• Editorial - September 2008
Rosh Hashanah 5769
• Faith and Life
• Protection and Dissuasion
• Memorandum on the present dangers to Israel and the Jews
• Ghosts from Vienna’s Past
• The security barrier
• Avoiding scars
• Mayer - Mattie
• Yesterday - Today - Tomorrow
• The Sinai Centrum
• Mind and Spirit
Crimes and Justice
• The Hunt
Ethics and Judaism
• Time to Desist
Ghosts from Vienna’s Past
Professor Robert Solomon Wistrich.
By Professor Robert Solomon Wistrich
In 1923 the Jewish population of Vienna reached its all-time peak of 201,513 inhabitants (10.8% of the city’s inhabitants). Vienna was by then the third-largest Jewish city in Europe, after Warsaw and Budapest. As the capital of the multi-national Habsburg Empire until 1918, Vienna had been a crossroads between East and West; its Jewish population was a unique mixture of old-established German-speaking Jewish families and newer immigrants from Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Bukovina and Polish Galicia. To a remarkable extent, they already dominated the cultural and economic life of the Austrian capital. They were, for example, disproportionately represented in commerce, banking, and entrepreneurial capitalism. Their presence was also heavily felt in the free professions. A majority of Viennese lawyers and doctors were Jews, a situation that would continue until the “annexation” of Austria to Hitler’s Reich in March 1938 – the so-called Anschluss (union with Germany).
Jews were not only a driving-force of capitalist economic modernization in Austria but also the main leaders, organizers, the best-known theoreticians and the most effective propagandists of the Austrian Social Democratic Party. The movement’s founder was a highly assimilated, converted Jew, Dr. Victor Adler; its inter-war leader (until the Anschluss) was the brilliant Austro-Marxist thinker Dr. Otto Bauer – a non-baptized Jew. From 1970 to 1983, the Ballhausplatz in Vienna (residence of the Austrian Chancellor) was occupied by yet another Socialist of Jewish origin, Dr. Bruno Kreisky – a convinced anti-Zionist and the only Jew ever to rule a German-speaking country.
The thriving modernist culture of early twentieth-century Vienna sparkled with a brilliant galaxy of Jewish talents in the arts and sciences who helped to shape the contours of 20th-century civilization. They included Sigmund Freud (founder of psychoanalysis), Ludwig Wittgenstein who pioneered logical positivism, the satirist Karl Kraus, the dramatist Arthur Schnitzler, revolutionary composers such as Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, not to mention a string of Nobel-Prize winners in medicine, chemistry and physics. At the same time, Vienna was also the cradle of a dynamic, populist antisemitic movement – the most successful of its kind in Europe before 1914. Already in 1897 the Christian-social party led by a skilful Catholic antisemitic demagogue, Dr. Karl Lueger, had come to power in Vienna and it continued to rule the city until the First World War. This was the first time that an antisemitic political party had ever accomplished such a feat anywhere in Europe. Karl Lueger’s electoral triumphs were perhaps the major reason for the birth of political Zionism, itself the creation of a Hungarian-born Viennese Jew, Theodor Herzl, who had been convinced by the rise of modern antisemitism that there was no more future for the Jews in Europe. Only a mass exodus to Zion, he prophetically argued, could save the Jews from future catastrophe. Herzl’s prophesy was heeded too late by the majority of Jews on the European Continent.
It was no accident that the seeds of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal antisemitism would also be sown during the harsh period that he spent in Vienna between 1907 and 1913 as a semi-unemployed postcard painter and bohemian dropout. During these years the young Hitler developed an irrevocable hatred for Jews whom he linked with “soulless” modernity, multiculturalism, the liberal media, race-mixing, Marxist socialism, prostitution and all the vices of the big city.
During the First World War antisemitism was further exacerbated in Vienna by a massive influx of Galician Jewish refugees – fleeing the chaos and pogroms perpetrated by the Imperial Russian army. Then, in the early 1920s, the post-war inflation, unemployment and a general sense of Austrian national humiliation (following the loss of empire) added a new dimension to racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic sentiments. Such feelings could be found in virtually all Austrian social strata, age groups and political parties – including the Christian Socials, the Greater German People’s Party, and even among the Social Democrats. Perhaps the most antisemitic section of the population were the German-Austrian university students – the first to be won over by the growing Nazi movement in Austria at the end of the 1920s.
In 1922, the converted Jewish author Hugo Bettauer published his widely-read novel, The City Without Jews, which reflected the growing pogrom-like atmosphere in post-war Vienna – as if he were already anticipating the Nuremberg racial laws of 1935. His satirical novel imagined an expulsion of all Vienna’s Jews by parliamentary decree, undertaken by the Christian-Social party, as a “defensive” measure to protect the city’s economy and “Aryan” spirit from “Jewish” control. Though the novel had a dissonant “happy ending” (the Jews were invited back after the city went bankrupt), its chilling prophecy would be brutally vindicated after the German invasion of Austria in 1938. Bettauer himself was assassinated by a young Nazi already in 1924 – two years after the novel’s appearance. He was accused, among other things, of being a “Jewish pornographer” who had insulted “Aryan” honor.
With the Anschluss of March 1938, the destruction of the 190,000 Jews still living in Austria (mostly in Vienna) began in earnest, as the accumulated social and political discontents of the indigenous population exploded with elemental force. Fifty years of intense political antisemitism now found an outlet in physical attacks on Jews – beatings, murders, humiliation, insults, arrests and robberies on a massive scale. It was as if medieval pogroms had reappeared in modern dress – this time supported by the official National Socialist ideology of Hitler’s Reich.
