Notes on...

Vienna is a crossroads of the world again – but something’s missing

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

People get the wrong idea about Vienna and I blame Johann Strauss. His plinky-plonky waltzes have become the soundtrack to the city, cementing Vienna’s public image as a place of balls and carriages and cream cakes. It’s an image the tourist board is keen to cultivate, and it makes good business sense. Tour groups visit the Spanish Riding School and the Vienna Boys’ Choir, eat a slice of Sachertorte and depart contented. It makes for a happy holiday, but Vienna is much more interesting than that.

Like a lot of stereotypes, Viennese clichés have some substance. Once upon a time, this was the mecca of modern music: Schubert was the local hero; Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner hung out here. Mahler was the director of the opera house, though he had to become a Catholic to get the job — Jewish conductors were verboten. This awkward detail reveals an uncomfortable truth about Vienna. It’s beautiful, it’s romantic, but — and this is what makes it interesting — Vienna isn’t nice.


This used to be a Jewish city, and it’s hard to wander its lovely boulevards without pondering what’s been lost. Sigmund Freud used to walk around the Ringstrasse every day. I like to follow in his footsteps. His apartment is a fascinating museum, but its rooms feel bare and empty. Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial, on Judenplatz, sums up this sense of absence. Her concrete sculpture depicts a library. Its books are all turned inwards, their spines concealed.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Vienna was a Cold War cul-de-sac, surrounded on three sides by the Iron Curtain. Further east than Prague, it felt like the end of a dead-end street, at the edge of the free world. The collapse of communism revived the city. Reunited with its eastern hinterland, it has become a crossroads once again. Its palatial buildings still seem preposterous, but its ornate cafés are now buzzing with Balkan voices, just as they were in Freud’s day.

This cosmopolitan renaissance is epitomised by the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s lively outdoor food market, full of Levantine mezze stalls. This multicultural cuisine is nothing new. The Habsburg Empire was always a hotchpotch of nationalities, and Vienna was where they congregated. Shorn of its empire, it has become a cultural capital instead. The imperial stables, bigger and grander than many European palaces, now house the Museumsquartier. Here you’ll find the world’s biggest collection of Egon Schiele, whose erotic pictures shocked Habsburg Vienna, and who died in the same year as the Empire, 1918.

Every foreign visitor has their own fantasy of Vienna. Mine is The Third Man. Every time I return, and dream about what it might be like to live here, I go to the Burg Kino, on the Opernring, where Carol Reed’s film noir is still running. The city has been tidied up since Reed came here to film his masterpiece: the baroque landmarks have been repaired, the rubble has been swept away. However Vienna remains a city of dark doorways and guilty secrets, and for me that’s central to its seductive, queasy charm.

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  • Hamburger

    Vienna was the personification of Mitteleuropa and is becoming so again. However the intellectual hole left by the missing Jews is, as over the whole Mitteleuropa, very apparent.

    • jim

      On the other hand they seemed more aware of and less embarassed about expressing their concerns over the dangers of mass immigration. Could there be a connection.?

      • Richard

        They were almost conquered by Islam. They have every right to feel the way they do. It’s a bit like families in Rochdale being a tad wary of Muslim men when their underage daughters are around.

        • jim

          No argument from me. I was replying to a poster’s comment about the “the intellectual hole left by the missing Jews” and I was simply pointing out that what’s also missing is the PC tippy-toeing on eggshells thought-crime hate-speech straitjacket which has made a hell out of our life elsewhere in the west…..and cautiously venturing to ask if their might be a connection.

    • justejudexultionis

      Freud and Marx caused a huge amount of damage. Freud undermined the idea of self and personal responsibility. Marxist ideology led to the deaths of millions under a godless tyranny.

      • Hamburger

        I totally agree with you about Marx, although he was a Rhinelander and far from Vienna. I always thought that it was Jung who undermined the idea of personal responsibility more than Freud, but there again I may be mistaken.

        • Damaris Tighe

          Jung believed that conventional religious practice was therapeutic & he encouraged some of his patients to return to the religious practises of their forbears – Christianity & Judaism. Perhaps not exactly ‘personal responsibility’ but it shows that he did not advocate the new-agey solipsism of many modern psychologies.

      • Damaris Tighe

        Freudianism was exploited by leftists in the second half of the 20th century. Freud himself believed that analysis should strengthen the individual’s superego – that part of him/her that re-inforces personal responsibility & morality, & sublimates personal ‘issues’ into the highest products of civilisation.

  • Terence Hale

    Hi,
    “Vienna is a crossroads of the world again – but something’s missing”. The Swiss explain this very simply, the flag. A Swiss flag has white positive sign, the Austrian a white negative sign.

    • Dauer_Gast

      We all must admit that the Swiss flag is a big plus.

  • Dan O’Connor

    Word has it that the subversive Frankfurt School of Cultural Marxism racket combined with the Freudian pseudo-psychology hucksterism resulted in a book called
    ” The Authoritarian Personality ” .
    The idea was, to use Western academia and the pseudo sciences of the humanities departments to insert a bacilli into the Western mind that portrayed traditional Western society and its institutions, such as the tradtional family structure ,
    as one big sexist, patrichal, homophobic, racist ,fascist oppressive / repressive mental asylum , that needed fixing . As a mental abnormality , The culture of endless critique , Critical Theory, Deconstructionism
    ” The Authoritarian Personality “, it is said became the White guilt / White/ civilizational self-loathing bible of the 60’s baby boomer kulturekampf hippy rebelllion against ” reactionary ” ” fascist ” Dad and Mum

  • Dan O’Connor

    It is becoming difficult not to notice that this has become a very media hyped cult of worship
    The cleverest, most powerless, least infuencial, most talented, least ethno-centric ,
    most harmless , most misportrayed, most beneficial, most cultivated, least privileged, least nepotistic, most oppressed and most misunderstood and most talked about people in all of human history

  • Greenie Beanie

    As well, here we find a little more background on Obama’s primitive third-world mentality: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/12/opinion/obamas-orwellian-image-control.html

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