Thursday, July 19, 2012

Karl Lueger

For reasons that I really shouldn't go into here, I know a great deal about the city of Vienna. I've never been there, and have no plans to do so in the near future, but a few years ago I found myself having to write around 60,000 words about the city. I read dozens of books about Vienna today, its history, and its culture; I plowed through thousands of blog posts and travel articles; emailed countless hoteliers, shopkeepers and museum staff. I could speak at length about the historicist paintings of Hans Makart, the fabric designs of Koloman Moser, or the palaces of the Habsburg royal family. There was a time when I could draw a pretty accurate sketch map of Vienna's downtown districts – complete with street names and traffic flow directions – entirely from memory.

Since then I've spent most of my working hours filling my mind with pointless military trivia, and the information about Vienna has been pushed further and further down into the sub-basements of my mind. Fragments still pop to the surface from time to time, however, when I read or see something that seems familiar. A few months ago, for example, I read Radetzky March by Joseph Roth – a brilliant novel about the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – and found that I could easily place the locations of all the scenes that take place in Vienna.

The other thing that keeps reminding me of the Vienna project, oddly, is American politics.

One of the sections of the book I was working on was a brief history of Vienna. Brief histories are always difficult, because publishers always want them to be comprehensive, while at the same time demanding that each rewrite be shorter than the last. Getting the tone right took dozens of revisions and a huge amount of research. While reading up on the subject I found myself getting fascinated by a couple of figures from the city's history. The rather sad figure of Emperor Ferdinand I was one of them, another was Gerard van Swieten – Empress Maria-Theresia’s personal physician, favorite advisor, and chief vampire hunter. The one that keeps popping up in regard to American politics, however, is Karl Lueger, a politician who was mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1900.

Lueger is a colossal figure in Vienna’s history – the man who wrestled a great deal of power from the emperor, who stood up to the corrupt old guard, who formed Vienna into a modern industrial city – but he is generally remembered for something else. On the campaign trail, Lueger was notorious for his scathing anti-semitic rants. He would blame just about anything and everything on ‘the Jews’, he often characterized them as subhuman parasites and urged the crowds to help him drive them out of positions of influence, out of the city, and sometimes worse.

If he was just a ranting anti-Semite, I don't think I would have paid him more than a second glance. Sadly this was not an unusual trait in late 19th-century Viennese politics and there are always bigots in the world. The thing that I found genuinely chilling – and the thing that reminds me of contemporary American politics – is the strange fact that he wasn't, by all accounts, an anti-Semite. He was an intelligent and genial man, to whom all that ranting and raging was just an effective campaign strategy. In his time Vienna was an overcrowded city where the rich had everything and the poor scrabbled around for scraps, taking advantage of ethnic tensions was easy and effective.

For all his fiery rhetoric, Lueger did not actually do anything politically to make the lives of the city's Jews harder. Admittedly, he voted for a few anti-Semitic laws while he was a representative in the local government, but he was not closely involved with these proposals; he simply threw himself behind them when it became clear that failing to do so would harm his chances of getting re-elected. He also had many Jewish friends, although he worked hard to keep this fact secret.

If things had stopped there, then Lueger’s campaign trail antics would probably have been forgotten. Unfortunately, life doesn't work like that. You can't stand on a soapbox and preach hate without it sinking in somewhere. Lueger may not have meant it, but he threw his considerable authority and oratorical powers behind these ideas, pushing them further and deeper than they would otherwise have gone.

When he died in 1910 thousands of ordinary Viennese workers turned out for his funeral. Among them was a young art-school washout called Adolf Hitler, who had hung of the great man's every word since he'd arrived in the city three years earlier. Decades later, he would write about his admiration of Lueger in his prison autobiography, Mein Kampf.

This is what worries me with US politics. For the last 10–15 years, the grandees of the Republican party have lined up to make vicious and dehumanizing statements about ‘the Muslims’ and ‘the Gays’. I don't believe that any of them actually think like this – that the thrice-married serial adulterer Newt Gingrich actually wishes fire and brimstone on same sex couples, or that the canny businessman Donald Trump thinks that the president is a crypto-Muslim – but their pandering to these ideas helps them spread.

The Republican party is already reaping the first harvest of this policy, with the old  
 hypocrites having to share the senate floor with the zealous (and stupid) true believers they inspired back in the 90s. I worry that if they don't do something to control this tendency soon, it's only a matter of time before their words drift into the wrong head – I don't mean spree killing bad, I mean Voldemort bad.