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Goodnight, Vienna

The Jews of Vienna did not merely understand the world: they took Marx's point and changed it, too.  From Freud's psychoanalysis to Wittgenstein's philosophy, from Mahler's music to Herzl's Zionism, this community made a unique contribution to modernity.

Relevant Links
Fin-de-Siècle Vienna  Carl Schorske, Vintage Books. On Freud and his compatriots, who made the city dazzling at the turn of the 20th century.
Hitler Takes Austria  Carl Schorske, TheHistoryTV. Vienna’s citizens welcome the unification of Austria with Germany in the Anschluss of 1938. (Video)

Yet our fascination with a handful of celebrities may blind us to the foundation on which their intellectual and artistic pre-eminence rested. Though many examples of Jewish genius rose from humble origins, the milieu to which these figures aspired and in which they could flourish was that of Vienna's commercial and professional bourgeoisie.  Their parents belonged to the first generation of Jews to reap the full benefits of emancipation and industrialization.

Until the 19th century, Vienna was the only place in Austria proper where Jews were permitted to settle under the Emperor Joseph II's "Toleranz" edict.  Its Jewish community was small.  But after the revolutions of 1848, a steady stream of aspirational Jewish families began to arrive in Vienna, Budapest, and Prague from the rural hinterlands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Galicia.  When emancipation was granted in 1867 under the new constitution that followed Austria's defeat by Prussia, the stream became a flood.  Jewish immigrants to Vienna congregated mainly in Leopoldstadt, the site of the original Jewish ghetto, which was near the Nordbahnhof train station where they arrived.  Those who succeeded in business usually moved into Vienna's fashionable center, surrounded by the pompous Ringstrasse that replaced the old city walls in the 1880s.  

Over the next generation, Vienna witnessed the emergence of an entirely new class: das jüdische Grossbürgertum, the Jewish haute bourgeoisie.  Unlike the non-Jewish upper class of aristocrats, officials, and soldiers, this new class owed its wealth to trade and industry rather than land.  Not only did they enjoy the legal privileges of a Grossbürger ("great burgher," or patrician); they had none of the old elite's hereditary caste mentality, and their academic and cultural ambitions for themselves and their children were much higher.  It is no accident that a Viennese Jew, Karl Popper, later entitled his most famous book The Open Society and its Enemies: Vienna's Jews were the open society.  Vienna had Jews to thank for free trade, a free press, and free thinking.  

Friedrich von Hayek once explained to me how, before the 1938 Anschluss, Viennese society consisted of three overlapping circles: one Jewish, one Catholic, and one mixed (to which he, like his cousin Ludwig Wittgenstein and most other intellectuals, belonged).  Which world one inhabited did not depend on one's religion.  Sigmund Freud, an atheist, had few close friends who were not Jewish; Martin Buber, who spent his childhood at the feet of his grandfather, a famous Orthodox scholar, gravitated to liberal Judeo-Christian circles and married a non-Jew.  In the younger, post-1900 generation, which imitated the cosmopolitanism that distinguished the Jewish patricians from the philistine Catholic officers and gentlemen still dominating court and country, Jew and Gentile were often hard to distinguish.  Typical was Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Only one of his grandparents was Jewish; he and his Jewish wife were baptized.  Was he a Jew or not?  In his own eyes, probably not; in the eyes of anti-Semites, undoubtedly.

In 1900 Jews numbered about 150,000, less than a tenth of the capital's population; they remained a small fraction even when swelled by refugees from the East in the early 1920s.  But bankers, lawyers, journalists, and other meritocratic professions were overwhelmingly Jewish; and the cultivated sons and daughters of a few hundred self-made men, Vienna's Jewish elite, were the patrons of the writers, thinkers, and artists who lend such luster to this chapter of history.

With the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918, the enemies of Vienna's open society became more powerful.  When Hitler annexed Austria, their time had come.  The Jewish Grossbürgertum was already in decline; within months, nothing was left of the wealth and prestige built up over generations.  Their elegant homes, filled with books by writers who described them and portraits by artists who depicted them, were plundered.  Their rise and fall encompassed less than a century.  The Nazis all but eradicated them.  Post-war Austria preferred to forget them.

