The 1920 Austro-Hungarian Cultural Annexation of Berlin


One of the exasperating experiences with WordPress has been its tendency to mess up audio files in older posts. Such was the fate of this post from 2014. Since I don’t return to older posts to see if files are working or not, I rely on readers to contact me. As a result, I’m re-posting this article with the correct audio examples back where they were supposed to be. Sorry for any frustration any readers may have experienced.

When researching ‘Forbidden Music’, I was surprised at the number of times I would encounter short biographies in British and American publications, lexica, history books and directories in which next to the name of well-known musicians, actors, composers or singers one read something along the lines of: ‘So-and-so: German Actor/composer/stage director/author etc..’ followed by birth and death dates with the location information usually reading something like: ‘Birth: (date), Vienna; Death (date), NY or Buenos Aires, Paris, London or Los Angeles’.

With such information, it became puzzling where the ‘German’ bit fitted in – unless of course, one considered the 1938 annexation of Austria by Germany as legal and lasting. Such references invite the foregone conclusion that Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, Hanns Eisler, Artur Schnabel, Ernst Toch, Joseph Roth, Franz Schreker, or Alexander Zemlinsky, were no longer Austrian, whereas it probably never occurred to anyone that Erich von Stroheim, Joseph von Sternberg, Max Reinhardt, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Georg Pabst, Bertolt Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel or Kurt Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya were ever Austrian . . .the list goes on and on. . . .everyone had somehow become ‘German’ despite having been born in Vienna or somewhere else in what then passed for Austria.

Helene Weigel

Helene Weigel

Lotte Lenya

Lotte Lenya

(Lenya Sings ‘Wie lange Noch’ with Kurt Weill on piano)

A few, of course, did become German citizens, though few went so far as to renounce their Austrian citizenship – and of course, with Austria’s annexation in 1938, Austrian citizenship was magically turned into German. We tend to forget such things these days: but Austria’s Anschluss was acknowledged and eventually accepted by the international community, including Britain and the United States. The only country to declare the annexation an illegal, ‘invasion’ was Mexico, a country that after 1938 took an inordinate number of Austrian refugees. In memory of this uniquely brave stand, there is a square called Mexikoplatz in today’s Vienna that honours this lonely and singular gesture of political integrity.

Vienna's 'Mexikoplatz'

Vienna’s ‘Mexikoplatz’

Even the esteemed music historians obfuscate when describing the background of Vienna’s migration to Berlin. They usually miss the point that Leo Kestenberg from Prussia’s post-war ministry of Culture came from Hungary and then go on to describe the attractions of Berlin musical life to newly arriving Viennese by detailing the contribution of such local stalwarts as Fritz Stiedry, Georg Szell, Erich Kleiber, Artur Schnabel, Oscar Straus, and so on, while elegantly skating around the fact that they too came originally from Vienna. By the time Leo Kestenberg had lured Franz Schreker and his composition class to Berlin, followed five years later with an invitation to Arnold Schoenberg as Busoni’s replacement  at the Prussian Academy of Arts, it seemed that there was barely a theatre, a film studio, museum or opera house not overrun by Danubian refugees.

Arnold Schönberg's Berlin Composition Class

Arnold Schönberg’s Berlin Composition Class

This was hardly a natural development. Stefan Zweig in ‘The World of Yesterday’ mentions his surprise at the mass migration of Austro-Hungarians to Berlin. Before the war, the city had a reputation for Wilhelminian Stodginess – it was not a place to go for fun. For ‘fun’, one went to Munich, Budapest, Prague and yes, even Vienna. Nevertheless, long before the fall of the House of Habsburg, Artur Schnabel arrived in Berlin at the age of 16 and instantly appreciated what he called, ‘the lack of Austrian morbidity’. Certainly, the morbid ‘decadence’ of Catholic/Jewish Vienna’s fin de siècle was not something the Protestant Hohenzollerns would have promoted, tolerated or even understood. Indeed, such up-beat Viennese icons as Fritz Kreisler, like Schnabel, arrived long before the cataclysm of the First World War. In Kreisler’s case, it’s was probably the practical decision that allowed him to be near the Wolff Concert Agency.  The Austrian Tenor Richard Tauber would not even make his Viennese debut until 1920, in other words, just as his fellow countrymen were looking North. Pre-1918, the exchange between theatres, actors and directors was more fluid with Max Reinhardt and Oscar Straus arriving around the turn of the century – and even Arnold Schoenberg came in order to take over the music directorship at von Wolzogen’s ‘Überbrettl’ cabaret only to return to Vienna the following year.

