History minus the workers

Submitted by Matthew on 11 January, 2017 - 1:25 Author: John Cunningham

Normally I wouldn’t have bothered with Sebag Montefiore’s three-part documentary on Vienna (broadcast December 2016). His approach to his topics is somewhat predictable and conservative. But when I lived in Hungary for nine years I tasted some of the splendours of the architecture and the cultural inheritance of the Hapsburgs, not to mention its many contradictions and unpleasantries, in Budapest, Pécs and elsewhere.

I never visited Vienna. So, I looked forward to at least the visual aspects of Montefiore’s documentary. I wasn’t disappointed. Magnificent vistas followed one after the other: the Belvedere Palace, the Schönbrunn, the Prater, the Ringstrasse in a dizzying kaleidoscope of architectural and cultural splendour. There’s nothing wrong with this and no-one on the left should apologise for admiring beauty from whatever source. However Montefiore’s view of history is classically top-down. For him the people who really matter are Kings and Queens, other aristocrats, and the
wealthy like the Rothschilds, who, he casually tells us, are distant relations of his family. Few others get a mention.

The viewer is treated to one splendid exterior and interior after another: palaces, castles, salons, ornamental gardens, sumptuous boudoirs and living rooms, and we are told, in detail, about the great and the good who inhabited them. It all gets a bit tedious. The Austrian royalty seem to divide into three rough categories: plodders (like Franz Josef); schemers (his nephew Franz Ferdinand) and inbred dimwits (take your pick). Only the odd one stands out as in any way exceptional.

Occasionally, Montefiore does stray from the script. How could you, after all, make a documentary on Vienna and not mention Mozart, Sigmund Freud or the painter Gustav Klimt? However, others get short shrift or simply don’t cut the mustard: he makes no mention of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Joseph Horovitz, Stefan Zweig, Frederic Hayek, Franz Lehar, Ernst Gombrich, the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle and many more

The two to get more than a mention are, predictably, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Montefiore obviously enjoys the historical coincidence that both men lived in Vienna at the same time; Hitler had been in Vienna since 1907 and Stalin arrived in January 1913. Stalin soon moved on to St. Petersburg, where he was arrested on 23 February and deported to Siberia. Hitler was to leave Vienna (for Munich) a few weeks later. Montefiore over-eggs this coincidence (a matter of a few weeks), milking it for more than it is worth and even talks about their final showdown on the Eastern Front during World War Two. As if the fact that they may have passed each other at a sausage stand is a cue for a pan-European gunfight at the OK Corral-Stalingrad. He doesn’t mention Trotsky, whose stay in the city was much longer than Stalin’s, nor does he mention a mechanic at the nearby Daimler car works in Wiener Neustadt, who would regularly, on his weekends off, hit the fleshpots of the capital city. Born in Croatia, the Saturday playboy Josip Broz would later adopt the name Tito.

We never see a worker’s dwelling or how the servants lived in the splendiferous palaces where they toiled. What jobs did the workers do? What drove the economy? What about their politics? Their leisure pursuits and culture? It is a classic case of what the Marxist historian E. P. Thompson once called the “condescension of history”.

The Austrian Social Democratic Party was a powerful mass party. Austrian social democracy and the political strand of it known as Austro-Marxism was extremely influential (although criticised in robust fashion by Trotsky and others) and its leading figures, men like Max Adler and Otto Bauer, were central players in the European socialist movement. When Montefiore does mention ordinary people it is almost always as the “mob” – not even a nod in the direction that this “mob”, largely consisting of paid-up members of trade unions and the Social-Democratic Party, was highly organised and politically motivated. Nor does he mention the year 1934 when the Austrian authorities shelled the workers quarter with artillery and mercilessly crushed the workers’ movement, driving thousands into exile and executing their leaders, events which helped pave the way for the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.

History is too important to be treated as if it were a plaything, to be discussed with the after-dinner port; these events matter, people died, and the consequences for our continent were terrible. One day I will visit Vienna but I will also go to the Karl Marx-Hof – the huge complex of flats where the Social Democratic workers lived with their co-operatives, libraries and their socialist Sunday Schools. I will have a coffee in the Central Cafe where Trotsky used to sit and argue with Adler and other Austrian socialists.

A better introduction to Vienna is Frederic Morton’s Thunder at Twilight, chapters in My Life where Trotsky talks about his time in Vienna, and the film Colonel Red (directed by Hungarian István Szabó) The film, although, in places, not historically accurate, gives a good “feel” for what it must have been like to live in the Hapsburg Empire in the period leading up to the First World War.