Waldemar Zacharasiewicz, Transatlantic Networks and the Perception and Representation of Vienna and Austria between the 1920s and 1950s (Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2018), 323 pp.
When Dorothy Thompson was sent to Vienna by the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1921, she was to become the most effective mediator of the interwar years in Central Europe and Austria. Her interest in and affection for the Danube region would last lifelong. Thompson’s reports opened the eyes of U.S. readers to problem-stricken postwar Austria, which is often called an “amputated state” (Rumpfstaat) in history books, in order to drastically underline what was left of the multiethnic Habsburg monarchy. The war moved the former metropolis Vienna to the edge of a small and economically unstable republic, where most of its urban dwellers faced poverty and starvation, while only a few could afford moments of escapism in theaters and concert halls, the reminders of the former “gayest city in Europe” (29).
Thompson reported on the high quality of musical productions, but on high politics as well. She paid tribute to the housing initiatives of the Social Democratic city government. Together with her husband Sinclair Lewis, whose novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935) about semi-fascist politics in the United States has recently been rediscovered, she rented a villa in the mountain resort of Semmering, where they welcomed the couple Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler Werfel.
In a fascinating narrative in fourteen chapters, Waldemar Zacharasiewicz informs the readers how U.S.-American visitors perceived Austria and its capital between the end of World War I and the 1950s. Corresponding to the images the Austrian tourism industry spread abroad during the interwar period, American visitors were mostly interested in exploring Vienna, Tyrol, and Salzburg.
Writers, poets, medical graduates, foreign correspondents—some of them still known, others fallen out of the literary canon, like Joseph Hergesheimer or Louis Untermeyer—come to life through Zacharasiewicz’s meticulous research in U.S. archives, libraries, and literary estates. Louis Untermeyer was fascinated and shocked by Hugo Bettauer’s Die Stadt ohne Juden (1922) [The City without Jews], whom he missed to meet in the capital, but met Stefan Zweig in Salzburg instead. Whereas Untermeyer tried to collect as many impressions as possible during his travels across Austria, the author Anita Loos sent the protagonist of The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady (1925) to Vienna only. William Carlos Williams visited the city a couple of months before Louis Untermeyer, but primarily as a physician, although he was a prolific writer who kept in touch with Ezra Pound and who sought to follow the spirit of Sigmund Freud on the unconscious. Williams fictionalized his urban experiences as a flâneur in his novel A Voyage to Pagany (1928). Hilda Doolittle, a close friend of Pound’s, went further and personally consulted the father of psychoanalysis. The anti-Habsburg Pound traveled to Vienna in 1928 in order to meet the violinist Olga Rudge and Thornton Wilder’s translator Herberth Herlitschka. Thornton Wilder came to the city after having received the Pulitzer Prize for The Bride of San Louis Ray (1927). In Vienna he immersed himself deeply into the cultural and literary spheres. His play The Merchant of Yonkers (1938) was inspired by Einen Jux will er sich machen (1842), a comedy by Johann Nestroy, one of Vienna’s famous playwrights of the early nineteenth century. Wilder’s friend Thomas Wolfe wrote in his diary after visiting the music capital: “Vienna: Take notes carefully, make picture of life there as seductive and appealing as possible” (101).
The authors’ literary works, their journalistic essays, their letters, and memoirs manifest a bundle of images which form a distinct imagology. Drawing on theories by Hugo Dyserinck, Joep Leerssen, Manfred Beller as well as Benedict Anderson, Zacharasiewicz understands the production of stereotypes and images as a desire, “which stands out against the everyday and commonplace of one’s own culture, and of the readiness to homogenize and romanticize distant locations and their inhabitants” (12). Stereotypes of Vienna as the Mecca of music and theater, of easy-going people, of a specific fin-de-siècle culture, became manifest in several texts and culminated in the blockbuster musical film The Sound of Music (1965). Several visitors may not have questioned the reasons why waltzes and operettas played such a dominant role in the Habsburg empire. But in a multilingual nation, identity politics, which sought to connect its nationalities and bind them to the double-monarchy, had to use music (besides food and architecture) as ingredients of a supra-ethnic identity.
Transatlantic Networks introduces a number of visitors, whose observations went far beyond the stereotypes and superficial impressions, which speak more about one’s self than the observed other. Dorothy Thompson, Thornton Wilder, John Gunther, and William Shirer lived for years in Austria. They were part of intellectual networks; they made friends and proved their friendship by helping Austrians to survive in exile. Dorothy Thompson, for instance, supported Eugenia Schwarzwald, Anna Schwarzenberg, and Hilda von Auersperg. John Gunther became not only a known Latin Americanist in the 1940s; he had been the most influential foreign observer of Austria from the United States and celebrated an extraordinary success with Inside Europe (1936). As Zacharasiewicz shows, Gunther was able to decode the Austrian mentality and made use of proverbs such as “Austria is ruled […] by Absolutism modified by Schlamperei” and “The situation in Germany is serious, but not hopeless: the situation in Austria is hopeless but not serious” (131). Gunther was by far not the only political interpreter of the dictatorial Ständestaat (authoritarian corporatist state) and the maneuvers of its political protagonists against growing fascist menaces from abroad and within. Zacharasiewicz introduces writings of the British diplomat Vernon Bartlett and the female novelist Kay Boyle as testimonies of the (self)-destruction of Austria.
I agree with the author that analyzing and describing the appeal of Vienna and Austria for U.S.-American visitors and short-time residents has not received sufficient attention. Reconstructing transatlantic networks from a German-speaking perspective has often been limited to exploring German authors or the spatial dimensions of the NATO states. Thus, focusing on Austria means adding different imagologies and images, different historical and cultural contexts to a larger transatlantic discourse. Zacharasiewicz’s valuable study helps to close a gap in the scholarship by explaining to Americanists and a broader audience the specific role Vienna and Austria played for U.S.-American observers of different disciplines. He describes how they formed transatlantic networks, how their travel and living experiences left traces in their oeuvres, inspired ideas, and shaped their political consciousness.
Ursula Prutsch (LMU München)