This means anything but nothing to me: the city is imprinted upon my mind as much as in the days I trod its streets. It is an enchanting, frustrating, beguiling city. It is the Hauptstadt of Austria, but it is not an Austrian city – it is too big un-German and unique: Vienna is an Austro-Hungarian city.
The city is a jewel, a demonstration of the exuberant confidence which created it, not at the edge of a little, rural country as it is now, but at the centre of an empire of interwoven people, in which Vienna was the showpiece summation of cultural achievement, which was reflected also in the empire’s co-capitals, in Budapest and Prague. These cities were, and are, all of a piece with Vienna. Vienna is not the German one of the three cities but a coalescence: its heritage is German-Hungarian-Bohemian-Italian, and that still shows not just in the architecture and art but down to the everyday culture, such as the cuisine, and habits of the people.
This week the city was struck by horror. It somehow got lost in news that is obsessed with the showbiz election in America, and coming just after more horrors in France (which have themselves been lost to the attention because they are so frequent these days). It hit me because the city should be a place of joy.
It never has been, though. There was always a dark undercurrent beneath the dazzling sights: more than one Emperor has been driven out by a mob. In its heyday the streets were filled with a babble of voices from across the Habsburg lands and in reaction the populace installed a German nationalist mayor of a sort more familiar in the next generation. Here gathered artists, each believing himself a genius, and most being mainly talentless. Hitler and Stalin were wandering around town at the same time: there is no evidence that they ever met, but I like to think of them sitting together on a bench in the Volksgarten yarning over whom they would round up and kill if they ever could, as powerless vagrants do. There were artistic movements, but also very nasty political ones.
Now there are few Hungarian or Bohemian or Croatian noblemen riding about town to their palaces, but the streets are still a babble of voices. Of these came the blow that shattered the dream-city this week, ending the laughter with a voice reaching out in a piercing cry, killing and maiming near the city’s synagogue. (That there is still a synagogue tells something of resilience in defiance of all-burning slaughter; that it cannot live in peace is a shame to civilisation.) The daylight brings a cool empty silence.
Poignantly, those hailed as heroes for restraining the killer were two Turks and an Arab; amongst the city’s new version of its internationalism.
Oh, Vienna; your troubles hit me hard.