Dancing over the edge: Vienna in 1914

By Bethany Bell
BBC News

image captionVienna hosted a rich intellectual and artistic life at the beginning of the 20th Century

One hundred years ago, Vienna was at the epicentre of a world on the brink of war. Bethany Bell reflects on a century of changes in the Austrian capital.

On my first visit to Vienna in the early 1990s, I wanted, most of all, to see the paintings by Gustav Klimt. I didn't know much about them.

My studies in England hadn't exposed me to the art of fin-de-siecle Vienna. But a postcard of The Kiss with its golden, geometric splendours fascinated me.

The picture conjured up a vanished world of lavish beauty and daring experimentation that was both unfamiliar and exciting. 

And so, once in Vienna, I went straight to see the collection at the Belvedere museum, a baroque palace on a hill, which, I was interested to discover, had been the home of the ill-fated Habsburg Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 sparked the First World War.

The Klimts didn't disappoint. And neither did the paintings by Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. After a couple of hours in the gallery, I wandered out into the garden and down to the street, my head full of Viennese Jugendstil - or, art nouveau.

Across the road, a crowd had gathered outside a large, late 19th Century building. I walked over to have a look. It was the Embassy of what was then still Yugoslavia. An official had just pinned to the door two notices about the war that was, at that time, raging in Bosnia. Two men in front of me were talking about the siege of Sarajevo.

I shivered. History suddenly seemed very close.

A few months ago, a Viennese friend frowned as he stirred his coffee. We were sitting in Cafe Griensteidl, in the centre of town.

I'd just told him that, even after 15 years of living here, I'm still haunted by Vienna as it was just before the outbreak of World War One, before the defeat that led to the collapse of the rotting Austro-Hungarian Empire.

"But don't lots of periods of history feel close in Vienna?" he asked. "You've got Mozart and the Baroque, you've got the 19th Century and the Ringstrasse, you've even got the Flak towers of the World War Two… Why not focus on them?"

I looked around at the cafe with its marble-topped tables and high white ceiling. Among the visitors and tourists, I recognised several senior Austrian civil servants, a couple of foreign diplomats and one of the country's most distinguished historians.

"It's partly the idea of cafe society," I said lightly. "Just think who might have been sitting here back then!"

At the end of the 19th Century, Cafe Griensteidl was at the heart of Vienna's dazzling intellectual life, patronised by people such as Arnold Schoenberg and Theodore Herzl. Sigmund Freud is thought to have preferred the nearby Cafe Landtmann.

image captionCoffee-house culture played an important role in late 19th and early 20th Century Vienna

"Ah, you have bought into the romance of fin-de-siecle Vienna!" he exclaimed. "You know that it was encouraged by some of Austria's leaders after 1945. They wanted people to look back at a period of history they could be proud of - not like World War Two."

He looked up at the Jugendstil mirror above our table.

"Even this cafe isn't really genuine," he said. "The original Griensteidl shut down in 1897 - this place was re-opened in the 1990s."

"You know better than me that lots of traditions and places have survived," I replied. "It's not all fake - just look over there," and I pointed through the window at the bank opposite. Built by the Modernist architect Adolf Loos, around 1910, the building had caused a scandal because of its severe lack of decoration.

"I think what haunts me is something a bit different," I said.

"It's the thought that this exquisite, civilised place didn't seem to be able to stop its own collapse - and that it unleashed so many destructive ideas and people that tore Europe - and the 20th Century apart."

The writer Karl Kraus had a phrase for it. In his obituary for Franz Ferdinand, he called Austria the laboratory of the Apocalypse.

My friend smiled wryly. "Ah, yes," he said, "the Viennese, dancing towards destruction."

On the first of January 1914, the Neue Freie Presse, still one of Austria's leading newspapers, published an article about carnival season, or Fasching as it's called here. "The Vienna Fasching and its spirit are no bad way of measuring the Viennese mood in general," it wrote.

That still applies today. This city nurtures its old traditions, partly for its tourists but also because the Viennese themselves enjoy them. It is still quite normal for teenagers here to learn to waltz.

"The balls and parties are a great way of getting through the long winter nights," another friend told me. "You dance until three or four in the morning and then end up in a cafe eating goulash."

Both today and a century ago, the festivities have always been for everyone - not just for high society. There are police balls, firefighter balls - even a ball for Vienna's rubbish collectors.

And while the monarchy is long gone, abolished after the defeat in World War One, the old royal Hofburg Palace provides a splendid setting for some of the more lavish balls.

I once found myself interviewing a diplomat at a ball in the Hofburg. I wore an evening dress; he was in black tie.

The strains of a waltz drifted through from the ballroom. A man with a large moustache walked past our table, his dinner jacket shining with medals and awards for his services to gastronomy.

We were sitting in the Privy Council Chamber.

It was the room where Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, was forced to swear an oath that his children would not succeed him as Emperor. His chosen wife, Sophie Chotek, who died with him at Sarajevo, was not blue-blooded enough for the old emperor, Franz Joseph.

