"Signs Are For The Little People" – Interview With Habsburg Historian Steven Beller

Steven Beller shown at Cafe Eiles in Vienna. Phto: Tas Tóbiás

Below is my follow-up interview with historian and Habsburg expert, Steven Beller. As the first part, this too is centered on Austria-Hungary but I took advantage of Steven’s wide-ranging scholarly interest and we also touched on Viennese art, culture, and philosophy.

[After a not especially accommodating waiter takes our order.]

I’m happy to see that Viennese waiters haven’t become any less surly. You know how they have these “Reserved” signs on every table? I don’t believe it. I think it’s just for regulars and people they like personally. A very Viennese thing.

I tried reserving a table on the phone yesterday but they just hung up on me.

There’s a scene in a Joseph Roth novel, The Emperor's Tomb (Die Kapuzinergruft), where Captain von Trotta goes to the Defense Ministry to ask a favor. There’s a door with an “entry forbidden” sign. He immediately goes through it. In the room, an army bureaucrat is typing away at something and greets him, “Servus,” even before looking up. Because he knows that anyone who’d go through that door would be okay. Roth is describing a time-honored principle of Viennese culture: you can ignore the signs; those are for the little people.

What are you working on these days?

I want to write a book on Jews and Blacks and American musicals. A small topic… It follows from my work on Viennese operetta. Viennese show business was very Jewish in terms of its personnel and it was the same with Broadway. Viennese operetta is often dismissed as nonsense. Frivolous and stupid and employing sentimentality – and hence was hated by high-brow critics everywhere. But some pieces deal with serious topics with emancipatory messages. The frivolity of operetta was seen by some of its practitioners as being able to help tackle the social conformism – and social exclusions – of the time. 

Can you give an example?

Bruder Leichtsinn (1917), written by Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald, is one that particularly struck me. It’s about an interracial relationship between a young Belgian woman and a half-black American man. There’s lots of Jewish humor throughout, but the libretto takes a stand on the morally right thing to do, which is also, as it turns out, the most socially and culturally beneficial thing to do. 

You wrote somewhere that Professor István Deák changed the way Austria-Hungary is viewed today (I knew and admired him). How was he a revisionist?

In the old days, Austria-Hungary was treated as a totally doomed, oppressive empire. It was brought down because it couldn’t handle its nationalist conflicts. And since it was located east of the Rhine, by definition it had to be backward. István Deák, and others such as the economic historian David Good, found that it actually wasn’t such a failure. 

Steven Beller, on the right, shown at a conference in Vienna in 2023. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Steven Beller, on the right, shown at a conference in Vienna in 2023. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

What did he find?

Between 1860 and 1910, Austria-Hungary did quite well economically, for example. It was rapidly modernizing. Places like Vienna, Budapest, and Brno. Some regions were just as economically developed as Germany and Britain, and the difference between the richer and poorer areas was less than in the United States. The idea of the Eurozone was already there: Austria-Hungary used the same currency, which was extremely positive for the economy in fostering trade and investments.

Last time we discussed how Hungary benefited from being part of Austria-Hungary. How about Austria?

There were huge advantages of being part of this common market. Hungary basically fed the Empire, it had a big agricultural sector. A lot of Austrians made profits investing in Hungarian businesses. Not everyone at the time realized how beneficial the empire was to Austrian Germans economically. There was actually a movement of German nationalists to get the Austrian side out of Austria-Hungary, based on the 1882 Linz program of Georg von Schönerer. They wanted to give up Hungary, Galicia, and Bukovina. Reduce Austria to its German core and hope for an Anschluss with Germany.

How bad were the national tensions?

The Austrian side, eventually, after 1879, was quite accommodating to national interests. There were many national parties in the Parliament and a certain amount of comity existed despite the surface-level tensions. The liberal interpretation by the courts of Austria’s constitution helped. For example, every language group, if they had enough children in an area, could open a school paid by the public. Ironically, these races to build schools – on your side and in your language of course – raised the whole level of discourse and helped create a more educated public.

So you’re aligned with István Deák’s revisionist view.

Mostly. Where I put an asterisk: Austria-Hungary still started World War I. The system was mostly fine. Politically, economically, culturally, socially. But the people in charge, the Habsburg Emperor and his coterie, didn’t think that. And there was a real problem with irredentism, with bordering nation-states such as Italy, Serbia and Romania (and as we have seen, in an odd way, Germany) acting as magnets on nationalists within the Monarchy.

What do you mean?

