Vienna’s Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard
By Liam Hoare
The reign of Kaiser Franz Joseph I, and the creation of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, represented a golden age for Viennese Jewry. It was fleeting; a candle that burnt for just a moment but gave off a lovely light.
The Jewish community of Vienna – the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien – was founded in the years following the revolution of 1848. This began a process of institutionalization and emancipation; the equal rights of Jews under the law were established in the constitution of 1867. Under Franz Joseph’s benevolent rule – known among Yiddish speakers as Froyim Yossel – the Jewish bourgeoisie played a key role in the economic and cultural development of Vienna, including Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, and of course Theodor Herzl.
Vienna’s Ringstrasse – a wide boulevard that sweeps around the inner city, lined with neo-classical, neo-romantic architecture housing the institutions of a now vanquished empire – represents Vienna’s (failed) attempt to become an international city akin to London, Paris, and Berlin. But, as a new exhibition currently running at the Jewish Museum Vienna makes evident, it is also a physical manifestation of Vienna’s Jewish golden age.
In 1850 – amid a period of economic expansion in the Germanic world known as the Gründerzeit – Franz Joseph decided that the modernization of Vienna required the demolition of its medieval fortifications and, in its place, the construction of a grand boulevard. Development of the Ringstrasse was enabled by the selling of plots among the broadway and among the first to purchase them were members of the new Jewish bourgeoisie who, for the first time, were allowed to buy land in the city.
Of the 55 percent of lots on the Ringstrasse that were acquired by private individuals, 44 percent had Jewish owners. Through rock and stone, construction of the Ringstrasse placed Jews at the heart of Viennese economic and cultural life. Families with names like Todesco, Schey, Königswarter, Goldschmidt, Ephrussi, Lieben, and Auspitz built town palaces beside the Ring, a boulevard that soon became a desirable address. A new synagogue, the Leopoldstädter Tempel, was built near the Ring in 1858. The largest house of prayer of its age with over 4,000 congregants, its foundation stone came from the Mount of Olives.
Ringstrasse: a Jewish Boulevard focuses on the lives of this small band of wealthy Jewish families who made their home and their name on the Ring. A house here meant recognition and acceptance, which was achieved through a combination of political and religious liberalism, loyalty to Austria, and a tremendous contribution to the life of the city through patronage of the arts and sciences and charitable donations.
There was both beauty and ugliness to be found in this bourgeois way of life. Concerts, poetry readings, and tableaux vivants brought Jews and non-Jews, men and women, together in the salons of the grand palaces in gatherings of the Viennese elite. Day to day, however, women were more or less confined to an off-stage role as hosts and mothers; the exhibit notes the connection between the lives and mental health of these caged women and the birth of psychoanalysis.
These lush buildings, palaces for the Jewish bourgeoisie, cannot tell the full story of Vienna’s Jewish community during the golden age, though. While it was a period with many winners, others were not so fortunate. A swathe of the Jewish population who arrived in Vienna from the rest of the empire in an attempt to escape the shtetl in the second half of the nineteenth century faced housing shortages and poverty, while being denied access to state aid.
The architecture also cannot capture what was going on in wider society, namely the growth of anti-Semitism in Viennese society that was a consequence of enlightenment, assimilation, and immigration. At the turn of the twentieth century, the vile anti-Semite Karl Lueger (for whom a street in the city was named until as recently as April 2012) was mayor of Vienna. Cartoons from the popular press displayed in a small section of the exhibit highlight some of the gross stereotypes of the age: Jews as a symbol of poverty and wealth, capitalism and communism, political and social illness.
The golden age of Viennese Jewry began to wind down towards the end of the nineteenth century, a time of tremendous uncertainty that witnessed the birth of Herzl’s The Jewish State. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War, two years after the death of Kaiser Franz Joseph I, marked its conclusion. The Austrian First Republic then represented something of a respite before the coming of fascism in 1934 and Nazism in 1938.
The Anschluss of March 1938 meant the Aryanization of Vienna. Swiftly, the palaces of the Ring were confiscated from their Jewish owners, some of whom attempted to protect their assets by transferring them to non-Jewish relatives. The Hotel Metropole became the headquarters of the Gestapo. The great Leopoldstädter Tempel was destroyed during the night of broken glass. The light of the candle was snuffed out and the city thrown into darkness.
If the Ringstrasse can be said to demonstrate the success of Vienna’s Jewish bourgeoisie and their ascension within Austrian society, then the scenes of swastika-emblazoned tanks rolling down Franz Joseph’s grand boulevard showed how fragile that achievement really was.
Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard runs at the Jewish Museum Vienna until October 4.
photos courtesy Jewish Museum Vienna