Now, however, a young Austrian, scouring hundreds of public and private archives, old newspapers, cemeteries, and other repositories of urban archaeology, has compiled a monumental genealogical-biographical record of this lost world.  Volume I of Wer Einmal War: Das Jüdische Grossbürgertum Wiens 1800–1938 (Who Was Once Who: The Jewish Haute Bourgeoisie of Vienna 1800–1938) appeared last year from Amalthea Verlag publishers.  Covering A-K, it runs to a hefty 1700 pages.  The price, over $100, is hefty too; but the index of some 35,000 names (available at gives an inkling of the scale of Gaugusch's achievement.  (Volume II will appear in 2013).  It is all the more remarkable because Gaugusch is not an academic but the proprietor of a venerable Vienna tailor shop, Wilhelm Jungmann & Neffe (Nephew), which dates back to Habsburg Vienna.  In 1942–3, Countess Vera Teleki sold the shop to Gaugusch's great-grandfather.  She regaled Georg, then a schoolboy, with anecdotes, including stories about what had become of their numerous Jewish customers.  While working on a history of the firm, Georg discovered strange gaps in the records of these Jewish clients and began to investigate. 

Over more than 15 years, Gaugusch collected voluminous material about Vienna's leading Jewish families.  One was the Korngold family, founded by the merchant Simon Korngold of Brünn (now Brno in the Czech Republic).  His son Julius became Vienna's leading music critic before emigrating to America.  Of Julius's four children, one died in Vienna, two were murdered in Auschwitz, and one, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, became a leading composer of his day, though until recently his Hollywood film music overshadowed the works he produced earlier in Vienna.

The Kraus family followed a similar trajectory.  Jacob Kraus made a fortune in Bohemia, moved to Vienna in 1877, cornered the market in the pigment ultramarine in Austria-Hungary and the Oriental trade, and made another fortune from the paper bags and fancy wrappings beloved of the Viennese.  Jacob and his wife, Ernestine Kantor, had 10 children.  Two daughters and two sons, along with spouses and three grandchildren, died in Nazi camps; others emigrated to Britain and America.

The only one of Jacob's children whose name lives today is Karl Kraus.  Suffering from severe curvature of the spine, Karl was fortunate to survive infancy.  In 1899 he renounced Judaism and founded Die Fackel (The Torch), which he edited until his death.  For its last 25 years, Kraus wrote the whole magazine—aphorisms, poems and, above all, polemics.  Huge audiences attended his public readings and eagerly awaited his pronouncements, literary and political. Kraus rarely disappointed; only Hitler's triumph left him speechless.  By dying in 1936 of heart failure, he avoided witnessing the absorption of Austria into the Third Reich.

Karl Kraus has given rise to an academic industry, including an exhaustive biography by Edward Timms; but Gaugusch provides a fresh perspective on this maverick genius.  As the scion of a Jewish industrialist in a Christian monarchy, living in a city whose mayor, Karl Lueger, pioneered political anti-Semitism, Kraus was ambivalent toward his compatriots, mercilessly mocking both the monarchy and the republic that replaced it.  "The streets of Vienna are paved with culture," he wrote, "the streets of other cities with asphalt"; yet Kraus's epigrams (translated by Harry Zohn in his Kraus anthology Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths) sum up his frustration: "I put my pen to the Austrian corpse because I persist in believing there's life in it."

What "life" there was in Vienna was mainly the culture of a Jewish commercial class that had just arrived; but the only part of the culture that Kraus admired unreservedly was the German language.  He loved to lampoon the linguistic errors of Viennese Jews—most of whom had, like his own family, abandoned Yiddish only a generation earlier.  Indeed, he blamed the decline of German literature on its finest Jewish exponent, Heinrich Heine, with whom he had so much in common, projecting onto his great predecessor all his resentment of his own parvenu background: "Heinrich Heine so loosened the corsets of the German language that today every little salesman can fondle her breasts."  

But Kraus's distaste for the Viennese Jews was exceeded, barely, by his contempt for Christians:  Having renounced Judaism and embraced the Christian aristocracy (after his baptism he began a long affair with Baroness Sidonie Nadherny von Borutin), he abandoned the Church too after the First World War.  By enabling us to see complex figures like Kraus in the context of Vienna's Jewish bourgeoisie, Gaugusch—a non-Jew born in 1974, long after the Holocaust—has rendered a valuable service.  

In his great poetic sequence A German Requiem, James Fenton speaks of "the resourcefulness of recollection":

It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.

There is a time to remember, however, and that time is now.  Who Was Once Who was sponsored by American and Austrian foundations, including the city of Vienna and its (now tiny) Jewish community.  The appearance of the work symbolizes an acknowledgment by the Austrians of just how much damage they did, to not only their Jewish citizens but themselves, when they welcomed Hitler in 1938.  This genealogy of Viennese Jewry is also their memorial.

