In the late 19th century, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria oversaw a period of unprecedented intellectual and cultural growth in the capital city of Vienna. Ruling over an Austro-Hungarian population of about 49 million, the generally conservative Franz Joseph strove to guarantee the basic human rights — such as movement, religion, and press — that were outlined in the 1867 constitution.
In doing so, he inadvertently stimulated a period of progressivism and intellectual exploration that changed the course of Western history. During this period, liberalized immigration policy made Vienna the sixth largest city in the world. An outpouring of intellectual, multicultural, and economic growth produced monumental works in architecture, philosophy, sociology, economics, music, politics, science, art, and psychology.
And yet, this period of prosperity and growth was short lived. By the 1890s, the populist candidate Karl Lueger was campaigning to be mayor of Vienna under the nationalistic platform of ‘Austria for the Austrians.’ Despite Franz Joseph’s efforts to block his ascent to power, Lueger became mayor in 1897, ending the Viennese golden age of intellectual and liberal progress. So began a new, very different era, one driven by right-wing populism and the rise of fascism.
What went wrong? How could a country engaging in liberalization so distinct that it would become the basis for liberal movements all over the world suddenly shift towards an intolerant and xenophobic brand of ultra-conservatism? The story of Vienna is a complicated and portentous one — a demonstration of the perils that come with rapid social and economic progress and an example of the tension between competing cultural trajectories. To assess Vienna’s transition to fascist leadership, it is important to consider the achievements of the progressive era that preceded it.
During this era, Vienna made vast strides in philosophy. Ludwig Wittgenstein published the famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which hurled Western philosophical thought into the analytical realm that it still inhabits today. Music and art were evolving as well; from Gustav Mahler’s early involvement in Sturm und Drang to Gustav Klimt’s sensual works, this was a period of reformation. In psychology, Sigmund Freud pioneered psychoanalysis and an interpretation of psychology that did not refrain from exploring human sexuality. The literature of the time period reflected such momentous changes as well. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published Venus and Furs, which explicitly described scenes of sexual sadomasochism and female dominance — two topics that were extremely taboo at the time.
Cutting edge progressivism was also present in economics: The Austrian school famously emerged during this period. Although often associated with libertarians and conservative free-market advocates, the works of authors like Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises and, most famously, Friedrich Hayek provided a foundation for a new era of capitalistic economic thinking. After many of its participants escaped fascism, the movement found an opportunity to play a greater role in influencing contemporary economic theory and promoting ideas of liberty in both politics and the economy.
But during this period of vast cultural, political, and economic development, Viennese avant-garde progressivism alienated people who clung to traditional values. More importantly, the financial success of certain groups — especially Jews — enraged Germans. A deep-rooted resentment towards minorities and the progressive elite began to emerge, culminating in a movement that would undermine the contemporary establishment and derail the liberalization project in Vienna. Viennese liberalism made the establishment vulnerable to populist backlash, igniting a political shift that would, in almost all respects, serve as the antithesis of the liberal movement.
The Viennese brand of fascism was distinctly antagonistic to the preceding period of progressivism, particularly on a cultural level. While Wittgenstein pushed philosophy forward towards its analytical destiny, 20th century fascists emphasized the works of continental thinkers like Heidegger and the oft-misunderstood Nietzsche. When Vienna saw a period of artistic symbolism, fascists favored classical-realist works. While Schoenberg composed atonal music, fascists preferred epic symphonic orchestras like those of Richard Wagner. While Freud explored cutting-edge topics of sexuality, family, and psychological disposition, fascists favored traditional gender roles and imagery of dominance and mental fortitude. And while Austrian economics lauded the benefits of the free market and libertarianism, the Nazis and far-right authoritarians pushed forward a statist form of political and economic organization. The staunch progressivism of Vienna during this period left certain members of the country feeling nostalgic and culturally abandoned. It took only a radical movement fueled by nationalist ruminations to abruptly thwart the advances of Viennese intellectuals and artists.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without financial instability and the presence of an increasingly multi-cultural Vienna. Franz Joseph was partially responsible for this: he encouraged the integration of this ethnically diverse population into the city. In particular, Czechs poured into Vienna and were willing to take jobs in worse working conditions for lower pay than native Viennese were. This made the labor market in Vienna far more competitive and resulted in higher unemployment rates as well as a large population of Viennese who could no longer afford to live in the city as prices rose and housing became inaccessible. The result was a drastic rise in anti-immigrant sentiments among working class Germans. In particular, anti-Semitism was proliferated as Jews became a universal scapegoat. Georg Schonerer, the rich son of a Viennese industrialist, integrated anti-Semitic rhetoric into Viennese politics, condemning the “sucking vampires.” Karl Lueger later capitalized on such sentiments in his political campaign, adopting the slogan “Vienna is German and must remain German.”
