of Lueger were not brought about by an ability to hone in on salutary influences in the midst of a large, degenerate city. Rather, Schönerer's propaganda and Lueger inevitably found Hitler. For the fin de siècle Vienna that Hamann intricately reconstructs is Lueger's Vienna, a city so saturated with vicious anti-Semitic and antiliberal rhetoric that Hitler could not have avoided, even if he had wanted to, direct contact with the terms that eventually became the core of his political vocabulary.

Hamann's damning main contention is that Hitler's political development has everything to do with where he spent the last years of his youth and the first years of his adulthood. Accordingly, she forcefully debunks the claim that Hitler's anti-Semitism was caused by unlucky accidents, showing in her footnotes that stories often invoked to support that idea have made their way into highly regarded scholarly works. We learn, for example, that Hitler's relations with the Jewish shopkeepers who sold his paintings (and by whom he is supposed to have been swindled) were hardly contentious, and that Hitler even gratefully acknowledged their generosity. In fact, as a young man in Vienna, Hitler did not exhibit anything like the seething monomaniacal fixation on the Jews of his "mature" years. His attribution of such fervent views to his younger self in Mein Kampf is, according to Hamann, simply specious; Hitler had Jewish friends in Vienna, and he went so far as to defend Jews whom he admired (e.g., Heine and Mahler) when they were disparaged by anti-Semites. Hamann's provocatively condemnatory point here is that Hitler did not so much become anti-Semitic in Vienna as learn about the political efficacy of anti-Semitism. She writes, "Nowhere could young Hitler have studied the power of the terror of a few and the impotence of a large organization better than in Austria's Reichsrat Vienna." And Hamann goes on to provide a scrupulously researched catalogue of Viennese figures and phenomena, from Schönerer and his Heil greeting to the obscure Viennese racist Guido von List and his use of the swastika, that Hitler appropriated as he rose to power and while he was the Führer. Especially important for Hamann are Hitler's wide-eyed wanderings through the colorful scenes and literature of Viennese anti-Semitic agitation. Her conclusion reads: "Yet it was fragments of his readings with which he left Vienna in 1913, a grab-bag that was preserved inside an excellent memory. It was only in Germany that all these pieces fell into place, as in a magnetic field, to form a weltanschauung on the basis of ethnic anti-Semitism." Hamann's theory is a harsh one: Vienna was a necessary, if not quite a sufficient, cause of Hitler's murderous successes.

It may well be too harsh. The delay between Hitler's time in Vienna and the birth of his fanatical anti-Semitism is central to Hamann's case against Vienna. What led him to his fatal plan was a uniquely Viennese political education: Hitler's relatively favorable early attitude toward the Jews reflects unfavorably on the city. This assertion receives more emphasis than any other claim in Hamann's book. The problem with it is that the very delay on which it rests opens up a space in which obvious objections can be raised. After all, Hitler could have culled extensive lessons on the significance of anti-Semitism from his post-Vienna political adventures, as there was no shortage of fascist activity in the Munich he returned to after World War I. Hamann's willingness to give credence to Hitler's late ramblings on how deeply he was affected by Vienna's public spaces is similarly suspect. And when she argues that Hitler might not have been able to stage urban political rallies so brilliantly had he not lived in Vienna, she goes over the top. Munich also had formidable squares. What about Hitler's Munich?

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