Why did jews play such a disproportionate part in the cultural life of fin de siecle Vienna ?

Jack Elliot

"Mythenbildung ist wie kristallisation in der gesattigten salzlosung: es wird dann im entscheidenden augenblick alles mythisch" Arthur Schnitzler (Buch der Freunde) (1)

Viennese Jews proportionally did have more representatives in the cultural sphere. This can be because they had the means, ways and opportunity to exploit their situation to pursue the arts. Steven Beller states quite unequivocally "Whether it be Freud, Schoenberg, Schnitzler or Wittgenstein, the number of individuals at the top level of Viennese culture - or rather that type of culture for which Vienna is today so famous - who are of at least partly Jewish descent is so large that it cannot be ignored." (2) And indeed it has not been ignored, rather it has been used to create myth.(3) with many of the authors who write on the Jews of fin-de-siecle Vienna depicting a golden age and of a homogenuous Jewish culture with a shared common identity.(4) Yet Ernst Gombrich recently controversially asserted, whilst giving a lecture on the topic of, "Fin de siecle Vienna and its Jewish Cultural influences", "I am of the opinion that the notion of Jewish Culture was, and is, an invention of Hitler and his forerunners and after-runners. (5) There is then a controversy centered around Jewishness which likewise examines the individual and their level of faith, secularisation or assimilation.(6) For indeed what at this time did it mean to be a Jew? What also was the Cultural life in this Vienna? (7)

Judaism is a religion. It is not a nationality. Nowadays Israel is synomonous with Judaism but there was no State of Israel in the 19th century and there was no holocaust in the 19th century. It is necessary to state this because they have both in their own ways changed our perceptions as to what it means to be a Jew. The Jews of Vienna despite being portrayed as a homogenous unit were in fact divided on many lines. There were firstly, major class divisions, also they had a myriad of political beliefs, they had as many nationalities as the empire and more, and even with regards religion there were differences, since even an assimilated, lapsed or aethistic Jew could still be regarded as a Jew. Throughout the history of the Habsburg Empire, Jews had been bankers to the Crown. Despite prejudice and restrictions on their movement and trade, privildeged Jews managed from the 18th century onwards to settle and prosper in Vienna (since only 179 "tolerated" families were allowed) (8) The Jewish emancipation of the mid 19th century; then brought an influx of immigrants and official acknowledgment of those whom had been living illegally. There was then, an established core of a rich priviledged educated elite with the means and a larger group of first generation Jews with a desire to participate culturally.

As Rozenblit has noted, despite Vienna having no ghetto, Jews did congregate in homogenous neighbourhoods (9) Viennese cosmpolitanism, obviously did not extend to whom they shared neighbours with, wealthy Jews were, however, attracted from all parts of the Empire and would often have a holiday home in Vienna so as to enjoy the culture and life of the capital. Aspiring artistes then would have the opportunity to procure Jewish patrons and customers for their works. Yet it must be considered that the patrons of Klimt, Wagner et al. were on the whole varied and on closer examination it is apparent that there were no Jewish patrons solely commissioning Jewish artistes to produce Jewish art. Rather there were patrons of both faiths who commisioned artistes of both faiths or none to produce Art.

There is an argument that Jews played a large role in cultural life since there were obstacles placed in front of them in many of the professions. This however is a moot point. It is true that in the so-called liberal-professions such as journalism and the theatre there was an overwhelming amount of Jews this could be because many Jews owned the theatre and the newspaper or it could have been the hostility to non-Jews to "putting their daughter on the stage"( 10). In spite of Emancipation there still remained restrictions on entry to the Civil Service, however many Jews with the talent and the desire to enter, merely assimilated and there was a sizeable number of these assimilated Jews