However, in comparison to their German co-religionists, the Austrian Jews suffered countless indignities within a much shorter space of time. There was a swift, large-scale “Aryanization” of Jewish property – an economic expropriation, mostly without compensation – that included many of the best-known Jewish businesses and department-stores. Nearly 70,000 Jewish dwellings were seized. This dispossession of Austrian Jews and the violent antisemitism which accompanied it (more radical than that practiced in Germany itself) led to an enforced exodus of Viennese and Austrian Jewry. By November 1939, 126,445 Jews (about two-third of Austrian Jewry), had emigrated – mainly to the United Kingdom, the United States, British Mandatory Palestine and the Chinese port of Shanghai which placed no visa restrictions on their entry. During the Holocaust itself, the remaining third of Austrian Jewry were deported to death camps in Poland, where approximately 65,000 would be murdered.
The Anschluss was much more than just a German occupation of Austria; it was also an internal takeover of power by Austrian Nazis and a popular rising, full of ritual humiliations of Vienna’s Jews. They were obliged, for example, to clean the walls of all graffiti, to scrub the street pavements in front of their jeering neighbors; orthodox Jews were made to commit acts of sacrilege. Jewish-owned shops and department stores were plundered of their jewelry, cash, clothing, furs, carpets, furniture and works of art. In the first two weeks of March 1938 alone, many Jews (especially from Vienna’s upper middle class) committed suicide. In the summer of 1938, as elsewhere in the German Reich, Jews had to have their passports marked with a large red ‘J’ (for Jude) on the first page. Their shops had to bear inscriptions in Hebrew lettering. By the end of November 1938 Jews had already been excluded from Austrian elementary and grammar schools, from the universities, the free professions, the press, film, theater, the visual arts, music and literature; they were expelled from the professional bodies of doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, notaries – indeed from most areas of the economy.
Crystal Night (9 November 1938) brought a new escalation, more violent and bloody than anything in Nazi Germany itself. Thousands of Jewish shops and dwellings were destroyed in Vienna. 42 synagogues and prayer rooms were totally devastated (mainly by fire), more than 30 Jews were murdered and nearly a hundred severely injured. At the same time, the Gestapo arrested 6,547 Jews in Vienna, of whom more than a half were taken straight to the Dachau concentration camp. In Austria there was a frenzied nation-wide pogrom (mainly centered in Vienna) which had clearly been set in motion by “orders from above.” It was followed by an even more accelerated seizure of Jewish houses, flats and businesses. Viennese Jews (who still numbered about 100,000 in October 1939) were now segregated and concentrated in overcrowded semi-ghettos, defined in strictly racial terms and systematically stripped of their remaining means of subsistence.
After the rapid conquest of Poland, Hitler had declared his intention of “cleansing Austria [the Ostmark or ‘Eastern marches’] of Jews” as a high priority. Even before their final deportation to the East they had already become a moribund community as a result of the earlier selective emigration and the collapse of their living conditions. Only 20% of Viennese Jews in 1940 were, for example, below the age of 40 and women were greatly overrepresented in the population.
The large-scale deportation of Viennese Jews to Poland began in February 1941, accelerating to a new peak during the following year. By 1945 a mere 5700 Jewish survivors were left in Austria – mostly in Vienna – only a small number of them having been hidden and saved by non-Jews. The possessions and houses of the Jews who were forced to emigrate or who were murdered, had fallen into “Aryan” hands. For 50 years after the Second World War, successive Austrian governments would do very little indeed by way of restitution. This belatedly changed only during the past decade.
The Austrian “contribution” to the Holocaust was undoubtedly disproportionate both in planning and implementation. Apart from Adolf Hitler– the Austrian-born architect of the “Final Solution”– there was Adolf Eichmann, who had grown up in Linz and was in charge of Europe-wide Jewish deportations to the death camps; Odilo Globocnik (former Gauleiter of Vienna), who supervised all the death camps in Poland; Ernst Kaltenbrunner, an Austrian Nazi who succeeded Heydrich as the chief bureaucratic coordinator in Berlin of the German mass murders; and Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Reichscommissar responsible for the deportation of Dutch Jews. Most of Eichmann’s staff and his special commando in Hungary were Austrians; as were many of the leading Nazi personnel in the Balkans, including Kurt Waldheim – elected Austrian President in 1986. About 40% of the death camp commandants in Poland (among them the notorious Franz Stangl) were also Austrian.
Austria consists, of course, of many disparate images. It is the land of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Johann Strauss; of the Vienna Philharmonic, the Spanish Riding School, beautiful Alpine peaks, renowned ski resorts, and a legendary Gemütlichkeit (amiability). The charm of Vienna’s Baroque churches, its imperial architecture and gay waltzes is not easy to reconcile with Hitler, Nazism and Auschwitz; or with the fact that in the fifty years before 1938 (and immediately afterwards) Vienna was always a few steps ahead of Germany in the persecution of the Jews.
Despite these dark shadows which have significantly influenced postwar Austrian history, there have been important changes. Austria, today, is a thriving, stable, Western democracy – an integral part of the European Union. It has recognized, however belatedly, the need for material restitution; and it has acknowledged the extraordinarily creative role which Jews before the Holocaust played in its culture, society and economy. The ghosts of Vienna’s scarred, if brilliant past, still haunt the imagination but there is also room for some cautious optimism.
Robert Wistrich is Neuberger Professor of Modern European History and Chairman of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author and editor of over 20 books, including Hitler and the Holocaust (Modern Library, New York 2002) and most recently Laboratory for World Destruction: Germans and Jews in Central Europe* (University of Nebraska Press 2007).