So, before we realized it, we’ve reached the final blog post of the term! I would probably say something sentimental, but in my opinion, what we’re going to talk about today is far more compelling than anything I can drum up
(By the way, I apologize for the delay of this post – in my opinion, Austria-Hungary is one of the most interesting political institutions in history, and I wanted to make sure I did it some justice before I continued.)
Today, I want to talk about cosmopolitanism in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and particularly in “Lieutenant Gustl”. The introduction to the text discusses the “cosmopolitan nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire” (105); this was something that I really wanted to consider and explore. Let’s see how this idea can help us make some sense of what diversity and cultural interaction mean in both “Gustl” and in our society.
I think I can cite an example most of us are familiar with:
But alas, I digress. (I just needed to insert a mildly relevant picture.)
So I guess the key question we’d be seeking to answer is: based on these points, how exactly would we define cosmopolitanism, and how does such an undertone fit into the narrative of “Gustl”? I think that cosmopolitanism can be defined as a collection of dichotomies, on multiple levels. There is the cosmopolitanism of high society – the idea of being in tune with the trends and steps of the elite – but there is also a second idea, of the mishmash of differing walks of life – from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie, to throw in a Marxist reference – that tends to exist in high-density cities, like Vienna at the time. The interaction between the two is something worth exploring more in-depth.
To give some necessary context, we need to understand just how multi-cultural Austria-Hungary was in comparison to its contemporaries. While other nation-states such as France, Germany, and Great Britain were forming or had formed cohesive national identities based on shared (or forcibly shared) linguistic traditions and cultural values, the territory and ethnic groups that Austria-Hungary encompassed were vast and heterogeneous. Yes, the Austrians spoke German; but within the Empire, there also lived Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ruthenians, Slovenes, Serbs…you name it. Because of this, Austria-Hungary was a hotbed for ethnic nationalism, one of the big reasons why it played such an integral role in the sparking of World War I. To keep the Empire and its mass of differing perspectives together was a never-ending struggle, and the foundations of this struggle stemmed from the reactionary effort of this man:
This is Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Chancellor of Austria from 1815 until 1848.
The period between the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and the outbreak of World War I are known for several political movements in Europe – the rise of classical liberalism, Victorianism in England, or, later, the Belle Époque in France – but in Austria-Hungary (separately Austria and Hungary until 1866, when Austria lost to Germany in the Austro-Prussian War…but that’s another story), the government, with Metternich as its head, was known for being reactionary, extremely conservative, and oppressive – what later would be termed the “Age of Metternich”. Censorship was widely employed, and ethnic groups within the Empire were denied self-determination.
Yet Metternich himself was what could be called a “pan-European”; he spoke five European languages fluently, and was considered handsome and trendy, the epitome of the privileged liberalist and the high European culture of the era. When revolutions fuelled by dissatisfaction with the class structure broke out across Europe in 1848, Metternich was forced to flee from office; yet the political ideas he supported in spite of his “cultural savvy” continued to create tension between Austrians of German and non-German heritage into the 20th century. Evidently, Prof. Frackman was not exaggerating when he said that the Austrian government was, and had been, a mishmash of polar opposites and contradictions. We can also see a stratification forming – the prestige of the European “North” taking precedence over the culture of the oppressed Slavic peoples in the “South”.
We can note where this tradition of conservative bigotry and division in society emerges in “Gustl”; the Lieutenant passes judgment on the people he meets every which way, from the “tarts” to the volunteer officers. I especially enjoyed the discussion we had in seminar on Mrs. Mannheimer and her Jewish ancestry, as it was interesting to note the dichotomy between her social status and her racial heritage – both what Austrian society, in all its apparent anti-Semitism, makes of it, and what Gustl himself makes of it, with all his petty dreams of climbing the social ladder.
Despite these social attitudes, however, the way that these diverse classes come together in Vienna is nothing but intriguing, and well-represented in both “Lieutenant Gustl” and what little of “Reigen” I was able to pick up on. Gustl himself is friends with officers of non-German descent, such as Kopetzky, a more Eastern European surname. Similarly, in “Reigen”, Viennese citizens of different social classes “interact” with one another, brought together by the same carefree attitude of “cultural exchange” and vivacity present in the city at that time. “Reigen” seems to suggest that in a city as busy with life as Vienna was, people engage in casual sex with one another to alleviate their solitude; this sexual freedom almost seems like an accessory to the intellectual freedom the city, and the rest of Europe, enjoyed at the time.
In sum, Prince Metternich had been the epitome of cosmopolitanism, the classy sort, and perhaps representative of the traditional, upper-echelon, Austrian faction in Viennese society. Yet, as evidenced by his policies, he refused to understand the gripes of the oppressed around him, creating tensions in the cultural makeup of the city he loved. As a military man, Gustl would probably identify himself with this caste and this idea; it is likely for this reason that he believes himself fit to pass judgment on those who are in classes below him. Since class stratification, no matter where or in what context it happens, tends to foster animosity between classes, “Lieutenant Gustl” and the shaming so central to the story seems even more like a pointed finger to the structure of Viennese society. The disparity between what is expected of a man of Gustl’s rank and Gustl himself seems to reinforce such an argument.
Yet despite all its flaws, this dissonance and diversity of peoples, views, and experiences were what gave Vienna its cultural richness and centrality. The construction of the Ringstrasse and the cultural area around the city centre, and the circular path that Gustl takes, just around the Prater as well as beginning and ending at the coffeehouse, seems to suggest a whole – one formed by the conglomeration of Gustl’s encounters with different people. A city full of bright colours, bright lights, and bright people is one we would consider cosmopolitan, both in reality and in our imagination. Just consider some world capitals like Tokyo or New York, that are famous for “bright lights, big city”, or fictional metropolises like Coruscant in Star Wars. It is this diversity of experiences that gives big cities their exoticism and allure – an adventure that one can never really complete. Perhaps Gustl, knowing how much he has left to do (frolic) in his life, sets forth towards his duel with an eye toward the future, and uncovering what else there is to do in a great city like Vienna.
Hope you guys have a happy holiday! Thanks for reading.