Struggle for Vienna

Public intellectual Wolfgang Kos of the Wien Museum has staged a thought-provoking portrait of the city’s socialist inter-war years

In Front of the Display Window, (Vor dem Schaufenster), a 1928 oil painting by Herbert Ploberger in the current exhibit “Struggle for the City” (Kampf um die Stadt) | Photo courtesy of Wien Museum

It’s 1930 and in Vienna, a huge experiment is going on, to build a more healthy, harmonious and attractive future. The world is curious, following every move, eager to see whether a city council can transform its citizens with better housing, education and leisure. But while Red Vienna is being born, there are dark clouds on the horizon…

Some may consider local politics a little dull, but there is a remarkable show currently on in Vienna, the Kampf um die Stadt – Struggle for the City that is anything but.

It may be unusual in the English-speaking world, but the Vienna Museum has a Mission Statement. Anyone who’s spent time here will know that Vienna can be the home of beard-scatching pretentiousness and I must admit I was sceptical, having stood through so many dull, earnest openings at events around the city. But this one is refreshing, an inspiring Declaration of Purpose:

“Taking the city of Vienna as a model,” it reads, “[the Wien Museum] explores the general theme of social, cultural and urban change in comparison with other cities.

[As well as] the past, the museum takes account of current issues and themes… and reinterprets the objects in the collections and their significance for our lives. [It] is a repository of knowledge and a public medium…. If you are interested in Vienna, this is the place to pick up its traces.”

Many city museums are dusty, dull places – as this one once was – rarely visited by locals, or anyone else. The Vienna Museum today is a different thing altogether, and you may well have visited one of the 19 branches without realising they are connected: from the cute historical models at the entrance to the Riesenrad, the houses of Vienna’s great composers Mozart, Haydn, Strauss, Schubert, and, Beethoven, to the Roman Museum, the Otto Wagner Pavillon on Karlsplatz and even the Roman remains in the centre of Michaelerplatz.

The museum’s director, Wolfgang Kos, is what in Britain would be called an intellectual, though that term is unfashionable to some. But here in Austria, it’s a venerated position. He arrives with a fearsome reputation, for his intelligence, impatience and ego. In person, he is perfectly pleasant, though our original interview was postponed at the last minute and the final meeting cut short at both ends. In between, however, he had a great deal to say. I began by asking him about the conclusion of the show, that Vienna ‘lost the struggle for the city.’

Does that mean that Vienna in 2010 is instinctively a conservative city?

“No, Vienna is not a conservative city,” he states firmly. That struggle was lost to the Nazis, and won back after the war. In the years since, every single one of Vienna’s mayors from Theodor Körner (1945 – 1951) to the current Bürgermeister Michael Häupl has been a Social Democrat.

So in what ways are the influences of the 1930s still felt in the city today?

“Well most obviously in the public housing, public baths or the stadium in Prater which all give an idea of how much was achieved. But the stories behind all this are mostly forgotten.“

Enter an intriguing figure, ex-banker Hugo Breitner. Kos picks up the story:

“Breitner was the economical mastermind behind ‘Red Vienna,’” Kos said, “because he managed to organise the money needed by creating new taxes which especially hit the rich. And he was also a Jew. So he was hated by opponents of the Social Democrats.”

The liberal bourgeoisie were “the big losers” in Rote Wien, he said, “especially the Jews among them. They had no party that meant home for them.” The right-wing parties were aggressively anti-Semitic, including the Christian Socialists. “A classic liberal party did not exist, so many voted for the Social Democrats in the 20s without being leftist. Like Kraus or Freud, at least for a while.”

Vienna continued to be a melting pot of ideas and people, in the interwar years, as it had been in its glory days at the fin de siecle.

“So it was seen as a city of sin, of Marxism, Jewish power, and anonymity by those beyond the city limits.”  The struggles of the exhibition title were various: between a liberal city and conservative countryside; red versus black; the reactionary Catholic church against atheists and Jews; a relatively rich Vienna contrasting with the poor, backward, jealous hinterland.

So Vienna in the 1930s, in spite of the runaway inflation of the 1920s, the unemployment and poverty, was the vibrant capital of an culturally homogenous state.  After the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Austria was suddenly a tiny country of largely rural, Catholic, alpine areas. Many considered the bloated capital “a head too big for its body” in a country reduced to one sixth of its pre-1918 size. Vienna was a city of workers with a liberal bourgeoisie, and there was agitation against the “Jewified, Bolshevik metropolis” on one side, and fear of “ruralisation” on the other.

