Vienna’s Jews and the Ringstrasse

Ringstrasse at Jewish Museum Vienna

Vienna’s famous boulevard, the Ringstrasse, was a thriving hub for Jewish bourgeoisie in 19th century Austria. David Herman reviews Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard which accompanies an exhibition on the street at Vienna’s Jewish Museum.

Fin-de-siècle Vienna has become a source of fascination for cultural historians over the past forty years. There are several reasons. It was one of the birthplaces of 20th century art and ideas:  writers such as Schnitzler and Hofmannstahl, painters such as Klimt and Kokoschka, great figures of Modernism from Freud to Schoenberg. “In almost every field of human thought and activity,” writes Ray Monk in his biography of Wittgenstein, “the new was emerging from the old, the twentieth century from the nineteenth.”

However, there is also the fascinating link between cultural creativity and historical crisis: the collapse of liberalism, the break-up of the Habsburg Empire, inflation and then the rise of Austrian fascism. Finally, Jews were at the centre of both the explosion of creativity and the rise of antisemitism. Many of the great creative figures of the turn of the century were Jewish and thousands of Vienna’s Jews were killed by the Nazis or driven into exile, many of them to enrich post-war culture in every field in Britain and America.

What is immediately striking about the exhibition, Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard, is that there are virtually no references to the great names of fin-de-siècle Vienna. No Schoenberg or Wittgenstein. Four references to Stefan Zweig, two to Klimt and Freud, one to Schnitzler. Instead the dominant figures here are the great families of the new Jewish haute bourgeoisie such as the Ephrussis, the subject of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). This is partly a story of architecture, town planning and grand hotels, but more a story of Jewish financiers, bankers and industrialists, the new urban haute bourgeoisie who lived in the great palaces of the Ringstrasse. On the Ringstrasse, writes Gabriele Kohlbauer-Fritz in her chapter ‘Family Stories’, “the who’s who of Vienna society gathered in their drawing rooms,”  “industrialists mingled with artists, bankers, and writers, politicians, and actors, Jews and non-Jews, men and women.”

It was the young Emperor Franz Joseph who decided to demolish Vienna’s medieval fortifications and develop the land into a magnificent new boulevard of apartment buildings and major administrative and cultural buildings, the symbols of Stefan Zweig’s “world of security” in his memoir, The World of Yesterday. In 1860 the sale of Ringstrasse lots began. Members of the imperial household, high aristocracy and the Jewish upper middle class were the first occupants. However, it was not until the late 1860s and 1870s that the Ringstrasse reached its highpoint and by then a very different class of buyer was moving in.

Perhaps the most fascinating essay is on “Jewish real estate ownership in the Vienna city center and the Ringstrasse area until 1885” by Georg Gaugusch which tells the story of how Jews won the right to buy property in Vienna in the mid-19th century. What happened subsequently was a social revolution. For the first time Jews lived near the centre of Vienna. The Ringstrasse symbolized the rise of a new wealthy class of Jewish industrialists, bankers and financiers. In 1853 Jews owned 17 houses in the old town centre. By 1885 Jews owned 155 buildings on the Ringstrasse. Just as fascinating, few of these new buyers came from Vienna. Almost half came from Moravia, Pressburg, or western Hungary and another large group came from major urban centres in Bohemia or Germany.

This influx of Jews to Vienna and the rise of a new Jewish upper middle class were not welcomed by non-Jews in Vienna. Already around 1869 one anti-Semitic journalist wrote of “A brand new Jerusalem of the East”. In 1870 Franz Friedrich Masaidek wrote of “The Ringstrasse – the Zion Street of new-Jerusalem”. The rise of the Ringstrasse and Vienna’s Jews coincided with the rise of a new virulent anti-Semitism which played such a huge part in Austrian politics for the next seventy-five years. A dark story looms large over the later chapters and it is hard to read this catalogue without a sense of foreboding.

Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard runs until Sunday 18 October at Vienna Jewish Museum.