#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews VIENNA THE INTERNATIONAL CAPITAL by Angus Robertson

‘Vienna, City of My Dreams’, intoned the Austrian Richard Tauber, one of the 20th century’s finest operatic tenors; ‘Goodnight, Vienna’, warbled Jack Buchanan – one of Scotland’s more mundane vocalists of the last one hundred years – ‘You city of a million melodies’. Music, cake shops, magnificent art and architecture: the casual observer’s image of the city.

And yet, as Angus Robertson, a life-long and respected observer of the city, describes in compelling and quite staggering detail, if Vienna has a million melodies, it also has a million memories from a thousand-year history that for nearly six hundred of them made it the epicentre of European politics and the nerve centre of the huge, multiracial Holy Roman Empire. It was the EU’s Brussels writ large, in control of territories stretching from Italy westwards through Spain (and including the Spanish colonies), north to the Low Countries and east through the German lands to western Ukraine and the Balkans. But, of course, by the time Tauber et al. were singing its praises, Vienna had been reduced by war and the squandering of political capital to a shadow of its former glory: a centre for black marketeering, espionage and semi-starvation, so brilliantly portrayed later by Carrol Reed in his 1949 film The Third Man.

Robertson’s narrative of Vienna’s history, its triumphs, vicissitudes, several descents into tragedy and extraordinary capacity to clamber back against the odds, is both entertaining and full of surprises, facts and figures that reveal its essential dynamism over many centuries. This city of Empress Maria Theresa and Mozart was also at one time or another home to Marx, Trotsky and Hitler; it housed the first purpose-built British Embassy; it was the first major European city to have a social democratic government and remains the continent’s largest public landlord, owning the homes of several hundred thousand of its citizens. Its penultimate Emperor, Franz Joseph I, was, until our own late queen’s reign, the longest-serving monarch in Europe, the last-but-one of the Habsburgs, who died in 1916 and whose dynasty had ruled since 1276 in Austria and almost continuously from 1438 to 1806 as Holy Roman Emperors. The history of Vienna is precisely the history of the Habsburgs: it was ‘their’ dynastic capital. They saw off the Huns and the Ottomans, who besieged Vienna twice; they were ‘beheaded’ by Napoleon in 1806 when he abolished the Holy Roman Empire – yet saw him off too, less than a decade later, and re-established their position at the centre of Europe with the Congress of Vienna and the creation of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy.

The Congress was the brainchild of the Austrian Chancellor, Prince Klemens von Metternich, who was building on Vienna’s long-established success as the diplomatic hub of the continent – a role the city took up several hundred years earlier, when the Habsburgs first allowed, and indeed guaranteed, foreign diplomats access to the Court – the only non-royal group to have this exalted status, much to the annoyance and frustration of the imperial nobility. The Congress was the apogee of Vienna’s diplomatic story, backed up by its fame as a centre of art and music. The Congress was supposed to last three or four weeks, but ‘the delegates … indulged in unrestrained celebrations … [and it] soon morphed into a glittering vanity fair … “sparkling chaos” that would light up the banks of the Danube’. The fêtes and balls only ended eight months later; but amid the ‘sparkling chaos’ Metternich and the many other reactionary forces of Europe re-established their dynasties and diplomatic ties after their almost total dismemberment during the Napoleonic wars. The ‘Metternich System’ of Congress meetings endured – the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 notwithstanding – until the entire edifice came tumbling down in the cataclysm of the First World War. The dual monarchy vanished as did the Habsburgs as a dynasty. The city of Vienna and the Austrian Republic that survived became shadows of the powerful capital and the mighty empire that had lasted nearly a millennium.

One might have expected Vienna to remain in unimportant and provincial obscurity, as indeed it did for several decades. But its – and Austria’s – instinct for survival somehow triumphed: after the Second World War it was the only European capital occupied by the Soviets from which they eventually withdrew. Their insistence on Austrian neutrality as a condition of this had the unintended result of turning Vienna once again into a truly international city – which it has remained to this day. It is home to over forty international organisations; it was where the UN brokered its Convention on Diplomatic Relations, where Kennedy and Khrushchev held their famous summit and where numerous spies, diplomats and others have met, conspired and traded deals.

When I first visited Vienna as a student in the early 1960s, I thought it somewhat stuffy, yet at the same time rather arrogant; my impression didn’t change much when I returned as a BBC journalist in the early 1980s, when you could still see ladies parading in real fur coats. But perhaps the city had learned a thing or two: glitz is not everything. After all, the capital city that had been a byword for anti-Semitism in the early 20th century, and long before, had by the 1970s a Jewish Chancellor, Bruno Kreisky. Vienna had become a city self-confident enough to shrug off the inconvenience of a President with a dubious Nazi past, Kurt Waldheim, and has topped the international ratings for quality of life for many years. Indeed, the life of the city of Vienna flows on, as smoothly – and as deep – as the waters of the Danube. As Angus Robertson notes, during the 19th century, ‘the city created the modern age … [it] became the capital of ideas and the battlefield of extremes. Monarchy versus revolution, fascism versus communism, wild decadence versus Catholic piety. It all happened in Vienna, the world city’. The reality is that, once again, Vienna is ‘a global meeting place, a neutral heart’ quietly beating in the centre of 21st-century Europe.

Reviewed by Max Easterman


VIENNA THE INTERNATIONAL CAPITAL

by Angus Robertson

Published by Birlinn (2021)


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Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 35 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.


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