In every age, the pressures of change in Vienna have stirred a longing for better times gone by, often more imagined than real, but nonetheless central to our idea of who we are

In November of 2004, the newly christened Wien Museum threw open the portals of the Künstlerhaus on “Alt-Wien – die Stadt die niemals war” – “Old Vienna, the city that never was” – how in every age, the Viennese look longingly back to an earlier one that was more charming, more civilized, more golden, than the one in which they happen to live.

The poster campaign – on rose-colored paper – itself was hard to resist: “The past never looked so good!” called one, and another, “Here, the world is still as it should be!” And a third, “It is never too late to have a beautiful past!”

The event was an instant hit, drawing the largest crowds in the history of the museum. People of all ages swarmed the 15 rooms – past giant panels of long gone streets, of city walls, arcades and ancient gates, sentimental illustrations, drawings and paintings of the characters of neighborhood life, photographs, posters and sheet music, the artists and writers who meticulously documented the city as it changed. Many visitors stayed for hours, even returning a second or third time.

All in all, it was a masterstroke of social history that launched the career of the museum’s new director Wolfgang Kos, and transformed the dusty Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien into a vibrant Schauplatz for the concerns of the modern city.

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At the Chicago World fair in 1893, Austria-Hungary showed visitors a true-to-scale reproduction of houses and streets of Vienna from 200 years before – the “Alt Wien” of the day. // © Wikimedia Commons

But even then, it was clear that there was more to this than just an exhibition, however good: “Alt-Wien” was tapping into something deeper. This was an inquiry into the very character of Vienna and the Viennese, a city that since the end of the 18th century, at least, has looked back with longing to a time when everything was better, the pace of life slower, the city streets more picturesque, music more tuneful, theaters cheaper and romance easier to find.

“Vienna is something of a world capital of retrospection,” Kos said at the time. “With a backward glance, everything can be reimagined.” The past is clearer, brighter, tidier, a myth of a past that never was, taken up as a defense against the pace of change.

But which “golden age” exactly? Which “Alt-Wien”: The Baroque? The Biedermeier? The Habsburg grandeur of Franz Josef and Sissi? The fin de siècle of Klimt, Schiele and the Wiener Werkstätte? Red Vienna of the 1920s? Even the modernist 1950s, and the “Sun Chancellor” Bruno Kreisky have become more recent subjects of Viennese nostalgia.

“There have been a lot of ‘Alt-Wiens’; every generation has one, or more than one,” said author and cultural historian Christian Rapp, co-curator of the exhibition in the same interview – choices that say as much about the then-present as they do about the past, about how each era sees itself, and which self-image it will take with it into the future.

Often, as in operetta, it is not all that clear what period is meant; Vienna in this sense “exists in a kind of timeless fairy tale,” Rapp said, with a rather diffuse idea of “before, when…” or “once.” Essayists and songwriters have been especially reluctant to pin down the “olden days.” The main thing was that they were “good” – or at least better than the current ones.

In all of them, though, certain qualities have persisted, the leisurely pace, a cultivated inertia (layered with irony) and a talent for enjoyment – the opposite of, say, dynamic Berlin, or wicked (or revolutionary) Paris. “Alt-Wien” is in this sense a synonym for the city’s famed “Gemütlichkeit” (coziness) that has become central to the Viennese identity. There is, of course, no “Alt-Wien” on the Vienna Stadtplan (city map) – a fact that sometimes confuses visitors who search in vain for the district, the neighborhood or even an U-Bahn station, that will pin point this legendary place of which they have heard so much. What they find instead, which is real, is an attitude, a sense of leisure combined with a kind of complacency with complaining rights, that you see in the gruff , ritual courtesies of the waiters in the Kaffeehaus.

It can be summed up like this. The untroubled Gemütlichkeit of Old Vienna may not be what it was in the “good old days,” but change will only make things worse – a skepticism toward that unreliable thing called “Progress” that so much of the world is so enamored with, but which the Viennese (not without reason) think is probably a bad idea. After a disastrous 20th century with the loss of empire, two world wars, four changes of government and five currencies, you can perhaps understand why.