Daniel Johnson is the editor of Standpoint.

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Jonathan Groner on January 4, 2012 at 5:36 pm (Reply)
Excellent piece. For a complementary account of a very wealthy Viennese Jewish family during this period, take a look at "The Hare With Amber Eyes," by Edmund de Waal. De Waal's family was comparable to the Rothschilds in wealth. Their mansion was on the Ringstrasse, and they lost everything when Hitler came to power.
Jacob on January 4, 2012 at 6:31 pm (Reply)
“[A]n acknowledgment by the Austrians of just how much damage they did . . . ": What about acknowledging the damage that Jews like Karl Kraus and his ilk did to the Jewish community? There are Jews who will never be comfortable with whatever Jews create. Some call it self- hatred, but I call it just plain Judenhass (Jew-hatred). Jewish Viennese history shows that even the most refined Jewish culture is not acceptable to some Jews. I see the same Judenhass in Jewish hatred of Israel, expressed as “anti-Zionism.” This history of Jewish Vienna, then, is very instructive.
Hershl on January 4, 2012 at 10:28 pm (Reply)
I just loved reading this article. I have copied it so that I may re-read it and use it to study. It is an ideal introduction to the subject, one which I assumed I knew something about but about which, upon reading this article, I realize I am just beginning my studies. Please give us more articles like this.
Arnold on January 5, 2012 at 11:33 am (Reply)
As a Catholic gentile who lived in Vienna from 1974 to 1978, I found this article very interesting. As an American, the level of antisemitism in that city even in the 1970s puzzled me. It seemed that even some of the younger people had been infected with it. Yet, the Jewish presence in Viennese culture had been so enormous, both absolutely and in relation to its size. A speaker at a business forum frankly made the point that Vienna's fall in importance as a cultural and business center was due to the loss of its Jews, and they should face that fact. On the other hand, a visiting Jewish conductor like Leonard Bernstein was lionized. He knew how to play up to the local love of the Herr Kapellmeister walking the Kaerntnerstrasse with cape and borsollino. After I moved to Frankfurt, I noticed that the Germans had a far more open attitude than the Viennese. An Israeli friend in Frankfurt, whose father was involved in international trade with Germany, commented that his family preferred working with the Germans--who, he said, had learned from their history.
Manny jakel on January 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm (Reply)
I hope this gets to Daniel Johnson or anyone else who can help me. I have been trying to purchase the English version of "Who Once Was Who" but cannot seem to find it. Please let me know where I can do so. Thank you, Manny Jakel
Judith Wimborne on January 21, 2012 at 1:17 am (Reply)
A most interesting article. I have just read "Good Living Street: The Fortunes Of My Viennese family," by Tim Bonyhady. The article bears out this story of a Viennese family who were leading patrons of the arts and closely involved with the Wiener Werkstatte.
Manny jakel on January 22, 2012 at 7:22 am (Reply)
The Johnsons, Paul and Daniel, are two of the greatest people to have come into this world. In literature, the arts, and world and local politics, they are a treasured source of just about anything and everything important to civilization. The publisher of Who Once Was Who has indicated that there are no plans to translate it into English. Most unfortunate.
Anne Wotana Kaye on February 3, 2012 at 12:18 pm (Reply)
An excellent and erudite article. I was "talked into" reading Upton Sinclair's Lanny Budd novels. They were written before the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed and the true evil of Stalin was known to Western supporters. Forget the old-fashioned writing and you will be enchanted, and sometimes heartbroken, by a story that covers 1930s Europe, with the rise of Hitler, and anti-Semitism in America, England, and other countries. Start with "World's End," published in 1940. I've become hooked and am now on book six, "Random Harvest."
Anne Wotana Kaye on February 3, 2012 at 4:30 pm (Reply)
Big typing error: "Dragon Harvest," not "Random Harvest."
Alan on February 12, 2012 at 5:53 am (Reply)
I am a British Jew who moved to Vienna in 1988. There is no open antisemitism here; if there were, I wouldn't be here. The registered Jewish community is now around 12,000 members, unregistered probably another 8-10 thousand. The community is growing rapidly. We have a new Jewish Hakoah sports center, mostly paid for by the Vienna city council; a new Jewish Hospital; an old age home with an adjoining Shul, and many other new Jewish facilities.

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