By Brigitte Hamann.
Translated from the German by Thomas Thornton.
482 pages
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
ISBN # 0-19-512537-1

Comments of Bob Corbett
February 2002

FIN-DE-SIECLE Vienna is one of the most celebrated and studied periods of Viennese history. This period from the 1880s to just before WWI witnessed phenomenal intellectual, artistic and architectural achievements in Vienna including the work of Sigmund Freud, Otto Wagner, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo Von Hofmannsthal, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Arnold Schoenberg, and Karl Krauss, among others.

This was a period of economic prosperity, social liberalism, rising capitalism, the dominance of the Jewish bourgeoisie, and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire.

But this famous Vienna of the fin-de-siecle was just one portion of Vienna. There was another part, much larger and less well-know. It was the world of the underclasses and working classes. It tended to be socially conservative, dedicated to Pan-Germanism, anti-Semitic, very poor, pro-Habsburg and regarded much of fin-de-siecle Viennese culture as decadent.

Brigitte Hamann brings us this less known Vienna under the title of Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship. This title and the mixed content of the book give the whole a rather ragged edge such that one is not exactly sure what is going on. Yet, piece by piece the book does seem to succeed.

Is this a biography of Adolf Hitler from his arrival in Vienna in 1908 until he left for Munich in 1913? Well, in part yes.

Is this a picture of that other Vienna, the less known one than Fin-de-Siecle Vienna? Well, yes in part.

Is this a picture of just how Vienna contributed to Hitler’s later way to rule Germany? Mainly no, it is not, yet, this is a rather confused message in the book.

The book is a number of bits and pieces and most of the specific bits and pieces are well done, yet the whole the book both fails and leaves the reader unclear as to what it is really about.

The Other Vienna.

The bulk of the book, if one measures by amount of print devoted to the topic, is about the other Vienna, the non-glitzy turn of the century Vienna. Hamann reveals the politics of the pan-Germans under Georg Schonerer and the more nationalist response of Karl Lueger’s leadership. For the masses of German Austrian working people this was a period of great threat. Large numbers of Slavic peoples were moving into Vienna, undercutting wages and changing the nature of tradition life and culture. The German Viennese were deeply threatened and the retreat into pan-Germanism and the dream of uniting all the German people into one Volk was very attractive to many and driven by the political leadership of Georg Schonerer in what Karl Schorske has called a "politics in a new key," meaning the willingness to use physical violence, threats of violence and mass demonstrations to advance one’s political agenda.

Hamann details the political movements of both Schonerer and Lueger and discusses in detail how the underclasses rallied to those movements. The book is worth reading just for this part.

The Other Vienna and Hitler’s Formation.

But just how much of what was going on really shaped Adolf Hitler? This is the weakest portion of the book, and yet in some sense the very center. There is marvelous and useful material meticulously presented to try to establish what Hitler did and didn’t do in his years in Vienna and what influence those years had on him. Yet the bulk of the supportive data she uses is actually from Mein Kampf which was written in 1924. At the same time she rightly insists that Mein Kampf is not an autobiography, but a carefully crafted piece of political propaganda.

However, there is a very subtle form of argument in which she will go on for pages about this or that political activity in Vienna, all of which she documents carefully, and the there will be a paragraph about how, while we really don’t know what Hitler did in relation to this movement, he is “likely” to have done this, or it is “probable” that he was at that lecture. Thus there is a subtle logical link made between the documented events of the time and to the alleged fact that it influenced Hitler. Yet she is honestly at pains to tell the reader that we usually don’t really know what Hitler’s response was. The conflict between those blunt statements of there not being data (after all, Hitler was an utter nobody in that world and not a likely target for having his life and deeds reported), and the subtle logical pressures to make the assumption that Hitler was as into his period as this meticulous scholar was, who, herself, has the help in understanding that 90 years of scholarship brings.

Hitler and His Vienna Years.

