Vienna Secession, architect: Joseph Maria Olbrich 1898

In most fields of intellectual activity, the early 20th century Europe proudly asserted its independence of the past. The modern mind was growing indifferent to history because history, conceived as a continuous nourishing tradition, seemed useless to it. The sharp break from the tie with the past could be seen as involving generational rebellion against parents and a search for new self-definitions. Emergent “modernism” tended to take the specific form of a “reshuffling of the self”. Here historical change not only forced upon the individual a search for a new identity, but also imposesd upon whole social groups the task of revising or replacing defunct belief systems. The attempt to shake off the shackles of history paradoxically speeded up the process of history, for indifference to any relationship with the past liberates the imagination to proliferate new forms and new constructs. Thus complex changes appeared where once continuity reigned. Vienna around 1900 with its acutely felt tremors of social and political disintegration, proved one of the most fertile breeding grounds of the 20th century’s a-historical culture. Its great intellectual innovators – in music, art and philosophy, in economics and architecture, and, of course, in psychoanalysis – all broke, more or less deliberately, their ties to the historical outlook central to the 19th century liberal culture in which they had been reared. This secession from liberalism grasped a social-psychological reality that the liberals could not see. This intellectual development in Vienna constituted part of the wider cultural revolution that ushered in the 20th century.


The era of political ascendancy of the liberal middle class in Austria began later than elsewhere in Western Europe and entered earlier than elsewhere into a deep crisis. Actual constitutional government lasted only about four decades before its defeat and the whole process took place in a temporal compression unknown elsewhere in Europe. In France this process gradually started in 1848 and lasted until World War I, in Austria however modern movements appeared in most fields in the 1890s and were fully matured two decades later. Thus the growth of a new culture seemed to take place as in a hothouse, with political crisis providing the heat. Austria became, as the poet Hebbel, said “the little world in which the big one holds its try-outs.” In Vienna, contrary to Paris, London or Berlin, until about 1900 the cohesiveness of the whole social elite was very strong. The salon and the cafe retained their vitality as institutions where intellectuals of different kinds shared ideas and values with each other and still mingled with a business and professional elite proud of its humanistic education and artistic culture. The development of an avant-garde subculture, detached from the political and social values of the upper middle class, came later in Vienna, though it was perhaps swifter and more self-confident. Most of the pioneering generation of culture-makers were alienated along with their class in its exclusion from political power, not against it as a ruling class. Only in the last decade before World War I does there appear alienation of the intellectual from the whole society.

During the 1920s and 1930s Austrian intellectual life was still dominated by men and women who had grown up under the empire. Many of them deemed the Habsburg Empire a lost paradise, whose luster brightened as time passed. In 1938 the last vestiges of cosmopolitanism perished from Vienna as Jews were decimated, saddling their successors with a corrosive guilt. After 1938 for a long time no other forum for debate has emerged to replace what Hitler had destroyed. The demise of intellectual Vienna is a major reason why post-1945 Europe has produced so few innovative thinkers.


Vienna was more than capital of the Habsburg Empire; it was a state of mind. Two attitudes interacted in the outlook of most Viennese: light-hearted enjoyment of the arts – aestheticism and indifference to political and social reform – therapeutic nihilism. In Vienna sociability became an art, flourishing among both nobility and bourgeoisie. In a society where appearances counted so heavily, it was imperative for aspiring bourgeois to make the right impression. If a bourgeois wished to cut a figure above his class, the easiest way was to overtip with noble ostentation. Noting that every person in service demanded a tip, including elevator operators and restaurant cashiers, Karl Kraus quipped that when he arrived in heaven, he expected the angel who opened his coffin to extend a palm. In Vienna all houses great and small stood open all day, often with no concierge in sight. Promptly at 10 pm however, the front gate would be locked and anyone returning thereafter had to pay the porter ten kreutzers. In order to avoid the “Sperrkreuzer” it was customary, except during carnival, for public functions to end shortly after 9 pm. Thus even members of the best families bowed to the tyranny of their concierges.


