Vienna 1900 – a trope for beauty, decadence, artistic achievement and ultimate tragedy, an almost idyllic World of Yesterday, as described so memorably by the bestselling novelist Stefan Zweig. Every year, countless tourists come to revel in the beauty of lavishly restored remnants of past imperial glories, a world moulded into a seamless whole by operetta composers, novelists, movie directors and politicians in search of a coherent and proud national history.
The World of Yesterday was more fluid than retrospective visions tend to suggest – particularly that of Zweig, who painted his idyllic picture of stability, charm and order as a heartbroken and desperately homesick exile living in Westchester County, New York. Seen from within, turn-of-the-century Vienna was almost shockingly dynamic and in a constant state of flux. As the capital of a multinational empire, the city had a seemingly limitless capacity for absorbing idioms and influences and moulding them into a new and somehow characteristic culture. This had been true for generations, but it became particularly evident during the tumultuous years leading up to 1900. The astonishing and apparently sudden cultural blossoming in Vienna around the turn of the 20th century was to a large extent a by-product of immigration on a scale so vast that it makes the development of the city comparable only to the emergence of the great urban centres in the booming USA.
In 1864, just before the promulgation of the liberal constitution of 1867, which would allow all Habsburg citizens, including Jews, freedom of movement and settlement, Emperor Francis Joseph’s capital had some 550,000 inhabitants. After 1867 the number shot up, reaching 725,000 in 1880, 1.6 million in 1900 and 2 million