Advancing Business

Energy, ambition and the cultivation of useful contacts had made a successful businessman of great-grandfather Leopold Guttmann in the 1890’s. But a decade before, crafty politicians had already begun to draw on old anti-Semitic attitudes to fan resentment of Jewish achievements. By 1897, the politics of prejudice had come so far that Vienna’s elected Mayor was Karl Lueger, the leader of the anti-Semitic Christian Social party.

The city’s Jewish population responded in a variety of ways. Some were driven to turn their back on assimilation and re-connect to Jewish traditions and rituals. Others embraced the new movement of Zionism which postulated that there was no future for Jews in Europe. But the Jewish business community was dependent on its fellow citizens no matter what their ethnic stamp.  They could not indulge in a policy of  retreat, but had to defend themselves in a manner that would neither alienate their adversaries nor suggest that they were a community apart as the Christian Socials tried to insist they were.  This was the mission of the Verein zu Hebung der Gewerbe (Society for the Advancement of Business) founded in 1891. Leopold Guttmann was a vice-president.

I had a hard time learning about this organization until I came upon a footnote referring to the Society’s 1899 Annual Report. The pamphlet was available in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem! I obtained a copy for $25.00.

There is nothing like an original document to convey the mood of a moment in history.  The report surprised me.  It contained no rallying cry for Jewish businessmen to fight the common enemy.  On the contrary, most of the text defining the society’s purpose was self-validating and revolved around improving relations with fellow Jews, both members and non-members.  Emphasis was given to the importance of unity and collegiality among a motley group of small manufacturers and master craftsmen that included, among others,  stationers, corset makers,  and piano builders.

Prejudice was an issue,  but not that of the anti-Semites.  What rankled were the low opinions of businessmen held by fellow Jews. In fact, the crisis brought on by anti-Semitism was only addressed obliquely.  The report insisted that all were welcome, whatever their religious affiliation, to the lectures on tax laws, the Austrian economy, and more general topics that were a feature of  the society’s monthly meetings. This policy was pointed out as a refutation of the Christian-Social assertion that businesses had ethnic identities.

In essence, this was a mutual-aid society. It held daily office hours  for members to discuss their needs and problems.  Business loans were available where necessary, and financial assistance was provided to those no longer able to work. The  placement and education of reliable Jewish apprentices was a particular concern. And every year a list of members was distributed throughout Vienna to drum up business.  Nor was social life neglected.  Excursions were made to factories, specialty shops, and even the great new Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park upon which “a joint ascent was undertaken.”

The Annual Report concluded that, after nearly nine years of its existence, the Society for the Advancement of Business had given its members a sense of self-respect among their fellow Jews and provided a united front before the rest of the world.

In the end, the  Christian-Social campaign against Jewish businesses did not take hold.  Jewish entrepreneurs were so deeply woven into the fabric of Vienna’s urban life that it was impossible to dislodge them from what was still a law-abiding society.  Leopold Guttmann continued to prosper.  In 1900 he moved the business to a mezzanine showroom in the elegant Casa Piccola, a new building combining offices and residences situated  at the start of the Mariahilfestrasse, the broad thoroughfare through which Emperor Franz Josef traveled regularly on the way to his suburban palace Schönbrunn.  As other tenants moved into the same address, the building became a focal point for some of the cross-currents and controversies of fin-de-siècle culture.

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