Vienna became renowned for the great amount of public and private festivities and for its glamorous and – thanks to the descriptions of Freud and Schnitzler – neurotic women. Prudery did not prevent Viennese women from becoming arbiters of taste. At least as conspicuously as Paris in the 18th century, Vienna during the 19th century feminised culture. Viennese intellectuals gained geniality by constantly consorting with women and being comforted by “süsse Mädel” (sweet young girls from the suburbs). Salons organised by women inspired musicians, painters and writers to their best efforts, as for example Alma Mahler. Women lionized favourites, making Franz Makart the most idolised painter of the 19th century. Saar, Wolf, Mahler and Klimt were but a few who owed their perseverance to protection by society women. The flowing curves preferred by artists of the Viennese  “Secession” and by Josef Hoffmann’s “Wiener Werkstätte” catered to feminine taste, even in Viennese impressionism traits of feminine qualities can be traced. In its attitude towards women and sex, Vienna combined extremes. From “süsse Mädel” to sexually repressed bourgeois girls. The preoccupation of Freud and Schnitzler and Weininger with sexuality arose in a society of libertine men and repressed women. For most men and for a few emancipated women like Alma Mahler, sex offered another outlet for aesthetic dalliance.


The high value placed on education and knowledge in the public ethos of liberal Austria penetrated deeply into the private sphere as well. Scientific and historical cultivation were valued for their social utility as the key to progress. But art held a position equal in importance to that of rational knowledge. Art was closely bound up with social status, where the representational arts, music, theatre and architecture, were central to the tradition of Catholic aristocracy. Learned culture could serve not only as an avenue to personal development, but as a bridge from a low style of life to a high life of style. Poets, professors and performing artists were valued guests, in fact prize catches, of the hosts and hostesses. There was no gap between bourgeois and artist as in France. In Vienna men of affairs, political and economic, not only mixed freely with intellectuals and artists, but single families might produce both types. Intermarriage provided the new wealth with high cultural status and intelligentsia with firm economic support. Art occupied a place of increasing centrality in this culture, in the sense of expressing ideals for society and bringing grace to the individual. A deep sense of the value of art was instilled in at least two generations of upper middle class children. All these influences added to the development by 1890 of a high bourgeoisie unique in Europe for its aesthetic cultivation, personal refinement and psychological sensitivity. In the salon of the Wertheimsteins, one of Vienna’s wealthiest intellectual society families, many important critical, creative and artistic people met and exchanged ideas – like in many other salons of that kind.


Throughout the Habsburg Empire the coffeehouse flourished as another cultural institution, a kind of public salon where men and women of all classes gathered to read, brood or converse. Although citizens of Budapest and Prague frequented the coffeehouse no less than the Viennese, it was the Imperial City that made the institution famous. It came to epitomise the aestheticism of Young Vienna, whose writers gathered first at the Cafe Griensteidl and later at the Cafe Central and in the 1920s the Cafe Herrenhof. Intellectuals of Young Vienna came mostly from nouveau riche families. For them aestheticism meant above all escaping idleness through conversation, dilettantism and occasional writing, for example Hermann Bahr, Egon Friedell and Peter Altenberg. The latter was one of the many masters of the literary genre corresponding to the cameraderie of the coffeehouse, the “Viennese feuilleton”. In Vienna the feuilleton developed into a chatty essay on any topic, written to match the verve and sparkle of conversation, a model of wit and good taste. It has been described as the art of writing something out of nothing, a skill that can be neither described nor defined without producing a feuilleton. Many of the innovations that Arthur Schnitzler brought to the novella resemble techniques of the feuilleton. Karl Kraus was one of the fiercest critics of the feuilleton because he saw it as the apotheosis of slovenliness. It outraged Kraus because like the operetta and the coffeehouse the feuilleton bridged classes and differences of opinion by lulling people with musical words who feared moral issues.


Saturated in the arts, the Viennese public forced artists to vie for its favour. Audiences were so well-versed in music and literature, theatre and opera that composers and writers felt intimidated by the attention showered on lucky few. This patronage fomented hate-love for the city in men as different as Beethoven and Kraus. The institution that epitomised intimacy between artist and audience was the Burgtheater and the Opera House. The Burgtheater offered the most sophisticated performances in a city where everyone enjoyed acting out his libido and aggressions. Each actor and singer was known to everyone on the street. At the death of a renowned actor the city went into mourning. Although the public might feel indifferent to politics and nonchalant about morals, it demanded the utmost from each actor and musician, Vienna was pervaded by a theatre and music mania. Four of the most inventive Austrian composers of that time Anton Bruckner, Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg suffered severe criticism in Vienna, but the cultural climate helped to stimulate their inventiveness.


