Renaming the Ring: A Reconciliation

A road by any other name... From Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Ring to Universitätsring: an age-old quarrel

Ringstraße

This segment of the Ringstraße has been controversial to say the least | Photo: Margaret Childs

Vienna’s Rathaus has a ferocious kind of beauty. The seat of the city’s council and mayor, it pierces the sky with sharp gothic spires, a cathedral to popular democracy. There it stands, in a face-off, of sorts, with the venerable Burgtheater across the way. This neo-Renaissance pile is the leading stage in the German-speaking world, that like a portly Bürger stands watch over the city’s cultural heritage, its artists and intellectuals, guarded by language from the tourist throngs who snap photos from the plaza below. Above the flashes, the buildings stand locked in an age-old staring contest, the theatre’s alliance of bourgeois and avant guarde vs. the Rathaus commitment to the risks of universal suffrage.

It was in this Rathaus that the populist and openly anti-Semitic Mayor Karl Lueger finally took office in 1897, two years after his Christian Social party had secured his election, after repeated refusals by Emperor Franz Joseph (who allegedly loathed him as a person) to confirm him in office. Across the broad Ringstraße, the two structures have long been duelling for the place of honour on this history-heavy strip of the street.

Built on the site of the former city wall by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1857, and encircling the city centre like a thick silk ribbon, the Ringstrasse was intended as a showcase of Vienna’s most majestic buildings. And now on the sliver of the Ringstrasse from the Schottentor U-Bahn station to the edge of Rathauspark, the ancient duel has entered a new round.

 

Identity crisis

At University of Vienna’s main building just down the way, clusters of students sit in the late August sun on its front steps like pennies on the ledges of an arcade game. Scrubbed and fresh-faced, they clutch at “Uni Wien” tote bags and folders, under the shiny new street signs announcing a new era, and the resolution of a long-standing identity crisis.

In April, following over 80 years as Dr-Karl-Lueger-Ring, the street signs now read Universitätsring.

 

A Nobel laureate’s request

The renaming of this strip must be credited, at least in part, to neuropsychiatrist and Uni Wien graduate Eric Kandel. On receiving a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000, he claimed that despite being born in Vienna, his award was “certainly not an Austrian Nobel; it was a Jewish-American Nobel.” Austria’s president Thomas Klestil was dismayed. What could he do to make amends, he wanted to know. Kandel’s demand was clear – Lueger’s name must be wiped from the Ringstrasse.

“It is an incredible insult that a part of the Ring in Vienna is still named after Karl Lueger,” Kandel declared. “Karl Lueger taught Hitler the craft of anti-Semitism.”

Lueger’s anti-Semitism was largely populist rhetoric, and he famously explained his many Jewish friends with the remark “Wer a Jud ist, bestimme ich” – “I decide who is a Jew.” More incriminating is the impression his populist tirades made upon a penniless artist living in Vienna at the time: Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf documents this association, where Hitler credits Lueger and his Christian Social Party with his sympathy for anti-Semitism.

A multi-faceted figure like Lueger is iconic of the grey areas of Austrian history, and the changing of street names is generally resisted. Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, Executive City Councillor for Cultural Affairs, said, however, that in this case, “the City of Vienna is prepared to make an exception,” in part because Lueger is “sufficiently commemorated“ elsewhere. Across the 1st District, Dr-Karl-Lueger-Platz remains unaltered, and the mayor stands set in bronze, hands over his heart, as if pleading to be remembered for his better legacy.

That it is the University whose name replaces Lueger on the Ringstrasse signs is particularly fitting. The enlightenment ideals it embodies permeate this section of the ring. The current mayor Michael Häupl, again a Socialist, is a graduate of the Uni Wien and an avid supporter of the arts, literature, and cultural life. And each of the Burgtheater’s columns of arched windows is emblazoned with a playwright’s name in gold script.

So as the two buildings face off, these names gleam proudly in the sun. In this battle of ideologies, peace seems to have been made at last.

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