In the footsteps of Hitler and Mahler

28th August 1998 at 01:00
Tom Deveson traces the history of his family and the Habsburg emperors in Vienna.

My walk around Vienna goes via south London to north Manhattan. It is a journey through the passions and desires and imaginations that have shaped 20th-century Europe.

I start at the Secession Building where, in 1897, young artists led by Gustav Klimt declared independence from the Academy, demanding "for art its proper freedom". The "golden cabbage", a dome of interlocking laurel leaves, tops the towered windowless structure. It inaugurated a decade of cultural and social fervour during which, in the words of Karl Kraus, Vienna was to be the "Research Laboratory for World Destruction".

Just round the corner, in the Schillerplatz, is the Academy of Fine Arts itself. In 1908 Hitler was refused admission because of his poor drawing and lack of a school-leaving certificate. He became a tramp with political views.

Avoiding temptations from pricey restaurants, I pick up Emmenthaler cheese, Semmel rolls, some oozing peaches and a bottle of Schwechater beer.I cross the section of the Ringstrasse by the Opera House.

The Ring nearly circumscribes the entire inner city, with only a narrow arc cut off by the far-from-blue Danube Canal. It follows the lines of the defences of the city, the ramparts which, 300 years ago, repelled invading Turkish armies. Coffee and croissants are two tasty legacies of that clash of cultures. Then in the 19th century the city's new prosperity exfoliated into an opulent series of buildings all along this sumptuous boulevard.

I don't go in the Opera House but stand outside thinking about my grandfather. In 1910 he pointed to a pale man in a dark suit and said to my uncle. "That's Gustav Mahler, the greatest musician in Vienna, in the world." My uncle told me 60 years later; it still haunts me. I think too of how Mahler defended the young Arnold Schoenberg, who suffered the public booing of his second quartet with its disturbing soprano refrain. "I feel air blowing from another planet. " Schoenberg was to speak of "our beloved and hated Vienna".

There are infinite aesthetic riches to leave for another day. A stroll westward down the Burgring passes the Kunsthis-torisches Museum, with its fabulous reserves of Brueghel, Rembrandt and Rubens. I stop for a bite and a sip in the Heldenplatz under Prince Eug ne's rearing equestrian statue; and then saunter through the complex courtyards of the Hofburg, the old headquarters of the Imperial Habsburg family, with 18 wings, 54 staircases and 2,600 rooms. Its indescribable treasures include Holy Roman crowns, insignia, reliquaries and jewels.

But I want to see the Looshaus, directly opposite the Hofburg entrance. In the Michaelerplatz. Adolf Loos was an architect whose mission was to attack the pompous ornateness of Viennese buildings, to campaign for simplicity and purity of line. The Emperor Franz-Josef looked directly onto this pioneering unadorned design of 1910, and he hated it. He called it "the house with no eyebrows" and tried, unsuccessfully, to have it demolished by the city council.

The house was also a direct inspiration to Ludwig Wittgen-stein, whose dedication to clearing thought of metaphysical outgrowths springs directly from his involvement with currents of opinion in pre-war Vienna. Loos's aphorism on design - "the meaning is the use" - characterises the philosopher's vastly influential approach to the enigma of language.

Going up the Herrengasse, lined with former palaces, I come to the Cafe Central. It's been restored as it was at the turn of the century when Trotsky and Herzl (founder of Zionism) drank coffee and lingered over the freely provided papers as I do now. It was a setting for literary and political argument, gossip, billiards - and the unofficial workplace of one of Europe's greatest satirists, Karl Kraus.

His life's aim was to cleanse German of falsity and cliche. His thrilling public readings inspired many young Viennese, my mother among them. He diag-nosed the Nazi disease before it occurred, by attending to the horrors hidden in the language of sentimental nationalism. As I walk north to the Schottentor to ride the rattling tram towards my grandparents' old apartment building, I think of Hitler in his Viennese doss-house and the seething hatreds that drove my mother to London and my uncle to New York. My children are staying there now, probably eating bagels. I'm waiting for the 37 tram, musing about the history that made me.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today