The Nostalgia Trap

The myth of “Alt-Wien” can first be traced to the second half of the 18th century as the first wave of urban reconstruction swept Biedermeier Vienna. Writers like Franz Gaffer filled stories and essays with a romantic longing for a city they felt was vanishing before their eyes.

And they weren’t wrong: Over a few decades, entire rows of houses were torn down to regularize the pattern of streets; gables became pitched roofs and two-story houses grew to four or even five, to accommodate the city’s growing population. By 1800, easily a third of the city’s housing stock had been replaced, much of it with the first “modern” apartment buildings (Zinshäuser), as the development of Steinguss, or molded stone (also called Coade Stone) made possible the neo classic and baroque decorative façades that soon transformed the look of the city.

Rather than stability and order, the Biedermeier era was a time of razing and rebuilding, of relentless, and often ill-considered, urban change.

“So with the picture of gemütlich, sentimental charm in Biedermeier Vienna, we are actually dealing with an invented tradition,” Kos said. So it’s all an illusion? “Let me just say, ‘Alt-Wien’ is an intellectual construct, that can only take effect with the distance of time.”

Part of this is simply the difficulty of imagining how the past felt when it was the present, when it was being lived, without the softening distortions of hindsight. This is what Kos calls the “nostalgia trap”: Cherished buildings, or customs, or personalities, that become layered with the longings of a later time, were often highly controversial in their own right, as they themselves took the place of others that had been equally loved the generation before.

Still, some of the images of “Alt-Wien” have stayed consistent over two centuries – the Baroque and the Biedermeier at the head of the list. But Vienna has had many chapters, and the half-century leading up to the Great War is certainly looked at as a kind of Golden Age – as the portraits of Franz Josef and Sissi in every Alt-Wiener Kaffeehaus attest – one of harmony, political stability and the pleasures of a “good life.”

In fact, as Philip Blom details in his masterful history The Vertigo Years, this too was a time of upheaval. Technologically, steam, steel, railroads, telephones and the electric light were radically changing daily life. Socially, while the population quadrupled (from 550,000 in 1850 to 2.1 million in 1910), professional barriers were lifted for Jews, and educational ones for women, who now began going to work and demanding the vote – leading to a range of inexplicable nervous complaints among men, writes Blom, who grasped after old verities, with more uniforms than ever on the streets and duels in the woods at dawn.

In Vienna, once again, it had meant a half-century of brutal urban renewal, as the city wall was replaced with the theatrical grandeur of the Ringstrasse, “of grand façades, opulence, decorum and apparent certainties,” Blom details, in an empire “beset by national agitation inside and rival powers around it.” A world of denial and disguise with an endless capacity for dissimulation – and perfect material for the later myth of “Alt-Wien.”

Which “Alt-Wien”?

The horrors of the Great War shook Vienna to the core. While 1.2 million imperial soldiers were dying on the battlefield, in Vienna people were dying of starvation, as the supply routes from Hungary were cut off, and intercultural tensions mounted. The Wehrmann in Eisen on Schwarzenbergplatz (now by City Hall), pounded with nails bought with donations to the war effort, devolved from a symbol of public support to one of disdain, as valuable metals were “stolen” back by the desperate. According to historian Maureen Healy, the city had come apart long before the military collapse in 1918, through “a process of decline characterized by hunger, violence, and a deterioration of social norms that left Vienna nearly ungovernable.” With the empire dismantled at the Treaty of St. Germain, most thought the new little rump state of 6.5 million people was nicht lebensfähig, capable of life.