The people who controlled Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy felt they couldn’t sanction the growth of ever stronger nation-states on the border. For example Bosnian Serbs living in Austria-Hungary looked to Serbia for support, with the potential of tearing the Monarchy apart. From the perspective of those at the top, intent on preserving the integrity and prestige of the country, there was a major threat from such developments. I am still not sure that, given their goals, the threat of irredentist nationalism was not real. 

Then everything collapsed with World War I.

The way it turned out was disastrous. I think it was Count von Czernin, the Foreign Minister, who said “we were destined to fall, but we chose the worst way.” Just look at Trieste.

What about it?

There’s no purpose to Trieste after 1918. It's a beautiful, haunting, and extraordinary place, but it is a place without much of a function. They make Illy coffee, that’s about it. Its whole identity and economy relied on being a shipping port for Austria-Hungary. There’s this beautiful poster in The Concise History of Austria showing all the routes. You could get to Bombay from Trieste. Have you been to Trieste?

Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Photo: Tas Tóbiás


There’s something very special about it. That statue of James Joyce on the bridge… It’s possible that Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses is, effectively, not so much Dublin as Trieste. That’s where Joyce lived when he wrote it.


You have to go to two places near Trieste. One is the castle of Duino, along the coast. Where Rilke wrote the Duino Elegies. It’s exquisitely beautiful: turquoise Adriatic and Austrian rococo interiors. The other is Miramare. The seashore residence of Archduke Maximilian (1832-1867), the brother of Emperor Franz Joseph. This white sepulchral edifice from about 1860. The throne room has portraits of all the ruling Monarchs of Europe. All the German kings and princes, for example. Ten years later half of those states and people are gone. Very beautiful in its own way, but there’s a ghostly atmosphere to it.

Going back to István Deák for a second. What did you think of his book about the Habsburg officers?

I thought it was a fascinating book, but he didn’t like a couple of things I wrote about it. He made a big thing of the fact that Jewish officers were allowed to duel. Dueling was illegal, but since they were officers, the Habsburgs turned a blind eye to them. Is that a positive? Jewish faith is absolutely against dueling.

Did you meet him?

A few times. Our first meeting after my review was published was frosty, to put it mildly. We had very different ideas about Theodor Herzl, too. He thought Herz was completely assimilated and I find the idea of assimilation tricky. Even if you think you’re assimilated, I’m not sure you really are.

Difficult topic.

The term “assimilation” is not all that popular today in academia. Scholars try to avoid the term and talk about acculturation and integration, because it is fairly clear that “assimilation,” the complete “becoming the same” as the majority population, hardly ever occurred, at least in the first or second generations.

Are you assimilated?

In those terms, I think of myself as fairly “assimilated,” but the question is how much? My friends don’t have to be Jewish. But many of them are. In college, most of my friends were not English. One was half Polish, half Scottish; another half Alexandrian Greek, half English. There was something else in their background, which gave them a certain cultural dexterity that a lot of “pure” English people didn’t have.

Photo: Barna Szász for Offbeat
Photo: Barna Szász for Offbeat

I thought English people are the most civilized in the world.

Well, so did I, and fairly smart and liberal too, but then there was Brexit. I recently read a telling anecdote in Stephen Fry’s memoir. In school, one day his headmaster called him in and said, “This essay you wrote is very clever, Fry.” Fry knew this was not a compliment, but a warning. Don’t be too clever. There’s a part of the English establishment that regards the facility with words and quick-wittedness as too clever and “jewy,” as Fry terms it.  Did you see Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt? It’s about his reckoning with his Jewishness.

A friend said it was a bit too didactic.

You know who’s responsible for that? In the author’s note, Stoppard says one of the books he found very useful was The Concise History of Austria, by yours truly, so I feel partly to blame for the didacticism. Even so, sales have not rocketed; I’m very disappointed…

You wrote much about the importance of Bildung in Jewish culture.

If you come from a Jewish religious background, there’s more emphasis on education and on the word than in a typical Christian society. This is true even after you’ve given up the religious practice of Judaism and I think explains the extraordinary extent of Jewish participation in high-culture. And also in popular culture, such as the operettas. What brings the two together is they’re both modern and new. Taking what’s already there and changing it.

What’s anti-semitism rooted in?

There are two main sources, I think. One is the conflict over centuries between Judaism and Christianity as competing, but intimately connected religious systems. The other, at the most basic level, is a tribal thing. The home population’s fear of the other. Not just against Jews. Against any immigrant group. But what can be even more powerful is resentment. 

Can you give an example?