By the 1890s, Viennese liberalism was crumbling under the pressure of the far-right. A massive backlash to the cultural and economic growth of the century propelled Karl Lueger forward as a populist and nationalist candidate for mayor of Vienna. From the insides of the Hofburg Palace, Franz Joseph admirably tried to combat the election of Karl Lueger, at first refusing to appoint him altogether. But the combination of cultural tension and economic resentment forced Franz Joseph to capitulate and submerge Viennese liberalism under the tides of right-wing populism, nationalistic fervor, and undeterred xenophobia. And by the early 1900s, Adolf Hitler stood in Vienna’s cobblestone streets as the student of this movement, ready to export the far-right populism he saw in Austria for a far larger and darker project.
The tale of Viennese liberalism is a powerful one that has significant resonance today. As the world grapples with the very sentiments that helped spawn the rise of fascism in the 20th century, it may be helpful to reflect on the successes and eventual failure of Franz Joseph.
When we consider the rise of right-wing populism and nationalism today, it can be very tempting to look at it as an isolated historical event or an aberration of some kind. But as the case of Vienna shows, history is not linear; it involves the complicated tension of competing social, political, cultural, and economic forces. Most importantly, it is at the historical moments when liberal ideas and intellectualism seem most abundant that liberalism and democracy are most vulnerable to falling. When certain demographics of people are rapidly progressing, others will inevitably be left behind in the cultural and economic push forwards as inequalities emerge. It is not difficult to understand why certain people would seek to stop such changes altogether.
In the United States, rapid increases in technological capabilities, productivity, and the globalization of the international economy have quickly changed industries and market demands. Although most economists believe that markets will produce new jobs in the long run, the American economy still faces the prospect of 45 percent of jobs being automated in the short run. After all, rhetoric about long-run economic stability is hardly a consolation for the manufacturing workers who’ve see their jobs outsourced. Many Americans, still experiencing the impact of a financial crisis, are wary of political elites and the optimism that abounded at the Democratic National Convention. Amidst a broader (and irrational) fear of Islamic terrorism, it makes sense that there is such a widespread aversion to immigration and globalization.
Moreover, as these trends have developed, many Americans have become contemptuous of the left’s insistence on a more inclusive and progressive national identity. For instance, the important dialogue on ‘white privilege’ is viewed as an infuriating piece of hypocrisy by many lower-income, white Americans who feel like they are being chastised by urban elites infinitely more “privileged” than they are. They see their values and traditional conceptions of justice and goodness being challenged by a new Western progressive consensus. This demographic was crucial to President Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. Once again, a period of progressivism was supplanted by extreme conservatism.
Just as the Viennese intellectual, cultural, and economic elite failed to understand the frustrations of the German working class, the beneficiaries of modern globalization and the proponents of progressivism have often failed to relate to those who have been left behind. Today, with President Trump commencing a period of anti-intellectual and radically conservative populism, liberalism has experienced yet another backlash. Although historical comparisons are often dubious, there are historical similarities and recurring trends that we should not ignore.
With the proliferation of technology, vast increases in worker productivity, and the emergence of a more inclusive progressivism, America is changing at a pace that not everyone can keep up with. The resurfacing of a political mantra that emphasizes traditional values, tight borders, and strong state control is a predictable response to this. Although it may be difficult to combat the emergence of such cultural trends, a greater awareness of history can, at the very least, help us understand these backlashes to progressivism and equip us with the knowledge we need to prepare.
As President Barack Obama recently stated, “history does not move in straight lines,” and necessarily involves conflict between competing forces, as one usurps the other. It is the responsibility of progressives to recognize this and make a greater effort to understand conservatives and the working class, even if it means temporarily stunting the progressive agenda. The failure to do so could undermine democracies and liberal institutions, reducing them to rubble as authoritarian populists stand atop the ruins.