The White Horses of Vienna Summary
The fictional account of events in the Austrian mountains (Tirol) in the summer of 1934 is directly related to the political events of the period. These include the rise of the Nazi Party in Austria and the murder of the Austrian chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, on July 25, 1934, by right-wing elements undoubtedly encouraged and financed by the German chancellor, Adolf Hitler, who was eager to annex Austria to the German Reich.
A country doctor has injured his knee while climbing at night with a group of local men near his mountain chalet. As his injury may take weeks to heal, he requests a student-doctor from the hospital in Vienna to help service his patients. When the young doctor arrives, his appearance is noted with disapproval by the country physician’s wife. His “alien” appearance indicates his Semitic origin, his “black smooth hair . . . the arch of his nose.” However, both the doctor and his pet red fox seem relatively unaffected by the student-doctor’s racial origins and initially accept him. The country doctor is more sophisticated than his wife. He has traveled widely and lived in large cities throughout the world, and thus tends to reserve judgment even while agreeing with her that an urban, Jewish physician will not be easily integrated into the society of this isolated mountain valley. The student-doctor, Dr. Heine, tries hard to cooperate with both the doctor and his wife, who assists him as his nurse. He listens carefully to instructions, “taking it all in with interest and respect.” Dr. Heine even enlists the sympathy of the doctor’s wife when his clothes are accidentally burned by the sterilizing lamp during a dental operation.
Dr. Heine gives no cause for criticism in his manner or his conversation. He solidifies his bond with his mentor by demonstrating his interest in high culture: music, painting, and books. The older man, forced to be inactive, amuses himself by carving wooden puppets (“his dolls”). The walls of the house are lined with books and his own paintings and drawings, dating from his imprisonment in Siberia and Dalmatia in World War I. After dinner one evening, Dr. Heine relates to the doctor, his wife, and their two sons a story of the purchase of a famous Viennese Lippizaner horse by a maharaja and how a groom destroys the horse and then commits suicide rather than see the beautiful animal sent off to a foreign owner in an alien land.
Two weeks after the student-doctor’s arrival, the doctor invites his family, other children, and friends to attend a performance of his marionette theater, featuring the newly created characters fashioned during his illness. The play begins at eight, and it features a “gleaming” and impressive grasshopper. The strong, “green-armored” grasshopper is engaged in conversation by a small, dwarfish clown with a human face and carrying a bunch of artificial flowers, tripping at every step on his oversized sword. The clown seems powerless and ridiculous when compared to the powerful grasshopper, self-confident “and perfectly equipped for the life he had to lead.” Dr. Heine’s amusement evaporates when he realizes that the grasshopper is being referred to in the text as “The Leader,” and the clown as “The Chancellor.” The power and conviction of the grasshopper’s oratory completely overcome the diminutive clown, who maintains his belief “in the independence of the individual” before falling over his sword into a field of daisies.
A few days later, Dr. Heine takes an evening walk from the chalet to view the mountain peaks. They seem cold and forbidding to him, and he yearns for the warmth and intellectual conversation he was accustomed to in Vienna. A moment later, he notices lights moving up toward the house from the valley. He sees them as “beacons of hope” come to rescue him from this bare northern environment of rock and “everlasting snow.” Mentally he bids the lighted chain to come to him “a young man alone, as...
(The entire section is 1,666 words.)