Red Vienna book cover

The Key to Red Vienna: Book review

The year 2019 saw the centenary of the creation of Red Vienna, in other words, the period of majority municipal government of the Austrian capital by the Social Democratic Party. The term ‘Red Vienna,’ which was in fact coined by a Christian Socialist opponent, has long functioned as a placeholder for Vienna’s progressive city administration as well as, more generally, the left of centre cultural and intellectual life that flourished in the 15 years between 1919 and 1934, when the newly installed dictatorship of Engelbert Dollfuss (1892–1934) brought it to a halt.

However, beyond this general summary, how might we characterise Red Vienna and what does it mean for us in the present? Undoubtedly, its most visible monuments are the communal housing blocks that were constructed around the city: the so-called Ringstrasse of the proletariat. These have been the subject of intense interest and study, especially the Gargantuan Karl-Marx-Hof (1927–33) designed by Karl Ehn (1884–1957), and, as one of the main locations of the brief civil war fought in February 1923, a highly important lieu de mémoire.[1] Another example, the Winarsky Hof, has been mentioned on this blog in an article discussing the monument to Ferdinand Lassalle erected there. Yet ‘Red Vienna’ was a much more complex phenomenon, and it is this complexity that the anthology edited by Rob Macfarland, Georg Spitaler and Ingo Zechner, Das Rote Wien / The Red Vienna Sourcebook, attempts to convey.

Red Vienna book cover

It is a highly impressive achievement, with the editors having co-ordinated the efforts of 17 further members of the editorial team. It is also published in German and English editions, and many, even the majority, of the texts are available in English for the first time. This is a highly significant publication.

The anthology consists of 12 main sections on topics such as ‘Power,’ ‘Reaction,’ ‘Mass Media,’ ‘International Exchange,’ ‘Social Planning.’ Each of these is further subdivided into small sections on a diverse array of subjects, from ‘Work and Leisure’ and ‘Taxation politics,’ to ‘Newspapers and Magazines’ and ‘Political Violence.’ In other words, this is a comprehensive survey of the politics, society and culture of the city during the period in question. Some of the themes covered are to be expected, but this is not a criticism; their importance would demand their inclusion. Hence, there is a sub-section on Logical Empiricism, with excerpts from Rudolf Carnap and Otto Neurath. Austro-Marxist thinking is represented by, amongst others, Karl Renner, Otto Bauer and Max Adler. In the section on Freudian Marxism we encounter, in addition to Freud himself, Wilhelm Reich, Sofie Lazarsfeld and Karl Bühler. Lazarsfeld and Reich appear, too, in the sections on sexuality and women, along with Marianna Pollak and Therese Schlesinger. The section on cultural politics contains important texts by Hans Tietze, Lajos Kassák, Theodor Adorno and Anton Webern, while a section on housing and architecture includes excerpts from writings by authors such as Adolf Loos, Josef Frank and Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky.

I mention these examples because their names are known not just to specialists of Austrian history, culture and thought, but more generally to those with a concern for twentieth-century social and intellectual history. ‘Red Vienna’ has been the subject of a great deal of mythologising, and this anthology consciously avoids recycling familiar myths. Thus, while Vienna was undoubtedly a centre of innovative progressive social, philosophical and political thought, the anthology also acknowledges that the moniker ‘Red Vienna’ does not capture the entire cultural and intellectual spectrum of the interwar city. As Janek Wassermann has eloquently argued, many of the famous names associated with Vienna’s vibrant, open and liberal world were in fact a marginalised minority. If one were to use just numbers of readers and subscriptions as a guidelines, then it was books and magazines published by conservative Catholic authors and figures of the radical right that were in the ascendant.[2] Only if we take this into account, he suggests, can we understand the path that Austria took in the 1920s and 1930s, leading to the embrace of Anschluß with Hitler’s Germany in 1938. The editors acknowledge this historical context, with texts by conservative and right-radical figures such as the Christian Social chancellor Ignaz Seipel and the philosopher Othmar Spann, but they are marginal presences in a volume that is very much focused on ‘Red’ Vienna.

The clue is, of course, in the title, and in one sense it would be missing the point to ask for a different ideological balance in the choice of texts. In the Introduction the editors state openly that it is not envisioned as a mini-archive. Its breadth is not the result of the aim at comprehensiveness but rather is due to the fact that the project is the outcome of a long-standing interdisciplinary network of scholars. It therefore reflects their different approaches and interests. This may explain the circumstances of its creation as well as the rationale for its composition, further scrutiny may still highlight certain issues of method and rationale.

