By Carl Schorske.
378 pages with extensive index and end notes for each chapter.
New York: Vintage Books, 1981. ISBN # 0-394-74478-0

Comments of Bob Corbett
May 2001

In the 1860s classical liberal politics came to the Habsburg empire and to Vienna. This was long after it had emerged and waxed in France, the United States and England. Yet this period of liberalism was quite short lived, being effectively dead by 1900. The collapse of liberalism and rise of right wing, conservative and anti-Semitic forces left the small liberal community of Vienna reeling in shock and dislocation. The empire itself was crumbling, and within 18 years of the beginning of the century wouldn't even exist. The violent, irrational mass-rule politics of "the new key" made the dream of a rational society guided by science, harmony among peoples and tolerance seem just a hopeless dream, even a nightmare of what might have been but couldn't survive in the climate of turn of the century Vienna. The strong tendency of this remnant upper class and intellectual class of liberals was to despair of politics, turn toward aesthetic romanticism, the occult and the rejection of the values and meanings of the past. In so doing they created a phenomenal milieu of high culture and models of a new society which would blend with the rise of modernism in other parts of Europe.

The empire itself continued to decline and shortly ceased to even exist as a formal legal body (though in many ways it is still alive, if struggling to remain so, in the tiny piece of the empire which survives as contemporary Austria). But the legacy of this golden period of Viennese culture holds a high place in Austrian history. Carl Schorske not only documents and details the story of the rise to glory of this Viennese version of modernism, but creates an historical photo of a period which strongly suggests the coming horrors of the period which follows just a few short years after this period comes to an end. His book is perhaps THE authoritative source on this period of Viennese history, and is unquestionably so in the English language.

The book's logic lies in its 7 chapters, each revealing a slightly different piece of the puzzle. The opening chapter focuses on the work of two novelist/playwrights, Arthur Schnitzler" and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. They struggled with the question of what does or can life mean in the face of the collapse of the entire social order which had organized and guided life in Habsburg Austria for centuries. The central notions of an objective and known morality no longer seemed tenable and Schnitzler's close associate, Sigmund Freud had changed from a focus on "rational man" as the center of humanity to the much more nebulous "psychological man." The intellectual class struggled to make sense of this new and threatening world.

Chapter 2 turns to importance of the creation of Vienna's famous Ringstrasse and how that shaped this entire problematic. Vienna had kept its huge city walls long after other major cities had razed theirs. Vienna had grown up around the walls and expanded dramatically in the first half of the 19th century. When the walls were finally razed there was a dramatic swath of land surrounding the city center, the most elegant part of Vienna (even today), and the residences not only of the Habsburg monarchy, but the bulk of the aristocracy, the ascendant bourgeoisie which was significantly Jewish, and the intellectual class.

When it was finally decided to use this 80-90 foot wide semi-circle of land to build a phenomenal street of gigantic buildings it had two important functions: first to celebrate the glory and grandeur of the Habsburg empire and also, consciously or unconsciously done, it effectively again walled in the inner city, separating the ruling class of those with political, economic and intellectual power, who mainly lived in the city center, from the masses of working and underclasses who lived outside the Ringstrasse.

Chapter 3 sets the tone for the critical destruction of liberalism of which I spoke above. First in the 1880s politics of Georg von Schonerer and soon followed by his imitator Karl Lueger, the politics "in a new key" was born. Schonerer, a pan-German who was vehemently anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic dreamed of a pan-German state of which Austria would be a small part, and which would hold the line on industrial progress protecting the values and way of life of the artisans, the farmers and "little people," from the encroachment of capitalists (which meant Jews to Schonerer). When Schonerer went too far with personal violence against his liberal (Jewish) enemies, he ended up in jail and Karl Lueger picked up the pieces of his style and movement.

Lueger was no pan-German, but an Austria patriot and champion of the underclasses, especially the artisan class which was suffering greatly from the new industrialism. Schorske argues that Lueger was not particularly an anti-Semite himself, but that since it fit the politics of the time he readily embraced it as a political stance along with the anti-Slavic policies which Schonerer embraced, but dreamed of a revitalized Habsburg empire and not a pan-German state.

Lastly is the curious case of Theodore Hertzl who shared much of the style of politics of Schonerer and Lueger which moved beyond the liberal notions of rational modernism. This politics in the new key, as Schorske calls it, was a politics of emotivism centered in a charismatic leader who could move people by powerful oratory and propaganda. The political parties of the three focus on creating a sense of belonging and obedience to the party by featuring such aspects as:

Hertz is the odd man out in one sense since he was Jewish while the other two practiced a politics which was vigorously anti-Semitic. However, on Schorske's account Hertz was anti-Semitic in an important way himself. He came from a wealthy class of Jewish bourgeois capitalists. The tendency of this class was to be quite liberal and to hope they could survive and prosper by assimilation including giving up the Jewish religion for Catholicism and becoming more German than the Germans. After the Dreyfus affair in France in 1894 Hertzl despaired of this politics of liberal assimilation and came to believe Jews could only survive and prosper in their own liberal state, a state that would have to be in the land their people left more than 2000 years before. Zionism was born.

The irony is, that Hertzl thus became vehemently opposed to the sort of Jews that his own parents were, liberal, Austrian, assimilationist Jews. Thus in his own way he was himself anti-Semitic.

It is in the fourth chapter in which Schorske finally details the concept of "psychological man" which he had briefly developed at the outset, and this chapter is a detailed analysis of Freud's THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS.

The last three chapters turn back to the brilliant, if decadent, art which the despairing artist class created and Schorske treats of Gustav Klimt and the Secession movement, the work of Oscar Kokoschka and the music of Arnold Schoenberg among others.

The artistic class tended to favor a policy of escapism and were deeply attracted to the occult. They believed that the notions of objective meanings were misconceived and that the "modern" person must leave the moral systems of the past and create new meaning systems for the future. Of course this need tended to express itself in art which the society of turn of the century Vienna found as both repellant and shocking.

Carl Schorske has created a monumental work of careful scholarship. This is not an easy read nor a book that one tends to just sit down and read in a few sittings. It is the sort of book one studies, perhaps, as I did, making copious notes in one's first reading, then going back and consulting parts now and again to get a better sense of what one read some time in the past. My own understanding of the period and the book grew in several contacts it. I first read it in the mid-1990 and made copious notes that time. Then I returned to it in 1998 and re-read parts of it. Finally, this current term at Webster University in Vienna I taught a course inspired by the book and called Fin-de-Siecle Vienna and Coffeehouse Culture. Carl Schorske's book was my central text and thus I outlined it in some detail and took copious notes, plus we talked about it in class many days. I did hear many complaints from students that the book was much too hard for the level course this was (a low level undergraduate course) and I doubt I would use the book as the text were I to teach this fun course again. The book is simply superb, but I think there is no question it is also a very demanding book and perhaps better suited to those used to reading primary sources in intellectual history. Personally I continue to find it to be not only a profoundly exciting and valuable work, but a model of serious and careful scholarship.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett