My friend Helmut once said that he was perfectly happy for people to think, as they often do, that Beethoven was Austrian, while Hitler was German. Helmut, as you can imagine, is Austrian. Indeed, Beethoven, who was born in Bonn, spent such a long time of his adult life in Vienna that one can understand the confusion. Just as understandably, Austrians are not extremely eager to draw attention to their country being the birthplace of history’s greatest mass murderer. As it is, Hitler was born not far from Linz and spent part of his youth in Vienna. He left Austria in 1913, when he was twenty-four.
Hitler’s stay in Vienna appears so completely ordinary that it’s almost depressing. One always hopes that a genocidal maniac would be completely different from all the rest of us, but it appears that Hitler as a young man was “terrifyingly normal,” and a good illustration of what Hannah Arendt has called “the banality of evil.” Just like many visitors to Vienna at the time and since, he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the city. As he wrote in Mein Kampf: “For hours I could stand in front of the Opera, for hours I could gaze at the parliament; the whole Ring Boulevard seemed to me like an enchantment out of the Thousand-and-One Nights.”
What was he doing in Vienna? Hitler’s version is that he was an “art academy graduate,” who at some point fell upon hard times and was forced to work as a construction worker. Neither was true. He had, indeed, applied at the Arts Academy but hadn’t been accepted. With hindsight, one wishes that he had been. The story of the construction worker is also fiction. In fact, in 1909 Hitler became homeless and ended up at a homeless shelter in Meidling, a district of Vienna. To get some money, he opted to carry passengers’ bags at the Westbahnhof, the West Railway Station, and later to paint postcards.
Later, Hitler would assess this period of his life with typical modesty as one of suffering, which “turned into the greatest blessing for the German nation.” Clearly, the suggestion is that his youthful experience in Vienna had been profitable in terms of learning experience and had ultimately proved of world historical value. So what had Vienna taught Hitler?
In Vienna Hitler saw a “Babylonian Empire,” a multiethnic and multicultural city with a centuries-old mixture of peoples. He was utterly disgusted. As Goebbels wrote in his diary as late as 1945: “The Führer certainly figured out the Viennese correctly. They are a repulsive bunch, consisting of a mix of Poles, Czechs, Jews, and Germans.”
After the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria to the German Reich) in 1938, events revealed that Hitler’s intention was to wipe out the “repulsive bunch” of Poles, Czechs, and Jews. One shouldn’t miss the irony here that as a direct result of Hitler’s war mongering exactly the opposite happened. With the annexation of Austria and the destruction of countries to the East with large Jewish and Slavic populations, the numbers of the “repulsive bunch” in Germany swelled as never before.
The great Oxford historian A.J.P. Taylor said of Hitler something along the lines that in terms of the ideas he held he was no more wicked than many others, in terms of wicked deeds he outdid everybody else. Indeed, Hitler’s anti-Semitic and racist views were no more vicious than what was commonplace in anti-Semitic circles, to whose ideas Hitler was first introduced in Vienna.
Someone who stood out among Viennese anti-Semites was Karl Lueger, mayor of Vienna between 1897 and 1910, whom Hitler mentions with admiration in his Mein Kampf. As any true populist at the time and now, Lueger never tired of denouncing the enemy of “little men,” i.e., representatives of the lower middle classes, who were suffering the consequences of industrialization. The enemy, in Lueger’s interpretation, was “Jewish capitalism.” What made Lueger dangerous was that he no crazy racist and anti-semite on the fringes of the political spectrum, but a hugely popular politician. When he drove in his carriage, he would be applauded by standers-by. His funeral was the most populous that the city had ever seen. In many ways, it was Lueger who lent anti-Semitism respectability in the Viennese context.
In other words, the young Hitler found himself in a Vienna, which was not just the city of music and beautiful architecture. It was also a city in which anti-Semitism and anti-Slavism were on the raise. Hitler was soon to have the opportunity to implement in practice the ideas he had learned in Vienna. A genuine case of doing what one preaches that gives some value to the much despised hypocrisy. Far from a blessing, what followed seemed much more like the punishment of a wrathful God.