Reifowitz on Silverman, 'Becoming Austrians: Jews and Culture between the World Wars'

Lisa Silverman
Ian Reifowitz

Lisa Silverman. Becoming Austrians: Jews and Culture between the World Wars. Oxford University Press, 2012. xi + 334 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-979484-3.

Reviewed by Ian Reifowitz (State University of New York) Published on HABSBURG (June, 2014) Commissioned by Jonathan Kwan

Jewish Difference and Identity in Interwar Austria

Lisa Silverman’s careful readings of interwar Austrian culture demonstrate that “the social codings of politics, class, gender, nation, and geography received a powerful boost when articulated using the terms of Jewish difference” (p. 4). She uses texts produced both by Jews (broadly defined, i.e., not limited to those who self-identified as Jews but also including those who converted out) as well as Gentiles. Defining exactly how Jews were different, were “Other,” was an exercise that was central to interwar Austrian culture (a point also made in the recent book that Silverman co-edited, with Deborah Holmes).[1] But that Jews were different, according to Silverman, was a truism not open to question either for Jews or Gentiles. She defines “Jewish difference” as a category of analysis similar to class or gender, and defines it as “the dialectical, hierarchical framework that encompasses the relationship between the socially constructed categories of ‘Jew’ and ‘non-Jew,’” and notes that the definition of Jewishness, and thus the category of Jewish difference, is “necessarily subject to change” (p. 7). Evoking Judith Butler on gender as a category, Silverman analyzes how Jewish difference was performed in interwar Austria.

Furthermore, the centrality of Jewish difference sets the culture of interwar Austria apart from that produced prior to the fall of the Habsburg monarchy. Silverman sets out to explore exactly how “Jewish difference functioned to constitute Austrian self-understandings” in the interwar period (p. 7). Austrians may not have known exactly what it meant to be Austrian, but their search for an identity “developed within the bounds of an already shaky political framework that gained stability when defined in terms of Jewish difference” (p. 9). Jews were “in danger of becoming shut out of a definition of Austrianness that unified its otherwise fractured political and ethnic elements under one anti-Semitic rubric” (p. 9). If nothing else, interwar Austrians could agree that being Austrian meant being “not Jewish.” Additionally, Jewish difference played into the dichotomy between the provinces and Vienna. Whereas the provinces, and those who populated them, defined themselves as rural, traditional, Catholic, and thus truly “Austrian,” they coded “Red Vienna” as their opposite, a “dangerous ‘Jewish’ metropolis—superficial, ugly, crass, corrupt, depraved, socialist, capitalist, materialist, decadent, modern, and immoral, depending on the demands of political or cultural expediency” (p. 22).

On a related note, Silverman also argues that interwar culture did not, as scholars have argued, travel along “a steadily declining course” (p. 5), but remained vibrant even as it did shift decisively after 1918 in the aforementioned manner. Finally, she cites the work of Carl Schorske as well as Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin to argue that for too long scholars have portrayed Austrian Jews as having achieved culturally great things through an “erasure of the social boundaries responsible for maintaining their status as ‘outsiders’” (p. 5). Perhaps Silverman protests a bit too much regarding the entrenched nature of the older argument, as her work is not exactly swimming against a hegemonic Schorskean tide the way it might have been if it had been published a generation ago.

To return to Silverman’s argument, interwar Austria, in fact, “had little room for the ‘Jewish’ when it came to forming new conceptions of the ‘Austrian’” (p. 5), an identity that was, by contrast, far more possible for Jews in the Habsburg period to claim thanks to the monarchy’s “flexibility” and its character as a civic rather than an ethnic nationality (p. 6). Silverman rightly cites Joseph Samuel Bloch on the way in which Habsburg Jews constructed their Austrian identity. Her argument draws in particular on the work of Marsha Rozenblit, who likewise emphasized how November 1918 was a true caesura for Austrian Jewish identity, by applying it to an analysis of culture. Silverman also takes care to point out that the idea of Jewish difference can be seen in cultural products that do not even, on the surface, address Jewishness at all. “Paradoxically, those who went out of their way to avoid explicit manifestations of Jewish difference in their life and work often most sharply reveal the play between the invisible, yet tangible, boundary separating the ‘Jewish’ from the ‘non-Jewish’” (p. 8).

