By Laura Morowitz
The new film, Woman in Gold is playing in many theaters around the country this week. The movie tells the victorious story of how Maria Altmann won back the Gustav Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis.
On a cold January day in 1939, Nazi administrators and museum officials raided the palais of the Bloch-Bauers — one of the wealthiest and most cultured Jewish families in Vienna — “Aryanizing” its contents and shipping them off to storage facilities and museums. Vienna, under the Anschluss, was the darkest and most tragic period in the city’s history. But Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I (1907), around which the current film focuses, was created in another Vienna, one sparkling with life and light, enlivened by the vivid Jewish culture of the city. In 1907, the very year the portrait was created, a young Adolf Hitler came to settle in Vienna and later vowed to crush the brilliant, daring society that flourished there.
In turn-of-the-century Vienna, Modernism had caught fire and exploded. In nearly every domain of culture, from painting, architecture and design, to theater, philosophy and psychology, brilliant artists and thinkers carried out experiments in the buttoned-up capital of the Habsburg Empire, and altered our understanding of human nature.
Vienna: A Radical Modernist City
Vienna in 1900 was not only the most radical Modernist city, but the most Jewish. It had the largest population of Jews in Western Europe (8 percent) and its wealthy Jewish families firmly ruled the city’s cultural life. Its artistic and intellectual superstars were often of Jewish origin: Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schnitzler, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Arnold Schoenberg, etc. And in the fields where Jews didn’t dominate, their financial support made many of the most important commissions and support possible. (Klimt’s patrons were so often Jewish that critics begin to complain of his “gôut juif”–his Jewish taste.)
It’s a true irony of history, then, that the individual most bent on the destruction of Jewish culture and Jewish life walked the very same streets, at the very same time as the Jewish luminaries above. Who among the artistic and intellectual groundbreakers of this city — Stefan Zweig, Karl Krauss — passed the scraggly teen-aged Adolf Hitler without giving him a second look? As he paid his small fee to watch Gustav Mahler conduct Wagner at the Hofopera, did Hitler stand beside Theodor Herzl, who was also smitten by the conductor’s Romantic dream worlds? (Herzl would later claim them as inspiration for his Zionist vision.) Did he pass un-noticed in the Kunsthistorische Museum as Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer took in the collections? For Hitler had arrived in Vienna to make his own mark artistically. He failed, and that failure was the first great disappointment of his life. He would never let the city forget it.
Hitler Arrived at Age 17
He’d come first at the age of seventeen, with a small fee saved by his mother. Arriving from Linz, Hitler was enchanted by the Ringstrasse, the Imperial collections, the statues and glittering monuments. Convinced of his artistic greatness, he vowed to return and attend the Vienna Academy of Art. He came back in September of 1907, sitting for the drawing exam the next month.
A few days later he received word from Linz that his mother was dying of cancer. He went home and stayed beside her as she suffered and died.
When Hitler returned to Vienna in 1908, he was miserable and deeply receptive to the wide-spread anti-Semitism of the city. It’s yet another historical irony that a city so rich in Jewish talent was also the first to come under the sway of a politician who succeeded on an anti-Semitic platform. Mayor Karl Lueger—“handsome Karl”—was a Christian Socialist who made it clear that the Jews would no longer run his city. Hitler admired him, and became a regular reader of the pan-Germanist Georg Schoenerer, whose vicious racial anti-Semitism Hitler would take over as his own.
This time Hitler, still struggling to make it as an artist, was sent with a letter of introduction from his neighbor, to ease the way. The letter recommended him to Alfred Roller, co-founder of the Secession (his sets for Wagner’s operas would impress Hitler all his life; In 1933 he brought the designer to Bayreuth to design a new production of Parsifal). But the eighteen year old Hitler was too intimidated to use the introduction, hesitating three times in front of Roller’s office.
Instead, Hitler ignored the modern art igniting all around him. In the spring of 1908, Gustav Klimt organized the Kunstschau, exhibiting 176 artists, and revealing Adele Bloch Bauer I to the Viennese public. If Hitler went to the most important artistic event of the season, he was silent on it.
While artists like Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka caused scandals, Hitler did nothing worthy of attention. Mostly he walked the streets, arguing with the other men in the homeless shelters where he stayed, painting postcards to earn a small living. Later in Mein Kampf, Hitler would claim Vienna as the place where he first became aware of “the Jewish question.”
Creators and Destroyer Share Time in Vienna
Seldom in history do the creators and the destroyer of a culture come so closely in to contact. As a young man, Hitler had stood close enough to feel the heat emanating from Mahler’s symphonies, Klimt’s portraits and Zweig’s stories. But he was too consumed by the fires of his own rage to feel it. As the clouds of the war rolled over Europe in 1913, Hitler left Vienna, refusing to fight for what he saw as a mongrel and dilapidated Austro-Hungarian Empire. He headed for Munich, joining the first World War, and cultivating the hatred that would lead to the second.
When he rose to power, Hitler was determined to keep both this past, and Vienna itself, in the shadows.
On Tuesday, March 15, 1938 Adolf Hitler rode his Mercedes triumphantly into Vienna. The crowds that lined the streets threw roses, rang bells and hoisted their children in the air. The next morning hundreds of thousands of Viennese jammed the Heldenplatz to hear Hitler’s speech from the balcony. Vienna adored their new Führer. The life enjoyed by Maria Altmann, and the rest of Vienna’s Jews, came to an end forever.
Despite the roaring crowds that greeted his arrival, Hitler still carried his hatred for the “Jewish” city. In a diary entry Josef Goebbels, Reichminister for Propaganda, summed up Hitler’s plans for the city: “Under no circumstances must anything be given to Vienna; rather whatever can be taken away, should be taken away.” While other important cities—Berlin, Munich and above all his hometown, Linz–would receive grand redesigns, Vienna would indeed get nothing “It was my mistake to have sent you to Vienna,” Hitler screamed at the mayor of the city in 1943, “It was a mistake that I ever brought these Viennese into the Greater German Reich. I know these people. In my youth I lived among them. They are the enemies of Germany.”
Turn-of –the-century Vienna, an intoxicating and profoundly Jewish city, nearly consigned Hitler to the dustbin of history. While art like Adele Bloch Bauer I still exists to testify to its glory, the light and genius of that city can never be brought back to life.
Laura Morowitz is Professor of Art History at Wagner College, New York. She is the author of many articles and reviews appearing in The Art Bulletin, The Oxford Art Journal, Art Criticism, The Journal of Popular Film and Television and The Journal of the History of Collecting among others. In the Fall of 2014 she was an invited speaker at Duke University’s Art History Speaker Series, Art, Conflict and the Politics Memory where she spoke on “Erasing Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: The 1943 Gustav Klimt Retrospective and the Making of an Artistic Hero.” Her work on the art of the fin de siècle and Vienna under the Anschluss has been supported by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.