Vienna's many faces, from cultural hub to antisemitism promoter - review

The author obviously loves Vienna, but he has not allowed his passion for the city to blind him to so many of its residents’ history of hatred and persecution of the Jewish people.

 THE SHOAH Wall of Names Memorial in Vienna in 2021, bearing the names of more than 64,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust. (photo credit: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
THE SHOAH Wall of Names Memorial in Vienna in 2021, bearing the names of more than 64,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust.
(photo credit: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

As author Angus Roberson so vividly demonstrates in this history of the city Vienna and its state, Austria, Vienna has far outpaced the Roman god Janus, who only had two faces.

There is the city’s beautiful facade. Vienna is graced with grand boulevards, lovely, ornate palaces and other buildings enhanced by their fancy stonework and statues; a myriad of museums; and the State Opera, a colossal 1,700-seat venue.

And all this in a city the gods have decreed to be built on the banks of the beautiful Danube River, “Blue Danube.”

The history of Vienna, Austria

Vienna began in Roman times as the garrison town of Vindobona, from the Celtic meaning “white” (vindo) “base” (bona). The Danube, then, was the border between Rome and the barbarians. Vindobona covered some 50 acres in what is now central Vienna.

The city’s citizens today include prancing horses and whirling dancers, displaying their gracefulness on the ballet stage and the waltz dance floor.

 People sit in a public garden amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, as Austria's government imposes a lockdown on people who are not fully vaccinated, in Vienna, Austria November 14, 2021. (credit: LEONHARD FOEGER / REUTERS) People sit in a public garden amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, as Austria's government imposes a lockdown on people who are not fully vaccinated, in Vienna, Austria November 14, 2021. (credit: LEONHARD FOEGER / REUTERS)

For many years, Vienna was the musical capital of the world, with Ludwig Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Strauss II among the most noteworthy composers to call the city home.

Its glamorous eateries, featuring local treats such as Sacher torte, apple strudel and Weiner schnitzel, are renowned. It sounds like it might be the capital city of Paradise. Unfortunately, the beauty of Vienna is disfigured by the stain of antisemitism. The author provides many examples.

“One of the most striking aspects of Trollope’s Vienna account is the unvarnished antisemitism of the age, which she shared.”

Agnus Robertson

Travel writer and novelist Frances Trollope visited and reported on Vienna in the 1830s. “One of the most striking aspects of Trollope’s Vienna account is the unvarnished antisemitism of the age, which she shared,” Robertson writes. “She didn’t like attending some of the best parties because of the prospect of meeting Jews. She thought it better for Christians and Jews to lead separate lives and she was distrusting of Jewish converts to Christianity.”

The hatred continued into the second half of the 19th century. Vienna had experienced tremendous population growth during those years that included both assimilated and Orthodox Jews. The haters especially targeted the latter. “Anti-Jewish discrimination and sentiment had a long and sad history in Vienna,” he writes. “Even more enlightened and educated Viennese were prone to anti-Semitism...”

Those hatreds spilled over into the city’s political arena. Prominent political orator Georg von Schonerer’s fierce antisemitic rhetoric was said to have influenced the young Adolf Hitler, and Jew hater Karl Lueger served as mayor of the city from 1897 to 1910. All that served as a prologue for the Nazi persecution and murder of Vienna’s Jews.

The author writes: “The humiliating mistreatment of Vienna’s Jews began immediately after the Nazi takeover, with Brownshirts forcing Jewish men and women to clean the streets on their hands and knees. Hundreds of Jews died by suicide.”

I am named for my father’s brother, Arnold, one of those humiliated Viennese Jews, who in despair took his own life. My father, Albert, managed to get out of Vienna and into America in 1939, a year after the Anschluss, the absorption of Austria into Germany, and the year that World War II began.

A Scotsman, author Angus Robertson obviously loves Vienna, from where he reported as a journalist for many years for the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, National Public Radio in the United States, the BBC and other outlets.

But as I’ve indicated, he has not allowed his passion for the city to blind him to so many of its residents’ history of hatred and persecution of the Jewish people. 

The writer’s memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s (Chickadee Prince Books), is available online and at bookstores. 

The Crossroads of Civilization:By Angus RobertsonPegasus Books366 pages; $29.95 (NIS 106)