The Truth About Austria’s Dark Side

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.

The Truth About Austria’s Dark Side


Photo by Eva Schmiedleitner

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.

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.”


Illustration by Nanna Prieler

What I see behind the metal bars are human bones in numbers beyond reckoning—the leftovers of thousands of people who grew up, gossiped, ate strudel, and are now a tourist attraction. About 11,000 were interred under the cathedral, a practice that stopped in 1783 because officials ran out of space—and because the stench made Mass unbearable. Vienna, I am learning, is filled with such macabre attractions. The Funeral Museum. The Criminal Museum, housing the mummified head of a murderer. A walking tour through sewers. The Collection of Anatomical Pathology in the Madhouse Tower, where one may peruse deformed body parts.

Death and decay loom—which is peculiar, given how healthy and pleasant life is. Last night at Wein & Co., the bartender jotted down a lengthy to-do list for me, including zip-lining and thermal baths and stylish dining, only to complete his list by noting his two favorite cemeteries. When I later meet a local property entrepreneur, Ingomar Seeber, he treats me to a coffee and puffs a cigarette, raving about his charmed existence. Sure, Seeber acknowledges, there is an Austrian fascination with the Grim Reaper. But, he adds, I can hit the ski slopes in an hour, or gun my motorbike to winemaking areas within the city limits. On a hot day, I can head to the Danube, strip to my skivvies, and jump in. “Everything is so easy.”

Yet the easy life is not always the most stirring, and I’m curious about edgy parts of Vienna. For clues, I consult Markus Lust, who exposes the country’s underbelly as editor in chief of the bro bible VICE Austria. A smiley young Austrian with a hipster mustache and a silver MacBook, he offers any help I might want. Yet Lust can muster little excitement about Vienna. “The whole city is pretty much a big museum. It’s also very fake,” he tells me. “Even the most renowned coffee places, like the Café Central and the Café Griensteidl, have moved or shut down.”

Café Central, frequented by Lenin and Trotsky, as well as Freud and Hitler (not all at once), is on a different floor nowadays, Lust laments, and Café Griensteidl, hangout of early 20th-century writers such as Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler, closed in June 2017. None of his complaints seem that damning. I suspect he just wishes that fate had deposited his life in Manhattan—better yet, Brooklyn.

“If you really look carefully, you will find those 10 artists worth looking into. But Vienna is not a vibrant scene,” he says. “There aren’t those odd spaces and bombed buildings that you find in Berlin. It’s all very neat and tidy.”

But what about all the spooky attractions?

“People from Vienna would probably love to think it’s part of their humor,” he says of the morbid tastes. “But it’s not funny. It’s really covering up something else. I don’t know what. Not even Freud figured out what it was about.”

To delve even further into the Austrian id, I meet for drinks with Eugene Quinn, a Londoner by birth, Viennese by marriage, and a character around his adopted city, known for leading tours such as a walk based on smells and another called Vienna Ugly. He also helped found the nonprofit group Space and Place, which seeks to enliven Vienna and its more buttoned-up residents.

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.

The interior of Café Central

The interior of Café Central

Photo by Lisa Stelzel/Shutterstock

Vienna is far more liberal than the rest of the country, and had a richly multicultural past during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which collapsed in 1918. Although that remarkable phase is long gone, Quinn observes that “the future of almost every city is migration.” With this in mind, I set out to meet Vienna’s future, leaving my tidy but charmless lodgings for a hotel staffed largely by refugees.

Magdas Hotel employs 30 people, of whom two-thirds come from desperate locales, including Syria, Afghanistan, and Congo. The space is filled with upcycled furniture to create a spartan boutique hotel with the air of a merry youth hostel: The desk manager doesn’t merely check me in, she shakes my hand. The Catholic charity behind Magdas aims to show Austrian businesses that asylum seekers, who struggle to find work here, are trustworthy and well suited to the tourist trade, especially given how many languages some of them speak.

Dinis Angsberg, an immigrant from Guinea-Bissau, has been a mainstay since Magdas opened in 2015. Taking a break from slinging cappuccinos at the hotel bar, he tells me that right-wing opponents of the hotel said it would end up “a criminal camp.” Summer camp would’ve been more accurate, given the kumbaya mood here.

As for 31-year-old Angsberg, during more than a decade in Austria, he has volunteered to help the elderly and handicapped, studied at university, and become fluent in German—one of his six languages. He disavows any wish to change this culture with his own, but sometimes has dreams set in Vienna, with all the locals speaking Guinea-Bissau creole.

I smile at the image. “For me also, it’s very funny,” he says, laughing.

New Austrians may define the city’s future. But for now, Vienna remains a city infused, infatuated, perhaps imprisoned by its past occupants. So on my final day, I visit them.

The main cemetery, I recall that chatty bartender telling me, is on the way to the airport. As I head for my flight home, I ask the taxi driver to pull over there.

“Most people come to Vienna and they see what they want to see . . . What you find depends on what you are seeking.”

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.


Illustration by Nanna Prieler

“Most people come to Vienna and they see what they want to see—Schönbrunn Palace and Mozart,” Seeber had told me. “What you find depends on what you are seeking.” And he was right. I claimed to seek a vibrant place, yet spent far more time peering into the darkness. Of course you’ll find gloom if you spend your time in crypts.

Still, I found more than just the shadowed past. The locals were welcoming and open. I walked everywhere, viewed exquisite art and imperial pomp, and encountered not the slightest trouble—just kindness and cakes and glasses of riesling. A few nights earlier, when I exited a restaurant into a downpour, a waiter ran after me. “Please,” he said, thrusting an umbrella into my hand, though we’d surely never see each other again. “You keep it.”

So what to make of haunted Vienna? Was I imagining it? When I canvassed locals, they always confirmed a local fascination with death. Explanations included cold intellectualism, Catholic guilt, Central European melancholy. Shortly before arriving at the cemetery, I walked past a private gallery and stopped short by ceramics intended to resemble human bones and a large photo of decapitated deer. I entered 12-14 Contemporary and quizzed the gallery director, Denise Parizek, who argued (most cheerfully) that contemplating the end is good.

“Good or more honest?” I asked.

“Good. Because we will all decay and be part of life again—like those flowers,” she said, looking to a long-stemmed heap artfully rotting on the gallery floor.

Vienna ranks among the world’s most livable cities for good reason. During my days here—as the United States raged over politics and London fretted over Europe and Paris suffered yet another terrorist attack—the main disturbance I found in Vienna was preparations for the marathon.

I ponder this as I exit the cemetery and step into the waiting taxi. Time to leave this place of death and decay, this city of humbled power, long shadows, and regeneration.

The world may be ending elsewhere, but not in Vienna. Here, the world already ended. And life, the surveys say, is better than ever.

>>Next: Finding Two Faces of Paradise in Post-War Sri Lanka

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