Centennial in the City

Mariahilferstraße today and in 1913 | Photos: Stephan Rebernik (left) Wiener Linien (right) Montage: Raphael Moser

Mariahilferstraße today and in 1913 | Photos: Stephan Rebernik (left) Wiener Linien (right) Montage: Raphael Moser

On the eve of The Great War, Vienna was the centre of a massive empire covering some 20% of Europe from the Ukraine to Switzerland, including part of Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary, Slovenia, northern Italy and much of Serbia and Croatia.

The ambitious from across the Empire flocked to the capital; by 1910, less than half (46.4%) of the city’s two million residents were native born. Such was the fertile ground for the explosion of art, science and ideas that characterized fin-de-siècle Vienna and beyond.

“Everything that was to become important during the 20th century – from quantum mechanics to women’s emancipation, from abstract art to space travel, from communism and fascism to consumer society, from industrialized slaughter to the power of the media – had already made deep impressions in the years before 1914,” writes Vienna-based historian Philipp Blom in The Vertigo Years, his compelling history of the far  from tranquil decade leading up to the assassination in Sarajevo.

Far from an idyllic era of tranquillity, wrenched into modernity by the cataclysm of war, Europe was already a puffing engine of rapid change, “marked by fascinations and fears much closer to our own time,” Blom writes. The war simply speeded things up. Few living at the time saw what was coming, and none in the dimensions that followed.

Through a century of hope and horror – of astonishing advances in science and technology but also a retreat to ideology and fundamentalism – we have come back around to a dynamic, globalized world much like that of a century ago. After a “lost century”, Austria today has picked up where it left off.

As we enter this centenary year of 2014, it’s a good time to look beyond the surface colours of today’s streets into the Vienna and the Europe of 100 years ago, when the driving forces of modernism – art, science, commerce, and media – were already well in motion.

See Special Report, Online 02.01.2014

 

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