Three Things We Can Learn From Hitler's Vienna
Hitler’s Vienna: A Portrait of the Tyrant as a Young Man by Brigitte Hamann is an in-depth and colourful look at Vienna in the pre-war years during which Adolf Hitler came of age. From 1907 until his move to Munich in 1913, Hitler experienced the frenzied and dynamic society of one of the world’s biggest cities at the centre of the bustling Austro-Hungarian Empire. The multi-national, multi-cultural city was constantly in flux as different ethnicities and nationalities poured into the borders in search of opportunity and prosperity. Ideas and politics were a boiling brew in this region of the world. At one point in 1913, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Joseph Tito all lived within a few miles of one another. This gives one pause to reflect as to whether or not the man makes the times or the times make the man.
It’s for this reason, I wish to make a few notes about the parallel of today and the history of Vienna. Although this book is excellent in it’s own right and can be purchased on Amazon, I want to make some assessments beyond doing a direct book review. Here are a few points that struck me as a relevant warning to our own times when reading this account of last century’s Vienna.
1. Multiculturalism breeds identity politics and this crosses over into democracy
Part of Hitler’s racial and ethnic bigotry was a product of being immersed into an aggressively cosmopolitan climate. The Austro-Hungarian empire was a stitched together patchwork quilt of radically disparate peoples. Waves of migrants completely upended entire communities. The idea of a melting pot culture didn’t work, because there was nothing to melt into. Hamann’s descriptions of Vienna read like an antique version of Blade Runner. People with different languages, religious beliefs, cultures, races all shaken up into a city bursting at the seams. What it created was something we are now constantly dealing with in our own culture today... identity politics.
Vienna had 34 different political parties in the Reichsrat in 1907. Some of these parties were just straight up names of nationalities. For example, Romanians had 5 seats. Croats had 12 seats. Other bigger nationalities had split political parties such as Italian Conservatives—10 seats versus Italian Liberals 4 seats. The Czechs had political parties based on young Czechs and old Czechs as well as Conservative and Progressive and even National Socialist. The German-Agrarian party sat next to the Polish People’s Party and the Zionists sat next to the Slovenian Liberals.
Hitler would attend Parliament and delight in the scream fest that took place. All this rabble vying for power and influence was exciting and energizing, but ultimately futile. What Hitler learned was that democracy was a shambles.
“There is no principle which, objectively considered, is as false as that of parliamentarianism. Carrying out the momentary will of the majority, government sinks from the heights of real government to the level of beggar confronting the momentary majority.” ~ Adolf Hitler
The only ability a statesman has in a democracy is “the art of making the brilliance of his projects intelligible to a herd of sheep and blockheads, and subsequently begging for their kind approval.”
Hitler called parliamentarians, “a band of mentally dependent nonentities and dilettantes as limited as they are conceited and inflated, intellectual demimonde of the worst sort…”
When his Nazi Party members won 12 seats in 1928 he sent them into the Reichstag not to be functioning members of Parliament, but only to accelerate Parliament’s demise.
Democracy doesn’t function very well when people aren’t unified to some elementary extent. When process simply becomes a mad scramble for the vested interests of segregated constituencies, disharmony manifests in political chaos. Too much multiculturalism, happening too fast in too small an area doesn’t bring people together, it rips them apart.
2. You don’t need the Internet in order to spread extremism
It’s fascinating to read accounts of many, many, many Vienna characters who held extremist views similar to what Hitler later codified in Mein Kampf. Vienna was teeming with political agitators and writers and movement leaders that make today’s so-called extremists look only extreme in their tameness. Whether it was Guido von List dividing up mankind into “masters” and “herd people”, or Lanz von Liebenfels fever dream of a racist Knights Templar... or Hans Goldzier and his bizarre science notions about paradise in the North Pole and everything being made out of electricity. Hans Horbiger and the World Ice Theory. Otto Weininger, a suicidal self-loathing anti-Semite. Georg Schonerer, the leader of the Pan-Germans—a kind of Nazi prototype. The list goes on.
Vienna had all sorts of Hitler-types. He didn’t just dream up everything he stood for from scratch.
Today much devotion is given to online hate groups and the power of social media and the internet in general. Realistically, it’s just a more advanced form of the same extremist rhetoric that can be found throughout history, and it appeals to the same types of guys that can be found throughout history. The types of guys that Jordan Peterson is trying to rescue from the Alt-Right were the same guys loitering about Vienna in 1913. Hitler was one of them.
3. Prosperity can crush extremism
The level of poverty revealed during the reading of this book is shocking by modern first world standards. Hitler was poor enough that he used newspaper to pad his shoes. Clothing was a concern. The coffee shops referred to in the book seem to function more as the soup kitchens than relaxing cafes. First world levels of poverty today are luxurious compared to average standards of living back then.
Today, big rallies are simply virtue signalling or street theatre. Back then people organized marches and riots with zeal. They believed in their ideas more vehemently and fought for their interests with violence and energy. This type of hard-core revolutionary moxie is fuelled by hardship, poverty and young people with too much time and not enough to do. Take away jobs, bourgeoisie aspirations and education options and you end up with troubles.
Hitler was famously rejected from the Vienna Art Academy. If there had been another art school that accepted Hitler in Vienna we could have avoided World War II and Hitler would’ve spent his days painting his visions rather than trying to create them in real life. If people had a few more dollars in their pockets perhaps they would have bought more of Hitler’s street art and he could have fuelled an art career. If only the city had even a low-end opportunity or a better economy that offered a non-dead end job to men like Hitler, this could have provided enough distraction and activity to avoid compulsively hating Jews and reading extremist literature all day long.
Want to eliminate extremism? Offer prosperity and education. Simple.
These are only three main observations I noticed when reading this book. “Hitler’s Vienna” offers a lot more than this and it’s fascinating to learn so many parallel situations between today’s political and cultural landscape in the West and that of turn-of-the-century Vienna during the Austro-Hungarian Empire.