On Becoming Viennese: A Talk with Expat Author Philipp Blom

A prominent historian and Vienna expert gives insight into what Vienna owes to outsiders in a treatise that dips and weaves from the present to the 19th century and into the future.

Philipp Blom does more than merely live the life of an expat in Austria’s capital. Through his books that examine momentous periods in 20th century Europe, the German-born, Oxford-educated author is thoroughly familiar with the influence of what the Viennese call die Zug’reisten – those who came in from the outside – in the continent’s great capitals in general, and in Vienna in particular.

“Vienna’s greatest cultural moments were basically created by people from elsewhere,” Blom postulated, as he bit down on a grilled sandwich recently at the city’s iconic Cafe Korb – itself a gathering place not only for those Viennese born but also of those bred.

Raising his voice over the babble of competing languages from the neighboring tables, Blom
named Mozart as an example, noting that Salzburg at the time of the boy genius’ birth was not yet a part of the Hapsburg holdings. Later, the city became a magnet for Bohemians, Hungarians and “from the most far-flung parts of the empire.” And of course, there was the Jewish influx, which provoked what Blom describes as “the ugly backlash” that became the Third Reich, even though he sees it in more nuanced terms as a pushback by those who “believed the myth that there was a sort of authentic Austrianness or Germanness” against the Jews, “who were very strongly associated with modernity.”

He invokes Mahler as Vienna’s archetypical – expat? immigrant? foreigner? Blom says the terms
mean little. Instead, he focuses on the man’s music when asked how long it takes to become a true Viennese. Not an easy transition.

For Blom Mahler’s music is that “of someone who feels that he doesn’t belong , of someone who
always presses his nose against the window and is looking in from the outside” – and that, he says, is good. Because those who have come and stayed – but not quite blended in – “is what has always made Vienna.”

The world wars left their mark. The first stripped Austria of its foreign lands from where foreigners came – and stayed. The second left it thrusting against the communist Iron Curtain that irrevocably cut off Vienna from new arrivals.

That ideological divide is now history. And Blom says the city is richer for it.

“When I studied here 20 years ago, everybody on the street was white. Now you see different skin colors, you hear different languages.

“And if Vienna has any chance of reconnecting with the cultural vibrancy of its past, then it’s
through this.”

In this context, Blom sees the influx of migrants from the Mideast as a boon, because they’re “not part of the McDonalds-Tommy Hilfiger crowd.”

“We should see these people as a great opportunity,” he said. They make this place more vibrant, and can carry it forward into a future we actually want.”

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