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During World War I, nail men were a form of fundraising. Donor’s gave money to hammer a nail into the Wehrmann in Eisen // © Wikimedia Commons

Out of this desperation came Red Vienna, an “experiment in working class culture” (Helmut Gruber) by the city’s new socialist government. As the stage for its many programs of family support and community, continuing education, entertainment and recreation, the Red Vienna built the famed Gemeindebauten social housing complexes – the Rabenhof, the Karl Marx Hof and dozens more – which are still the foundation of Vienna city housing policy today. And it was to this housing program, and to the cultural and family programs of the 1920s that the 2nd Republic returned to build Austria’s post-WWII social democracy. Today, the heralding of this “golden age” of Austrian socialism remains part of the city’s playbook, both as an admired model for public policy and a popular tourism landscape.

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The Mariahilfer Strasse used to be a busy road for cars and trams in 1950. // © Wiener Linien

The Catholic-conservatives, on the other hand, “saw themselves as defenders of the ‘Austrian Idea’ against the materialism and atheism of Red Vienna. ”According to historian Janek Wasserman, they sought a sense of identity more enduring than matters of working conditions and self-improvement, social cohesion from assumptions about continuity, place and role.

Thus, even in the progressive 1920s, “Alt-Wien” nostalgia was alive and well, according to contemporary historian Siegfried Mattl, as the old city was dubbed the “cultural center” vs. the newer “garden city” communities in the outer districts.

Resistance to modernism became abundantly clear to Mayor Karl Seitz with the disastrous failure of the city’s avant-garde Music Festival of 1924. Programming was quietly transferred to the department of tourism who promptly refocused on Beethoven,Schubert and Johann Strauss.

But perhaps the most successful exercise in city branding was, perhaps ironically, under the Austro-Fascists after 1934. Under Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, the “Alt-Wien” mélange of imagery was perfected – as the glorious and indestructible Großmacht der Kultur (cultural power- house). It was a mix of motifs we all recognize today: magnificent buildings with a historical aura, small-scale Gemütlichkeit of Heuriger alleys, symbols of a slow-pace enjoyment of life like the Kaffeehäuser and the Fiakers, and the eternal resonance of music from the times of “gold and silver” all with the promise of being shielded, if only briefly, from life’s unpleasantness. According to the Wien Museum’s Kos, this helped create a new Austrian identity that would later support a national consensus after 1945. It was also the foundation of the postwar tourism industry. The 1930s also looked back to the “Alt-Wien” of the populist mayor (and casual anti-Semite) Karl Lueger (1897- 1910), who became a leitmotif of Austro- Fascism: As an answer to the “Red Man,” the cry was “back to Lueger!”

Under the Nazis, Vienna was treated with, at best, ambivalence: While Hitler called it “the jewel in the crown,” he crushed its cultural and intellectual elite, both progressive and conservative. He planned his “cultural capital” for his home-town of Linz, where he would display his extraordinary collection of art stolen from the Jews. Nazi nostalgia was for the countryside, of hearth and home and a rural music tradition, which was thus poisoned for many in the postwar years.

Fin de Siècle Rediscovered

In postwar Vienna and Austria, the country faced the dual challenge of rebuilding the shattered economy and also a national identity people could live with. The answer for both, in large part, was tourism, and nostalgia became a core part of the national business model. Poster artists were directed to use “folklore motifs, like regional Trachten [loden jackets and Dirndls] and local customs that in both color and presentation bring out the [country’s] historical character.” Vienna’s edge was its year-round appeal – with the architecture and grand hotels, its music, theater, art, and mid-winter balls, “Vienna is always in season”: A Vienna è bella stagione tutto l’anno; Wien hat immer Saison.

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The photos on the online platform Vintage Vienna, like this glimpse of Vienna‘s Kärntner Strasse in the 1960s, are wildly popular, showing our love for nostalgia. // © Gerhard Walter / Metro Verlag / Vintage Vienna

So when cultural tourism – which usually meant cities – became trendy in the 1970s, Vienna was perfectly positioned to take advantage. It had become what Viennese author and essayist Friedrich Torberg called “a city of living legends.” “Alt-Wien” was back with a vengeance.

