The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph. By Robert S. Wistrich.
Oxford University Press. 696 pp. $79.00.
by Dana Mack
It was in turn-of-the-century Vienna, seed-plot of the modern intellect, that Sigmund Freud developed his psychoanalytic theories; that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein first posited a formal relationship between language and the real world; that the composer Arnold Schoenberg abandoned tonality and embarked on the restructuring of music; that the architect Adolf Loos first realized an aesthetic of unimpassioned functionalism. The greatly altered world left behind by these and other groundbreaking modernist artists and thinkers is still the object of hot debate. Today, the legacy of modernism is less and less regarded as an unqualified success; yet historians of Vienna still tend to defend it.
In doing so, they point to the vulgarity of the milieu from which, and against which, the modernist movement emerged. This is not a new theme: in the late 1940’s Hermann Broch wrote of the ethical “value-vacuum” of 19th-century Europe and of its reflection in kitsch on the one hand and “evil” art on the other—the one relentlessly decorative, the other relentlessly Wagnerian. For Broch, the poet and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (who also wrote several memorable librettos for Richard Strauss) represented an attempt to reform European culture by restoring its Christian values; the failure of this attempt was ascribed by Broch at least in part to the contemporary public’s unregenerate “promiscuity of thought and feeling.” In Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria, William McGrath similarly dwells on the influence of the Wagnerian aesthetic; notwithstanding his sympathy for exemplars of this “theatrical” cultural ideal, and especially for the composer Gustav Mahler and the socialist leader Viktor Adler, McGrath also admits its dangerous connection to the rise of an anti-liberal politics. Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin in Wittgenstein’s Vienna likewise regard the Viennese modernist flowering as a movement aimed at instilling honesty, sense, and meaning in a culture steeped in sentiment and affectation.
This reading of Vienna has not gone unchallenged. Carl Schorske’s Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1979) presents a Viennese modernism marked not by the promise of spiritual elevation but by subversiveness and prurience, its symbolizing products being the suggestive, even macabre paintings of Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. Schorske’s book, and others in the same vein that seem fixated on matters sexual (epitomized in the scandalous liaisons of Alma Mahler Werfel), prompt the question of just who was the dissolute party in turn-of-the-century Vienna—the much-maligned society, or its innovative cultural elite?
Now we have two books which tackle the origins of modernism from an altogether different angle. Both Steven Beller and Robert Wistrich focus on the fermentation of fin-de-siècle Vienna as a specifically Jewish response to the promise and the disappointments of emancipation and Enlightenment—and especially to the rise of anti-Semitism.
The importance of Jews in Vienna’s cultural life has often been noted, but Steven Beller is the first to offer a statistical analysis and breakdown. What Beller proves is that Viennese intellectuals and artists, and their patrons and audience, came disproportionately from a single social and ethnic stratum: the hard-working Jewish bourgeoisie. This bourgeoisie, according to Beller, was infused with a gravity and sobriety unusual in a south German, Catholic milieu. Among Austrian Jews—far more than among their Catholic brethren—German ethical liberalism was a deeply rooted creed. After all, it had been the values of the German Enlightenment which had provided the greatest impetus to Jewish emancipation; and those values constituted no less than the moral and spiritual defense of Jewish “integration into Western culture and society.”
No wonder, then, that Vienna’s Jewish intellectuals, even those who had taken the route of formal apostasy from the community, clung to them as well. For Beller, Viennese modernism represented to a large degree an attempt to restore the virtues of Enlightenment propriety and earnestness to a frivolous and intolerant culture. He instances the “radical ethical individualism” of the stinging cultural critic Karl Kraus; the “stoicism” of the philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein; the decorous twelve-tone technique of the composer Arnold Schoenberg; the astute psychological portraits of the dramatist Arthur Schnitzler. In each of these he sees evidence of a deep-seated ethical humanism, detached from the prevailing romantic Zeitgeist and bent always on ensuring the integrity of individual expression.
Beller is perhaps more convinced of Viennese Jewish cultural sobriety than the evidence altogether warrants; Viennese Jews were quite active, as well, in the creation and support of an often trivial and giddily licentious popular culture. Moreover, not even Schoenberg was immune to the attraction of Johann Strauss waltzes, and the paintings of the Secession (Jugendstil) were attractive to Jews not least as derivatives of an ornate and sensual Austrian baroque. Gustav Mahler, an inveterate romantic, does not fit into Beller’s scheme, and neither, really, does the all-too-consciously piquant Schnitzler. But clearly Beller is right in his broad placement of the Jewish component in the creation of modernist culture. And an overall implication of his study is well worth underscoring: that the subsequent victimization and murder of European Jewry coincided with a ruthless attack on ethical humanism and the high culture informed by it.
Steven Beller’s book constitutes, in fact, something of an impassioned apology for ethical humanism, and for what might be called the Jewish secular achievement in culture. Robert S. Wistrich, by contrast, is far less sanguine about just these things. His book, broader in range than Beller’s, examines the Jewish intellectual elite in the context of the Jewish community as a whole. Wistrich regards the cultural productivity of Viennese Jewry as a somewhat bitter fruit, evidence perhaps of a “residual Judaic sense of moral mission” but fatally divorced from the supports of religious tradition and community. It thus, in his view, contributed in some measure to the spiritual helplessness of Jews in the face of the siege laid against them with the rise of anti-Semitism in late 19th-century Europe.
Among some acculturated Viennese Jews, it is true, the resurgence of anti-Semitism did provoke an answering revival of Jewish national feeling, bolstered by a new appreciation of their own recently abandoned cultural tradition. Theodor Herzl, the major articulator of political Zionism, was not alone in turning for inspiration to ancient sources; others included the dramatists Richard Beer Hoffmann and Stefan Zweig, both of whom wrote late works based on biblical themes. And Arnold Schoenberg’s uncompleted opera Moses and Aaron represents perhaps the most significant attempt to reconcile a modernist aesthetic sensibility with pristine monotheism.
These, Wistrich implies, reflected the healthier side of a cultural engagement with the problem of anti-Semitism. There was, however, another, dominant side, marked by hopelessness and “apocalyptic nihilism.” Where Steven Beller sees in Viennese aesthetic individualism an affirmation of the humane, Wistrich finds in it evidence of spiritual isolation and inconsolable pessimism. For Wistrich, Karl Kraus is not so much a fearless critic as a desperate “prophet of doom.” He points, too, to the ugly self-hatred of the philosopher Otto Weininger, and to the resigned “Austrian sickness” (morbus Austraicus) of the apostate novelist Joseph Roth, as examples of the dark, debilitating side of the Jewish embrace of secular Enlightenment.
Perhaps the primary beneficiaries and purveyors of the modern European values of secular, rational, tolerant, liberal humanism, Jews were also uniquely vulnerable, and, for those who had moved out of the community, uniquely bereft of inner defenses, when the European temper changed and these values came under attack. In the politics, the culture, and the art of turn-of-the-century Vienna, as Steven Beller and Robert Wistrich show in their different ways, one can see the first workings-out of some of the most complex, terrifying, and still unresolved themes of our own age.