With two million inhabitants in 1920, Vienna was enormous, dwarfing other cities and even countries around it. For many, big cities were an urban utopia, a place of freedom and technological progress, full of dynamic architecture and hectic activity, particularly Berlin and New York, but also Vienna. Others saw them as chaotic and resisted modernist trends. But Vienna became internationally acclaimed as the model of a large, social city.

Red Vienna was, in short, a utopian initiative to provide education, healthcare, and housing to the working class. The SDAP were elected to rule the city in 1919 and remained in charge until 1934. They swept to power with a campaign of innovative marketing, using catchy slogans and a complex mix of media. Vienna was the only socialist-run city in the world in 1921. Though the party was then called the Social Democrat Workers’ Party, it was of a piece with the one which now leads Vienna, the Austrian Social Democratic Party, or SPÖ. Their campaign for a high quality of life for every resident is still reflected in the city’s politics today, with Vienna regularly topping polls as the world’s most liveable city.

There are some lighter moments in the museum’s exhibit, notably a marvelous government training film from the time showing people how to drive, what traffic lights meant, how to cross roads and indeed how to walk on the pavement (keep left, folks!). Most striking is the realisation of just how new and intoxicating everything was. Very few rules had been established, at least in the new urban code. And it was only with Hitler’s Anschluss that Austrians switched to driving on the right.

One particularly dark, but eye-catching, room is set up as a 1920s nightclub, complete with a sleek ebony bar and stools, and a movie screened on one wall, Café Elektric (1927) starring Marlene Dietrich, about a Vienna “goodtime girl” who plays the city’s bars for rich men. It’s rousing stuff, with captions bringing the silent film to life, exploring the melancholy of the night, amid curling spirals of cigarette smoke.

It was in the 1920s that the Old Danube was divided up into separate bathing areas, with cafes and changing rooms built for various workers associations, including the police, the tram-drivers, etc. Workers were encouraged to embrace leisure time and also to take exercise at the weekends. In this way perhaps more than any other, the 1920s continue to resonate in today’s Vienna, with the instinctive desire for Austrians to head for the countryside at weekends. To have fostered this custom amongst the population, as a political program, is a remarkable piece of social engineering.

To some extent, the workers’ baths were a leftist co-opting of a conservative, originally German, trend, the Wandervogel movement.

Wolfgang Kos, the man with a reputation for intelligence, impatience and ego; the brilliant director of the Wien Museum | Photo: David Reali

“Lets get out of the city” was the leitmotif of a broad protest culture that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, with short trousers and pennants, song and folk dances. Young people went “on a hike,” seeing in nature an ideal counter-world to the city’s hedonistic, bourgeois life. Most of the groups had a military-like structure. After 1930, the rightist and Christian leagues became more radical. The hiking boots were swapped for marching boots, many of which walked straight into Nazism. However, the movement was not confined to the right and included socialist and even Zionist variants, and had parallel movements in England, with scouting, and in Switzerland and Scandinavia with hiking and trekking as holiday pastimes. They all had an attitude critical of civilisation, responses to the sense of urban suffocation that had come with industrialisation.

The mountains turned into an ideological battlefield, with alpine pathos and peasant myths as vital props in the struggle against city, the “centre of decay.” In the febrile atmosphere of Austria in the 1930s, even mountains and grass had political dimensions. When in 1918, the vast Habsburg monarchy melted down to a mere “alpine republic,” its Austrian character also withdrew to the Alpine region. The Alps now covered 60% of national territory. Another bizarre area to become politicised was clothing, with Jewish visitors at the Salzburg Festival in 1938 forbidden from wearing alpine attire such as dirndls, boiled wool jackets or lederhosen.

“The Vienna communal experiment was first and foremost an educational venture,” read the excellent English notes accompanying the exhibition. The project focused particularly on teaching the working class how to live a more healthy life. In the 1920s this took the form of mass outdoor lessons for 10 year-olds on how to brush their teeth. The photographs of this initiative are moving and sweet.

One section of the show is dubbed the Struggle for Schools. The new socialist government quickly moved into elementary and secondary schools to remove the clerical and conservative elements. They wanted everyone to have a chance at an education, and so established adult education classes inside the new housing estates, bringing ideas to the people. Indeed, the Volkshochschulen, or “People’s  High Schools,” are still available in every district of Vienna today.  Many were specifically aimed at women. This was a radical shift, as unlike in much of the West, the education profession in Austria tends to vote for the conservative ÖVP, and always has.

