Hobsbawm’s Viennese heart

Mehru Jaffer

Eric Hobsbawm, who died recently at the age of 95, was admired for speaking against social banditry. Throughout his life, the illustrious historian nursed his conscience and highlighted the barbarity of modern times.

Why did Hobsbawn think and write the way he did? Did his work emerge from a particular cultural milieu? How much is Vienna responsible for shaping the thought of one of the greatest intellectuals of recent times?

Although famous as a British historian, Hobsbawm was born in 1917 to a Viennese mother and a British father of Jewish Polish origin. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt, but moved to Vienna after the death of his father. He was 14 years old when he first heard that Adolf Hitler, the German dictator, had made hunting people of Jewish origin a state policy. Much later in life, Hobsbawm said that all those who saw Hitler’s rise first-hand could not help but be shaped by it politically. 

He left for England after the death of his mother but he must have taken with him much from the Viennese environment which at that time was the cradle of so much creativity born out of all the negativity that clouded the city of dreams. Vienna prided itself on its image as the Gay City but at the same time is described by Karl Kraus, its most versatile social critic, as ground zero for world destruction.

Many parallel activities sprang up in the same place and at the same time in art, journalism, jurisprudence, philosophy, poetry, music, drama, sculpture and medicine. It is amazing that the beginning of twelve-tone music, modern architecture, legal and logical positivism, painting and psychoanalysis, not to mention the revival of interest in Arthur Schopenhauer, and Soren Kierkegaard, both 19th-century philosophers, took place in Vienna.

The late Habsburg milieu engaged the attention, as never before, of writers, thinkers and artists and a journalist like Kraus was acknowledged as the most articulate spokesman of his time.

This was a society where modernism waited to be born but was the cause of terrible confusion and chaos, both in the mind and in the life of the Viennese.

 

At the turn of the last century Vienna, capital of the Habsburg rulers, was like no other city. The Habsburgs were an acknowledged superpower with an enviable amount of territory, a well-established power structure and an impressive record of constitutional stability for a thousand years. In 1918, this dream came to a sudden end. The centuries-old political work of keeping the massive kingdom together collapsed like a house of cards. A single incident signed and sealed the end of the monarch’s authority and all the political bonds built over ages disappeared overnight.

The power and influence of the Habsburgs vanished as if they had never existed and artists took to the canvas with paint brushes dipped in conscience and palettes soaking in soulful strokes. However, incidents of suicide shot up simultaneously amongst those who did not know any better.

Vienna, home of the Habsburg monarchy, a superpower plagued by problems of rapid economic change, seemed incapable of adapting itself to the demands of a changing situation. Creativity chipped in to try and make sense of a world turned upside down.

The contribution of individuals like Arnold Schoenberg was stupendous. The revolutionary composer and music theorist produced a series of striking paintings together with the most thought-provoking essays. Schoenberg is the same genius who honoured Kraus with a musical text on which he inscribed that he had perhaps learnt more from the journalist than a man should learn, if he wants to remain independent.

Many concerned citizens like Ludwig Boltzmann, Alfred Loos, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Oskar Kokoschka, Kraus and Schoenberg, amongst others, grouped in the Vienna Circle in an attempt to hold on to sanity. 

The city became home to artistic breakaways who separated themselves from the established activities of orthodox academic art. This was the beginning of legal positivism in the jurisprudence of Hans Kelsen, the display of the literary ambitions of Rainer Maria Rilke and Hugo von Hoffmansthal along with the analytical methods of Boltzmann’s statistical thermodynamics and the pioneering work of Loos and Wagner in inventing architecture for the people.

The Vienna of Hobsbawm’s childhood is the Vienna of Sigmund Freud. The highly charged political and social character of Vienna in the last decades of the Habsburg monarchy must have remained with Hobsbawm all his life.

Is Vienna perhaps the reason that spine-chilling uncertain times were transformed by the author into Interesting Times?

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012