Traditional liberal culture had centred on human rationality, whose scientific domination of nature and whose moral control was expected to create the good society. At the beginning of the 20th century “rational man” had to give way to that richer but more dangerous creature, “psychological man”. This new human being is not merely a rational animal, but a creature of feeling and instinct. Ironically, in Vienna it was political frustration especially of the upper middle class that spurred the discovery of this all-pervasive psychological man. Two basic social facts distinguished the Austrian from the French and English bourgeoisie: it did not succeed either in destroying or in fully fusing with the aristocracy; and because of its political weakness, it remained both dependent upon and deeply loyal to the emperor as a remote but necessary father-protector. The failure to acquire a monopoly of power left the bourgeoisie always something of an outsider, seeking integration with the aristocracy. The numerous and prosperous Jewish element in Vienna, with its strong assimilationist thrust, only strengthened this trend. Direct social assimilation to the aristocracy occurred rarely in Austria. Even those who won a patent of nobility were not admitted to the life of the imperial court as in Germany. But assimilation could be pursued along another, more open road: that of culture. The Austrian bourgeoisie, rooted in the liberal culture of reason and law, confronted an older Catholic aristocratic culture of sensuous feeling and grace.


The first phase in this assimilation process was an unparalleled building spree starting in the 1860s the “Ringstrassen Era” with grandiose buildings inspired by Classical Antiquity, the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque past. The second avenue was the patronage of the traditionally strong performing arts. By the end of the 19th century the upper middle class manifested more genuine enthusiasm for the arts than its counterparts in any other city in Europe. By the 1890s their heroes were not political leaders but actors, artists, musicians, writers and critics. If the Viennese bourgeoisie had begun by supporting art as a surrogate form of assimilation into the aristocracy, they ended by finding in it an escape, a refuge from the unpleasant world of increasingly threatening political reality. The life of art became a substitute for the life of action. As the slipping away of the world increased, the bourgeoisie turned its aesthetic culture inwards to the cultivation of the self, of personal uniqueness. This tendency led inevitably to a preoccupation with one’s own psychic life, which provides the link between devotion to art and concern with the psyche.


In the years 1895 to 1900, when Sigmund Freud, socially withdrawn and professionally frustrated, was at work on his epoch-making “Interpretation of Dreams”, Gustav Klimt was engaged in a similar enterprise as artistic explorer. Klimt headed a band of like-minded artistic heretics who quickly acquired strong social and financial backing. A widespread, collective oedipal revolt began in the 1870s to spread through the Austrian middle class. “Die Jungen” – the young became the common name chosen by rebels in one artistic field after the other. “Young Vienna” was a literary movement which about 1890 challenged the moralistic stance of 19th century literature in favour of sociological truth and psychological and sexual openness. This revolt against tradition finally spread to art and architecture. In 1897 the revolting young “Die Jungen” founded under the leadership of Klimt the “Secession”, an association of artists. It is characteristic of Vienna’s cultural situation that the ideology of this association of artists was developed as much by literary men and by people whose origins were in left-liberal politics as it was by artists. Yet that ideology contributed to transforming the painter’s way of seeing the world and the way of presenting it. The Secession defined itself as a new Roman “secessio plebis”, in which the plebs rejected the misrule of the patricians and withdrew from the republic. “Ver Sacrum” (Sacred Spring): this motto was based on a Roman ritual of consecration of youth in times of national danger. Where in Rome the elders pledged their children to a divine mission to save society, in Vienna the young pledged themselves to save culture from their elders. The motto on the building of the Secession by Josef Olbrich is “ To the Age its Art, To Art its Freedom”.


Like Freud with his passion for archaic culture and archaeological excavation, Klimt uses classical symbols to serve as a metaphorical bridge to the excavation of the instinctual, especially of the erotic life. Vienna also gave way to the Expressionist explosion in art with Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, shocking the viewers with exposing the psyche of man and his secret sexual desires.


The unriddler of riddles who found the key to the human condition in the story of Oedipus was also a lover of jokes. When at the age of 45 he was finally given an associate professorship, the still unknown Dr. Freud reported the event to a friend in mock journalese: “ The public enthusiasm is immense. Congratulations and bouquets keep pouring in, as if the role of sexuality had been suddenly recognised by his Majesty, the interpretation of dreams confirmed by the Council of Ministers, and the necessity of the psychoanalytic therapy of hysteria carried by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.” This describes well Freud’s life-long struggle with Austrian socio-political reality: as scientist and Jew, as citizen and son. In “The Interpretation of Dreams” Freud gave this struggle both outer and inner form. “A dream is the fulfilment of a wish” – a most personal statement and at the same time he overcame it by devising an epoch-making interpretation of human experience.