East Asians in the United States are resented not for being criminals, but for working and studying too hard and getting ahead of “us.” And for those who like things to stay as they are, immigrants, inevitably, bring change. In Britain, for example, the fish and chips shops have been largely replaced by curry shops. Immigrants, even when they’re integrating into society, are changing it. Some people are not happy with that. I am. I think it’s great. I love the idea of “curry and chips.” And it works both ways: one of the most popular dishes in Indian cuisine today, chicken tikka masala, is said to have been invented in a restaurant in Glasgow (by an Indian immigrant chef).

The joy of living in a big city.

In general, people who live in urban environments, where most of the immigrants are, are okay with them and vote for parties that support immigration. It’s in rural areas that people fear immigrants often without having encountered any.

I’d like to go back to Austria-Hungary for a second. To the Czech parts – Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia. These areas were very developed, but low-wage Czech construction workers and cooks flooded Vienna. Why this dichotomy?

The industrialized areas were initially mostly where the Germans lived, such as Prague and Brno. (And many of the „Germans” were by origin often not ethnically German but German-speaking, many of Czech ethnic origin.) In the beginning of the 19th century, people thought of Prague as a German city because the center of Prague was mainly German-speaking. German was the dominant lingua franca so the mercantile bourgeoisie all spoke German. The Czech-speakers came from the rural parts of the country as laborers. Some of them did very well.

Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Like Knize, the fancy tailor shop in Vienna whose portal was designed by Adolf Loos.

Do you know the story about Knize? Its name was officially Knize & Wolff. The name of the firm has a similar origin story to Marks & Spencer in England. Knize was one of the tailors, but the business was owned by Wolff, a Jewish family that ran the firm. The Marks family was Jewish, Spencer was not. It’s a classic 19th-century model of conducting business: you get a gentile partner and things are much easier that way.

Vienna 1900: the city of Klimt, the Secession, the Wiener Werkstätte, Adolf Loos. Was it really the birthplace of modern art as it’s often claimed?

I think it’s exaggerated. What about Paris for instance? The emphasis on Vienna is a projection of American and British historians who saw in Vienna an effective and easy way of teaching turn-of-the-century European culture. Vienna is relatively small and concentrated. Historicist architecture along the Ringstrasse, for instance. Even the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte are not that unique. Art Nouveau was a global movement. But it’s not the whole story.

What’s the whole story?

Vienna 1900 stands out to me not so much for its architecture or art, but for the intellectual fields it hadn’t been known for before: psychology, writing, philosophy. The writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Kraus, for example. These Viennese thinkers challenged contemporary ideas of modernity and recognized its limitations. 

What do you mean?

Philosophy likes to make absolute claims about how one should act and what one should view as beautiful, for example. What Wittgenstein said is that philosophy can’t express aesthetic and ethical norms that are absolute. You can’t dictate to people. You have to leave that up to the individuals. The later history of the 20th century showed he was right. You can’t have perfect solutions to things. There’s a modesty about Wittgenstein’s philosophy despite his intellectual arrogance.

Alfred Polgar said that Viennese are a people who look to the past with confidence.

Vienna had an anti-utopian culture, perhaps because of the anti-semitism these people experienced. You end up realizing that life is very complicated. What appears to be the case might not be the case – Freudian psychology. I’m not a musicologist but I believe you can hear this in Mahler’s symphonies. The tragic beauty of the world.

Where does Adolf Loos fall on this spectrum?

The attraction about Loos is his idea of an ethical architecture. An architecture that didn’t lie. Seeking the truth behind the facade. I think an even better product of Viennese architecture was Josef Frank. With his interiors, he understood things didn't have to be all the same. There could be a plurality of styles, as long as they looked good together. There isn’t just one answer.

Loos would have agreed.

To some extent. One of his famous essays – The Story of the Poor Little Rich Man (1900) – is about how the architect shouldn’t dictate to clients, making fun of Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstätte who wanted to design everything down to the slippers. Aestheticizing the client, regardless of who he or she was. Loos thought that was anti-humanistic. People have different wishes and interests.

Armed with all these theories, how does one decide whether something is beautiful or not?

You can take things a long way in aesthetics. Then at some point, you can’t, because people have different views on things; individuals find different things beautiful in their own way, without one standard, normal typology. Recognition of the importance of “diversity” rather than nationalist uniformity in the composition of society and culture has been a major step forward in our contemporary world, although the idea goes back to proverbial times.

Does it?

“Variety is the spice of life,” my (Austrian) mother used to say – and as a Hungarian, if you will forgive me for using a national stereotype for a moment, you should know that spice is a very important ingredient for making life worth living.