Post 1918, ‘fluid’ remained the most apt description, but only in the sense that a tidal wave can be also be called ‘fluid’. The flow was clearly in one direction. The loss of Emperor was a humiliation for the relatively young united Germany. German unification under the Prussian ‘Emperor’ was only 47 years old.

The Coronation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor in Versailles 1871

The Coronation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor in Versailles 1871

Following the defeat of the French in the war of 1871, Vienna’s status would shift to the subordinate, but senior relationship to Berlin, similar perhaps to that, which developed between London and New York/Washington following the First World War.  Austria’s entitlement as seat of the nominal Emperor of all German states as well as a ruler over a good deal of Eastern and Southern Europe was ancient. Prussia’s German Empire, cobbled together by chucking Austria out of the German Federation in 1866 was young, ambitious, inexperienced and aggressive. Austrian civil servants, aristocrats, haut bourgeois, artists, intellectuals, and following the emancipating constitution of December 1867, its middle-class Jews, took a patronising view of the united German mini-States. It was an artificial concoction hammered into shape by bloody-minded north German Protestants. A Roman Catholic God, on the other hand, tolerant of Jews and even Protestants, had allowed the organic and slow evolution of the Habsburg Empire, thus bestowing an undoubted divinity upon the Austrian Emperor. Vienna had the second largest Jewish population after Warsaw and thus a larger Jewish population than Berlin. To add to the sense of mystical/mythical destiny, Vienna’s geographical position stood as Europe’s most Eastern bulwark against the Ottoman Muslim hoards. If Austria’s elite looked down on Prussian Germany, Austria’s Germany speaking population looked to Germany with undisguised envy.

Inevitably, the Austrian loss of Empire after 1918 raises interesting hypothetical comparisons. Britain’s loss of Empire was both more gradual and controlled, but should Scotland and other regions break away, it would leave London as England’s ‘Wasserkopf’, as Vienna came to be known: an enormous city with well-honed institutions and only a tiny country left to govern. This situation would be made worse by the accompanying loss of income that came with the loss of lands, industries and agriculture. Unlike the hypothetical change I’ve just described possibly happening to London, the change in Austria happened overnight in 1918 and the loss of lands, industries and agriculture was accompanied by the huge costs in war reparations. 600 years of central European hegemony was erased leaving only a rump of Austria’s German speakers in a drumstick shaped country that encompassed historic lands and an alpine strip meant to keep Germany and Italy from bumping into one-another. Austria’s industry had been in Bohemia, its agriculture in Hungary and its port in Italy: the magnificent architecture no longer appeared as symbols of might and historic entitlement, but pretentious and laughable. Even before the physical cataclysm that resulted from the Treaty of St. Germain in 1919, Vienna’s intellectual and artistic elite had been fetishizing decay since the Ausgleich of 1867, the agreement that forcibly repositioned Austria’s centre of gravity from the German North, and placed it towards the Slavic East in partnership with Hungary. The new creation of an Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1867 would be followed by a devastating stock market crash of 1873. The premiere of Johann Strauss’s Fledermaus in 1874, represents the beginning of the Habsburg fin de siècle, somehow confirming the famous quip about the difference between Austrians and Germans: For Germans, a crisis could be ‘serious but not fatal’ – for Austrians, it was the other way around. ‘Glücklich ist, wer vergisst, was nicht mehr zu ändern ist.‘ or a rhyming translation that is infinitely less subtle than the German original: ‘Happy all, who can’t recall, what we were before the fall’.