Karl-Marx-Hof, designed by Karl Ehn

Karl Ehn: Karl-Marx-Hof, Vienna, 1927–33 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the introduction the editors invoke Walter Benjamin’s (1892–1940) short essay ‘On the Concept of History’ completed shortly before he died in 1940.[3] Benjamin famously described radical history as a ‘tiger’s leap into the past.’ Where universal history ‘musters a mass of data to fill homogeneous, empty time.’ In contrast, materialist historiography, he noted, ‘is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock …’[4] The writing of history is an intervention, fight for the oppressed past in particular moments. Given its prominence in the historical imagination, Red Vienna could hardly be characterised as oppressed, yet there is nevertheless a sense that the anthology is conceived in this way, as an affirmative retrieval of ‘Red Vienna’ as the site of a vanished and prematurely terminated democratic and pluralistic moment.

Yet another metaphor by Benjamin might be worth mentioning here: that of history as a dialectical image or as a constellation of fragments.[5]  The notion of fragment is certainly apt here, for the collection presents us with partial glimpses. Not only does the selection of texts represent merely a partial view of Vienna, the constraints of the enterprise mean, too, that these are only short excerpts, fragments. We are therefore with fragments of a fragmented picture. While many of the texts are taken from shorter essays, an equal number are from much longer publications. It is difficult to know what we are supposed to make of 3 pages from Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) Future of an Illusion, or 2 pages from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1889–1951) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, for example. In some case,s this is not problematic; we are not being invited to take a view on the whole original work and thought of an author, merely their contrasting positions on a particular issue, and in this regard the source texts have been grouped together in a highly insightful way. Indeed, we learn to read them afresh, since we see the other side of the debate. But this is not always so. While the omission of Freud and Wittgenstein, to return to those two examples, would seem striking, one might ask whether this form of presentation does justice to them. One can hardly gain a sense of the excerpt’s argument, since they are extracted from much longer evolving arguments; this is particularly the case with the Tractatus, which has been the object of endless conflicting interpretations.  This is not a criticism of the editorial team, per se, who should be commended for their inventive and thoughtful choice of texts. But it does point to the limitations of the choices they have made.

One might compare this anthology with a similarly ambitious volume of primary sources on Berlin, published in 2013.[6] The timespan of that project is longer – from 1880 to 1940 – and the thematic focus is more tightly defined, since it is concerned above all with urbanism and the formation of metropolitan society and culture. However, as with the Vienna volume, breadth has been achieved at the expense of depth. Its many texts reduced to so many curtailed two- or three-page snippets.

Editors of these kinds of volumes are always faced with difficult choices, not only in terms of what to include, but also how much. What kinds of compromises are necessary? One could imagine, for example, an anthology that, in both cases, had taken on a very different format. Rather than seeking an all-embracing collection of material, it might have a more limited range, but one that allowed for a closer reading and engagement with the particular authors and texts included. But then, of course, this might led to criticisms that it was insufficiently broad.

This book by Macfarland, Spitaler and Zechner is the first that time that anyone has tried to offer a synoptic view of Red Vienna on such an ambitious scale, and it should be an automatic point of reference for anyone with a serious interest in the subject. At the same time, due to its limitations as an anthology, and despite its size and scope, it should be seen as just a guide for orientation, a starting point. Mapping out the terrain for the first time in such a systematic way, it identifies the paths for further inquiry, as well as prompting us to consider those blind spots that still require proper investigation.

Matthew Rampley

Rob Macfarland, Georg Spitaler and Ingo Zechner, eds, Das Rote Wien: Schlüsseltexte der zweiten Wiener Moderne 1919–1934 (Oldenbourg: de Gruyter, 2020). English edition: The Red Vienna Sourcebook (London: Camden House, 2020)

[1] On the architecture of Red Vienna see, for example, Manfredo Tafuri, Vienna la rossa: la politica residenziale nella Vienna socialista, 1919–1933 (Turin, 1980); Eve Blau, The Architecture of Red Vienna 1919–1934 (Cambridge, MA, 1999); Helmut Weihsman, Das Rote Wien: Sozialdemokratische Architektur und Kommunalpolitik 1919–1934 (Vienna, 2019).

[2] Janek Wassermann, Black Vienna: the Radical Right in the Red City 1918–1938 (Ithaca, 2014).

[3] Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings 4: 1938–1940, trans. and ed. Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings (Cambridge, MA, 2003) pp. 389–400.

[4] Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History,’ p. 396.

[5] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. and ed. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA, 1999).

[6] Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby, eds, Metropolis Berlin 1880–1940 (Berkeley, CA, 2013).

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/9RV53

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply