Goodnight, Vienna

By Daniel Johnson
Wednesday, January 4, 2012

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.

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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