Hitler’s Viennese Waltz

Hitler’s Viennese Waltz

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


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

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?

Most problematic of all, perhaps, is Hamann’s treatment of Viennese Modernism. Schönerer, Lueger, quirky Viennese racists and their theories of Aryan supremacy–that Hitler was influenced by such things is not exactly surprising. Hamann, again, gives a lucid and thorough account of the pervasiveness of these insidious forces in fin de siècle Vienna, and she does an excellent job of documenting Hitler’s initial reactions to them, which is no easy task, since the sources here are extremely unreliable. They consist almost exclusively, in fact, of statements made by Hitler’s acquaintances in Vienna, many of which were altered, for obvious reasons, during and after the Third Reich. Where they can be checked against municipal records, Hamann has done the legwork. But she forecloses on the more complicated, more interesting question of the role Viennese Modernism played in Hitler’s fascist apprenticeship. Hamann raises this question by noting that Hitler admired one of Vienna’s most prominent “Modernists,” Mahler, while underlining Hitler’s general antipathy toward Viennese Modernism.

How could Hitler have idolized Mahler’s Modernism just as he was laying down the foundation for his own monumental hatred of Modernism? Hamann’s answer is disappointing. She contends that Viennese Modernism was really about letting sexuality out of its bourgeois cage, and the eminently unerotic Mahler was therefore only a sort of marginal Modernist. Since Hitler went on famously to denounce “degenerate art,” it is fair to say that he received an anti-Modernist aesthetic education in Vienna.

Yet Hitler’s encounter with Viennese Modernism was more complex. Indeed, his profound respect for Mahler points to another level of influence, one that Hamann moves past dismissively when she writes, “As in all of Europe, in Vienna modernism was defined by its revolt against the prudishness of the all-too-bourgeois nineteenth century. The artists of Expressionism fought for the liberation from moral constraints, against a cloying idyll, for truth, enlightenment, and the exposing of social ills and ugly realities.” The accent here is on the erotics of Modernism. Its other aspects are listed as secondary or tertiary, as Hamann desultorily adds the naturalist cause, “the exposing of social ills,” to the Expressionists’ agenda. What is missing, or almost missing, is the Viennese Modernists’ push for social redemption through art. That was, to use Schorske’s terms, at the center of the Viennese Modernist sons’ attempt to transcend their fathers’ failed liberal politics. It is also just what Hitler seems to have been so impressed by in Mahler. Mahler was no “fascist modernist,” but his zealous rigor did demand a kind of emotional submission from his audience, even as it challenged them to rise to his difficult standards. And, suggestively enough, Mahler’s severity was disturbing to liberal bourgeois Viennese opera-goers, who sensed that his searching veneration of art was profoundly different from their “cloying” cult of beauty.

When Mahler lost his position as conductor of Vienna’s opera, Hitler fulminated against his critics and expressed his appreciation of Mahler’s intensity and the select community of recipients it evoked. Can we infer from Hitler’s defense of Mahler that Hitler not only learned to hate Modernism in Vienna but also learned from it? Was Viennese Modernism Hitler’s unwitting mentor before it became his victim? Certainly anything like a Mahleresque insistence on formal integrity is difficult to locate in Nazi stagings of Wagner’s most turgid moments. Yet subtle influences are easy to lose sight of amid the garishness of Nazi spectacles. Anti-Modernists are seldom, if ever, consistently anti-Modernist. Hitler’s obsession with taking art beyond the safety of dilettantish bourgeois aesthetic experience may be grounded not only in Wagner’s bombastic ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk but also in Mahler’s ecstatically precise performances. In Mahler, too, there is a post-bourgeois aesthetics; art is supposed to promise more than symbolic capital, anodyne distraction, a bit of bonheur.

Of course, Viennese Modernism is not “guilty” of helping to make the Holocaust possible. But the connection of violent anti-Semites like Schönerer and Lueger to Hitler’s use of anti-Semitism is incriminatingly thick. They taught him how to employ hatred of the Jews to great political effect, and their legacy is therefore directly linked to the Holocaust. It is quite another thing to indict less incendiary figures just because they were particularly Viennese. Hitler would have turned out differently had he not spent seven formative years in Vienna. But it is unfair and unproductive to flatten the obstructionist Viennese politicians who shut down Parliament–many of whom were not anti-Semitic and none of whom called for a dictatorship–with the crushing charge of mentoring him. To do so is to elevate moralizing anachronism to a historiographical principle. Yet Hamann does not raise the question of influence simply to lay blame. She also sets out to probe improbable and disturbing proximities. Even if these probings do not constitute the core of her book and are not always executed successfully, they are enough to make Hitler’s Vienna compelling. For the suggestion toward which they push us occupies, again, but a peripheral position in Schorske’s Fin-de-siècle Vienna. Schorske may remark on how Klimt, Schönberg and Freud scandalized Viennese audiences, but nowhere does he examine this audience in detail. And only one of the essays in his book attempts to survey the political catastrophes that left “the sons” disillusioned with politics and looking for redemption in art. The brutal Vienna in which Egon Schiele was incarcerated as a pornographer and Karl Kraus was repeatedly assaulted for satirizing fellow satirists is confined to the background. We are reminded of its ugly importance. What we see, however, are the beautiful achievements to which we feel so indebted.

Fin de siècle Vienna becomes, first and foremost, a time of intense creativity and relentless intellectual exploration, as the signs of crisis that remain in the picture are easily explained away as that faithful concomitant of interesting art: the personal identity crisis of the artist. And so we are invited toward ambivalence, to recognize that certain features of that society may have been serviceable to Nazism, which should shake us out of our often easy enthusiasm for, and identification with, Viennese Modernism. It should prompt difficult critical reflection, which is what Viennese Modernism was all about–at least some of the time.

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