HITLER'S VIENNA by Brigitte Hamann


A Dictator's Apprenticeship
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A valuable social history of Vienna’s netherworld and an attempt at explaining Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Most biographies of Hitler will, of course, spend some time on his contested family history, often an expression of how deeply Freud has penetrated the craft of biography. Yet the time Hitler spent in Vienna as a down-and-out painter may have contributed more to his character than previously assumed. At least, this is the thesis that historian Hamann (The Reluctant Empress: A Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, not reviewed) brings to life here. Hitler was 17 when he first arrived in the Austrian-Hungarian capital in 1906 with aspirations of becoming an artist. Hamann is sometimes overly detailed; for example, we are informed that in 1906 Vienna there were 176 arc lamps providing electrical light, 657,625 incandescent lamps, 354 automobile accidents, 997 hansom cabs drawn by two horses, 1,1754 one-horse carriages, and 1,101 cabs, which altogether caused 982 accidents. Hitler, though, is never overwhelmed in this profusion of detail; instead we get a meticulous portrait of everyday life in the artistically and philosophically modernist metropolis. That everyday life was not modernist at all, but materialistic, anti-Semitic, petit-bourgeois, and petty. As the most multinational of the European empires, Austria-Hungary was obsessed with concepts of “nation,” “race,” “degeneracy,” and “Jewish modernism”; obsessions that soon became Hitler’s own. Acknowledging the problem of sources, Hamann has hit upon a working—but not unproblematic’solution: liberally sprinkled through the text are italicized excerpts from Hitler’s monologues, speeches and writings. Hitler revealed that “for me this was a time of the greatest spiritual upheaval I ever had to go through. I had ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and became an anti-Semite,” and more ominously, “the visual instruction of the Viennese streets had performed invaluable services.” Hamann concludes that Vienna’s fin-de-siäcle malaise was a critical ingredient in the madness that became Nazi Germany.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-19-512537-1
Page count: 452pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1999


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