Vienna’s vapour trail

  • Themes: Books, History

Now judged one of the world’s most liveable cities, the sedate Austrian capital was once a hothouse of social and cultural experiment with profound consequences, good and evil.

19th century engraved panoramic view of Vienna, Austria.
19th century engraved panoramic view of Vienna, Austria. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Vienna: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World, Richard Cockett, Yale University Press, £25

Neoliberalism, consumer advertising, the shopping mall, infographics, the fitted kitchen, attachment theory, the distinct style of Californian modernist architecture, the focus group, the uninhibited orgasm.

In Vienna: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World, Richard Cockett traces all these emblems of modernity back to Vienna in its intellectual heyday, those few decades of ferment and growth between the emancipation of the Habsburg Empire’s Jews in 1867 and the Anschluss with Nazi Germany in 1938.

Despite the location of a few world-class research institutes in Vienna, these days few would consider it a locus of leading edge social, scientific or political innovation on a par with London, Palo Alto or New York. The gemütlich mid-sized capital of Austria is better known for its easy-going liveability than as a powerhouse of fresh ideas, concepts and practices.

And yet, Cockett argues, historically Vienna has had a myriad, outsized influence on the world. It first struck him as a journalist for the Economist. ‘In any field I read or wrote about, from business to advertising, from philosophy to shopping malls’, Cockett explains, ‘there was usually a Viennese at the root of it.’ The book is, in part, a personal investigation into why that might be.

It is a gloriously quixotic enterprise: part collective biography, part intellectual genealogy, part urban history.

Sometimes the book feels as if it is careering off in too many directions at once: the origins of Bluetooth technology (ascribed to the film actor Hedy Lamarr), the history of eugenics, the Sex-Pol movement, the recruitment of the Cambridge Five. Yet the unflagging ebullience of Cockett’s writing carries the whole thing forward. And, in a sense, the sheer range of subjects covered makes his point. The Viennese were everywhere. Why?

Many names in the book are likely to be familiar to readers with a passing acquaintance with twentieth-century European intellectual history: Freud, Hayek, Popper, to name a few. Others less so. It is no surprise that many of these belonged to women, often working in what were then relatively new fields of research or business, where traditional misogyny was less engrained – design, psychology, physics – but whose contributions tended to be obscured, then and after.

The biographies are as fascinating as they are wide-ranging. The remarkable Hedy Lamarr was one, but there are many others. Margarethe Lihotzky invented the fitted kitchen. Herta Herzog, Viennese developer of the focus group, was once considered the most powerful woman on Madison Avenue, the heart of the American advertising industry. (A fictionalised version of her appears in Mad Men as Dr Greta Guttman.) Lise Meitner first jointly described the process of nuclear fission and was celebrated for a while as the ‘Mother of the Atomic Bomb’. She was nonetheless overlooked for the Nobel Prize for Physics. In Vienna as elsewhere, female pioneers rarely got the recognition of their male peers.

Do the manifold influences on the modern world that Cockett ascribes to these and other Viennese justify the bold claim that Vienna created the modern world? Probably not. Beyond the hyperbole of making such a claim for any one city, it implies a definition of what the modern world is. Cockett is a knowledgeable and subtle guide to the many fields he touches on, from the Austrian school of economics to the films of Billy Wilder. Nonetheless, they tend to coalesce into a description of the American dominated, economically liberal Anglosphere of the late twentieth century. Important, yes. But also, not the modern world.

Who counts as Viennese, anyway? Some of the individuals Cockett selects lived their whole lives there. Others merely passed through – or else qualify as Viennese through their connections to its intellectual or cultural milieu. Is Cockett’s Vienna a place or an idea? Perhaps both.

Maybe ‘Vienna’ is best understood here as standing for a cosmopolitan dream of intellectual freedom, coupled with economic opportunity and political security. And yet it was a dream, Cockett shows, which did indeed become a flickering, shimmering reality for those lucky enough to bask in its Habsburgian glow around the year 1900. Later, after its time had passed, an elegiac version of that dream would be passed down to us by Stefan Zweig and others: a lost world, The World of Yesterday.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, however, it had a powerful motive force, attracting talents from across the linguistically and religiously diverse Habsburg realms. Particularly for the Empire’s newly emancipated Jews, Vienna seemed a promised land, albeit one poisoned by the antisemitism of its populist politicians, notably Karl Lueger. (Much admired by Vienna resident Adolf Hitler, Lueger’s statue still stands in one of the city’s main squares, where it is regularly daubed with protestors’ paint.)

