Hitler’s Vienna

Jennifer Taylor (University of London Institute of Germanic Studies Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies)

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 February 2000




Taylor, J. (2000), "Hitler’s Vienna", European Business Review, Vol. 12 No. 1, pp. 50-52. https://doi.org/10.1108/ebr.2000.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Is there anything new to learn about Hitler? Surely, everything of academic value that can be said has been said, and the field is now open only to sensationalists, trivialisers and, since the demise of Communism, right‐wing propagandists.

This new study of Hitler’s formative years, first published in German in 1996, belies these assumptions. The author, Brigitte Hamann, is an academic historian who is able to produce rigorously researched but eminently readable works. Her previous publications include a biography of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria and the Austrian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bertha von Suttner.

In this latest volume the author capitalises on her research into late nineteenth and early twentieth century Vienna to offer a study of the formative years of Adolf Hitler with the aid of newly‐discovered letters. He was born in 1889 to Klara and Alois Hitler, a minor customs official. One strand of the narrative recounts how he repaid his mother’s careful nurturing after his father’s death which occurred when Adolf was 14 by refusing to become the family breadwinner and arrogating to himself the lion’s share of the state pension paid to the children of deceased officials, so forcing his relatives to sue him. Citing the judgment of the court, which took the view that it was reasonable to expect a 21‐year old man to earn his own living, forcing Adolf to renounce his claim in favour of his younger sister Paula, is but one example of the author’s meticulous use of original Austrian sources. This approach enables her to build up a picture of the social and economic circumstances in which the young Adolf Hitler grew up, and to dispel the myths concerning his origins with which he surrounded himself when he became the German leader. Additionally, the post‐war accounts of those who claimed to have known Hitler at this time are critically evaluated to establish the extent of their veracity and used to illustrate Hitler’s psychological make up. The picture that emerges is of one who even at that comparatively early age was unusually objective, more inclined to observe others than to participate in normal social interaction, a useful trait in a politician. Furthermore, the reader will find that the traits he exhibited later when German leader – the long monologues, reading far into the night – were already fully established in his youth.

Adolf Hitler lived in Vienna from 1906 until 1913 when he left for the Bavarian capital, Munich. The Vienna in which he spent the years of his early manhood, between the ages of 17 and 24, existing precariously and penuriously on state benefits, such money as he could beg from an aunt and the little he could earn from painting postcards of the Austrian capital, is brought vividly to life in this study.

Four of the 12 chapters which comprise this book describe the social, historical and cultural background of Vienna before the First World War in the context of Hitler’s interests. For example, the chapter on the arts considers his love of Wagner, examining the style of the productions he attended after Gustav Mahler had left Vienna for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the inroads this would have made on Hitler’s limited budget. The picture of the young Hitler sacrificing a hot meal so that he could spend three hours queuing for the cheapest tickets and five hours standing through a Wagner opera is a further indication of the way in which the author’s meticulous attention to local colour and historical detail enables the reader to envisage the early life of her chilling subject.

These background chapters also introduce the two main themes which inform the book – the chauvinism which led to pan‐German aspirations and the anti‐Semitism on which these assumptions were based. Additionally, the author shows how the pre‐war economy with its high inflation exacerbated these sentiments among the socially disadvantaged. Furthermore, the explanation of degenerate art exemplifies the key aspect of the author’s approach to her material. She selects an idea which was to become notorious in Nazi Germany and, by showing how it was perceived in the Vienna of Hitler’s youth, postulates influences on the thought processes of her subject. She points out that “degenerate” had its origin in Darwinian theory (thus constituting an example of racial categorisation applied to art) and also supplies interesting examples of its sociological application: women who dared to demand better education or the right to vote were criticised as “degenerate”.

In the opening chapters the author shows Vienna as a nominally multicultural empire led by an ageing monarch automatically fulfilling his duties without any political agenda. Into the resultant vacuum poured a plethora of demands for constitutional reform and national determination which paralysed Parliament. The impotence of this institution was frequently observed by Hitler from the public gallery. In subsequent chapters the author narrows the focus to show how insecurity among the German‐speaking population fuelled pan‐German aspirations, and the way in which such tensions were exhibited in the municipal politics of Vienna as settlement from other parts of the Empire progressively reduced the proportion of German speakers in the capital.

The former point is illustrated by studies of the leaders of three political parties:

  1. 1.

    (1) Georg Schönerer (Pan‐German Party);

  2. 2.

    (2) Franz Stein (Pan‐German Labour Movement); and

  3. 3.

    (3) Karl Hermann Wolf (German Radical Party).

The author demonstrates the way in which the chauvinism inherent in these ethnically based political parties was fed by the luxuriant offshoots of the Darwinian racial doctrines described in the previous chapter. For example, the runes and the swastika (Guido von List), the certificate of racial purity (Lanz von Liebenfels) and the adulation of the Führer (Georg Schönerer). This latter point is rather better illustrated in the German edition which reprints cards Schönerer received on his 65th birthday, one of which is worded “Heil dem Führer”. Regrettably, this page is omitted from the English edition, which seems to have a very conservative view of the readers’ grasp of German.

The last of these figures to influence Hitler is perhaps the most surprising. Karl Lueger of the Christian Socialist Party, Mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910. Under Lueger’s regime Vienna was modernised – the utilities taken firmly under municipal control and the transport system improved. But what impressed Hitler most were his rhetorical skills and his self‐presentation. On every conceivable public occasion – even when opening a gasworks, as an unfortunately rather blurred photograph opposite p. 293 shows – Lueger liked to appear with fully‐vested clergy accompanied by altar boys swinging thurifers. Like Hitler, Lueger was born in humble circumstances, was dependent on his widowed mother and never married. Gratitude to his mother for the sacrifices she had made on his behalf was part of his political rhetoric, a tactic which Hitler later copied.

The question of anti‐Semitism is not confined to the chapter on Jews in Vienna but pervades the whole of the book. Hamann’s analysis of the extent of Hitler’s anti‐Semitism concurs with much received opinion on this point. He was not inherently anti‐Semitic but, as with so much else, used this attitude as a political tool to achieve his aims. She includes some material to indicate that his anti‐Semitism increased as he got older. The vignettes of early Jewish acquaintances, the doctor who attended his mother on her deathbed, the shopkeeper who regularly bought his paintings, show that he had no particular animus towards these people at the time.

This book contains so much detail of turn of the century Vienna that this review can only give a flavour of the treasures on offer. It is certainly suitable for the reader who knows little or nothing of Vienna, but the specialist too will find more than enough material for further study. The volume has comprehensive footnotes, a bibliography and index. The work suceeds in combining entertainment and instruction.

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