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Vienna 1900?Appearance and Reality

Vienna, 1900! What a great time and place to live, comparable to the Roaring ’20’s in the United States. Everyone was having a great time living it up at the Burgtheater, going to swanky swarees, or running about the Ringstrasse. However, Viennese people seemed to be a lot better off than they actually were. With the onset of nationalism and the Ausgleich, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was on the verge of collapsing. The people of Vienna dealt with their problems by living in artistic facade.

The Viennese had a unique way of dealing with their feelings about their empire. They thought, “if we can’t be a military giant, we might as well outdo everyone else culturally.” Nowhere is this statement more evident than in the Ringstrasse. The Ringstrasse occupies today what were once the ramparts of the inner city of Vienna. Emperor Franz Josef I was largely responsible for the construction of the Ringstrasse. In 1857, he proposed that the walls surrounding the city, which were a bit of an eyesore, be torn down and something more aesthetically pleasing built in their place. In place of the old city walls, among numerous other buildings, a new parliament building, a new theater, a university, and a new city hall were built.

Each of these buildings was built in their own style, with respect to the type of purpose each building was to serve. For instance, the Rathaus (city hall) was built in Gothic style to, “?evoke its origins as a free medieval commune, now reborn after a long night of absolutist rule?” (Schorske, p37). The theater (Burgtheater) was built in early Baroque style, “?commemorating the era in which theater first joined together cleric, courtier, and commoner in?aesthetic enthusiasm.” (Schorske p. 37). The University of Austria was built in Renaissance style as, “?an unequivocal symbol of liberal culture.” (Schorske p. 38). The parliament building was built in neo-classical Greek, “?to dress the exterior of the building?” (Schorske p. 41).

To design the buildings, Vienna hired a plethora of talented architects. The Danish architect Theophil Hansen (1813-1891) designed five of the major public buildings on the Ringstrasse, including the Hall of the Music Society, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Stock Exchange, the Evangelical School, and last, but certainly not least, the Parliament building. The designers of other famous buildings on the Ringstrasse were Heinrich Ferstel (1828-1883), who designed the university, Gottfried Semper and Carl Hasenauer, who designed the Hofburgtheater, and Friedrich Schmidt, who designed the Rathaus. Other notable architects were Camillo Sitte, Adolf Loos, and Otto Wagner, who designed the city’s railway system and railroad stations.

Although the city’s great architecture was a major way in which the Viennese showed great appreciation for their culture, there were also several other areas in which they displayed it; namely, music and literature. The music that came from Vienna is still popular today. Composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, and Strauss made the Viennese even more proud of living in their fine city. Literary composers such as Schnitzler, Musil, Hofmannsthal, Zweig, and Freud gave Vienna a worldwide reputation as an intellectual melting pot. Robert Musil thought that the people of Vienna were in too much of a hurry and should slow down to enjoy the finer, more important things in life. Arthur Schnitzler writes of the immorality of mankind in his short story, La Ronde. Stefan Zweig wrote of the way things used to be in The World of Security before he killed himself in New York in 1942. Freud, who is a whole other paper on his own, basically believed that everyone in the world was driven by sex, which was a revolutionary belief to have at the turn of the century. However, Freud did write on the discontents of society and how he believed that society spawned neurotic behavior in some people.

With all of the cultural achievements of Vienna, there was needed a place where people could meet, share ideas, talk about authors or composers and, most importantly, do all of this over a cup of hot coffee. Enter the coffeehouse. The coffeehouse is probably the most important development of Viennese culture to come to light in recent years. Coffeehouses are catching on like wildfire in America, especially here in Seattle. In Vienna, however, coffeehouses served as a sort of public forum in which intellectuals would meet and discuss the hot topics of the day, which were usually culturally based. Today, coffeehouses in the United States are meeting places for mostly a younger, college-aged group. People today still meet to talk about hot issues of the day. In some places, the topics of conversation are still artistic or intellectual in nature, but for the most part, the coffeehouse has expanded its range of dwellers to include the not only the social elite and artists, but also everyone from middle-class citizens to bums. Who knows how many great ideas were spawned over a hot cup of coffee? Or how many were shot down and torn apart by others in the dimly lit corners of a coffeehouse during a late-night discussion? The coffeehouses of Vienna have a 20th Century counterpart in the onslaught of the Internet. Chat rooms are popping up all over the place with topics ranging from sex, drugs, and violence to family, cooking, and Mickey Mouse. Also, with ever-increasing technology, more and more people than ever before are able to use these chat rooms and share their ideas, much like those of Vienna used the coffeehouse to share and hear new ideas on a variety of different topics. However, the coffeehouses in Vienna were merely another avenue for artists and intellectuals to express themselves and their work. Basically, the coffeehouses of Vienna were, simply put, vehicles for facade.

All of these cultural advances, of which the Viennese were so proud, however, were nothing but facades. The Viennese were struggling with the fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was falling apart at the seams. With the spread of nationalism, non-German speaking provinces of the empire were changing their official languages to what they originally were, whether they were Bulgarian, Czech, or Polish. The Cultural Revolution in Vienna proved to be much like the fantastic structures of the Ringstrasse, in that they looked very nice from the outside, however, in the case of Parliament, what resided inside was in shambles. In Kakania, an excerpt from The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil writes of his discontent for the politics in Austria during this time period. He describes a government that wants to help the people, yet at the same time does not know how. He compares, indirectly, the Ringstrasse to the country, as beautiful and lavish on the outside, yet that is all there is to it; a nice-looking outside, with no substance on the inside. The rest is merely a facade. Even the people go along with this notion. They traipse about in cavalier style, carrying on as if they had not a care in the world. Whiling away the hours in coffeehouses until dawn, while the real world, of which they either had no inkling, or no intention of paying attention to, slipped by outside. Musil writes: “?and the uncanny thing about it is merely that the walls are travelling without our noticing it, throwing their rails out ahead like long, gropingly curving antennae, without our knowing where it is all going. And for all that, we like to think of ourselves as being part of the forces controlling the train of events. And in the good old days when there was still such a place as Imperial Austria, one could leave the train of events, get into an ordinary train on an ordinary railway-line, and travel back home.” By this, Musil meant that the “machine”, which was Vienna and the people who lived in it, were too caught up in the hustle and bustle and should take the time to enjoy life itself. This view was also expressed in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play, Death and the Fool. In the play, Claudio, a nobleman, sees people in his life who have dies and when Death comes for him, he realizes that he has not even really lived yet, and he regrets it. “Since all my life was dead, Death, be my life!”

Alas, Vienna, 1900. A wonderful place to live, resounding with a variety of cultural activities. Intellectuals congregated in the numerous coffeehouses, discussing important issues. All in all, it was a great time to live in a great city, which was doing the only thing that it could to deal with political strife and turmoil. The beautiful architecture of the Ringstrasse echoed the cavalier lifestyle led by the Viennese: it was all just show. However, the majority of Viennese citizens either never realized it, or they were reluctant to acknowledge it. The Cultural Revolution of Vienna was merely a mask for the people to hide behind. They figured that if they were losing and/or could not hold onto their empire, they would simply boost their culture to keep their image up. It was important for the people of Vienna to look good not only for their own sakes, but also to keep up Europe’s and the world’s opinion of them. By drawing attention away from political strife and focusing attention on their culture, this goal was met.


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