Vienna has always been a city that nurtured a fetish for death and the macabre, but the present city is greatly different than the vibrancy of the Austrian capital a century ago. These days it is with a ghoulish presence that one explores forgotten neighborhoods that once filled the streets with dozens of languages. It is a depressing endeavor for a set of completely different reasons than one would normally presume.
Today the capital of a small mostly heterogeneous German population, Vienna is still awash in its former glory. It is a testament to what an interminable personality Emperor Franz Joseph was that a tourist can still find a small painting of his likeness hanging in an overlooked corner of a delicatessen or dress shop. Nevertheless, these small examples of nostalgia belie a much larger and grandiose world that existed for centuries.
Into this world of stale memories, Frederic Morton brings new vigor. Morton notes ruefully, “The future keeps mocking the past. The past, in eerie resilience, keeps shadowing the present.” No better description exists of such a unique place and time as Vienna in the year before the Great War set off a century of barbarism.
In Morton’s Vienna, readers encounter a vagabond Stalin, who spends his days researching his social tracts that he hopes will gain him greater recognition than his foe, the internationally known Leon Trotsky.
Other fellow travelers in this locus of culture are characters as diverse as Freud, Jung, Adler, and even Hitler himself.
However the narrative driver of Morton’s work that is really his freshest writing is the complicated and antagonistic relationship that Franz Joseph shares with his nephew and heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Rebuking his uncle and the Schonbrunn court, Ferdinand years earlier married a woman of ‘lower’ standing despite the warnings from his Imperial Majesty. As such, Ferdinand lives essentially two lives; at home with his wife and children he is a devoted father and husband, where the world is equal. However at formal occasions one would suspect he was a bachelor because he was not allowed to escort his wife in with him and his heraldic honors. The Imperial Court obviously took pleasure in rubbing salt into these open wounds that Ferdinand opened because it was decided that Ferdinand’s wife must enter at the very end of the heraldic chain, emphasizing to people the shame of her situation.
Despite this ignominious treatment, Ferdinand looked forward to when he would be King, and set about modernizing an empire that, according to Morton, Ferdinand believed, did not treat all of its subjects to the best of its ability.
The scenery that Morton describes in razor sharp detail is engrossing. Morton’s Vienna comes alive with the sounds of spring dances and the smell of coal-fired industry. From the palace of the Hapsburgs to a hovel on the street, this is as good a description of the socio-political geography of Austria before the wars as I have yet read.
Recommended for readers with introductory knowledge of Central Europe and above.
Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 by Frederic Morton. Da Capo Press: 2001. 410 Pages. Purchased copy.