Vienna – An awareness of the cultural-historical significance of the former Jewish upper middle class remains an elitist endeavor in Austria. The handling of the Rothschild cultural heritage is an example of how domestic power relations also shape a country’s culture of remembrance.
Austria’s cultural-historical memory is surprisingly short. For most citizens, “cultural identity” only begins with the Second Republic. The Habsburg period and the First Republic are virtually forgotten, a fact that the historians Brix, Bruckmüller, and Stekl were able to show impressively in their work Memoria Austriae.
While the crimes of the Nazis are generally known, the numerous personalities of the Jewish upper middle classes (above all the famous families associated with the Ringstrasse boulevard), as well as the great Jewish intellectuals of the interwar period, remain largely unknown. Although the major parties faced up to their past, what was lost in terms of cultural history remained in obscurity. This is also true of the Austrian Rothschilds, whose traces have been erased.
Still, the Rothschilds remain a unique phenomenon to this day. As the historian Roman Sandgruber has stated, no family has been able to achieve such a large share of world income and world wealth as the five Rothschild lines in the 19th century – neither the Medici nor the Fuggers in the 16th century, nor the Indian Mughals and Maharajas, nor any European ruling dynasty, nor the Saudi royal family, nor any super-rich person alive today. But this fairy-tale wealth was not seen as an example of a Jewish success story, nor did anyone want to acknowledge their philanthropic commitment.
When Louis Rothschild drowned in the faraway Caribbean on January 15, 1955, thus extinguishing the Viennese line of the dynasty, the demolition of his palace in Prinz-Eugen-Straße began in Vienna. The Chamber of Labour and Economy now stands on this site. The same happened to the famous Rothschild Hospital on Währinger Gürtel: it was sold and demolished in 1960. Today, it is home to the Economic Development Institute of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber.
The Austrian press could rage against the Rothschilds for the last time on January 30, 1955, when the “American” dared to find his final resting place in his old home. After that, an icy silence ensued. The antisemitic undertones of Karl Marx, Victor Adler, and many other socialist masterminds of the late Habsburg monarchy – not a few of whom had Jewish origins themselves – had disappeared, as had the memory of the Rothschilds’ enormous welfare work. That the appropriate class affiliation was missing is worth remembering.
And what explains the historical disinterest of the bourgeois camp when the Rothschilds had always championed the conservative order? It was the guilty conscience inherent in every betrayal.
The Jewish upper middle classes were good enough to make their contribution to the transformation of Vienna into a cosmopolitan city, the former mayor of Vienna Karl Lueger, an antisemitic arsonist of the highest order, would never have been able to build the second Vienna High Spring Water Pipeline without Albert Rothschild’s generous donations of land to the city of Vienna.
In gratitude, the mayor had himself celebrated at his patron’s expense, and the eulogy of his donation disappeared into some local paper. That Albert’s son Louis later donated another considerable sum to the Lueger monument on Doktor-Karl-Lueger-Platz is a bitter irony. The monument is still the subject of debate today: instead of shame, there are calls for closure.
The Rothschilds’ capital was always welcome, especially when it came to cushioning the economic consequences of lost wars, advancing the industrialization of the country, keeping cash-strapped elites solvent, or simply averting major financial debacles as the result of huge corruption scandals.
The 1920s and 1930s were exemplary. That Christian socialist and German-nationalist circles officially spewed venom and bile at the Jewish banks did not prevent them from using a few prominent “financial jugglers” with Jewish roots to realize their corrupt machinations. These few accomplices, such as Bosel, Sieghardt or Castiglioni, for example, later served as a template for inciting sweeping attacks against the Jewish population. A perfidious diversionary tactic. Thus, the slanderous antisemitism of the bourgeois later merged seamlessly into the mass-murderous one of German Nationalists.
Louis Rothschild’s Self Liberation
For the Nazis, Louis Rothschild raised a red flag in two respects: his Jewish background, and his active support of the Austrian corporatist state. Through the dubious speculator Sigmund Bosel, millions and millions flowed to various politicians, including two Austrian chancellors (Dollfuss and Buresch). Rothschild’s motives were probably practical as well as political: his wish to bring the threatening legal proceedings against him to a standstill was fulfilled, and wanting to ensure more political stability in the face of left-wing and right-wing extremist movements through his “donation policy”: a piece of realpolitik.
But Bosel also distributed his millions for years to circles of which the baron was unaware, among them people who were later involved in the National Socialist July Putsch. Bosel had no scruples when it came to choosing his business partners. He had no problem blackmailing even his client Rothschild. While Bosel was murdered by the Nazis in the end, Rothschild was able to save himself from the clutches of the Gestapo through his own efforts.
What ultimately saved Louis Rothschild’s life were his enormous fortune and extraordinary personality. There were enough dubious attempts to free him, such as that of Stephanie von Hohenlohe, “Hitler’s Jewish spy,” who felt at home with both the dictator and the international aristocracy.
According to FBI files, the Rothschilds turned down Hohenlohe’s “offer.” The Hitler admirer nevertheless made a stellar career after the war, because her Nazi past and her closeness to Hitler (“dear princess”) apparently did not matter to many – including several US presidents, numerous international elites and well-known publishers. Rothschild thus instinctively proved his good knowledge of human nature, which FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had to work hard to acquire with regard to the princess (“as a spy, worse than 10,000 men”).
Publicity through Historical Distortion
One of the biggest criticisms against the Austrian Rothschilds has often been their funding of wars. While it is true that the Rothschilds made enormous profits from wars, they unlike other industrialists were firmly opposed to a war of any kind. They neither helped to bring them about nor did they long for them. Quite the opposite. Nathaniel Rothschild criticized the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia in the run-up to the First World War, warning that it was criminal to sacrifice millions of lives to atone for a single brutal murder.
Only during the March Revolution of 1848 did the Austrian Rothschilds not leave a good impression. The absolutist tranquility under State Chancellor Prince von Metternich (“Uncle”) was more important to them than the struggle for civil liberties.
The foolish image of the all-powerful string-pullers and unscrupulous war profiteers also owes its longevity to a simple circumstance: dead men have no lobby. In contrast to the extinct Austrian line of the Rothschilds, things are quite different with the Krupps in terms of attitudes toward war, and, that they still can shape contemporary perception in regard to their own history.
After the Second World War, Alfried Krupp was still in the docket as a war criminal. The city of Essen wanted nothing more to do with the Krupps. Fewer than 15 years later, things looked different. On the occasion of the company’s 150th anniversary in 1961, Alfried Krupp was awarded Essen’s municipal ring of honor.
The anniversary speech by former German president Theodor Heuss was a masterpiece of historical falsification: “Let me put it quite drastically: the idea as if the procuration and the design office at Schneider-Creusot, at Skoda, at Vickers and Armstrong, at Bethlehem Steel Corporation and so on were entrusted to heavenly angels, while the corresponding buildings at Krupp were a dependency of diabolical hell. Throughout the millennia of human history, the manufacture of weapons is a very simple historical fact that one may certainly regret. But it does not eliminate it from the world.”
The equation of the German arms industry with the arms industry of the Allies is very misleading, since industrial mass murder was an essential part of the Nazi regime and its ideology. But the professional image in politics picked up speed, and soon, heads of state were once again being welcomed to Villa Hügel. ■
The writer is a publicist living in Austria.