There is something redolent of Richard Florida’s descriptions of the rise of the creative class in Cockett’s story here: how a concentration of diverse talents can supercharge an urban environment in a way more likely to give rise to innovation. There was indeed something remarkable and important about the alchemies of people and place which made Vienna what it then briefly became.

Here was a city, towards the end of the nineteenth century, in which education – including self-education – was a primary virtue. Its intellectual life could be understood as an informal social ecosystem as much as a formal institutional one. It extended far beyond the bounds of the university – which remained highly conservative in many respects – and into the musical salons, intellectual discussion groups and private laboratories of Vienna’s bourgeoisie.

Education became culture: something you lived daily, not just something you did in a defined space for a defined time. Often, it entered the physical space of the home. Paul Kammerer, later a famous (and controversial) experimental biologist, assembled a private zoo in his family apartment as a teenager in the 1890s. (His menagerie included two American alligators and a variety of frogs.) Friedrich von Hayek grew up in a household filled with his father’s botanical samples, including a herbarium of 100,000 sheets. He considered becoming a botanist himself.

Interdisciplinarity was baked into Vienna’s socio-intellectual structure. This, Cockett argues, was one secret of its effervescence. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s family regularly held musical soirées in a specially designed room in the family mansion with its own private organ. Wittgenstein himself was an excellent clarinettist and a virtuoso whistler. Cockett wonders how much his love of music might have informed his philosophical fascination with language and expression. These things are unknowable, but they don’t seem fanciful.

Then came the Great War. For many liberal Viennese this was initially a time of high excitement, an opportunity to demonstrate loyalty to a regime which, by accident or design, had made possible their Vienna. Freud was proud to see his sons sent off to war. Fritz Lang was mentioned several times in dispatches for his bravery. The monocle he later wore over his war-damaged eye made him instantly recognisable years later in Hollywood. Wittgenstein did much of the work on his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in a prisoner of war camp.

By the end of 1918, the Empire had collapsed. Vienna was starving. Hyperinflation followed. The searing experience of collapse paved the way for transformation: the morphing of the city’s bourgeois culture of scientific experimentation and intellectual heterodoxy – often conducted in private salons, and among a rather charmed circle of liberal Viennese – into an era of public experimentation in social policy, economics, sex and much else.

The time of ‘Red Vienna’ – often dismissed as a short-lived period of Austrian municipal socialism between the Habsburgs and the Nazis – is revealed in Cockett’s book as dynamic, creative and consequential. It was certainly ambitious. To get a sense of it, take a stroll from the grandiose Hofburg palace to the huge Karl-Marx-Hof social housing complex, built in the 1920s. Kammerer, the boy who had collected crocodiles at home in the 1890s, was now working at an institute looking at how social welfare programmes might improve the health of the human population: positive, rather than negative, eugenics.

Things changed dramatically after the 1938 Anschluss. Cosmopolitanism was now a dirty word. The new dean of the medical school gave his inaugural address in Nazi uniform. Members of Freud’s Vienna Psychoanalytic Society were targeted for harassment. Over 3,700 Austrian Jews committed suicide in the first year of Nazi rule. Sixty-four thousand were ultimately murdered in the Holocaust. How many might have become world-leading scientists or Viennese social theorists? Across Europe, non-Jewish Austrians were disproportionately involved in the slaughter. How did Vienna fall so far into the abyss?

Despite an official postwar narrative of Austria as a victim of Nazi power, the truth is that Austrians were among the Holocaust’s most active perpetrators – and designers. Cockett draws a line between the practical mindset of Red Vienna, ready to draw on diverse research and methodologies in the service of social improvement, and what he calls the ‘genocide think-tank’ assembled by the Austrian Nazi Otto Globocnik. This was, he writes, ‘recognisably a Viennese project’.