1919 Demonstration in support of Austrian annexation into Greater Germany

1918 Demonstration in support of Austrian annexation into Greater Germany

By 1919, when such nihilistic visions in art, music, literature and theatre had apparently come to pass, the only thing left to do was to recognise ‘Austrian particularity’ as an artificial conceit of the self-serving  Habsburgs and merge what remained into the  greater German state to the North. The whole restructuring of Europe was based on the principal of self-determination for the many different peoples, whose national destinies were to be fulfilled by the creation of dedicated nation-states. If the various Slavs, Romanians and Hungarians had been permitted national unity, why were Europe’s German speakers expected to continue living in different countries? How could a people joined together by a common language and culture be allowed to co-exist as two different political units?  The hypocrisy of the victors was seemingly made more blatant when a huge chunk of German speaking Austria was blithely handed over to the Italy with nary a thought of National Destiny. The minor tit for such a major tat was folding Hungary’s western German speaking province east of Vienna into what remained of Austria. Nor was this process as unproblematic as the victorious allies may have imagined. Béla Kun rampaged through the region and even today, a careful look at the Map of Eastern and Northern Austria shows many Hungarian and Bavarian inlets running deep into Austrian territory, as individual communities forced through plebiscites, resulting in communities being conceded to neighbours. Even Austria’s most western province, Voralberg, voted to join Switzerland, only for the Swiss to reject them on the grounds that they had plenty of Catholic cantons already. The blockade by the British and French, maintained long after defeat, resulted in the deaths of many children and the founding by 2 British sisters of the organisation ‘Save the Children’. Fritz Kreisler was giving benefit concerts to help destitute Austrians until well into the 1920s. When the allies refused to recognise the Austrian parliament’s 1918 vote to merge with Germany, a vision of Balkan destitution loomed. Winter sports were not yet popular, the Sound of Music had not unleashed a flood of tourists and beyond salt mining in the Alps, bicycles and musical instruments, the country had no obvious sources of income. Living in Vienna most probably resembled living in Satis House from Great Expectations. Who wouldn’t wish to flee the elegant rubble? As the professional scrounger, cabaret performer and Karl Kraus antipode Anton Kuh remarked: ‘I live in Berlin in order to be amongst other Viennese, and not spend my time with people from Krems’. In our hypothetical example of an abrupt post-imperial London, it would be like saying: ‘I live in Los Angeles in order to be with other Londoners, rather than spend my time with people from Bognor Regis’.

Schreker with members of his Berlin composition class

Schreker with members of his Berlin composition class

First off of the mark was Franz Schreker, whose recent opera Die Gezeichneten had transported music lovers into a state of heightened ecstasy and provoked Germany’s foremost music critic Paul Bekker to declare Schreker as the only conceivable successor to Richard Wagner. He dismissed any claims Richard Strauss or Hans Pfitzner may have harboured.  Schreker’s composition class in Vienna was already the most talented anywhere with such stars as Ernst Krenek, Jascha Horenstein, Walter Gmeindl, Felix Petyrek, Alois Melichar, Alois Hába, Joseph Rosenstock, Max Brand, Julius Bürger and Karol Rathaus; all of whom followed his move. Krenek, who never missed an opportunity to express his disdain for Schreker – even to the point of naked anti-Semitism – recalled his return from his meeting with Kestenberg in Berlin as being like a provincial redneck after his first visit to the big-city. Berlin was spacious, the architecture imposing, his office Olympian with several grand pianos. The German capital was rebuilding, not just hanging on by a thread. Schreker convinced everyone in his class to join him and even received financial support to make their move possible.