Freud professed a hate-love for Vienna: “Like you I feel an unrestrained affection for Vienna and Austria, although perhaps unlike you, I know her abysses.” On 11 November 1918 he wrote: “Austria-Hungary is no more. I do not want to live anywhere else. For me emigration is out of the question. I shall live on with the torso and imagine it is the whole.” For all his protestations of scorn, Freud could not bear to leave the city where he had dwelt since age four. He endured that ambivalence for Vienna like other Jews such as Loos, Wittgenstein and Mahler. Freud could have prospered in no other city because none other would have offered such provocative colleagues from whom to have patients referred to and against whom to react. Freud’s psychotherapy mirrors the fact that Vienna was a stronghold of memory. In Vienna nearly everyone exemplified what in 1895 Freud ascribed to hysterics, ”…they suffer largely from reminiscences”. Here Freud exploited Breuer’s discovery that reliving a trauma can dispel its symptoms. By discharging repressed memories through verbalising them, a neurotic could liberate himself from his past. Having discerned by 1893 that neurotic symptoms arise as a defence against unwanted memories, Freud confessed that case-studies of his patients read like novellas. To a neurotic, indulgence in memory brought both curse and cure, just as remembering both burdened and benefited Vienna’s creative minds.


In formulating his notion of the unconscious, Freud drew upon commonplaces of Habsburg bureaucracy. Rules of decorum were incarnated by the emperor, the father figure of the whole monarchy. Secretiveness blanketed public life, prompting a search for latent meanings behind every event. Such duplicity aggravated the mechanisms of neurosis which Freud was seeking. When he spoke of superego censoring id, he knew what press censorship meant: a story would be missing from the front page, unleashing a fresh spate of rumours. Most Austrians harboured feelings of paranoia towards the state, exacerbating tensions and causing violent eruptions by that.


Reverence for death in daily life, illustrated by complex and baroque rituals of mourning and a proclivity to suicide with Austrian intellectuals characterise the atmosphere of Vienna around 1900. The Viennese are also called “a people who cannot say no”. By refusing to say no to violence and death, the Viennese of 1900 cultivated an openness that made them pioneers of modernity. Yet flaccidity excluded them from reaping any fruits, but led to the fatal paralysis of the Vienna Circle during the 1930s.


In contrast to Hungarians, who dreamed of political action, Austrians cultivated a Baroque vision of death as the fulfilment of life. The Freemasons – very prominent in Vienna – preached a conviction held by most Austrians: death constitutes part of life. The Viennese custom of staging magnificent funerals can be seen as a symptom of aestheticism. Usually the city waited until a gifted man had died before it honoured him. Exaggerated reverence for the dead encouraged indifference to the living. During the mid-nineteenth century Vienna’s doctors seemed to prize the results of post-mortem autopsies more highly than saving a patient and doctors very often relied on the “self-healing powers” of the patents themselves.


Suicide occurred so frequently among persons under thirty that members of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society, led by Alfred Adler, devoted a symposium to the topic in 1910. In particular they probed suicides of gymnasium students. It was argued that suicide originates in a desire to expiate sexual guilt, especially that stemming from masturbation, while Adler saw in adolescent suicide an escape from uncompensated feelings of inferiority. As chairman of the symposium, Freud expressed disappointment at the result because no explanation was offered as to what process destroys the instinct for self-preservation.


Between 1860 and 1938 an astonishing number of Austrian intellectuals committed suicide, starting with Crown Prince Rudolf (1889), the writers Adalbert Stifter, Ferdinand von Saar, Georg Trakl, Egon Fridell and Stefan Zweig, the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, architect Van der Nüll, philosopher Otto Weininger, expressionist painter Richard Gerstl, chemist Max Steiner. Around 1900 at least three famous intellectuals tried unsuccessfully to kill themselves: Alfred Kubin, Alban Berg, Hugo Wolf. Otto Weininger showed that proclivity to suicide could spring from therapeutic nihilism, which was ubiquitous in Vienna.


Johnston, William M., The Austrian Mind. An Intellectual and Social History 1848 –

1938, University of California 1972.

Schorske, Carl E., Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Politics and Culture, New York 1981