Vienna: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World by Richard Cockett - review by David Pryce-Jones

David Pryce-Jones

Socialism & Psychoanalysis

Vienna: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World


Yale University Press 464pp £25 order from our bookshop

Vienna is a handbook, a sort of Who Was Who for that city from the last decades of Habsburg rule up to the present. Richard Cockett, a senior editor at The Economist and a historian, makes no concessions to fashion. There are none of the usual pot-boiler themes such as aristocracy, Johann Strauss father and son, the ethno-nationalism of the several minorities, Gemütlichkeit and all the rest of it. Instead, there are many hundreds of names, some of them famous and deserving of a few pages to explain why, some of them known only by those in their field and therefore rating merely a paragraph or two, the whole lot serving the purpose of establishing that Vienna was the city where the modern world was formed. Generalisations come thick and fast.

Bildung, which means self-cultivation (though mostly in the sense of being properly educated), is described here as ‘the central intellectual framework for the Viennese bourgeoisie and the Habsburg monarchy’. In his autobiography, Life and Shape (1962), the architect Richard Neutra describes his elder brothers’ book-filled living quarters. A glass case contained a multi-volume encyclopedia in which, he was told, he could find ‘everything there was to be known in the world’. They also had busts of Mozart and Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller. This quartet, writes Cockett, was ‘held to enshrine through their poetry, prose and music a universal order, secular, rational and liberal’. Similarly, Karl Przibram, a physicist, recalled that the dominant spirit in his parents’ home was ‘that of the educated Jewish bourgeoisie of the liberal era, with its unconditional faith in progress and its open-mindedness for all achievements in art and science’.

Defeat in the First World War and the collapse of the currency put an end to the idealistic notion of Bildung. Far from seeing anything like a universal order, Stefan Zweig described in The World of Yesterday (1943) how when he went into the city he saw ‘in the yellow,

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