The remarkable cultural efflorescence of Vienna in the decades before the First World War has earned Vienna a place alongside Paris during the belle époque or Berlin during the Weimar Republic as one of the great historic highpoints of European culture. From Sigmund Freud to Gustav Mahler, from Arthur Schnitzler to Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, this great burst of creativity encompassed the realms of the arts, literature and music as well as philosophy and the pioneering intellectual and scientific breakthroughs that opened the way to the modern era.
This magnificent achievement was in large measure the product of one section of society: Vienna’s Jews, and, in particular, the assimilated, educated and cultured Jews who formed much of the most progressive and culturally dynamic elements in the city’s middle class. As the middle class became the driving force behind Vienna’s cultural flowering, it was the rapid ascent of Jews into that class that gave the process its decisive impetus.
Yet Jews had effectively been banned from imperial Vienna until well into the 19th century; at the time of the revolution of 1848, they numbered barely 1% of the city’s population of 400,000. But after the reforms of 1867, which swept away the remaining restrictions, their numbers grew with astonishing speed, as Jews from the far-flung territories of the Habsburg Empire flocked to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the metropolis. In the 1860s, the Jewish community grew by the phenomenal rate of 46% each year; by 1880, it had reached 73,000, or 10% of the city’s population, and by 1910 it numbered 175,000, or 8.6% of the total population.
What singled out the Jewish incomers was that, unlike the Czechs who migrated to Vienna in large numbers as manual and unskilled labourers, many of the Jews assimilated into the middle classes. That pathway led through education, and in particular through the institution of the Gymnasium, roughly comparable to a grammar school, which provided an elite education allowing entrance to university. By 1900, some 30% of students at Gymnasien were Jewish, though Jews numbered only 10% of the city’s population; in the principal areas of Jewish settlement, the Inner City, Leopoldstadt and Alsergrund, Jewish students made up between 40% and 80% of students attending a Gymnasium. Education enabled Jews to become upwardly socially mobile, opening the doors to the professions, especially law and medicine, to academia and the creative arts. These children of Jewish immigrants who had worked their way up into the middle class came to place a high value on culture and education, on Bildung, a term that implies moral as well as purely intellectual improvement. That respect for high culture marked their lives, both privately and professionally.
The assimilation of Jews into Vienna’s middle classes was brutally interrupted by the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938, which unleashed an orgy of anti-Semitic violence and drove thousands of Jews to flee. Some 30,000 Jews from Austria were granted entry to Great Britain, which took more of Vienna’s Jews as their first country of refuge than anywhere else. Fully one sixth of Vienna’s 180,000 Jews were admitted to Britain, or almost one quarter of the 125,000 who survived the Holocaust. They mainly settled in London, especially in the then Borough of Hampstead, where in areas like Belsize Park, Swiss Cottage and West Hampstead, up and down the Finchley Road, continental-style restaurants, cafés and clubs sprang up, reminiscent of the atmosphere of Vienna in its glory days. The principal Austrian refugee organisation, the Austrian Centre, established a small theatre, the Laterndl, in Belsize Park, bringing the culture of the Viennese Kleinkunstbühne to London, with its tradition of artistic innovation and political cabaret. After the war, the Blue Danube Club on Finchley Road continued to stage witty and sophisticated cabaret pieces in the same inimitable style.
The Jewish refugees from Vienna brought their culture to Britain. At the highest level, they included a long list of celebrated names across the range of the arts and sciences. The descendants of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and most famous of the pre-war refugees, formed a dynasty: Freud’s daughter Anna, who continued his work with high distinction; his son Ernst, a noted architect, and Ernst’s sons Lucian, one of Britain’s leading painters, and Clement, a mainstay of British public life; the novelist Esther Freud, Lucian’s daughter, and the broadcaster Emma Freud, Clement’s daughter. Other well-known contributors to British cultural and intellectual life included the art historian Ernst Gombrich, the leader of the Amadeus Quartet Norbert Brainin, the philosopher Karl Popper, the molecular biologist Max Perutz, the foreign correspondent Hella Pick, the publisher George Weidenfeld, the historian Eric Hobsbawm and the actor Anton Walbrook, to name but a few.
At the broader public level, the Viennese refugees contributed to a major cultural revitalisation of British institutions. Rudolf Bing, after helping to establish the opera at Glyndebourne, went on to co-found the Edinburgh International Festival, becoming its first director. At the BBC, Stephen Hearst became Controller of Radio 3, against his rival Martin Esslin, who became Head of Radio Drama as well as writing seminal texts on modern theatre. Hans Keller, who also held senior positions at the BBC and was one of the most influential voices in British musical life, completed this trio of Viennese experts at Britain’s national broadcasting service. Typical of the institutions frequented by refugees from Vienna was the Wigmore Hall, where they composed a significant section of the audience; in the Cosman Collection at the Wigmore Hall, a collection of drawings of leading figures in the musical world, is a portrait of Hans Keller – Cosman’s husband. The cultural level of the refugees from Vienna as a group ensured that their influence came to pervade entire sections of British public life; for that, they should justly be celebrated.
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