“Wow Vienna that’s a fancy place to go,” said a colleague.
“The plane ticket was 30 euros return and the hotel was 40 euros a night.”
I seemed to have burst a bubble in her head when I said that – Vienna wasn’t supposed to be that cheap, at least not in the popular impression. It sure wasn’t in mine too.
Vienna is one of those rare European cities that comes close to expressing the classical (stereotypical) image of European culture. The idyllic and relaxing Europe that travel videos filmed in the 1990s try to convey – people sitting in the large open boulevards sipping coffee, watching the day turn to dusk with neither a care in the world, cities where people are filled with healthy lifestyles, cities where culture seems to be everywhere in public…
Vienna was the first traditional Western city that non-Westerners, broadly bordered by the extents of the ancient Holy Roman Empire, would have seen as they traversed west, the difference emerging concretely due to religious differences (most societies east of Austria are at least culturally Orthodox Christian), and if I was a visitor to the city a few centuries, I would certainly have been blown away.
It isn’t hard to see why, tall imperial buildings, wide boulevards, cafes and chocolates flood the streets in equal measure, concert halls filled daily with all forms of classical music, museums housing some of the largest collections of arts that can be found, and grand palaces located within the city.
This winning Eurovision piece from Udo Jurgens in 1966 (the Austrian entry to the competition) seems to convey that sense of what Vienna feels like.
But Vienna is not just a city in a country, one could say it defines the national image.
There are different types of capitals in the world: those in countries so diverse that the capital cannot define it – Jakarta in Indonesia or Warsaw in Poland; those so different from the rest of the nation that it does not define the nation – Berlin in Germany, Copenhagen in Denmark or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia; those that are so dominant that they define the nation.
Vienna belongs to the third category.
Vienna, the capital of Austria, it is the largest city in the country and far away the primate city of the nation. The second city in the country is Graz with a population of 200,000 people. (There are 10 times the number in Vienna) in a country of under 9 million people. No other city in Austria comes close in defining what it is to be Austrian.
So what is the Austria that is defined by Vienna?
A country that is classically romantic notions is how I’d define it.
Udo Jurgens follows in a long traditional of musical talent to traverse the streets of Vienna – Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert all walked these streets and built their fame.
It isn’t just musicians, artists too were inspired by this city, people such as Gustav Klimt and Otto Wagner were residents of this town. Then there was the father of psychoanalysis – Sigmund Freud.
All of them have been inspired by Vienna and likewise inspired Vienna, adding to the romance of the city the myth of the nation. But to understand how this came to be we need to traverse back in time to the founding of Vienna.
Located along the Danube river, the region was first settled by the Celts peoples in 500 BC and like most countries within the heart of the ancient Roman Empire was settled with Roman legions in 15 BC as a bullwark against the Germanic tribes, not unlike how Zurich was settled as a frontier city to fortify the empire. The beginnings of Vienna can be traced to the 10th century when Leopold of Babenberg was elevated to a Margrave (ruler) of Austria, Austria or Osterreich meant the eastern capital, and the place that he and he successors established their capital came to mark out modern Vienna. The city’s status at the centre of Dabenberg Empire drew more and more people with ambitions and dreams developing it into a hub for arts, culture, science and cuisine.
The Babenberg house may have established the importance of Vienna, but it was the Habsburgs who made it the heart of their own empire. They moved into the city in 1440, and in 1497 it became the capital of the Holy Roman Empire that was then under Habsburg rule. Being at the frontier of East and West, the Gates of Vienna were thrice the site where invaders from the East (Mongols in the 13th century, and Ottoman Turks in the 16th and 17th century) were repelled.
Vienna never faded in importance even though the Holy Roman Empire did. In 1804 the Holy Roman Empire was decisively defeated by Napoleon and dissolved, a new empire rose from the ashes – the Austrian Empire. The empire later incorporated Hungary to become the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire that many of Vienna’s modern cultural heights were achieved.
Having already become a metropolis at the centre of near East and Western worlds, Vienna was a land of opportunity for traders, artists and all those who had visions of grandeur. People of great talent tend to congregate where other talented individuals can be found and so it was no surprise that the most brilliant minds of the era made their way to Vienna and from Vienna revolutionised the world in arts, music and science. Here is a list of names who Vienna hosted, people who were so revolutionary in their field that you only need their first name.
In fact, I’ll let a wikipedia quote explain this, “From the late-19th century to 1938 the city remained a centre of high culture and of modernism. A world capital of music, Vienna played host to composers such as Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss. The city’s cultural contributions in the first half of the 20th century included, among many, the Vienna Secession movement in art, psychoanalysis, the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg and co.), the architecture of Adolf Loos and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle. In 1913 Adolf Hitler, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Tito, Sigmund Freud and Joseph Stalin all lived within a few miles of each other in central Vienna, some of them becoming regulars at the same coffeehouses. Austrians came to regard Vienna as a centre of socialist politics, sometimes referred to as “Red Vienna“. In the Austrian Civil War of 1934 Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss sent the Austrian Army to shell civilian housing occupied by the socialist militia.” One might say that this centre of human culture continues since it is the most livable city in the world today.
Visions of grandeur can however be a dangerous thing especially when it is spurned, a young person who is rejected from their mild ambition can go on to become obsessed with even larger more hedonistic and perverse dreams. One man had his dreams dashed in Vienna and built a nightmare for Europe, his name was Adolf Hitler. It was also the Austro-Hungarian Emperor whose assassination prompted the First World War. After World War Two, Austria was briefly occupied by all Allied forces and Vienna was carved into four like Berlin was, although unlike East Germany, the Soviets left all of East Austria in 1955.
Vienna may be the primate of a much smaller country now but its subtle political influence on Europe cannot be understated. It is in Austria that the most au courant topic of the decade – immigration and globalisation and its effect on the European Project saw the first major electoral earthquake in 2017 – the election of a right wing/far-right coalition government (this was followed in 2018 with the election in Italy of a centre-right/anti-establishment coalition).
Vienna clearly matters and remains a primate of dreams and ideas even till this day, come along with me and get inspired by this city!
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