A Problematic City

The shifting world of postwar Europe was the background of my parents’ youth–Oscar Spitzer born in 1904, Sylvia Guttmann in 1915.  As described in my last post, the Spitzer family had to adjust to becoming citizens of another country– the newly constituted republic of Poland. As for the Guttmanns, they were still living in Vienna in 1918. The city,  though it retained its imperial grandeur, was now no more than the capital of the small Alpine republic of Austria. The much-reduced country, deprived of the bounty that had come its way from the far-flung Empire, suffered acutely in those early years of its existence. Wheat no longer arrived from Hungary, nor livestock from Croatia, or coal from Bohemia and Moravia. Hunger, cold and unemployment led to bouts of social unrest that threatened to break down the new and fragile democratic government. A short-lived coalition of left- and right-wing parties, and the efforts of Social Democratic politicians to resist Marxist rabble-rousing, finally kept at bay the kind of Communist putsch that had briefly succeeded in Hungary, Bavaria and Berlin.

Toward the end of 1920, with the advent of greater stability, the coalition fell apart and the conservative Christian Socials won the majority in the national legislature. Thereafter, progressive ideas about the future were relegated to Vienna where the Social-Democrats were still in control. Made an independent province by the new constitution, the city became the first socialist-run capital in the world.

Bruno Guttmann was lucky to come home from the war to find his father’s well-established business waiting for him. He and his brother Otto joined the firm which soon benefited from the ambitious campaign of social housing launched by the municipal government. Since the company specialized in plumbing, it was well placed to share in what was, for Vienna, a revolutionary provision of the housing scheme. Toilets and running water were to be included in every one of the 64,000 apartments constructed for the city’s working class.

My mother, Sylvia, by this time of school age, was also a beneficiary of Socialist innovations. Under the leadership of Otto Glöckl, who headed the Vienna School Board, reforms were put in place establishing a new type of education free of 19th-century constraints. Teacher training was overhauled and lesson plans revised so that the atmosphere in the classrooms would be more democratic, more sensitive to personal psychology. The most controversial of Glöckl’s reforms was to loosen the ties between the Catholic Church and the public schools. He ruled that religious education, although still mandatory, would no longer be part of the curriculum. Instead, classes in religion would be given outside the schools once a week with Christian and Jewish students going their separate ways.

Those lessons made little impression on my mother. Her parents had left all religious observance behind. Nor could she recall experiencing any overt anti-Semitism, although the right-wing political parties and press continued to depict Jews as a disturbing presence in the body politic. Despite this dispiriting undertone, Jews had a prominent and even popular role to play in Vienna’s public life in the first decade after the war. Historian Steven Beller, in his Concise History of Austria, writes that “much of what made Vienna 1900 famous was actually the product of the interwar period. . . .” He cites the prominent role of Jews in the city’s lively modernist and mass culture during those years. Freud was attracting followers and expanding the field of psychology. Arthur Schnitzler, Joseph Roth, and Elias Canetti, to name only a few, were among a whole cadre of Jewish writers. Jews wrote hit songs, composed operettas, mounted cabarets. and had begun to play a role in the film industry.


The general acceptance of these seemingly inimical strands of Austrian life—anti-Semitism on the one hand, Jewish prominence in so many fields on the other—emboldened one author to point out its ironies. In 1922, Hugo Bettauer published a novel with the provocative title Die Stadt ohne Juden (“The City Without Jews”).  Taking his cue from graffiti with the slogan “out with the Jews,” scribbled here and there in the city, Bettauer, a Jew himself, decided to write a satire on what life would be like if the Jews actually departed. The book begins with an attitude familiar to the Viennese— Jews being blamed for an economic setback. Following this reaction to its logical end, the fictional government decides it can solve the problem by forcing all Jews to leave the country. But after they depart, Vienna loses all its charm. There are no more operettas, no more fashionable shops, and cafés are closed for want of loquacious customers. In the end, everyone realizes the Jews are essential and must come back. “My dear Jew,” is how the mayor greets the first returnee. That such an open acknowledgment of a culture’s inconsistencies could be published, would seem to testify to the health of the society it reflected. But in 1925 Hugo Bettauer was assassinated—the perpetrator was a member of the growing Austrian Nazi party.



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4 Responses to A Problematic City

  1. Josef says:

    A wonderful, concise history of the post-WWI era . .

  2. jezaculear says:

    Great new post. What a treat to start my day. I still wonder when and why Sylvie’s parent’s or grandparents left religion behind. And was this a trend and some specific period. Did Sylvie remember going to Jewish lessons? smooch

    On Thu, Jan 24, 2013 at 3:03 PM, Refugee Tales

  3. Ursel Braun says:

    Can´t wait to get to read the next post about Vienna between the wars. The details you are presenting are really interesting, Monica. And your review of “Die Stadt ohne Juden” is brilliant.

  4. More, more please. Somewhere in this period my mother is born.

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