With 24 hours’ notice, AFAR sent writer Tom Rachman to Vienna where, on his quest to discover the soul of the Austrian capital, he stumbled upon the city’s darker side.
Article continues below advertisement
An Austrian wit once said: “When the world ends, I’ll go to Vienna. Everything happens 10 years late there.” My timing is perfect then: An apocalyptic mood is sweeping the globe, with chaos in politics, jitters about terrorism, dread over the climate. THE WORLD IN CRISIS, a tabloid in my home city, London, declares. WE’RE ON THE BRINK OF NUCLEAR WAR.
So I head to peaceable Vienna, arriving to nothing more threatening than a drizzle outside Wien-Mitte train station. I wander across an empty park, past deserted palaces decorated with bodybuilders of ancient myth, depicted as beating weaklings like me to death with clubs. But where are the living residents of Vienna?
True, a holiday weekend is ending. But this feels like a ghost town, as if the End of Days had sucked up the inhabitants and left just the sinners (that is, tourists). Vienna—once the seat of an empire inhabited by 53 million people and stretching from Ukraine to Italy—is today the capital of a minor nation with fewer than 9 million residents.
Vienna remains a city infused, infatuated, perhaps imprisoned by its past occupants.
So what happens, I wonder, when a great power shrivels? What becomes of its ego?
Imperial decline is something I’ve encountered before, being based in the former British Empire. Previously, I lived among the ruins of ancient Rome. But each decline is different, and the death twitches of Austrian power were hideous indeed. I amble into nearly deserted Heldenplatz and realize this is the square where Hitler announced the Anschluss in 1938: Austria, the country of his birth, was to unite with Germany in the Third Reich. A crowd of hundreds of thousands cheered him on.
But I don’t want to make this trip about the war. I confess, my earliest notion of Austria came from the country’s role in the Holocaust; but in 2017, my bias seems unfair. Nobody I’m likely to see would be old enough to bear responsibility. Vienna has a storied history stretching back centuries; the city is much more than its worst chapter.
So I repress my impulse—a suitable response in the city of Sigmund Freud. The good doctor also conceived of “sublimation,” by which a person funnels troubling urges into socially acceptable ones. Hence I hurry away to find apple strudel with whipped cream.
The next morning, I awake with a mild hangover, owing to my selfless exploration of Austrian white wines at Wein & Co. the night before. Each time my body moves, my head comes along unwillingly. But like it or not, all of me is going underground.
Article continues below advertisement
A thirtyish guide with a dapper neckerchief nods to stairs leading beneath Stephansdom, the gothic cathedral at the heart of Vienna. I descend to the Habsburg crypt, where emperors’ intestines rest in copper urns. (Their bones and hearts were deposited in two other churches.) But the main attraction isn’t viscera. “Through that window,” the guide says, “you can see your future.”
Quinn—late forties, stubble beard, glasses—provides me with a tour of his mind, itself a bustling city of opinions, theories, facts . . . some a little hard to verify. Such as: “There are 7,000 spies in Vienna, more than in any other city in Europe.” Or: “If you look at the porn search words in Austria, it’s extremely dark and kinky.” Or: “Men sit down to piss here.”
“How do you know that?”
“I ask them. And I notice it.”
“But they have urinals here.”
“Obviously,” he explains gently, “you don’t sit down on a urinal.”
Quinn overflows with passion for Vienna, but harbors a few gripes too. If you visit Copenhagen or London or New York, local life is there to grab, he contends. But Vienna has packaged its history as cutesy confection: the costumed classical concerts, the horse-drawn carriages. “It’s very bad for the mental health of the Viennese,” he says. “Because they’ve started to believe a lot of this kitsch. They don’t see their country as very dynamic, and it is, in some ways. I mean, it’s not pioneering much. But Vienna has the highest quality of life in the world; it’s regularly ranked that way.”
When I ask him to explain the disturbing tinge, we drift into a discussion of the Austrian arts. The novelist Elfriede Jelinek, awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004, writes of twisted sexuality and repressed aggression. The award-winning filmmaker Michael Haneke deals compulsively with the violence behind polite exteriors. Another noted Austrian director, Ulrich Seidl, made a 2014 documentary, In the Basement, about weird hobbies his countrymen practice in downstairs rooms—an indirect reference to two notorious cases in which Austrian men confined young women in their basements for years.
But Quinn’s organization aims to push back against what he calls “the angst monkeys,” those who linger over sourness and suspicion. Space and Place runs projects such as Coffeehouse Conversations, where Austrians are matched with foreign visitors and handed a menu of unusual questions: “Which part of your life was a waste of time?” or “How important is money to you?” And it arranges “social dinners” at which locals dine with refugees—an attempt to defuse anxieties about the migrant crisis, which has emboldened Europe’s xenophobic Right.
“Most people come to Vienna and they see what they want to see . . . What you find depends on what you are seeking.”
Article continues below advertisement
Zentralfriedhof is a vast place, with more dead Viennese (3 million) than there are living ones in the city (2 million). The place has an internal bus service, even an audio guide. I press play on mine, expecting somber directions to headstones of national heroes. Instead, I learn in graphic detail how an undertaker deals with a rotting corpse (mouth guards and eye shields). “You never get used to that unpleasant odor,” the audio says.
I hit stop on creepy Vienna, preferring to bask in the city’s creative side, admiring some of the most original tombstones I’ve ever seen, such as a full-size rendering of a musician’s grand piano under a marble shroud. Beethoven’s tomb and Mozart’s memorial are here too, alongside other greats of Viennese classical music: Schubert, Strauss, Schoenberg.
Then I recognize a chilling name: Kurt Waldheim.
I’ve tried not to dwell on the Nazi past. Austria long did the same. While postwar Germany was struggling with its shame, Austria preferred to claim it was merely the first victim of Hitler. But the Waldheim Affair of 1986 changed that. Waldheim, among the nation’s most admired statesmen, was running for the presidency when it emerged that he had lied about his military service under the Nazis and must have known about war crimes. As Austrians were discovering this, they went to the polls—and elected him regardless. This disturbing choice prodded the nation to finally begin admitting its complicity in Nazism.
Yet the war years are still effaced in Vienna. Outside the Albertina Museum there’s a Monument Against War and Fascism, but it’s a strange site, including the most tasteless memorial I’ve seen: a sculpture of a Jewish man on all fours scrubbing anti-Nazi political slogans off the pavement, as Jews were forced to do by the Nazis. Partly in response to this abominable artwork, the city added a Holocaust Memorial in 2000, acknowledging the 65,000 murdered Austrian Jews. During construction, excavators found the ruins of a synagogue that was razed in 1421, when an earlier Jewish community was destroyed, its relics buried under another pretty square.
I check my watch. Fittingly, my time is running out in a graveyard. If I’m to make that flight, I can visit only one more area. I hasten to another cemetery, in the old Jewish sector.
On one side of an avenue, where graves are marked with crosses, the grass is trimmed and fresh flowers flutter. On the side with Hebrew lettering, plots are overgrown with weeds, headstones toppled. Presumably, nobody is left alive to tend these graves. Perhaps the authorities prefer to let the grass grow until one can’t make out this part of history. Vienna may take pleasure in exploring the dark side. But not all dark sides, it seems.Schönbrunn Palace and Mozart,” Seeber had told me. “What you find depends on what you are seeking.”
more from afar