Oh, Vienna, you double-faced city!

If you’ve ever come across Thomas Bernhard, you’ll know that he’s often called ‘the grumpy old man of Austrian literature’. He seemed to revile so much of Austrian society, history, smugness and hypocrisy, especially that of Vienna (which seemed to him the culmination of all things Austrian), that he even asked in his will that none of his works should be published (or his plays performed) there after his death. But he was far from the only Austrian writer who had a love-hate relationship with Austria – and with Vienna in particular. Nobel Prize winners Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Handke often launched into bitter invectives against the city, as did Karl Kraus. Even those who mourn the faded splendours of the city (and the death of a particular way of life) have very ambivalent feelings towards it: Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, Schnitzler, Zweig. In fact, you can read a whole article about it in the Paris Review.

At a recent reunion with my international friends who all grew up in Vienna together, we realised that we all love the city, its beautiful architecture, the hills surrounding it, its rich cultural heritage, and above all its food (‘Mehlspeisen’ is the Austrian name for desserts, literally ‘floury meals’ and I’ve yet to meet someone who does not yearn for those extremely filling childhood joys). What do we remember less fondly? The rules and regulations, the ‘alles verboten’ draconian mentality, and the Viennese themselves. While I hesitate to put all Viennese in the same pot (some of my very good friends are Viennese), it’s undeniable that there is a schizophrenic element to the Viennese personality. Their renowned Gemütlichkeit (warmth, friendliness, geniality) and politeness makes you feel initially much more welcome than you might do in the northern reaches of Germany, but then you realise that hypocrisy, pretentiousness and a deep-rooted suspicion of strangers (which seems bizarre in a diverse former empire) are equally engrained. Give me a rude, straight-talking but honest Berliner or Hamburger any time, you might be tempted to say.

And yet, reading Thomas Bernhard‘s hilarious send-up of the Viennese artistic circles in Woodcutters (in the translation of David McLintock), I couldn’t help but fall in love again with that particular Wiener Schmäh – the black humour, often charming, frequently vicious – that is so characteristic of the city. The novel has the subtitle ‘eine Erregung’, which is usually used to describe sexual arousal, but could be translated in this context as an irritation or agitated rant. And this is exactly what it is. Our narrator is back in Vienna after a long period away. He runs into the Auersbergers, an artistic couple he used to be friends with three decades ago, and allows himself to be invited to a dinner party, which keeps getting postponed because the guest of honour, an actor at the Burgtheater, is late. While everyone is waiting and getting increasingly hungry, the narrator spends most of the rest of the book and the party seated in a wing-backed chair (the repetition of this phrase alone makes for a great comic effect), moaning and complaining about the people there and wondering why he ever accepted the invitation into a house and milieu that he thoroughly despises. He has been unnerved by the funeral of a formerly close friend who committed suicide (another staple in Bernhard’s fiction) and he really lets rip about his hosts and their guests.

… to think what these people have made of themselves in these thirty years!… All these people have contrived to turn conditions and circumstances that were once happy into something utterly depressing, I thought, sitting in the wing chair; they’ve managed to make everyting depressing, to transform all the happiness they once had into utter depression, just as I have…. All these people had come to Vienna in the fifties… hoping they would go far, as they say, but the farthest they actually went in Vienna was to become tolerably successful provincial artists, and the question is whether they would have gone any farther in any other so-called big city…

Of course, there is plenty to satirise in the vacuity and pretentiousness of the Viennese literary, musical and theatrical circles. Vienna is in many ways not a big city, not one of the world capitals. It is a city that was once the capital of an empire, but has now become a pretty piece of scenery and a backwater. None of its inhabitants accept that, of course. Culturally, at least (they tell themselves), they are still the belly-button of Europe. A new theatre director or conductor is headline news in Vienna, and everyone has an opinion about it. Apparently, the characters Bernhard mocks are so thinly veiled that they would have been perfectly recognisable at the time to any Austrian reader. The publishers feared libel suits and it was indeed soon banned.

Vienna is an art mill, the biggest art mill in the world, in which the arts and artists are ground down and pulverized year in, year out; whatever the art or whatever the artists, the Viennese art mill grinds them all to powder… and the curious thing is that all these people jump into this art mill entirely of their own volition…

But Bernhard does not just mock the guests. The narrator himself is also on the carving block. The way he paces up the Graben and down the Kärntner Strasse, then up the Kärntner Strasse and down the Graben again (two famous pedestrian streets right in the centre of Vienna), only to be accosted by old friends he supposedly wants to avoid, is very typical of the small-town mentality of promenading up and down the main road (what the Italians call the passeggiata). This habit is still alive and well in Vienna and you are likely to meet anyone who is anyone there in the centre sooner or later (plus a whole load of tourists nowadays). The grumpy passive-aggressive muttering in the corner is also typical of the Viennese personality. The actor, who at first seems to be a self-satisfied twit, then expresses a flight of fancy which captures the narrator’s imagination and pity. He says how much happier he would have been with the simple, lonely lifestyle of a woodcutter, and this yearning, although still dripping in Bernhardian irony, tugs a little at our heartstrings.

The final pages of the novel remind me so much of Cavafy’s poem about The City, the one you are doomed to always carry around with you, a burden and an ideal.

