A Jewish History of Austria - Part II

Austrian & Viennese Jews 1867-1934

One thing that looks extremely odd today in the light of history was the alliance between German nationalists and many Jews: Liberals of 19th-century Austria were often driven by the ideas of freedom, equality and nationhood derived from the enlightenment and romanticism. Nationalists were often anti-cleric, anti-Habsburg and in favour of a big, German republic (including the German speaking parts of Austria-Hungary).

Stefan Zweig was of Jewish descent and is among my favourite writers

Their liberal ideals appealed to many Jewish intellectuals. Over the course of the 19th century, progressive nationalists increasingly endorsed anti-Semitic thoughts. They were concentrated in organisations like nationalist "Burschenschaften" (fraternities) and the "Turnerbund" (a sport association). At a time when more and more Jews intermarried with non-Jewish Austrians, didn′t speak Hebrew or Yiddish and stopped practicing any faith, a counter-movement based on anti-assimilation thoughts developed, in strong correlation with German nationalism.

Spearheaded by people like Theodor Herzl, a Jewish-National Party was formed and a Jewish Fraternity ("Kadimah") was founded in 1882. As Zionists they worked towards the foundation of a Jewish nation. Herzl himself had been a member of a German-nationalist fraternity, which later, after Herzl had already quit his membership, formally excluded Jews and endorsed an openly anti-Semitic policy.

The doctor and writer Arthur Schnitzler often picked up the issue of Vienna's anti-Semitism in his works

Note also that the National Socialists relied partly on the ideological basis of the 19th century nationalists, but were primarily a street-movement of soldiers and unemployed in their early days. Many members of Turnerbund groups and Burschenschaften became leading Nazis, but the organisations were dissolved in Nazi-Germany (like all societies). Within the Jewish community of Austria, a conflict between right-wing Zionists and pro-assimilation groups developed. Many socialists of that time were Jewish, too, for example Victor Adler and Otto Bauer (or Karl Marx in Germany).

During the First World War, 36,000 Jews from Galicia moved to Vienna. A total of 200,000 Jews lived in the new, tiny Austria. Eastern-European Jews were generally much more conservative (and Yiddish speaking) than the assimilated, wealthy Jews of Vienna, and tensions increased. So did anti-Semitism, and the fact that ten thousands of unemployed former soldiers now populated Vienna and looked for scapegoats did not help to improve the situation (Adolf Hilter worked as a "artist" in Vienna at this time).

Contributions to Cultural & Intellectual Life

I would like to emphasise the extent to which Vienna was a cultural and intellectual centre from 1867 to 1934. Regardless of whether in fine arts, music, literature; science, medicine and technology; or in humanities, economics and philosophy - no discipline in which Vienna didn′t play a leading role of global dimensions. Jugendstil, expressionism, discoveries at Vienna University and new schools of thought arose during this time from Austria. Many key-contributors were at least partly Jewish; this was fuelled by the fact that many upper-class Jews had intermarried in the 19th century, thereby "multiplying" the number of people who were later claimed to be Jewish.

For example the Wittgenstein family: Only the father of the philosopher Ludwig was of Jewish origin, the family was in fact of liberal Protestant descent (Ludwig's grandparents had converted and changed their name into the Germanic "Wittgenstein") and organised religion does not appear to me as a crucial factor in Ludwig Wittgenstein′s life or work. Nevertheless, he was later claimed Jewish by a variety of people. I guess it depends largely on one′s definition of "Jewish" to decide.

The inventor of sexual intercourse, Sigmund Freud, was one of Vienna's most infuential intellectuals in the early 20th century

Among the many outstanding figures of the cultural and intellectual life of Austria between the Ausgleich 1867 and the onset of the Holocaust that were at least partly Jewish were Wolfgang Pauli (physicist), Anna and Siegmund Freud, Viktor Frankl and Alfred Adler (psychologists / psychiatrists), Hans Kelsen (lawyer, responsible for Austria′s first republican constitution, most of it was re-introduced in 1955 and is still valid), Ludwig von Mises (economist, converted Catholic), Karl Popper and the mentioned Ludwig Wittgenstein (philosophers), his brother Paul Wittgenstein (pianist), Otto Weininger (anti-Semitic, but nonetheless Jewish philosopher), Robert Barany (physiologist, worked in Sweden), Fritz Grünbaum (comedian), Hugo von Hoffmannsthal and Max Reinhardt (dramatists), the von Rothschild family (entrepreneurs; note also the high number of 19th century Austrians among Jewish nobility in Europe), Stefan Zweig (writer, called himself a "Jew by chance"), Arthur Schnitzler (writers), Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (composers, both converted - Mahler to Catholic, Schoenberg Protestant, later back to Judaism), Franz Kafka (writer - rooted in Prague) and Felix Salten (writer; created "Bambi" and - little known fact - child pornography).

