A vibrant city of poets, artists and thinkers in the early 1900s, it went down in a sea of swastikas after Adolf Hitler’s triumphant return: Vienna after the Anschluss lost not only many of its people, but a great deal of its talent.
Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of the day Nazi troops marched into Austria on March 12, 1938. Three days later, the Austrian-born Hitler gave a rousing speech from the balcony of Vienna’s Imperial Palace to a jubilant crowd of 250,000 and Austria ceased to exist as an independent state.
An exodus that began years earlier, when the Nazis took power in Germany, accelerated. And in the process, Austria lost many of its biggest names: people like Sigmund Freud and Oskar Kokoschka, and future luminaries such as Oscar winner Billy Wilder and Carl Djerassi, who would develop the contraceptive pill.
“[It was] a monstrous cultural blow,” says Johanna Rachinger, director of Austria’s National Library, which retraces the fateful days of March 1938 through photographs and testimonies in a new exhibit entitled “Night over Austria.”
Post-war former Austrian chancellor Leopold Figl once said: “Austria gave away the most Nobel prize winners, proportionally to the rest of the world.”
Among these were earlier Nobel laureates Erwin Schroedinger (physics, 1933) and Victor Hess (physics, 1936), but also future honorees — like Elias Canetti (literature, 1981), Walter Kohn (chemistry, 1998) and Eric Kandel (physiology and medicine, 2000) — who fled Vienna after the Nazis’ arrival and achieved success abroad, often after changing their nationality.
“The effect was a provincialization of Austria’s scientific landscape after 1945,” Austrian Academy of Sciences historian Johannes Feichtinger said.
“The country’s most brilliant minds were expelled ... In the post-war period, universities were in many cases dominated by mediocre figures, including people who owed their career to the Nazi regime,” he said.
A dynamic film industry was also choked as restrictions were imposed by the Nazi regime and Jewish artists fled to Hollywood.
Austria has only recently regained cinematic success — thanks to people like Michael Haneke or Christoph Waltz — but the local press has repeatedly noted that most of the country’s Oscars have been won by exiled filmmakers.
The list of talent that left Austria behind includes actor Peter Lorre, novelist Stefan Zweig, photographer Erich Lessing, Fritz Lang — the director of M and Metropolis — and Billy Wilder, who created classics such as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment.
“There was a great bloodletting of culture and intellect,” Jewish Museum Vienna curator Marcus Patka said. “In 1933, many intellectuals and artists — Jews and non-Jews — had fled from Germany to Vienna.”
“They were again displaced [in 1938] and the problem is that after the war, very, very few of these people came back,” he said.