(Tango from May Brand’s hit “contemporary” opera ‘the Mechanic Hopkins’)

His former pupil Wilhelm Grosz, once hailed by Julius Korngold as one of the potential successors to Gustav Mahler, had arrived in Berlin independently, experimented with jazz, written cabaret, ditched former pretensions to serious music and became the first recording producer. The daughter of an Austrian general, Grete von Zieritz left Austria for Berlin in order to study with Schreker and never returned. Schreker went on to hire fellow Viennese refugees Artur Schabel as piano professor and Carl Flesch for violin.

Wilhelm Grosz with his daughter Eva in Berlin

Wilhelm Grosz with his daughter Eva in Berlin

Schreker and others had essentially escaped from Vienna, a city that shared the mutually exclusive reputation of being the potting shed of modernism, while at the same time, being the last word in stifling convention. Of course, where there was one artistic extreme, such as, say, Arnold Schoenberg and his class of Anton Webern, Egon Wellesz and Alban Berg, one could find the strongest reaction living next door, in the guise of Julius Korngold, Erich’s powerful father, and critic on the Neue Freie Presse. As the salonière Berta Zuckerkandl remarked about the writer Egon Friedel, but applicable across the entire board of fin de siècle creativity: it was both his curse and blessing to be Viennese: no place was more conducive to creativity and individuality than Vienna, while no city was so unwelcoming of either.

Schreker wasn’t the only Austro-Hungarian refugee to shape musical life in Germany: Leo Kestenberg, who advised the Prussian ministry of Culture was another, as was Hans Gál who was director of the Music Academy in Mainz. Even such German notables as Walter Braunfels, who headed the music academy in Cologne had studied in Vienna as had the conductors Arthur Nikisch and the recently deceased Hans Richter, while the Hungarian Mátyas Seiber headed the first ever Jazz department at Frankfurt’s music conservatory from 1927 until 1933. Otherwise, both Richard Strauss and Wilhelm Furtwängler continued to maintain active careers in Vienna, even after 1919. Reduced to its north Balkan status, Vienna still managed to maintain the highest standards in its musical institutions, which also included musicology, its archives and its publications – the Neue Freie Presse continued to be one of the leading German language papers until its acquisition by the Fascist Vaterland Front in 1934.

With the exceptions of Strauss and Furtwängler, however, traffic from Germany to Vienna had dried up. By the mid-1920s, most of the city’s creativity was somewhere north of the border; and this in spite of the fact that the devastating inflation in Germany until 1925, was largely avoided in Austria.  Schreker, whose most popular opera of all time, was his Schatzgräber of 1922 – indeed, in 1922, it was the most frequently performed stage work by any living Austro-German composer – earned nearly nothing. His continued successes with Der Ferne Klang and Die Gezeichneten were equally unprofitable unless mounted abroad.

Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Schreker

Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Schreker

In spite of this, by the mid-1920s, the three pillars of musical Vienna’s fin de siècle: Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schreker and Alexander Zemlinsky, were all happily living and working in Berlin with no thought of ever returning. Zemlinsky had joined Klemperer at Berlin’s Krolloper, where he conducted such novelties of The Tales of Hoffmann directed and designed by the Hungarian Moholy-Nagy. The review written by Berta Zuckerkandl’s nephew Viktor goes on to inform us on April 26th 1929 ‘when dealing with experiments, one must take into account the possibility that things may go wrong. […] Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus concept fits Offenbach’s music like a fist fits the eye. In Lutter’s cellar, the public was treated to metal railings and folding chairs along with a winding staircase – everything was made of steel. The beakers, from which the students drank, along with everything else, appeared to have been engraved with the word ‘Sachlichkeit’ (‘Objectivity’).’ Zuckerkandl was not amused: Spalanzani’s laboratory, marked ‘Physics’ allowed Mohoy-Nagy to go for Bauhaus maximalism. It’s described as ‘looking like the control centre for a power-station’. The famous Barcarolle was accompanied by ladies being pushed on swings that catapulted them right over the orchestra and audience. Venice’s courtesans were wheeled out on operating tables against a background that appeared to be the silhouette of St. Mark’s made to look like Berlin’s gas-works. Film projections were used in the last act with close-ups of faces, eyes and hands and the actors and singers directed to move like marionettes or jerky-quirky machines.