Silverman further explains that when Jews sought to be included in mainstream Austrian culture they often did so by attempting to “dissociate themselves from anything coded as Jewish” (p. 17). Such Jews accepted the notion that “Jewishness” was separate from “Austrianness,” but meant to show that they qualified as Austrian by performing as “not Jewish,” by, for example, hiking in the Tyrol (p. 35). As for the “self-understandings” of interwar Austrian Jews, these were shaped equally by recognizing that there were times when they could safely appear “Jewish” and when they could not. These “imagined boundaries” stood at the core of Austrian culture in these years (p. 27).

One can argue whether she has captured the full breadth of culture in her exploration of Jewishness. Certainly, there were Jews who produced culture and who saw Jewish difference as a positive, who sought an Austrianness that was not only inclusive but also pluralistic, that had room for Jews as Jews, and who rejected the idea that “Austrian” had to mean “not Jewish.” Silverman can choose to focus on some Jews and not others, but she might have acknowledged more substantively the existence of these other kinds of Jews, and this other kind of Austrianness, one that—even if it was coded as Jewish in the interwar period—has proven to have more staying power in the long run than the earlier version that defined itself as “not Jewish.”

Separate from the introduction (really a lengthy essay that lays out Silverman’s argument and offers a thorough analysis of the issues at hand) and the conclusion, the book offers close readings of four different cultural moments. Chapter 1 examines three different murders to demonstrate how, in each case, the “Jewishness” of either the accused or the victim stood at the heart of the trial or trials that followed. In one case, the victim had converted out of Judaism, and in another, the victim had no actual connection to Judaism at all; it was enough that he was linked to “Jewish” thinking (as a member of the largely Jewish Vienna Circle). This made him just “Jewish enough” for his killer to win sympathy from the jury. Silverman concludes that these instances “reinforc[ed] the boundaries of community by denigrating or killing the Jew—or, in the absence of a Jew, someone who came close enough” (p. 65).

Chapter 2 (I really like the title “Stadt ohne Jüdinnen”) examines interwar literature and how it sought to “suppress certain Jewish-coded themes, suggesting a belief that successful participation in mainstream Austrian culture often required expunging traces of the ‘Jewish’ from artistic work and behavior” (p. 69). Silverman focuses here especially on the interplay between gender and Jewish difference, offering a close reading of the novel and film version (they differ significantly) of Die Stadt ohne Juden: Ein Roman von übermorgen by Hugo Bettauer (whose murder by a Nazi Party member three years after the novel’s publication is one of those examined in chapter 2) and their treatment of women as well as how they deal with the category of gender. Despite the differences, both versions “reinforced rather than destabilized the constructed social categories of Jewishness” (p. 88). She also looks at the experiences of Jewish women in the entertainment and publishing industries during this period, and how their choices were sharply circumscribed.

On the one hand, a surface reading of Silverman’s work might lead one to conflate her discussion of Jewish difference as simply another way of discussing Austrian anti-Semitism and the Jewish desire to assimilate. But doing so would underestimate the nuanced, thoughtful analysis the author has offered in sections like this one on Bettauer’s novel, which, she explains, “underscores how Jews’ desires to achieve unattainable, ‘Austrian’ ideals of beauty culture, fashion, and wealth were fed by their perception of being excluded from its definition. This perception, Bettauer’s satire reveals, was based on associating the category of the ‘non-Jewish’ with the ideal ‘Austrian.’ In participating in the acceptance of this coding system, the ‘Aryans’ and ‘Jews’ in the novel are actually not separate, but rather indistinguishable” (p. 79). Silverman has brought new, fresh insight to a topic that has been studied in great detail by a great many scholars. That is an accomplishment worth noting.

Chapter 3 focuses on geography, on how spaces within the city were coded according to the category of Jewish difference. Silverman analyzes the boundaries of what was “Jewish ”and “non-Jewish” as well as others that were “contested sites” (p. 105). She explains how, for example, wealthy Jews sought to gain “cultural capital” and to claim their place as members of the “ideal Austrian nobility by building on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. The problem was that so many Jews did so that the Ring became transformed into a ‘freshly minted “Jewish” space’ in the minds of Gentile Vienna” (p. 110). Silverman also discusses the Leopoldstadt in detail, describing how it was coded as the most Jewish area within Vienna, a parallel to how Vienna was coded as Jewish within Austria. She explores the lives of its residents, including the Orthodox and proletarian as well as the bourgeois Jews who are the focus of much of the rest of her cultural analysis.