A Nazi past was not a substantial block to professional or political advancement in postwar Vienna. As late as the 1970s, the rector of the university was a neurologist who had been an SS doctor. (His thesis was based on the brain specimens of three brothers murdered in a Nazi killing facility.)  Other dubious Viennese pasts were whitewashed. Cockett cites the case of Hans Asperger – he of Asperger’s Syndrome – involved in the transfer of children to a notorious euthanasia clinic. Konrad Lorenz, a biologist and Nazi member whose language around racial hygiene provided scientific cover to genocide, ended up presenting nature documentaries on television.

Already by the 1930s, many Viennese had made the decision to leave. Their subsequent influence on the modern world – and often their survival – depended on them becoming established, either physically or intellectually, on the far side of the Atlantic or the English Channel. Emigration and exile – often in desperate flight from the Nazis, but sometimes simply in search of wider horizons than those available in post-1918 Vienna – are essential features of this story.

So is the receptiveness of Britain and America to individuals and ideas originating elsewhere. The question of Vienna’s influence can be looked at from both ends. Not only: why did Vienna produce so many leading lights of Anglo-American modernity? But also: why were Britain and America such fertile grounds for these Viennese expatriates? Was it what they said, or who they were? Or was it chance and circumstance: being the right person in the right place at the right time?

Victor Gruen would surely never have earned the moniker of father of the shopping mall had he not moved to automobile-mad mid-century America, where the concept of the mall could take commercial root, and be expanded upon, in a way unthinkable in Austria. Gruen’s first fully covered mall opened in Minnesota in 1956. By 1975 there were 16,400 similar malls around the United States.

Hayek and Popper became global philosophical celebrities partly through the alacrity with which their ideas were taken up, promoted and vulgarised in the United States and Britain. In April 1945, an edition of Reader’s Digest containing a condensed version of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom sold millions. Two early, and highly consequential, readers of Hayek in English: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

As the Cold War got underway, Popper’s most famous work, The Open Society and its Enemies, became a sacred text for anti-totalitarian Atlanticists. Later it inspired Hungarian American billionaire George Soros to set up a foundation carrying its name: the Open Society Institute. One of its most prominent offshoots is a university now located in Vienna, the city of Popper’s birth, after losing its footing in Budapest, the city of Soros’ birth.

Freud, meanwhile, hated America with a passion and went there only once (he spent his voyage across the Atlantic psychoanalysing his cabin-mate Carl Jung). Yet it was America’s love affair with Freudianism – partly instigated by his New Yorker nephew Edward Bernays – which made him a household name globally. And it was Bernays who transformed Freud’s insights on human nature into the new industry – and dark arts – of public relations.

Emotions and associations, Bernays recognised, were more powerful than mere facts. Marketing cigarettes to women as ‘torches of freedom’ he created an association between smoking and a kind of bold first wave feminist glamour. Later, he used front organisations to promote products without the public being aware of the corporations behind them. Cockett calls him ‘the father of fake news’.

Joseph Schumpeter – who moved to the United States in 1932 – wasn’t the first economist to describe modern capitalism as both dynamic and destructive. Marx did the same. But in popularising the notion of ‘creative destruction’, and highlighting the role played by the entrepreneur in the churn of businesses and technologies, Schumpeter provided Americans with a bracing, even heroic, account of capitalism. Over the decades since, Schumpeter’s description of the violence of the business cycle has been bastardised into the positive creed of disruption. ‘Creative destruction’ has morphed into the tech bros’ favourite mantra: ‘move fast and break things’.

Cockett’s arguments may not always convince, but the vapour trail left behind by his various zooms through aspects of twentieth century history, economic theory, psychology or science hang in the reader’s mind long after the author himself has moved on. There is enrichment on almost every page. And with it, a wealth of fundamental insights into the production and exploitation of useful knowledge: the value of heterodoxy, the transformational potential of individuals able to straddle different fields of intellectual endeavour, the interrelationship between currents of thought and praxis.

Vienna did not create the modern world. But understanding it might just help us build a better one for tomorrow.


Charles Emmerson