A whole generation of people of Jewish-Austrian descent achieved much in the decades after the Holocaust, many in the US, Great Britain or Israel. Naming them becomes even more dubious (how Jewish were they, how Austrian were they?), so I′ll refrain from it.

Anschluss of Austria 1938, WWII & Holocaust

When Austria turned increasingly fascist in 1934, religious civil rights remained largely unaffected. The Austro-Fascist government was pro-Catholic, which probably resulted indirectly in discrimination against non-Catholics, but I do not know of direct action against Jews through the government. By the time of the Anschluss, there were 200,000 people living in Austria (180,000 in Vienna) that got classified as being Jewish according to the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi-Germany (full, half, quarter, or eight-Jewish).

The Memorial against Fascism and War in Vienna depicts a Jew forced to clean the ground

Large-scale emigration started in 1938, many Jews had to leave all their possessions. Mocking on the streets and attacks became common in Vienna and during the pogroms of November 1938 ("Reichskristallnacht"), Jewish institutions in Vienna, Klagenfurt, Linz, Graz, Salzburg, Innsbruck and several cities in Lower Austria got attacked. 27 people were killed; 6,500 Jews were arrested, half of them deported to concentration camps.

In 1938, there were 91,000 Jews left that were classified as "fully Jewish", 22,000 of the other categories. From 1940 onwards, almost all of them were deported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt or other camps, mostly in Poland. A large concentration camp was in Mauthausen, Upper Austria. 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, 120,000 emigrated, many of them to Great Britain, North America or South America. Numbers that I could obtain from the Simon-Wiesenthal-Center in New York diverge slightly (70,000 killed, 100,000 emigrants). Vienna University lost 40 percent of its faculty (mostly in Wehrmacht soldiers, though).

Post-war History & Present

After the war, some thousand Jews returned to Austria. Others have never left and survived the camps or managed to hide. Austria′s legendary chancellor Bruno Kreisky was atheist with a Jewish background, the artists Arik Brauer and Ernst Fuchs are Jewish and many people of Austrian-Jewish origin have ties to both the countries in which they live now and Austria.

The Memorial for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Vienna commemorates 60,000 to 70,000 Austrian Jews that were in Nazi campsI know people who commute between Israel and Austria (guess where they spend the winters). The architect Simon Wiesenthal, based in Vienna, became famous for his private investigations of Nazi criminals. In 2004, Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel prize in literature (her father was Jewish). The numbers of Jews in Austria have steadily declined until around 1990. Jewish culture is publicly funded and new synagogues were recently opened in Graz, Baden and Hohenems. There are communities in Salzburg, Vienna and some other cities.

Since around 1990, Jewish immigrants from countries of the former Soviet Union helped to re-build communities. Many of them are from the former Galicia and descendants of German-speaking Jews. I would not consider this a recovery of Jewish life in Austria, but rather a new chapter.

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Back to "background"

Further Reading

Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien

Jewish Sightseeing: Vienna & Austria

The Institute for the History of Jews in Austria

Austrian Jewish History on aeiou (German)

The Freedmans visit Austrian Synagogues

References & Literature

A very personal account on life and culture of Jews in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until the Holocaust is Peter Singer′s "Pushing Time Away - My Grandfather and the tragedy of Jewish Vienna". (ISBN: 0060501332)

Klaus Lohrmann edited a catalogue accompanying the exhibition "1000 Jahre österreichisches Judentum" ("1000 years of Austrian Judaism", German). Together with a book he edited in collaboration with Martha Keil, "Studien zur Geschichte der Juden in Österreich" ("Studies about the History of Jews in Austria"), this makes an excellent source of basic information. (ISBNs: 3-8537-096-0 and 3-205-05286-2)

A fascinating testimony of the intellectual upper-class life in Austria-Hungary around 1900 are the works by Arthur Schnitzler. Somewhat Jewish himself, most of his main characters are not - but anti-Semitism and the role of Jews in Vienna′s society are featuring over and over again.

For the "boom" period of Vienna′s cultural and intellectual life, these two books will provide much information on the Jewish contribution: "The Jews of Vienna, 1867-1914: Assimilation and Identity" by Marsha L. Rozenblit (ISBN: 0873958446) and "Vienna and the Jews, 1867-1938: A Cultural History" by Steven Beller (ISBN: 0521407273)

Michael A. Meyer et. al.: "Deutsch-jüdische Geschichte in der Neuzeit" in four volumes from 1996 (ISBN: 3406397026) is a major project by the Leo Baeck Institute and involved historians from England, Israel, Germany and the US.

"Jewish history and Jewish life in Austria: Ten centuries of Jewish history in Austria" is a short brochure by Johannes Reiss from 1989, which was published through the tourism authorities in Austria. Very concise, but covering essentially all of Austrian Jewish History. (ASIN: B00072LSIY)