I ran away from the Auersberger nightmare and toward the Inner City, and as I ran I reflected that the city through which I was running, dreadful though I had always felt it to be and still felt it to be, was still the best city there was, that Vienna, which I found detestable and had always found detestable, was suddenly once again the best city in the world, my own city, my beloved Vienna, and that these people, whom I had always hated and still hated and would go on hating, were still the best people in the world: I hated them, yet found them somehow touching – I hated Vienna, yet found it somehow touching – I cursed these people, yet could not help loving them – I hated Vienna yet could not help loving it… This is my city and always will be my city…

It’s a very tongue-in-cheek novel, in which you must question nearly everything that the narrator tells you, yet there is also a lot of truth in what he says. While you may not find it quite as hilarious as someone who loves/hates the Viennese, it is a bright and short introduction to Bernhard’s work, far more accessible than some of his other works.

Typical Viennese architecture

By pure chance, a few evenings ago I attended a seminar organised by the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies which confirmed the almost schizophrenic nature of Viennese society, especially in the 1930s. Entitled ‘A School turns Brown: A Micro-Historical Analysis of the Grammar School G3 in Vienna and the Expulsion of its Jewish Pupils in April 1938’, the historian Dorothea McEwan (who herself had been a pupil of that school in the 1950s and absolutely loved its humanist tradition and ethic) showed how it took only 6 weeks after the Anschluss for the ‘purification’ of the school. The curriculum was ‘cleansed’, Jewish pupils were expelled and teachers who were not loyal to the Nazis were suddenly moved elsewhere. Six weeks. It is frightening how easy it is to descend into blind obedience to the siren call of law and order and authoritarianism. And Austria has never been immune to that siren call…

Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich

What a fascinating book this is! The author draws on a comprehensive collection of mainly American and English (but also French, Chinese and other) sources, often unpublished materials, to describe the rise of Fascism in Germany from 1920 until its collapse at the end of WW2. You get a full caleidoscope of experiences here: from political leaders and celebrity artists and musicians, to students and Quakers, holidaymakers and even children on school trips.

Almost everyone is familiar with the broad outlines of historical progression towards Fascism (although perhaps not as well as they should be, hence history repeating itself today). What surprised me about this book is how enamoured many ordinary and perfectly decent foreign travellers were with Nazi Germany. Of course we do have the benefit of hindsight now, and perhaps some things were not obvious at the time unless you went looking for them really hard. Also, the Germans were very enthusiastic about greeting tourists warmly right until the eve of the war (they badly needed the money). And yet… the dangers and threats were minimised and the ugly reality was ignored for far too long.

Why? In the case of Britain, it started off with them feeling sorry for the Germans and the harsh conditions of the Versailles Treaty, which led to grinding poverty and near-starvation in the years immediately after WW1. Besides, the English and Americans have traditionally felt more affinity with the Germans and their culture than with the French. They forgot all that France had suffered at the hands of the Germans in the First World War and saw that they were being overcharged and cheated in France, while in Germany the towns were cleaner, the people more diligent and disciplined, and the plumbing worked.

Vintage poster for Dutch audiences: Germany, land of music

They also loved German literature, music, art and very soon started admiring the ‘splendid physique and sense of purpose’ of the vigorous young people rising from the ashes of the war. The German love of uniforms and marching was perceived as an endearing foible rather than something to worry about (after all, one had been or rather still was an Empire oneself) – and those uniforms were so goddamn sexy, weren’t they? As for Jews or gypsies or Communists, well, one didn’t like them very much anyone, so why should they meddle in a country’s internal affairs? Instead of squabbling over such minor issues as a few Jews or disaffected radicals, Britons and Americans should be standing shoulder to shoulder with their Anglo-Saxon German brothers, ready to fight the common enemy – communism.

Even thoughtful people empathised with the German’s envy of the Jews.

A people that has suffered and is bitterly poor sees a race that climbs and flourishes upon the ruin of its own fortunes. Small wonder if envy does stir in its heart and it snarls accusations of profiteering against all who belong to this race.

Even John Maynard Keynes, friend to Einstein and banker Carl Melchior, said:

Yet if I lived there, I felt I might turn anti-Semitic for the poor Prussian is too slow and heavy on his legs for the other kind of Jews, the ones who are not imps but serving devils

And the new doctrine was giving people what they wanted: instead of messy complexity, uncertainty and only gradual improvements, it provided simple, clear answers and scapegoats. It gave the people a sense of direction, a feeling (or illusion) that they were going somewhere. Many people did not like Hitler but were seduced by the message:

It was buoyant, exciting and alive. It was not patronising. It broke down social barriers, provided pageantry and stimulus. It was, in a nutshell, a new gospel. Furthermore… the police are quite charming.


The book is so well written, with both a chronological and a thematic narrative flow, that it felt like I was reading a novel at times. Ultimately, however, it chilled me to see how easy it is to flatter and seduce people with lies, simplistic promises and unrealistic solutions (sunlit uplands and sovereignty) and how the ‘powerful or dominant nations’ of the world will support each other against the cries of desperation of the weak and powerless. As someone who has grown up with daily blasts of propaganda, who has seen doublespeak in action every single day of my childhood – and had to learn to use it myself – this was a very powerful reminder that we need to learn more from the past and condone less of what is happening in the present.