“Austria had many geniuses, and that was probably its undoing.”
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.