Moholy-Nagy's design for the 1929 production of 'Tales of Hoffmann'

Moholy-Nagy’s design for the 1929 production of ‘Tales of Hoffmann’

This was creativity with Austro-Hungarian provenance, but required Berlin’s energy to flourish.

The other major migration was of Vienna’s most exportable cultural good: the operetta. Composers such as Ralph Benatzky, Emerich Kálmán, Franz Lehár, Paul Abraham and Robert Stolz had either permanently, or temporarily, relocated to Berlin. Stolz’s most quintessential Viennese number, Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt was composed in Berlin’s Kempinski Hotel. Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesfreud, Liebesleid, and Caprice Viennoise, along with his operetta Sissy were also conceived and composed in Berlin. Between 1926 – 1934, Lehár had all of his works premiered in Berlin. Benatzky’s ‘White Horse Inn’ (co-composed with fellow Viennese Bruno Granichstädten and Robert Stolz) not only made him one of the most famous names in operetta, but launched a craze for pseudo-Viennese music in general. German composers such as Siegfried Translateur started to churn out pseudo-Viennese melodies and dances. Walter Jurmann composed his most famous ‘Schlager’ Veronka, der Lenz ist da in Berlin, made famous by the Comedian Harmonists. Hans May, a Viennese film composer would work in Berlin supplying music for an entire genre of Viennese films, such as Ein Lied geht um die Welt with Joseph Schmidt.

(Joseph Schmidt sings “Ein Lied geht um die Welt”)

Kálmán, Lehár, Benatzky and Abraham had discovered a Viennese niche that would prove explosive once transported to Berlin: the Revue Operetta that offered everything from jazzy Fox trots to Czardas to Viennese waltzes and melodies.

Poster for 'The White Horse Inn'

Poster for ‘The White Horse Inn’

(March from “The White Horse Inn”)

But Vienna’s musical refugees in Berlin went far beyond the serious musical efforts at the Music Academy and the Prussian Academy of Arts.  It also went beyond the highly commercial composition of film

Hanns Eisler in East Berlin

Hanns Eisler in East Berlin

Schlager and operettas.Hanns Eisler arrived in Berlin to join his brother and sister. His sister Ruth Fischer had already positioned herself as the local head of the Communist Party and was seen as a successor to the recently murdered Rosa Luxemburg, while his brother Gerhart worked as a political journalist. Inspired by the Russian political work-shop ‘The Blue Blouses’, Eisler set about creating a uniquely German variant of agitprop with a succession of fight songs, mass rally and workers’ chorus songs.

Ernst Busch, the 'Richard Tauber of the Barricades'

Ernst Busch, the ‘Richard Tauber of the Barricades’

These were made famous by the heart-throb actor and singer Ernst Busch, dubbed ‘the Richard Tauber of the Barricades’. Though one of Schönberg’s most promising pupils – indeed, Schönberg thought so highly of him that he was taught for free – Eisler had broken with the idea of l’art pour l’art and wanted contemporary music to say something and inspire new ideas and deeds. The fight song was to be simple enough to be remembered after a single hearing and demanded accompanying foot stamping or clapping in 4/4 time.  Soon afterwards, he developed secular dodecaphonic cantatas, composed in a style he called ’12 tone with a human face’. His subsequent collaborations with Bertolt Brecht became nearly as legendary as those with Kurt Weill.

Poster for 'Berlin, the Symphony of a Great City'

berlin-sinfonie-collage©joergbirhance, a concert performance of the music with the film can be heard here:

Another Viennese composer of Berlin Iconography was Edmund Meisel, composer of the film ‘Berlin: Symphony of a Great City’ directed by Walter Ruttmann – not to mention his far more internationally acclaimed score for Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’. Nor should one forget the influx of Viennese cultural administrators such as Rudolf Bing, who went to work with Carl Ebert at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Opera.

