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The Habsburg myth and the rise of fascism.

To write about German intellectuals and Fascism from the 1910s to the 1930s has its ironies. I have spent most of my career writing about Austrian intellectuals, or to be more precise Viennese Jewish intellectuals, who regarded themselves as "German intellectuals" but who would now, in all likelihood, not be included in that category, at least not without debate. Was Sigmund Freud a German intellectual, and how about Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Ludwig Wittgenstein, or Karl Kraus? Such figures were definitely "German-speaking," and made an immense contribution to German literature and culture generally, but were they "German intellectuals"?

With that question in mind, the area I want to concentrate on is the renewal of interest in the Central European, "Habsburg" perspective on the response to the rise of Fascism and the onset of the political and moral catastrophe of 19331945. As such this could be seen to be a parochial perspective, and it is undoubtedly very subjective, but I hope it can shed light from an alternative angle on the topic. In this Central European area, what I find most intriguing has been both the renewal of interest in the literature of the "Habsburg Myth," and, if I might phrase it that way, the "anti-Habsburg Myth."

The most prominent example of the former in the very recent past has not been an instance of academic research as such, but rather a film: Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel from 2014. Based on the romanticized version of Central Europe depicted in the work of Stefan Zweig, this film brilliantly evoked a mythical world of cosmopolitan elegance, refined wit and civilized ethics, destroyed by aristocratic greed and ideological thuggery. This reflected a tendency in recent scholarship to take more seriously the claims by authors such as Zweig, Joseph Roth, Franz Werfel, and, in his own ironic way, Robert Musil, encapsulated many decades ago by Claudio Magris in the concept of the Habsburg Myth. This was, namely, that the breaking up of the ancient, dynastic, but supranational, polyglot and pluralistic Habsburg monarchy in 1918, in favor of the principle of nationalism, was a tragedy for the region, for its cultural breadth, but also for its political and moral equilibrium. For these authors, especially for Roth, there was no doubt that the origins of Fascism lay in this throwing over of the universalist and pluralist ethics of the Monarchy by narrow-minded, exclusivist nationalism.

There has also been a renewal of interest of the other side of the ledger, however, not so much in terms of nationalism, which most academics now see as a catastrophic development for the region, but in terms of the responsibility, or culpability, of the monarchy's own social and political structures in bringing about its own demise, and thus unleashing the poisons of authoritarianism and extremism that led to the catastrophe, and the Holocaust. The one outstanding work by a "German intellectual" here is Karl Kraus's Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, which has just been published in full for the first time in English translation. There are few if any works in any language which sum up so effectively the horrors of war, but more relevantly, it outlines the ways in which Habsburg politics, society and morality failed to overcome the challenges of the crisis after 1914, and identifies the connections between the First World War and the rise of Fascism--down to the idea that political amnesia about the horror of war would mean that, in the hinterland, in the minds of the people, the war would not cease.

The most promising work in the field has, therefore, been that which sees both aspects of the Myth, positive and negative. Carl E. Schorske's concept of Fin-desiecle Vienna had its share of recognizing the dark side of Central Europe, but it is in another concept, explored most fully by Allan Janik, of "critical modernism," that the Krausian insights into the limits of modernity, as well as the flaws in the monarchy's structures, have been best developed. Kraus was far from alone in this, and there was a whole host of writers and thinkers who recognized the need for the ethical critique that Kraus subjected the monarchy's society and culture to in the pages of his satirical journal, Die Fackel. Kraus has often been criticized for his "Jewish self-hatred,"but this has been intelligently questioned by scholars such as Paul Reitter, and should not detract from the brilliance of Kraus's prophetic, Cassandra-like critique of modern society that was, after all, such an inspiration to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School.

Perhaps the best introduction to this Krausian, critical-modernist approach is now Marjorie Perloff's brilliant account of post-Habsburg (Austrian) German literature, Edge of Irony (2016). One of the largest ironies of that book is that it includes both writers of the Habsburg Myth, Roth and Musil, and of the antimyth, Elias Canetti, Kraus, and Paul Celan. It also includes a chapter dedicated to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who in many ways was a representative of both sides, Myth and anti-Myth. But then that is only an apparent paradox, for the tragedy of the Habsburg monarchy was precisely that its fall not only opened the way to Fascism, but, as Kraus so presciently sensed in Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, that the way in which it tell apart also exacerbated the opportunities for violence, exclusion, and the end of the integrity of thought. The best writers of the Habsburg myth, such as Roth, were also the most ironic, and critical, about that which they had cherished and now mourned.

This Austrian response to the crisis that began in the 1910s has not, I feel, received the attention or understanding it should have done. A promising attempt to remedy this is the Wittgenstein Initiative (, based in Vienna, whose purpose is to revive interest in the life, work and context of Ludwig Wittgenstein, in other words the world of Wittgensteins Vie?ina. Then again, it was also the world in which the young Hitler developed his ideas. If researchers wish to have a fuller understanding of why German-speaking Central Europe succumbed to Fascism, they would do well to include the "Austrians" more fully back into the realm of "German intellectuals."

Steven Beller

Independent Scholar, Washington DC
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Author:Beller, Steven
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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