Vienna: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World, by Richard Cockett (Yale University Press, 464 pp., $35)

Everyone, I suppose, has sometimes wished that they had lived in a particular historical place and period. Imagine, for example, being in eighteenth-century Edinburgh at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment as the likes of Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson, and Adam Ferguson ushered in ways of thinking that continue to transform our world today.

In Vienna: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World, the historian, journalist, and senior editor at The Economist Richard Cockett argues that Vienna, from the late-nineteenth century until the mid-1930s, was the locus for a similar ferment of ideas. From psychology to philosophy to economics, figures who lived in Vienna during these years, including Sigmund Freud, Karl Popper, and F.A. Hayek, exercised an influence that went far beyond the Habsburg Empire, Cockett contends.

Cockett is not the first to highlight the remarkable intellectual impact of the Vienna during these decades. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980), Princeton historian Carl E. Schorske illustrated how the high culture of Vienna’s middle class, fascinated as it was with psychoanalysis, literature, and music, shaped politics throughout Central Europe. Cockett, however, dramatically expands our understanding of how Viennese intellectual life of this period shaped the modern world—for better and for worse.

That qualification is important, because Cockett specifies that the Vienna of his book not only produced “some of the era’s most enlightened and human people and ideas” but also “some of the most pernicious and destructive pathologies in modern history: Nazism, organized anti-Semitism, and extreme ethno-nationalism.” Modernity has often proved a mixed bag. Cockett’s Vienna is no exception.

The book’s three-part analysis starts with Vienna experiencing the Habsburg Empire’s liberalization following Austria’s defeat in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War. Cockett extends the treatment into the 1920s and 1930s, when “liberal Vienna” increasingly found itself contending with the Marxists of “Red Vienna” and the proto-Nazis of “Black Vienna.”

The subsequent political turmoil, culminating with the Anschluss in 1938, led many Viennese intellectuals to migrate to Britain and the United States. This gave them platforms that exceeded anything Austria might have offered. In Part III, Cockett outlines how Viennese émigrés and exiles pioneered key cultural, political, and economic changes throughout the West for decades. These changes included intellectual developments as important as the emergence of game theory and the global renewal of free market economics. But practical changes also transformed everyday people’s lives. Viennese migrants, we learn, are responsible for the redesign of door handles, the creation of the shopping mall, the interior design that marks Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, and the theme and cinematography of the classic Hollywood Western, High Noon—to name just a few of their contributions.

The question that has long puzzled observers is: “Why Vienna?” What was it about this small capital city in a declining empire, fragmenting from its own internal tensions, that made it a place for ideas?

Cockett identifies several causes. Perhaps the most basic is that the Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph, permitted such flourishing to occur. The emperor was quite conservative in his temperament, politics, and religion. But having allowed the empire to liberalize and having taken many liberals into his government and the imperial bureaucracy, Franz Joseph never looked back. Deep loyalty to the emperor prevailed among Vienna’s multireligious and multiethnic middle class, Cockett observes, precisely because Franz Joseph emerged as a defender of liberal constitutionalism and ethnic and religious tolerance against the ethno-nationalist populists who resented all this change and mixing.

That mixing, it turns out, played a major part in making Vienna a powerhouse for ideas. The influx of Jews into Vienna, for instance, and their rapid assimilation into the Austrian middle class via commercial and educational success augmented intellectual curiosity, discovery, and experimentation throughout the city. The deep respect for Talmudic learning that had long prevailed in pious Orthodox Jewish shtetls throughout Eastern Europe was transformed into a thirst for secular knowledge. The sons of successful Viennese Jewish businessmen were consequently overrepresented in elite schools and the University of Vienna.

Some ethnic Germans like Hayek found this development intellectually stimulating, but it eventually produced backlashes from other ethnic Germans. This, Cockett speculates, may help account for the disproportionately high number of Austrians who held senior positions in the Third Reich and played major roles in the Final Solution.

Viennese mixing extended beyond ethnicity. Drawing upon contemporary accounts and later reminiscences, Cockett demonstrates how students roamed freely across classes, seminars, and disciplines as their whims and changing interests took them. This saved the University of Vienna from what Cockett calls the “dead hand of specialization.” The effect was to stimulate a tremendous cross-fertilization of ideas that would lead notable Viennese figures to apply, for example, the insights of psychology to economic theory, or physics to the development of new literary trends. Interdisciplinary integration and synthesis thus drove intellectual creativity.

It wasn’t only in lecture halls that these dynamics manifested. Viennese café and salon culture helped to foster schools of thought as different as logical positivism and Austrian economics. In these relaxed settings, students and professors would furiously debate disputed questions in a cross-disciplinary manner until the wee hours.

Reaching consensus was not the purpose of these encounters. In fact, Cockett stresses the pervasive disagreement that marked the Viennese world of ideas. Red Vienna’s Marxist intellectuals and politicians, for example, were explicit about trying to produce a “new man” via top-down planning in areas ranging from the economy to housing policy. That produced sharp ripostes from figures like the economist Ludwig von Mises, who showed how socialism could not replicate anything like the signaling function of free prices as a conveyor and coordinator of economic information.

Likewise, Hayek argued that many of his fellow Austrians’ exaltation of the scientific method led them—whether liberals or Marxists—into errors of scientism. Some of these disputes, Cockett points out, eventually figured among the twentieth century’s most important intellectual debates: most notably that of planning versus markets, which in turn reflected arguments about the nature and limits of reason.

Yet for all his admiration of the Vienna of ideas, Cockett does not avoid discussing its dark side. Viennese intellectual life, he notes, was characterized by considerable misogyny (Freud being one of the worst offenders). Anti-Semitism also intensified over time among ethnic German academics in Vienna, some of whom embraced National Socialism before and after the Anschluss.

One of the fathers of ethology, for example, Konrad Lorenz was a scion of liberal Vienna. Among the city’s most famous biologists, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973. But Lorenz was also what Cockett calls “a professional opportunist.” When the Wehrmacht marched into Austria in March 1938, Lorenz saw Vienna’s new masters as a chance to obtain previously denied state facilities and funding.

But opportunism wasn’t Lorenz’s only motivation. He was also a convinced National Socialist who didn’t hesitate to draw upon his own research into animal behaviorism to support Nazi theories of racial hygiene. The presence of such individuals among the ranks of Vienna’s scholars is a reminder that intellectuals, regardless of eminence, are as susceptible to corrupting ideologies as anyone.

Despite these problems, Cockett insists that we can learn much from how the Viennese engaged ideas. Here, he stresses that a key feature of the Viennese phenomenon was a common mindset that transcended political and philosophical differences.

According to Cockett, “The Viennese . . . were united more by intellectual temperament than anything else, a willingness to take on and use the full diversity of knowledge allied to a relentless pursuit of truth through methodological rigor.” This openness to pluralistic learning and a desire for truth, combined with what Cockett considers a surprising degree of humility, allowed the Viennese to move easily across disciplines and social settings as they explored reality with fresh eyes.

Today, it’s hard to think of any other cities that come close to resembling the Vienna described by Cockett. More often than not, conformity—often peddled and enforced under the rubric, perversely enough, of “diversity”—and bureaucracy are the rule. That is precisely why it’s useful to remember the cities and times that have broken the mold. It is through their embrace of intellectual vitality that civilizational growth occurs.

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