However, there is enough data to show that Vienna of 1908-1913 did indeed leave a strong impact on Hitler, most especially in his understanding of pan-Germanism and the belief that only if the German people having a strong and unified culture and political autonomy could the German people be strong, long-lasting and fulfill their destiny. But, when it comes to showing just how specific this influence is, things are much more murky than the first sentence suggests. Yet Brigitte Hamann seems to have amassed more material than anyone else and submitted it to fair and careful scrutiny. Her struggling to make sense of this information seems honest, intelligent and very informative.

What Hamann makes a strong case for is that the Adolf Hitler of Vienna 1908-1913 was not the weak, bumbling failed painter that he is often made out to be. Much more was going on, and while anyone who knew him exclusively from the Vienna years was utterly astonished by his later rise to fame, the Vienna Hitler was a substantial figure.

He was deeply concerned by the Slavization of Vienna which was going on, and Hitler read incessantly both contemporary newspapers of every sort and in the history of Germany, Austria, the Habsburg Empire and other related materials. He was deeply attracted to the pan-German ideals and quite aware of anti-Semitism, yet this was not a significant theme in his Vienna days. (More about that below.)

In 1942 he wrote of Austria:

“Hitler said to Hans Frank, ‘You know, what you wrote about the old Austrian administration’s principles concerning foreign areas is absolutely correct. The Austrian administration was the best in the world. The Austrian district captain was the monarch of his district. There was a genuine paternal principle of leadership. After the war I will adopt it in that form for Germany……One day the Viennese will be proved right after all. In ten thousand cafes in Vienna the topic of Hungary is dealt with like this: The Berliners don’t really know the Hungarians very well. Now that’s an area right near us. We liberated them from the Turks. There won’t be peace until we have liberated them again. Why aren’t we taking them? The Slovaks too – yes, it’s great that they are independent, but ultimately they belong to us! In that regard the Viennese will be more greater-German than anybody else. The sense of having a mission to accomplish stimulates them.’”

Hitler’s Anti-Semitism.

Throughout the book the theme of Hitler’s anti-Semitism is dominant and appears everywhere. However, toward the end there is a specific section in the book where Hamann pulls it all together and takes her stand. The section is called Was Young Hitler an Anti-Semite. (pp. 347-359.) Her position is that no he was not at the personal level, but yes he was at the political level, however, not as centrally as he was pan-German and anti-Slav.

Hamann is at pains to show that Hitler had a number of close Jewish friends and that even at the political level he at times defended them from anti-Semitic attacks which he thought unfair. Nonetheless, the ground for Hitler’s later dramatic anti-Semitism was prepared in at least three important ways in the Vienna years:

  1. He lived and observed a world where in anti-Semitism was at the forefront of political discourse particularly under the leadership of Georg Schonerer and Karl Lueger.
  2. He was deeply influenced by Lueger that in politics the end always justifies the means and having a focused enemy like the Jews was politically quite useful.
  3. In analyzing the career of Karl Lueger he thought the only serious political mistake he made was having too many political enemies. Hitler aimed his messages and policies at the lowest common denominator of society and believed it was best to focus on one single arch-enemy and for Adolf Hitler that was the Jews.

None of this is to suggest that Hitler was not “really” and anti-Semite as chancellor of Germany. Certainly he was. Rather, Hamann suggests that in the Vienna years Hitler cannot yet be shown to be a serious anti-Semite.

Brigitte Hamann’s final conclusion on the influence of the Vienna years on the later Hitler is this:

“In any case, Hitler’s career cannot be derived, let alone understood, from his situation in Vienna. This Austrian had a career only in the Weimar Republic.”

HITLER’S VIENNA is certainly a specialized book. It is serious historical scholarship and quite interesting and informative. However, the book’s logical structure is either weak or in utter chaos, depending on how hard one wishes to be on Brigitte Hamann. If the reader is willing to do some work in putting the book back together on one’s own terms, and if one is willing to invest many hours in reading of a rather obscure, albeit interesting aspect of Vienna in the early part of the twentieth century, then this book is well worth one’s time.

For links to more about the period of turn of the century Vienna see: the course I taught on this subject in Vienna in 2001   or to go directly to more info about the people and places visit my links to files and external sources on the this period.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu