Get the Hang of Wiener Schmäh

Schmäh may not be the first thing you notice when you arrive in Vienna. But it comes up soon enough

In school, for example: My children were astonished to discover that copying from classmates (“das Abschreiben”) was business as usual – what in America is held up as the depths of dishonor. Here, the attitude was that the fineness required to cheat undetected was a valuable life skill…

Then, out walking with Austrian friends, I watched, astonished, as the mother helped herself to a Sunday tabloid – without paying – from the plastic pouch hanging on the lamppost. Did she need change? She waved me away, with a grin. “We don’t want to encourage them!”

This was Schmäh in action, or at least one version of it. Elegant packaging for behavior that was slightly off, a fiddle made (more) palatable by a playful witticism.

It took far longer to begin to understand the deeper layers of Schmäh, to begin to grasp the gentle, melancholy view of life that, like Schubert’s quintessentially Viennese music, invites smiling through tears, that uses irony to ease the pain of suffering and loss.

I got a hint in an early German class, when we were given cabaretist Georg Kreisler’s deliciously wicked “Tauben vergiften im Park,” as a dictation. What?! This was Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park!” Except that it wasn’t: different tune, different gags. But the same sensibility (and decades in court…). This was something I understood. So I got hold of a recording of Kreisler’s songs and set about figuring them out.

My all-time favorite was the deliciously scathing “Wie schön wäre Wien ohne Wiener” (How beautiful would Vienna be without the Viennese) – a gleeful revenge fantasy that gives voice to the bottomless sense of betrayal of the Vertriebenen, those who had been driven out of their beloved city after the Anschluss.

With transcendent merriment, Kreisler sings of his beautiful Vienna that, “like a sleeping woman,” is presumably better to look at than to have to deal with. He sings of empty streets and unspoiled parks that would be a boon for tourism. And think! No more construction sites! No more folk bands! And not a blessed thing on television! And in this paradise, he muses, anti-Semitism would finally be consigned to the dusty shelves of a secondhand bookshop.

Schmäh, I was learning, has a far darker side. It was time to start reading. There are not a lot of books in English that take on this complex, culturally rich topic, but the ones I did find helped open up my new world.

The first was Paul Hofmann’s The Viennese: Splendor, Twilight and Exile. A distinguished foreign correspondent for The New York Times, Hofmann is a captivating writer. But he had no illusions about his native city and its people, their elusive blend of charm and ambivalence, of humor and pretense.

It was here that I first learned of The Good Soldier Švejk, Prague-born writer Jaroslav Hašek’s tale of a crafty dealer in stolen dogs, who, discharged as feeble-minded, is drafted back into the Kaiser’s army and manages to fool the bureaucracy and survive the war. Here was another pulse of Schmäh: The passive resistance disguised as dimwittedness that had thrived under the monarchy’s absolutism softened by Schlamperei (sloppiness). Later this became a survival tool across Central and Eastern Europe throughout the Nazi and communist years.

Now that I was beginning to get the hang of Schmäh, I found some lovely examples. This from the German weekly, Die Zeit: Two Viennese meet at a Beisl. “So tell me,” one asks. “Can you speak English?” To which the other replies: “Oui, oui, Monsieur!” “But that’s French,” protests the first. “Oh,” replies the second, astonished: “I guess I can do that too!” Pure Švejk.

And another from the Austrian daily Kurier: “At his wife’s graveside, a husband stood next to a family friend, who was completely broken up and crying bitterly. The husband laid his arm consolingly across her shoulders and said: ‘Don’t take it so hard. I’ll definitely marry again!’”

My second discovery was a lovely little book called the Xenophobe’s Guide to the Austrians, part of a series published by Ravette Press in the 1990s. Written under a pseudonym by Nicholas Parsons, it is chock-full of insights into the Austrian character, a people whose desire to avoid unpleasantness with authorities leads to “a combination of obsequiousness and rancid contempt,” and the self-irony of those “who were (or thought they were) more talented” than their superiors. It has made the Austrians “by turns kindly and malicious, steadfast and devious,” and whose “overdeveloped sense of the ridiculous threatens genuine achievement and charlatanism alike.”

“It behooves the outsider to tread carefully in this hall of mirrors,” Parsons writes, “where all generalizations are as true as their opposites.”

When Schmäh is misunderstood, the results can be disastrous. I have never gotten over the insight in Michael Agar’s fascinating book Language Shock that Marie Antoinette’s fatal retort to the starving French peasants, “Let them eat cake” was actually a Schmäh.

“Schmäh is a world view that rests on the basic ironic premise that things aren’t what they seem, what they are is much worse,” he writes, “and all you can do is laugh it off.”

Reporting from Vienna in the 1930s, American journalist John Gunther became fascinated with this resilience: “Something of the very softness of the Austrian character had been a factor of strength,” he wrote, as a “crisis lost its point, melted in the prevailing solvent of easy-going compromise.”

Not long after that early German class, I took my bike for a spin out to the Prater.

A gentle old wino in rumpled shirt and vest was sitting in the shade by the Schnell Imbiss along the path by the Nordbahn overpass. It was spring and the cherry trees were in bloom. I bought myself an Achtl of white wine and joined him at his folding table.

“Lovely day,” I ventured, not daring anything more complicated. He often sat here, he said, with a melancholy smile – So much beauty, for a little while, and then it fades… I nodded… These old trees had seen everything, good times and bad…

Suddenly, the breeze picked up, bending the branches and rustling the leaves. “Schauen Sie!” he said, perking up, then waving his hand back and forth with the trees, “a bissl links, a bissl rechts, bissl links, bissl rechts…” A way of seeing the world. This was the story of Vienna.

“Schmäh is a world view that rests on the basic ironic premise that things aren’t what they seem, what they are is much worse and all you can do is laugh it off.” Michael Agar, in this book Language Shock

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