When the Kaiser heard of the assassinations in Sarajevo, he's said to have been relieved that the threat to the Habsburg line posed by Sophie's low birth had been removed.

Europe's longest serving monarch could barely cope with his family's problems, let alone those of the multi-national Empire.

Outside the Volksoper theatre, home of Viennese operetta, a large blue street sign points to the roads to Budapest, Prague and Brno, all once part of the Habsburg realm.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Viennese have started to revive their historical connections with their neighbours. Austrian banks and companies have invested extensively in Eastern Europe. Sometimes, when talking to Viennese entrepreneurs and politicians about the region, I've been amused to detect a slightly proprietorial tone creeping into the conversation - in a way that's not always appreciated by their Czech or Hungarian colleagues.

Open a Vienna telephone book and you find the legacy of the nations and peoples of the old Empire: Sedlacek, Mueller, Horvath, Bogdan, Kaufmann, Nowak.

Today, even without the Empire, Vienna is still a city of immigrants. Almost half of its population has a migrant background, although these days they're more likely to come from Turkey or Serbia than Bohemia or Galicia.

Far-right parties still thrive here by tapping in to and exploiting resentments. But the situation isn't nearly as fraught as it was 100 years ago when bitter racial and ethnic conflicts raged.

For years, my regular running route has been around central Vienna's magnificent boulevard, the Ringstrasse: past the neo-Gothic Town Hall, along the Danube Canal, past the great Jugendstil Postal Savings Bank and on towards the opera.

But it was only fairly recently that I stopped to take a closer look at the bronze statue in front of Cafe Prueckl.

Designed in 1913, it's an image of one of Vienna's most charismatic and controversial mayors, Karl Lueger - known as the Handsome Karl. From 1897 to 1910, he helped transform Vienna into a modern city.

Bas reliefs on the pedestal pay tribute to some of his achievements: his homes for the poor and elderly, the municipal gas works, the expansion of the pipeline network that still brings Alpine water to the city. One of the great luxuries of living here is having mountain spring water straight from the tap.

But some Viennese want the statue taken down. And last year his name was removed from one section of the Ringstrasse.

Karl Lueger is often described as the father of modern political anti-Semitism. His populist campaigns against the city's Jewish minority were so notorious, that when he was first elected mayor, the Emperor refused to endorse him. It took two years and a lot of pressure before he was eventually sworn in.

And Lueger was a major influence on a young artist who was living in Vienna at the time: Adolf Hitler.

Ten years ago, the Austrian papers reported that the men's hostel in Meldemannstrasse, in the working class district of Brigittenau, was finally closing down. I went to have a look.

For almost a century, the place had provided shelter for the homeless of Vienna.

Five years after it opened, Hitler moved in - and stayed until 1913, down and out and unnoticed.

Financed by the Rothschilds and administered by the city, the institution, was, in its day, revolutionary.

Instead of communal dormitories, each man was given his own room. There were plenty of bathrooms and a large bright reading room, looking out on the garden, where Hitler painted, read and talked politics.

Once unwittingly part of the laboratory of the apocalypse, the building today is used as an old people's home, one of the most up-to-date in Vienna.

"Vienna has gone through hell and back over the past century," one of my friends, a historian, told me. "But it's a gentler place now. Young people are learning lots of languages and looking outwards again."

She's right.

Vienna today's a gentler place, not as brilliant perhaps, and more than a touch complacent about its enviably high standards of living.

The atmosphere of well-ordered, prosperous serenity can, for a moment, almost lull you into believing in an operetta world: a place where even the biggest problems can be solved by dancing and music - or, at the very least, soothed by a cup of coffee with whipped cream.

By the time of the Armistice on the Western Front on 11 November 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had already disintegrated.

Vienna was still a capital city - but of a tiny country.

Today just a handful of people will remember 11 November as the day when the last Emperor Karl relinquished any share in Austria's government, the day when he moved out of Vienna's summer palace of Schoenbrunn, never to return.

But most Viennese pay little attention.

The 11 November is marked in a very different way.

If you head down to, the elegant baroque shopping street in the heart of town, known as the Graben, at 11:11 that morning, you come across a scene that perhaps only Vienna could produce.

A large military band in iron grey overcoats, red berets and golden tassles strikes up the Fledermaus Quadrille by Johann Strauss.

Next to them on a platform stands the Tanzmeister, a teacher from one of Vienna's many ballroom dancing schools.

Dressed in white tie and a flowing black cloak, he directs the assembled crowd in a huge quadrille, a square dance rather like a Scottish reel.

The women curtsey, the men bow, and for an hour or so the Graben is transformed into a ballroom as the Viennese once again celebrate the beginning of Carnival, Fasching.

Empires may come and go, but the dance, it seems, goes on.

Music on the Brink: The Essay series will be broadcast Monday to Friday this week at 22:45 GMT on BBC Radio 3. Tomorrow: Paris.

Gustav Klimt The Kiss, 1908/1909, Oil on canvas, 180 x 180cm courtesy of Belvedere, Vienna.

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