Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Vienna Wanes

Austria is a German-speaking country, and Vienna is its capital. But while most of Austria is culturally Germanic, Vienna's atmosphere is not exclusively Germanic. As the social and political center of a multi-ethnic civilization, Vienna bears the imprint of Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Serbs, Croatians, Hungarians, Romanians, Slovenes, Bosnians, and others.

This diversity gives the city a certain entertaining variation in cuisine, in music, in literature, in dress, and in language. But there is also a sinister nihilism which emerges among some of the Viennese who find that they identify with nearly nothing.

This is as true of Vienna in the early twenty-first century as it was a hundred years earlier. Historians Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin write:

In the popular imagination, the name "Vienna" is synonymous with Strauss waltzes, charming cafes, tantalizing pastries, and a certain carefree, all-embracing hedonism. To anyone who has scratched this surface even slightly, a very different picture emerges. For all those things that went to make up the myth of Vienna, the City of Dreams, were simultaneously facets of another, darker side of Viennese life.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw the military defeat of the Habsburg empire at the hands of Bismarck's Prussia; this was the battle of Sadowa. The economic erosion of the empire's strength was manifest in the crash of the Viennese stock market in 1873.

Austria-Hungary was known as the 'Dual Monarchy' because it was both 'royal' and 'imperial' and the House of Habsburg had been its ruling dynasty for centuries. Until the mid-1800s, the empire and its capital city were a focal point for civilization.

The virtue of Vienna was its blend of strength, creativity, and intellectual liberty. The natural and observational sciences flourished alongside the arts. The aristocracy channeled its traditionalism and authoritarianism into a patronage of the arts, not the control of them.

When Napoleon had dismembered the Holy Roman Empire in 1807, he seemed to permanently threaten the health of culture. But Metternich rescued society from the jaws of destruction at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815. The new Habsburg Empire would continue the imperial tradition in Central Europe.

But Metternich's resuscitated dynasty would succumb, not to Napoleon's artillery, but rather to loss of identity which Napoleon inflicted.

The empire's self-concept, and its image among the other nations of the world, lacked some clarity.

Vienna's artistic and scientific achievements lost some meaning and value when they were stripped of the context of a world-class superpower. Vienna's cultural diversity lost sense when it ceased to symbolize unifying influence of the Habsburg dynasty in Central Europe.

The city's ethnic potpourri had been a symbol of the monarchy's political and military domination. When the empire lost its vigor, cultural diversity became merely a lack of orientation.

Scientific and artistic achievement had been the badge of diplomatic and economic supremacy. In the absence of imperial vitality, these accomplishments lost some of their global significance.