On a recent trip to Vienna, I found myself wandering the streets of the Innere Stadt late at night. I was struck by a certain incongruity. Everything above eye level was German to the core: its language, its architecture, and its ever-present tributes to great kings, princes, composers, and artists. Yet at street level, storefronts, kiosks, and conversations expressed a wide variety of languages and places of origin.
Vienna’s multiculturalism is no accident. For most of the second half of the 20th century, it was the gateway to the West from the Eastern Bloc. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was where European Christendom stood firm against the advance of the Ottoman Empire. The city became great as the capital of the Habsburg Empire, which included a wide variety of ethnic groups and nationalities.
And I wonder: do the Viennese minorities from Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, and the former Soviet Union look upon their city as home? Do they view themselves as part of the nation and civilization that created it?
In the 1800s, the answer was no. By the middle of that century, the Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Hungarians, Poles, and Ukrainians – to name a few – in the empire had decided that they are not Germans, that Vienna is not theirs and they are not Vienna’s. National movements sprang up throughout Central Europe. The inexorable march toward dissolution of empire and national self-determination was underway, though it would take more than a century, numerous bloody wars, and displacement of millions before self-determination was finally and fully exercised.
Among the Jews of the empire, there were certainly some who embraced dual and even triple identities (German/Hungarian/Jewish, for example), yet this empire was also the birthplace of Jewish nationalism. Israel, the manifestation of Jewish self-determination, prefers to compare itself to Western states, but conceptually it belongs in Central Europe. As Czechs, Slovaks, and Ukrainians within the empire began to articulate national aspirations, the Jews did, too. When the imperial powers sought to bring civilization to the Jewish communities of the Carpathians, the reaction was an unprecedented assertion of Jewish national identity that denied the possibility of being a German or Pole of the Mosaic faith. It was in this context that Jewish nationalism and proto-Zionism were first articulated by rabbis rejecting assimilationist trends.
It is thus no accident that political Zionism was conceived in Vienna by a Hungarian Jew whose family had migrated from Serbia. It was this man, Theodor Herzl, who recognized that despite the large and prominent Jewish community in fin de siècle Vienna, it was not the Jews’ city. Indeed, Vienna also played a part in the rise of Nazism, a movement that sought to purge the pure German nation of foreign influences and contaminants. The Jews, who had no homeland in Europe, were the ultimate foreigners.
Jerusalem, in this sense, is Vienna’s opposite. It has changed hands dozens of times and contains the remnants of numerous civilizations. It had four different masters in the 20th century alone. Yet a Jew can walk its streets and feel that the city belongs to him and that he belongs to the city. It was thus on the alienating streets of Vienna that the Jews remembered and were drawn toward Zion.
This article first appeared in the Intermountain Jewish News.