Not every Viennese chose to remain in Berlin and many seemed actively to dislike the city’s character. Krenek and Benatzky’s memoirs and diaries come dangerously close to being racist in their dislike of any- and everything Prussian. They go on for pages about the differences in character (indeed, it is the principal on which the plot of ‘White Horse Inn’ depends!), the Prussian indifference to good food, friendly ambiences (Gemütlichkeit – though it was the British, according to Krenek, who had come up with the most perfect means of neutralising Gemütlichkeit with their creation of the Pub); nor did they like the women or even the surrounding architecture. Schönberg was unable to convince Alban Berg to remain in Berlin, despite the premiere of ‘Wozzeck’ in Berlin’s Staatsoper under the baton of fellow Viennese Erich Kleiber. Erich Korngold enjoyed enormous success in Germany but never entertained the possibility of renting a flat or villa for longer stays, despite the appeals of Max Reinhardt. The former Reinhardt musical import from Vienna, Mischa Spoliansky, did stay, however, and made a name for himself that would become as prominent as Friedrich Holländer in Berlin’s cabaret scene. Nor did Karl Kraus choose to remain in Berlin, though he was immensely popular – he too had the courtesy to leave his Viennese accompanist, Georg Knepler, who eventually became the director of East Berlin’s Music Academy. Korngold, Kraus, Krenek, and Berg were like Londoners who choose to return to the relative boredom of England following dizzyingly successful runs of concerts or stage performances in New York and Los Angeles. And of course, they baffle and bemuse fellow Londoners who have pitched more permanent tents in Manhattan and the West Coast. Despite everything, the quality of life was better in Vienna – the food, the wine and even the last penny of public money being spent on keeping the Opera going was somehow more appealing. Krenek and Benatzky complained about the ugliness of German spoken by the Prussians and plainly preferred the nasal acidity of Austrian German that added so much to the satire of such writers as Karl Kraus and Anton Kuh. Vienna was also geographically small enough to get around on foot and frankly, it was a prettier. As Berthold Goldschmidt commented once to me, ‘Berlin was always ugly – that was part of its attraction.’

Ernst Toch, however, did not agree with such nostalgic nonsense and with the defeat of Austria in 1918, he simply ceased to acknowledge Austria as any kind of entity at all. In this, he was in good company with Hans Gál, whose daughter Eva Fox-Gál told me that her father never mentioned being Austrian. ‘First of all, he was Viennese. After that, he saw himself as a participant within German culture – the idea of Austria didn’t move him at all.’

Berlin 1945

Berlin 1945

Perhaps less Prussian enthusiasm for all things Austrian would have left us with a kinder, gentler 20th Century. Had the victorious allies of 1919 allowed Austria to merge with Germany would it have mollified greater-German ambitions, or simply exacerbated them? One could argue that cutting Germany off from East Prussia was even more inflammatory than keeping Austria as a separate nation. It was another Austrian refugee who defected to Germany following the First World War, finally obtaining German citizenship in late 1932, who, when made chancellor in January 1933, would remove, murder or exile most of the creativity contributed by his fellow countrymen. Zemlinsky, Eisler, Gál, Krenek, Reinhardt, Brand and many others fled back to Vienna, Budapest, Brataslava or Prague, while Toch and Schoenberg chose to ignore Austria altogether and go to Paris. A few lucky ones made it to London and a few very lucky ones ended up in the United States. Neither Vienna, Brataslava, Prague, Paris nor even Budapest would be able to offer permanent refuge. With Hitler’s appointment in 1933, Karl Kraus’s observation upon the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that Austria would become the testing station for the apocalypse proved truer than he could have known in 1914.Kraus died in 1936, before the apocalypse would reclaim Vienna in March 1938.

Vienna 1945

Vienna 1945