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“Vienna is Different”: Jewish Writers in Austria from the Fin de Siècle to the Present, by Hillary Hope Herzog. Austrian and Habsburg Studies, Vol. 12. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2011. 289 pp. $95.00.
Having already written about Jewish writers in present-day Austria, Hillary Hope Herzog has had the idea of extending the story backwards in order to explore continuities between the construction of identity by Jewish writers such as Ruth Beckermann and Robert Schindel and those at work a century ago such as Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig. Accordingly, her book is divided into four sections, dealing respectively with the fin de siècle, the interwar period, the decades immediately after the Second World War, and the present and very recent past. Within each section there is a historical introduction and a number of mini-chapters each dealing with an individual writer. This requires some writers to be awkwardly divided into two: Arthur Schnitzler, Felix Salten, Stefan Zweig, and Karl Kraus are thus split into pre- and post-First World War selves.
In principle, this survey could be valuable as a handy source of information and a useful book for student courses. In practice, it does not quite work. The second half, dealing with the post-1945 period, is considerably more original and rewarding than the first. The mini-chapters begin with potted biographies containing information that is readily accessible elsewhere and not always relevant: why do we need to know which school Stefan Zweig attended or when Richard Beer-Hofmann’s sister died? The choice of authors can inevitably be questioned. Felix Salten, who receives much space, thematizes Jewish issues only in his book about travels in Palestine, though Herzog maintains, following Iris Bruce, that Bambi is a Zionist allegory in which the deer represent Jews. It is good to have Adolf Dessauer’s Großstadtjuden (1910) rescued from oblivion, but a shame to omit Albert Drach, author of Das große Protokoll gegen Zwetschkenbaum (written 1938, published 1964). Since non-literary prose, notably journalism, is much discussed, there should surely have been a chapter on the intensely problematic Jewish antisemite Otto Weininger, instead of numerous tantalizing references.
More seriously, Herzog’s attempt to explain what is distinctive about forming a Jewish identity in Vienna omits two crucial aspects. First, Austria is not Germany. The German Empire struck many Austrian Jews as a superior, modernizing alternative to their own stagnant polity. Hence Kraus in the 1890s championed Berlin Naturalism against Viennese Impressionism. Second, Austria is Catholic. The high visibility of Catholic churches and ceremonies offered an alternative identity to Hofmannsthal and briefly to Kraus, while Joseph Roth, though he never converted, described himself as a “Catholic with a Jewish brain.” Catholicism also offended the Enlightenment values of such writers as Schnitzler; yet instead of examining the conflict between Catholic dogma and humane rationalism in Professor Bernhardi, Herzog reads the play unconvincingly as a study in “successful Jewish male self-fashioning” (p. 38), overlooking the ironic ending.
Herzog’s literary analyses are too often superficial and omit important aspects of her texts. She seems not to notice that Schnitzler’s post-war fiction is still set in the pre-war period. Discussing Beer-Hofmann’s Der Tod Georgs, she overlooks the homosocial bond between Georg and the protagonist Paul (in whose dream Georg is replaced by a woman) and the fact that Georg is a Gentile who, by the narrative’s logic, has to die before Paul can rediscover his Jewishness. With Kraus, she ignores his famous linguistic purism which has often been recognized as an aspect of his Jewish identity. She ignores Roth’s use of the Book of Job as a template for Hiob, apparently finds the quasi-miraculous reappearance of Menuchim unproblematic, and says his arrival at the Passover seder “references the coming of the Messiah” (p. 138), though at a seder one awaits a visit from the Prophet Elijah.
Fortunately, the real meat of the book is in the post-1945 sections. Jewish writers returning from exile to a post-Holocaust Austria determined to screen out the past could collude with this blindness, like the arch-assimilationist Hans Weigel, or accept the position of a tolerated Jew, like Friedrich Torberg (whose position was strengthened by his outspoken anti-Communism). Ilse Aichinger, who evoked persecution and the Holocaust in her surrealistic novel Die größere Hoffnung (1948), was isolated.
More recently, the political atmosphere in which Kurt Waldheim could be elected President in 1986, and Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party could enter a coalition government in 1999, has created a conflict for Jewish writers between their affection for Vienna and their attachment to liberal values. In this situation, the Jewish culture of fin de siècle Austria provides them with a usable past. Herzog examines the film-maker Ruth Beckermann’s declared affinity with Schnitzler; the novels Gebürtig (1994) by Robert Schindel and Vienna (2005) by Eva Menasse look back to his Der Weg ins Freie; the Israeli-born Austrian Doron Rabinovici finds in the Naschmarkt a multicultural space such as Salten, a century earlier, identified in the Prater; and Elfriede Jelinek, who describes herself as coming from an “Eastern Slavic-Jewish culture” (p. 261), models her polemics on satires by Kraus. If Herzog, instead of overstretching herself by undertaking to discuss early twentieth-century Austrian Jewish culture in its own right, had explored it in just enough detail to bring out these literary genealogies, her book could have been excellent; as it is, the first part can be used only with caution.
University of Oxford