The great city
From time to time in the history of the world, one city emerges which is the intellectual and cultural centre of its world. New Yorkers tend to think NYC is but that is disputable. Going back in time, one thinks of Babylon at the height of Mesopotamian civilization, Athens, Ancient Rome and then Byzantium. Byzantium kept learning alive throughout most of the "dark" ages. It lasted 1,000 years. But what comes next?
For another thousand years (c. 800 AD to 1800 AD) the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was at the centre of European affairs. As wits say, however, it was neither Holy nor Roman nor German.
Its emperors were however for a long time crowned by the Pope; it did include a lot of Germans and had considerable but varying political power. For most of the time however it was a loose confederation rather than a unitary state.
For most of that empire's existence, Vienna (Wien in German) was influential and that influence not only continued but grew after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire by the Emperor of Austria.
As Wikipedia says: "Austria played a central role in European History from the late 18th to the early 20th century." And Vienna was the capital of Austria. And the Austrian empire, later the Austro/Hungarian empire, was one of the major states of Europe.
And Austria was where the fate of post-Napoleonic Europe was decided. In Congress of Vienna of 1814 the potentates of Europe arrived in Vienna and decided what to do about Napoleon's conquests after he had finally been defeated. France lost everything except the Hexagon and the great powers of the day sliced up everything else between them. Austria gained ownership of Venice and much of northern Italy. That the congress took place in Vienna showed how central to Europe Vienna had become by that time
For my purposes I will primarily be discussing the period from 1814 to 1914
Throughout the 19th century and earlier, people of talent began to move to Vienna, with Beethoven being perhaps the greatest of those. He moved to Vienna at the very beginning of that period, in 1791. And even before Beethoven arrived Vienna was probably already the headquarters of music, with court composer F.J. Haydn being well-known, among many others. And the prolific Franz Schubert and many others in Vienna followed on after him.
Rome was not built in a day nor was Vienna but gradually, Vienna emerged from a long history as the great city, with its influence extending far and wide in most fields of human endeavour. Eventually, at its very height of eminence it started a world war (WWI), which ended most of its influence.
During the 19th century and early 20th century, however, Viennese lived at the heart of an enormously rich civilization. Vienna before WWI was not only a great and rich imperial capital with many nations under its rule but it was also at the cutting edge culturally and intellectually. It was advanced in most things and first in some.
It was, for instance, the time and place of the immensely influential Sigmund Freud, by far the leading psychologist of the time, who still has many followers today. He moved to Vienna as a young man in the 1870s. He was a great observer and I quote him occasionally still. And Freud inspired rivals such as Carl Jung in Switzerland and Alfred Adler in Vienna who are also still influential. Vienna was a ferment of psychological thought.
And in economics the luminaries of the prewar Austrian school (Carl Menger; Eugen Böhm Ritter von Bawerk etc.) are honoured to this day -- though not among Leftists. Eugen Böhm even had charge of the economics portfolio of the Austrian government for a time, during which Austria flourished.
And Vienna saw the birth of much in modern analytic philosophy. The immensely influential Vienna Circle was mainly a phenomenon of the 1920s and '30s but meetings on philosophy of science and epistemology began in Vienna as early as 1907, promoted by Frank, Hahn and Neurath, who later arranged to bring Moritz Schlick to Vienna, around whom the Vienna Circle formed
In architecture and the decorative arts there was the Jugendstil movement, a German term for the well-known "Art Nouveau".
In literature there was the prolific Johann Nestroy, sometimes called the Austrian Shakespeare. He wrote in a lighthearted tone that clearly set the scene for the emergence of operetta late in the 19th century.
And, musically, Vienna started out on top -- with the enormous heritage of the great Austrian composers -- Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert etc -- so any new compositions had a lot to live up to. And the wonder is that some late 19th century composers stood out even in that environment -- with Strauss II being merely the best known of many. The great Viennese waltzes come from that period
And there were vast numbers (some say 1,000) of innovative Viennese artists too, largely led by Klimt in particular. There is a long list of them here. Klee and Schiele are also well-known.
So the Viennese had it all. And what you want when you have it all is entertainment. And to be entertaining to such an indulged and sophisticated audience you had to be pretty good. And what emerged on the music scene at that time was operetta. So I see the lightness and frivolity of operetta not as trivial but as a major cultural achievement.
And operetta was one cultural element that even survived WWI for a time. His songs were so popular in Germany generally that Adolf Hitler offered to make Kalman, a prominent operetta composer, an Honorary Aryan. Kalman was Jewish. He wisely emigrated to America instead.
So let's look for a moment at a famous operetta that is all about Vienna -- Wiener Blut. Its theme song tells us what the Viennese spirit at that time was all about. "Voller Kraft, Voller Glut! ... Was die Stadt Schönes hat, In dir ruht! Wiener Blut, Heisse Flut. (Roughly: "unique, full of fire, full of power, hot and flowing"). The idea is that the great city is embodied in its people. It basically means "high-spirited" -- bright and lively -- perhaps "gay" in the old meaning of that term
It was a very rich and sophisticated society so it was a great privilege to be there at that time. It has no obvious successors.
My interest above is in the human environment of prewar Vienna so I have so far said nothing about the politics of the period. For the most part, Austria was very badly governed. Hitler used to sit in the public gallery of the Reichsrat of the parliament and wonder at the chaos that prevailed there. In spite of interminable and loud debate nothing seemed to get done. It was the foundation of his belief in the Fuehrerprinzip -- that democracy was no good and a strong leader was needed to get things done
My libertarian view is that it is a great advantage to a society if the politicians are so disunited that they cannot put any of their schemes into action. Vienna certainly flourished in such an environment. And there are more recent examples of advantageous government immobility. See here
Current American Congressional politics also seem to be stalemated at the moment, which leaves Mr Trump as the sole mover and shaker -- which he is very good at