A Salutary New Year’s Address from January 1, 1871
Daniel Spitzer, unfamiliar to English readers, was an Austrian sketch writer in 19th century Imperial Vienna’s paper of record, die Presse, then later relaunched as die Neue Freie Presse. I mention him once in my book Forbidden Music as the progenitor of the “Jewish Brahms” myth, suggesting that his name was actually “A-Brahms”, a deduction resulting from all of Brahms’s Jewish friends, patrons and political allies. It was a joke, of course, but it stuck and added fuel to the Wagner/Brahms tensions of the day. Composers of the ‘Old German School’, such as Brahms (who was actually a generation younger than Wagner) kept to the classical forms of Sonatas, symphonies and quartets; according to ‘New German School’ composers, followers of Wagner and Liszt, this was the result of a uniquely ‘Jewish’ exaggerated regard for the past in compensation for “having nothing to contribute to the present”.
Spitzer was an engaging writer and amusing in documenting Viennese daily life. Over the intervening 150 years, much of it has changed beyond recognition. Yet when his sketches focus on the quintessence of the Viennese, anyone who lives and works there today will find much that is familiar. The Schadenfreude of his ‘New Year’s’ sketch from January 1st 1871 is unchangingly Viennese in its brittle, yet amusing irony. He neither gloats nor sneers at Napoléon III’s changed circumstances, but offers instead, an amusing de haut en bas twist that one continues to recognise through the works of Arthur Schnitzler, Robert Musil and Thomas Bernhard.
The unintended consequences of the Franco-Prussian War, the abdication of the French Emperor Napoléon III, the concession of Alsace to the newly created German Empire would, it could be argued, start tensions that led directly to two World Wars and the murder in concentration camps of Spitzer’s grandchildren, grand-nieces and nephews along with their families: France was humiliated by defeat and made to pay crippling reparations to a new empire constructed by Bismarck’s “blood and iron” unification of German mini-states. Berlin bribed Vienna not to interfere in the conflict, having resoundingly ejected Austria from the German Federation following Habsburg defeat at Königsgrätz in 1866. With the forced abdication of the French Emperor Napoléon III, the Prussians would continue their humiliation of the French on January 18th, 1871 and the coronation of the Prussian King Wilhelm I as German Emperor, crowned in Versailles’s Great Hall of Mirrors. French resentment lasted another 47 years until Versailles was symbolically chosen as the venue for the treaty in 1918, imposing equally crippling reparations onto a defeated Germany and an undisguised attempt to un-do Bismarck’s work. This inevitably led to German resentment, now directed at “back-stabbing” Jews, Communists and members of the Entente. The beginning of the end was the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor on January 30th 1933.
On the cusp of a cataclysm brimming with still unanticipated consequences, it’s fascinating to peek back through time and savour Spitzer’s fatal Schadenfreude. It serves as an amusing, yet cautionary wish to all readers for a very happy new year!
Surprises for the New Year – January 1, 1871, Daniel Spitzer
And yet again, the earth with unyielding punctuality completes its revolution around the sun, only in order to start the process again, naturally with the intention of producing a more positive outcome next time around. Everyone, with the understood exception of the ladies, but definitely including members of the Guild of Journalism, has aged another year. Under the circumstances, it’s something of a relief. Though the New Year starts awkwardly for the Sunday Sketch writer, who is obliged to deliver his copy on the first day of the week, it’s not such a bad deal for his readers: A blessed New Year to all! Thus you may count yourselves spared from an unanticipated additional read this week.
I most assuredly do not intend to offend those who miss no opportunity of chirruping Heaven’s annual “Happy New Year!” delights onto their fellow citizens, even if only to cleaners of their sceptic tanks. Nevertheless, in terms of utter cheekiness, I turn my attention to the New Year gift presented by Vienna’s Commerce Bank, which has taken advantage of our planet’s annual sun-trajectory, by refusing to pay its January dividend. We fully expect such a youthful bank to possess at least sufficient good breeding to offer a cheerful chirrup of ‘Happy New Year’ in lieu of the dividend due upon presentation of shareholders’ coupons. Sadly the share certificates of said bank are not sufficiently decked out with curlicues to compete with the ornate Sachsen-Meiningen bonds, which in an advertisement placed by none other than Vienna’s Commerce Bank, maintained their “elegant appearance” made them “highly desirable Christmas and New Year gifts”. Whatever deficiencies in “elegance” the Commerce Bank certificates may offer, they compensate with durably good paper quality, affording their fortunate owners marvellous gift wrapping opportunities when offering Sachsen-Meiningen bonds as presents. It would be well advised that all of bank managements, confronted with the prospect of dividend payments, take the opportunity before the date of payment expires, to change themselves from financial to decorative arts’ institutions. Shareholders would then at least have the advantage of using their arabesque adorned certificates as presents for their children in the confident assumption that they probably understand as much about investment matters as adults these days.
But sadly, we must forego one of the most important of a long number of items normally brought to us by telegraph wire. As we now know from a reliable source, the Emperor Napoléon will not be holding his annual Tuileries reception and must cancel his usual New Year’s address. Having now got on in years, perhaps the Emperor will find it difficult to give up this much loved tradition and will compensate by mumbling, (as ever, hands folded behind his back), the following in the salon of his William Heights [German: Wilhelmshöhe] Palace in Germany. [Napoléon III’s captive residence following the French defeat at Sedan by the Prussians in September 1870]:
“Ladies and gentlemen coat-hangers, airing cupboards, commodes . . . along with all other storage racks and containers! Please allow me first and foremost to express my delight at seeing how many of you are assembled here today. In my greeting to you, kindly grant me the opportunity of modestly reflecting on the success of our domestic- as well as foreign policies. You will be aware of how futilely I attempted over the years to implement my idea of ‘Empire is Peace’. I am filled with undeserved pride at the accomplishments that now crown this construction, which due to the grateful support of neighbouring states, has now resulted in France indeed being an ‘Empire at Peace’. I would like, above all, to mention the achievement of having made our foreign policies today so intimately intertwined with our neighbours, that I am now accorded the advantage of abdicating even while maintaining my residence abroad! Our ‘Sovereign Sensitivities’ have above all to thank the German nation for its rapid and highly successful unification, and it fills me with great satisfaction, (as he turns to address a coatrack) that your government has now also at last ‘yielded to the logic of reality’.
“In questions of domestic policies, assuming you have not wilfully closed your eyes to such things, you will be aware of the fact that I have given great importance to the reduction of our national budget, and have thus successfully forfeited among many other things, my beloved civil list. I have also been able to meet the desires of the nation to reduce military expenditure, indeed to the point that I have even surpassed all demands by accomplishing the total disarmament of all French fighting forces. Thus, through stubborn persistence, I have reached the [Williams] ‘heights’, and must assume that I have the entire French nation in agreement when I state that for me, there will be no return!”