The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

“The Spirit of Modernity Is Jewish”: Otto Weininger and the Crisis of Modernity

Fin-de-siècle Vienna, known for its arts and culture, acquired a somewhat unenviable notoriety for the high number of suicides of mainly young men, some of them prominent intellectuals, not yet in their thirties. The widely publicized suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf alongside his mistress the Baroness Mary Vetsera in 1889 firmly established the reputation of Vienna as the capital of suicide. The suicide of Otto Weininger (1880-1903), the philosopher, in 1903 at the age of twenty-three attracted no less attention, especially since it was dramatically staged in the house where Beethoven had died.

Plaque in the place of Beethoven's last house in Vienna and Weininger's tomb

Weininger is mainly known for his Sex and Character, a book which continues to produce extreme reactions – ranging from the idea that the author was a genius to the belief that he was a madman. Already the year after Weininger’s death, the psychiatrist Ferdinand Probst published a study, in which he diagnosed posthumously Weininger with “hysterical psychosis”, which, according to Probst, was the result of the cultural climate of Vienna. Interestingly, Probst believed that “Vienna, the centre of modern decadence” provided the stage for Weininger’s “community of religious followers.” In other words, in Vienna a crazy man like Weininger was not even such a great exception.

What must have seemed odd, even to the Viennese at the time with their high tolerance of the eccentricities of their city’s intellectuals, was that the author, a Jew who had converted to Protestantism, had written such a passionate diatribe against Jews. There are indeed passages that would warm the heart of any anti-Semite, such as the musings over the Jew having no individuality and no soul, having no sense of good and evil, being fundamentally uncreative, while Judaism was singled out as the “extreme of cowardliness.”

Misogyny is intricately mixed up in these anti-Semitic arguments. All the failings of the Jew were connected to the idea that he was a feminine type, the lowest form of “womanhood” while, Weininger goes on, “greatness is absent from the nature of woman and Jew.”

What gives anyone, interested in culture, pause among all this very bizarre invective is the curious argument about the uncreative Jew. What could this possibly mean?! In a city where the Jewish population was less than five percent, the main producers and consumers of culture and the arts were Jews. The Opera was staffed by Jews, as was the university and all the rest of the cultural institutions. So, what was Weininger talking about?

It is easy to dismiss such statements as blatant lies and the ravings of a madman. If we consider them more seriously, though, what comes across is the idea of two cultures, so to speak – a German culture, symbolized by Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, etc. and the culture of modernism, shaped overwhelmingly by Jews. It is the latter that lies at the heart of the crisis of modernity and it is the Jewish mindset, according to Weininger, that has produced many of the illnesses of modern culture. As Weininger wrote, “the spirit of modernity is Jewish.”

Weininger’s theory of culture deserves attention if for no other reason, but that it reappeared, under a much more repellent guise, in Nazi propaganda in the 1930s. It is the expression of an anti-modern worldview which views the Jew as the embodiment of modernity. In other words, anyone committed to dismantling the project of modernity saw himself as the enemy of the Jews exactly because of their indispensable contribution to modern culture.

Weininger writes about Jewishness not as a racial characteristic, but as an ideal type that can subsume both Jews and non-Jews. Thus, his anti-semitism is quite different from that of the Nazis. In fact, the Nazis were not as delighted with Weininger’s insights as might be expected. If nothing else, the intermixture of anti-semitism and misogyny led away from degrading a tiny minority (as the German Jews were in the 1920s and 30s) towards insulting half of the population. Neither was Weininger’s suggestion that men elude women by ceasing procreation very helpful for the Nazi project.

Against this background, Weininger’s suicide in Beethoven’s last house assumes a deep symbolism. The young man made his final gesture. His identification with the great hero of German culture was a desperate and confused attempt to escape from what he saw as the Jewish spirit of modernity.

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