By Thomas Filbin
Angus Robertson has written a thoroughly enjoyable history of Vienna that is both accurate and entertaining.
The Crossroads of Civilization: A History of Vienna by Angus Robertson. Pegasus Books. 448pp. $29.95.
Somewhere in the halls of hell, the terms “well researched” and “dull” were somehow conflated. The consequence is that books on historical subjects aimed at general readers either turn out to be simplistic or overburdened with minutiae. Happily, Angus Robertson has proven that the two adjectives need not be connected: he has written a thoroughly enjoyable history of Vienna that is both accurate and entertaining. A journalist, former British MP, and currently a Scottish cabinet secretary, he writes with both detail and panache about compelling people and events that deserve better than mere mention en passant. He begins the journey on the river Danube, which for centuries was the demarcation point between the Roman empire and the barbarians beyond. Called Vindobona by the Romans, Vienna was where Emperor Marcus Aurelius died in 180 AD while leading a military campaign against invading Germanic tribes. Robertson does not become so lost in ancient lore that he fails to note — via a dry aside — that Russell Crowe’s character Maximus Decimus Meridius in the 2000 film Gladiator served there while in the army. He writes that “In the centuries that followed, population change continued with the arrival of Lombards from the north, before they moved on to present day Italy, then Pannonian Avars from the east and Slavs who lived under their rule.” Current day European nationalists who oppose immigration ignore that migrations and amalgamations of ethnic groups have always been an integral part of European history.
The expanding Carolingian empire secured the perimeter in the eighth and ninth centuries, and eventually became what we know as the Holy Roman Empire. Various noble houses controlled the region until the emergence of the Habsburg (sometimes spelled Hapsburg in English) dynasty which went on to rule for six centuries until World War I. Rather than drawing on warfare to maintain its security, intermarriage with other crowned heads was the chosen method of keeping the peace. There was an old saying about Austrian marriage diplomacy: “Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube” ( “Let others wage war: thou, happy Austria, marry”). Empress Maria Theresa had 16 children: her marriages to royal houses of Sicily, Parma, Spain, and France interlocked Austria with other states for generations. Here is where Robertson’s story resonates today: he relates how incredible it was for one ruling house to consolidate and then rule over such a large (and diverse) domain for so long. Robertson sees Austria’s role in the coalition against Napoleon as crucial, the tipping point for defeating the Corsican who nearly conquered an entire continent.
The chapter “The Glorious Moment: The Congress of Vienna” is the most well written and interesting part of the book. This was a singular historical event in which all the major players gathered — under the management of Austrian diplomat Metternich — to craft a new map of Europe. Power was consolidated by the victors for the victors. The event’s grand theatricality is described in full technicolor: emperors, kings, and princes arrived in September of 1814, greeted by the sound of a 1,000-gun salute and the procession of cavalry, infantry, grenadiers, and ceremonial guards, accompanied by tradesmen, profit seekers, hangers-on, prostitutes, and tourists. One of the notable outcomes of the conference was a declaration that abolished the slave trade, citing “principles of humanity and universal morality.” Of course, the practice was not eliminated, but it was a rare moment of introspection by the great powers. Everything in their history was not benign. The arrangements of 1814 lasted a generation, but then the upheavals of 1848 brought about some change. Still, the 68-year reign of Emperor Francis Joseph I (1830-1916) reinforced an essential conservatism that was the hallmark of European monarchies. Forces dedicated to democratic rule had to wait until the 20th century to make much impact.
Cultural change generally precedes political movement. Robertson spends considerable time chronicling what has been called the “Nervous Splendour” of fin de siècle Vienna. The opening in 1869 of the opera house, the erection of the first public building on the new Ringstrasse, and the 1873 World’s Fair inaugurated a cultural renaissance. University and museum buildings, theaters and churches, took their place in the increasingly crowded central district. A new diplomatic quarter blossomed, and Joseph Maria Olbrich’s Vienna Secession building — which housed paintings by Gustav Klimt — sealed the deal. Vienna could be both ancient and modern. Coffee houses and concert halls marked Austria as a bastion of high culture, a hotbed of modernism.
The First World War doomed the Habsburgs and their world. After 1918 the states that made up the empire devolved into new nations, although their independence would not be long-lived. Hitler’s rise to power and the Austrian agreement to be annexed to the Third Reich spelled the end of countries such as Czechoslovakia. The Allies, in a joint 1943 declaration, vowed to free Austria from German domination. Robertson notes the cultural exodus from Vienna that took place as Nazism advanced. Sigmund Freud, Karl Popper, Arnold Schoenberg, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Musil, and Stefan Zweig all became exiles rather than remain in a country hostile to free thought and expression. For decades, Austrians were stigmatized by their decision to partner with Hitler.
The chapter on postwar Vienna, which Robertson titles “Occupation, Intrigue, and Espionage,” describes a no-man’s-land between East and West. The enervating anxiety of the times is well captured in the 1949 film The Third Man — the political and cultural events that generated the angst are well documented here. The occupation of Austria called for a quarter million Allied troops to be stationed there, with the cost mostly borne by the host government. Vienna became one of the arenas where postwar tensions played out between Soviet Russia and the West. The city became a hotbed of espionage and intelligence gathering.
Why is Vienna important today? Robertson calls it “the bridge builder between East and West; a global meeting place for international relations; a neutral place in the heart of Europe.” His history capably illustrates how the city’s conservative past evolved into a problematic modernity. It is a metropolis that has, over the centuries, taken on many faces. The Crossroads of Civilization is comprehensive about its various transformations, without straying into the exhaustive.
Thomas Filbin is a freelance book critic whose reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Boston Sunday Globe, and Hudson Review.