Fin-de-Siècle Vienna

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Vienna at the turn of the century has become the subject of intense study by numerous scholars in many fields, and for good reason. Living and working in Vienna in 1900 were some of the great minds and prophets of our time, figures such as Sigmund Freud in psychology, Ernst Mach in physics, Gustav Mahler in music, and Stefan Zweig in literature. Alongside this body of scientific and artistic genius appeared the baser instincts as well, represented best by Georg von Schönerer, who was the first to make anti-Semitism the fundamental principle of a popular political party. Out of this cauldron of intellectual achievement and political passion came most notably Adolf Hitler, who identified turn-of-the-century Vienna as “the hardest, most thorough school of my life.”

The wide assortment of men and ideas that permeated Vienna eighty years ago and their profound impact upon our own day have inspired many scholars to examine that city in order to locate and to identify its animating forces. Perhaps none has succeeded so well as Carl E. Schorske, and nowhere are his findings as well presented as in this book. It is the worthy culmination of twenty-five years of study of a fascinating and complex subject.

The book does not contain a conventional beginning and end, but eight essays (including the Introduction), four of which are new and four of which have appeared in print previously. Because these essays as a group do not follow a chronological order, the reader must occasionally do a bit of backtracking, but it is well worth the effort. Each essay is a gem unto itself, and the author was right in not trying to force them into a chronological sequence.

Despite the autonomy of the essays, together they develop a central theme: in Vienna politics and culture were interdependent, and between 1848 and 1914 that city produced three generations aware of that interdependence. The first generation was that of the Liberals, who believed in the reasonableness of both politics and culture. For them, deliberate and rational progress was the order of the political and economic worlds, and they expected culture to reflect that progress. Since progress implied a continuity with both past and future—especially the past since it was knowable—then art should reflect the past while glorifying the stability and reasonableness of the present. In the 1870’s, however, stability, reasonableness, and progress began to disappear. The defeat of Austria by Prussia in 1866, the unification of Germany with Austria’s exclusion in 1871, and the economic depression beginning in 1873 disrupted the precedents of the confident, smug first generation.

The second generation, the sons of the Liberals, encountered the irrational in politics. The unification of Germany and its accompanying breast-thumping nationalism gave birth in Austria to the Pan-German Party of Schönerer. A former Liberal, Schönerer split from the party because of its refusal to stand against what he saw as a flood of Slavic and Jewish blood overrunning the Germans of the Habsburg Monarchy and because of its failure to initiate social programs to aid less fortunate German citizens. Schönerer did not, however, lobby for rational legislation to promote his ideas but instead resorted to parliamentary obstructionism and an evermore strident anti-Slavism and especially anti-Semitism.

The irrational politics of Schönerer and others led the second generation of Viennese intellectuals to probe the instinctual nature of man; the nature they presumed to have discovered in the popular Austrian political forces and which they believed would provide a more certain truth about humankind than would its rational veneer. The second generation was not quite prepared to face what it found, however, or to give up completely its heritage of Liberal politics and culture. Consequently, after a certain amount of probing, it retreated into what Schorske has labeled the Garden, a symbol for the artist concentrating on aesthetics and ignoring the barbaric anti-Semites and nationalists on the other side of the walls.

The third generation, nurtured in the Garden by the second, found itself drawn again to the instinctual forces at first investigated and then evaded by the second. This time, these forces were not rejected by the intellectual elite, but embraced. The result was the acceptance of the alienation of the individual from society, about...

(The entire section is 1808 words.)