Thus “Knowledge is power” and “Education liberates” were the rallying cries of city authorities.

Kampf um die Stadt is clearly a very political show, and I wondered if it was free from bias, or influenced by the desires of the current city authorities? Is it a coincidence that we are in an election year?

“One has nothing to do with the other,” he stated affirmatively. “A show like this, making a cultural panorama of this period, has taken five years to research, bringing together specialists from all the different fields. And even two years ago, everyone was saying there would be early elections in 2009, nobody mentioned 2010.

“But I know why you ask,” he admitted. “There is a tradition in Austria, an official way of looking at history. This show is outside of that style of history. For me that’s very important because there is a tendency towards hagiography in such shows, which this show is absolutely not.”  It is very different, for example, from the exhibition in Parliament two years ago marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Austrian Republic. “You could smell how political parties discussed it,” he said. “That [kind of thing] usually excludes important questions.”

Kos is convinced of the importance of exhibits like Kampf um die Stadt in stimulating discussion. “Kampf had a strong impact because people said, ‘Wow, they do this show and they work with a period which not everyone likes, they do controversial things.’ If we do a show about 1900, it doesn’t even have to be good. You are guaranteed a success, it’s easy…

“But you have to wonder how long Vienna can rely on Klimt and Schiele! This is one of the big problems for the future.”

In a city that has had Socialist leadership for so long, Kos believes it’s vital to be bipartisan.  Nevertheless, most visitors will detect that the show takes sides. Certainly, Kos makes clear that he is no fan of H.C. Strache, current leader of the FPÖ, and his far-right “Kampf um Wien.” So perhaps the Museum is lucky in its timing, in that there is a struggle for the city going on right now. But the Museum, he makes clear, cannot be influenced by politicians and is given a set amount of funding each year to spend on whatever shows they choose. It is currently lobbying for a landmark home, bigger and more spectacular than their sleepy Karlsplatz base.

This exhibition is staged in the spectacular Künstlerhaus (Artists’ Centre), with the façade of the building unmistakably dressed in 1930s regalia for the occasion. Any age represented by both art deco design and heroic socialist realist images is going to look handsome and stylish, and Kampf um die Stadt makes liberal use of both. Vienna literally got much brighter in the 1920s, the exhibition tells you, with the introduction of neon lights making this the most illuminated town in the world.

That Red Vienna could become a myth that still evokes strong images is not least due to innovative marketing. The slogans and ever-recurring glamorous and proud images of large-scale housing projects and happy children played an important role in the propaganda.

All the visual tools were used – aggressive graphics, montage, film, exhibitions and information via pictorial statistics. Central to this media-driven self-presentation, was the concept of a “New Vienna” – “new” not so much as a synonym for modern as an ideological code for overcoming the old order. The term Rote Wien (Red Vienna) only emerged in the course of time.

And what about the role of the Catholic Church in all this? To attract the new urban poor, they brought in contemporary architects to design churches that fit Vienna’s new look. However, by and large, the Church appears to have been a less than noble player, often siding with power against the poor and oppressed, opposing change and modernity.

Then came 1929 and The Great Crash, leaving half a million unemployed in the city followed by a decade of more or less permanent instability. The tide was turning, as Kos acknowledges:

“The anti-urbanists won, with Austro-fascism, with the Catholics. And Red Vienna lost,” Kos continued. They had control of the city for 15 years and achieved a great deal. “But the street, the public area of the city was a battlefield.  Nobody can imagine anymore what it meant, that every week, there were the Heimwehr (home guard) or the Socialists, all in uniform, or the Nazis, or other groups, marching through the streets, and nearly always it ended up in a fight. It was provocation, it was aggressive.”

This was the era of politics as mass spectacle. The Austrian tradition of politics as theatre developed into the drilled ranks of marches, parades and large-scale ritualistic events with thousands of participants. These not only helped to forge solidarity among communities of like-minded people but also demonstrated strength to the outside world. The way the masses were choreographed was the same with all political groups, featuring synchronised legions of children, mass chants or flag rites. It was politics as decoration in public space.

Kampf um die Stadt (Struggle for the City – Politics, Arts and Urban Life Around 1930)
Until  Mar. 28, 2010
Wien Museum im Künstlerhaus
1., Karlsplatz 5

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