VIENNA — Few cities captivate the imagination like Vienna, known for both its abundance of old-world charm and the birth of modernism. No longer the capital of a sprawling empire, today’s Vienna exhibits the glories and scars of a remarkably turbulent century.
Of particular interest to historians is 1913, the year in which men who would change the world plied their respective trades in the Hapsburg seat of power. Among these temporary residents, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Marshal Tito lived within walking distance of each other, close to the city core’s monument-filled Ringstrasse.
As the Austro-Hungarian empire deteriorated, its capital attracted dissidents from 15 constituent nations. Stalin and fellow revolutionary Leon Trotsky were on the run, whereas Hitler and Tito were years away from political breakthroughs, laboring as a street scene painter and metalworker, respectively.
Most of 1913 Vienna’s luminaries were just passing through, but some had been fixtures in the city for decades.
Along the more permanent notables were Jews like Sigmund Freud — father of psychoanalysis — and Stefan Zweig, the writer who called compatriot Theodor Herzl’s Zionism text “obtuse nonsense” a generation earlier.
Jews led a conflicted existence in Vienna, an anomaly of relatively equal rights and the supposed opportunity to “assimilate.” For prominent Jews eschewing their heritage, the steady immigration of Orthodox “Ostjuden” — Jews from Eastern Europe — was a constant reminder of their roots.
Viennese women also shaped the city’s special atmosphere, including Alma Mahler, whose composer husband, Mahler, died in 1911. In addition to composing her own songs, Mahler’s salon incubated new artists and thinkers. She also shaped culture behind the scenes, in successive marriages to architect Walter Gropius and novelist Franz Werfel.
Though vibrant and welcoming, the “City of Dreams” in 1913 was skirting an abyss of destruction. The very forces that made Vienna amenable to new thinking and endeavors — a multiethnic empire and weak central government — conspired to hasten its decline.
Vienna lost much of its international heft, not to mention its population, during two world wars – first when many Czechs and Hungarians left during the 1920s, and later during the Holocaust.
Exploring what remains of Vienna from the liminal 1913 sheds light on a turning point in world history, when the birth pangs of modernism gave way to global warfare and the advent of modern genocide.
City of Dreams
Ask someone what he thinks when Vienna is mentioned, and you’ll hear about the music. Few cities can claim as many virtuosos, including the beloved “Vienna Four” composed of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.
From the giant Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement grounds to the Spanish Riding School’s fabled white stallions, Vienna was in a class of its own. Like most cities, there was also a dark side — more than 100 homeless men and women committed suicide each month during 1913.
Icons of Architecture
Next to the music, most people associate Vienna with an abundance of breathtaking architecture. Created using the city’s medieval fortification line, the three-mile Ringstrasse road encircles some of Europe’s most recognizable structures.
Completed in 1869, the Vienna State Opera House remains home to one of the world’s most prolific companies. Down the street, the Hofburg Palace complex kept the Hapsburgs ensconced in luxury. Twenty years after their fall, the balcony hosted Hitler’s Anschluss speech to thousands of elated new German citizens.
The Original Internet Café
As a city where fewer than half the inhabitants were native-born, Vienna has been called a “thick cultural soup” more than a melting pot. The cozy confines of Vienna’s legendary coffee houses helped facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas across national lines and disciplines.
The favorite haunts of Freud and Stalin are known to history, as is Herzl’s — Café Griensteidl — from a generation earlier. In 2011, UNESCO declared Vienna’s coffee houses a cultural treasure, calling them places “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.”
Jews in Vienna
Not for the first time, Jews occupied a dichotomous position. Formally granted equal rights in 1867, Jews helped Vienna achieve prominence in journalism, medicine and the arts. About 200,000 Jews lived in 1913 Vienna, a mix of “assimilated” locals and the Ostjuden from points east.
Jewish influence in Vienna also had a dark side, personified by Mayor Karl Lueger. His was a potent, political brand of anti-Semitism, an exploitation of popular dislike of Jews to capture votes.
Lueger died in 1910, while in office, but not before Hitler learned the electoral power of Jew-baiting from him.
A Crumbling Empire
It sounds like a joke, but officers in the Austro-Hungarian army were required to give commands in 11 languages. Held together by the immense popularity of long-serving Franz Joseph, the empire encapsulated too many nationalities seeking independence or cultural supremacy to survive.
The heir to the throne — Archduke Franz Ferdinand — was assassinated while visiting Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The “thunder at twilight” described by Viennese-Jewish historian Frederic Morton had come to pass – at long last, a war to clear the air.
Within four years, the empire had imploded, taking Vienna’s privileged centrality with it.