But perhaps the most remarkable, and most radical, development was the rediscovery of “Vienna1900.” The subject of an exhibit at the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien in the early 1960s, it was not until American scholars Alan Janik and Stephen Toulmin in Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1973), and Carl Schorske in Fin-de-Siecle Vienna (1980, and earlier essays), lifted the veil of forgetfulness on the artist circles of Jung Wien and the Wiener Secession, on Jugendstil design and the Wiener Werkstätte, that this explosion of visual art, architecture and design became an enduring part of Vienna’s self-image.

Today, these names – Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Josef Hofmann, Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos – so dominate our image of Viennese cultural heritage and the staging of our nostalgia for golden ages lost, that it is hard to believe that for half a century they had all but disappeared. In the ‘60s, Otto Wagner furnishings in the Postsparkasse and the Stadtbahn were considered tired and old fashioned and were simply torn out and junked, ripe pickings for anyone with an eye – like young artist Mario Terzic, who salvaged a waiting room table from the Hütteldorf station, restored it and sold it on. From a U.S. museum it came back to Vienna last year for a Wagner retrospective at MAK.

In a second incident of cultural collateral damage, a simple change in the fire laws in the late 1960s meant that hundreds of bent-wood chairs by the famed German-Austrian designer Michael Thonet – purchased by the thousands in the early 19th century by the State Chancellor Metternich for the govern- ment ministries – were suddenly out on the sidewalk. A young law student named John Sailer, then in his 20s, picked one up because he just liked the shape. After doing a little research, however, he realized he had stumbled onto a gold mine; he hired a van and collected a warehouse full, thus launching a major career as an art dealer and gallerist.

But why was “Wien 1900” forgotten? Perhaps it was because some of the artists were Jews; certainly many of their customers were. Perhaps it was because they were at the core of the explosion of modernism in the first part of the century that the Austro-Fascists and the Nazis tried so hard to crush.

But for exactly this reason, their rediscovery became an invitation to reclaim another Viennese identity, a source of Viennese nostalgia that was not “Alt-Wien” but “Wiener Moderne,” which could be the basis of a new era of innovation and progressive change.

Because while the Viennese cultivate their nostalgia for a golden age, they also don’t want to be left behind. As journalist Franz Schuh commented in the German weekly Die Zeit, “Vienna struggles to this day against the ever accelerating pace of change, while scrambling at the same time to keep up.”

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The classicist Dreimäderlhaus, in front of the neo-Renaissance university. // © Jerrye & Roy Klotz MD / Wikimedia Commons

Pessimism and Schmäh

In the decades since, the power of “Alt- Wien” seems only to have grown: Today, Austria’s entry into the EU in 1995 seems in retrospect to mark a culmination of postwar recovery and optimism about the future of Europe and the start of a new wave of nostalgia. “The postwar era was a historical exception,” says Austrian social scientist Christian Karner. “It’s what the French call the ‘glorious 30 years’, when inequalities didn’t widen, when the lives of ordinary people got better. After that, nostalgia kicks in.”

The end of the Cold War, ironically, only added to the uncertainties. It doesn’t matter that in Austria, and certainly in Vienna, things are “still” fine. No question, life is good here. But that doesn’t mean people don’t complain. “It’s a Jammerdiskurs,” says Karner, “a kind of socio-economic pessimism.” They fear for what’s ahead, that they will not be able to hold on to what they have. So they turn to nostalgia, and perhaps to nationalist politics … but that’s another discussion. But fortunately there’s an old Wiener Schmäh – the lifesaving irony the Viennese are so good at – again making the rounds, transcending despair with imagination. “Früher war alles besser … (Pause) Sogar die Zukunft.” In the old days, everything was better – even the future! On a certain level, the Viennese realize the “Alt-Wien” staging of an idealized past is a Schmäh, a pretense at a perfect world that never existed. But who cares? It’s full of lovely qualities that are well worth the effort. And as long as we all get to live in the middle of it, it’s real enough.