The final full chapter looks at the Salzburg Festival and at Yiddish theater in Vienna, highlighting the fact that the former, which was “explicitly Catholic, performed in the provinces, and thus stripped of any traces of ‘Jewish’ coding,” and the latter, whose performances were staged in the capital and were “emphatically and ‘authentically’ Jewish” both relied heavily on Jews who “tapped into a desire for messianic redemption that appealed to both Jewish and non-Jewish Austrians looking for order in a chaotic, postwar world” (pp. 143-144). Relying on Michael Steinberg’s work as well as numerous other sources, Silverman details the contributions of Max Reinhardt in both of these theatrical worlds, and argues that his work “illuminates the function of Jewishness” in each one’s success, as well as the fact that Jewishness was “crucial to the constructions of Austrian national culture in post-war theater” (pp. 143-144).[2]

The Salzburg Festival was intended to provide a cultural foundation for Austria’s national consciousness; therefore it had to be constructed on a “decidedly and definitively non-Jewish stage in the provinces” (p. 147). Again, she argues, we have another example of Austrianness being defined, here by the festivals founded by Max Reinhardt and Hugo von Hofmannsthal (in Silverman’s terms, both men were coded as Jewish), as explicitly “not Jewish.” The two men’s work “reveals an intense engagement with the terms of Jewish difference” (p. 157). They sought, through the Festival, to “distance themselves from the [Jewish] aspect of their identities … to create a measure of inclusivity in this new Austrian cultural identity” (p. 160).

The book would have benefited from some more careful editing, as would most books, to be fair. Beyond minor typographical errors (see pp. 71 and 174, for example), repetition is a problem. The contents of Bettauer’s Er und Sie are discussed in chapter 2, a discussion unnecessarily repeated almost point by point in chapter 3, barely twenty pages later. A few lines on theater audience reactions from pages 143 and 144 appear again almost verbatim on page 146. A sentence on the Catholic Church in the Habsburg monarchy repeats just about word for word on pages 12 and 154.

The discussion of J. S. Bloch could have been tighter as well, as Silverman talks about Bloch’s views on how Jews would adjust to the new, post-1918 republic, but offers two published remarks in support: one from the early 1880s and another from mid-1917 (Bloch never acknowledged that the monarchy might fall and that “German-Austria” would emerge independent from multiethnic, Habsburg Austria until the moment it occurred). Thus, it is not clear what “newly configured country” (p. 6) she has Bloch addressing. The author has something important to say in this paragraph on Bloch, but it needed to be said more clearly. Overall, these relatively minor flaws in presentation do not significantly detract from the real strengths of this book, one of which is its (mostly) precise use of language.

In this book, the author’s goal is to develop a “more nuanced—and ultimately more thorough—exploration of Jewishness in the lives and works of Austrians and others. It allows us to move beyond the common phenomenon of labeling Jews who express anti-Semitic sentiments as self-hating, and focus instead on how they used the terms of Jewishness to shape and inform their lives and works … to move beyond searching for explicit expressions of Jewishness in order to determine whether and how a person’s life or work engaged the terms of Jewish difference” (p. 174). Silverman clearly achieves that goal. Overall, she has offered a stimulating and original take on a topic that, when defined broadly, has been widely covered by scholars (she is more than familiar with the secondary literature in the various fields she addresses). Her selection of diffuse cultural products that, on the surface, differ widely from one another, and her gender studies-influenced approach to her readings of them, make this book a highly valuable contribution to scholarship.

This book is essential reading for scholars and graduate students in a number of fields, including Jewish studies, Austrian culture and history, gender studies, interwar Europe, and nationalism, as well as those in the field of twentieth-century European culture more broadly. This is certainly a scholarly monograph, so I would not recommend it for most undergraduates, although an advanced level seminar might well make good use of it. Overall, Lisa Silverman has crafted a quite successful first book, one that suggests a highly productive academic career lies ahead.


[1]. Lisa Silverman and Deborah Holmes, eds., Interwar Vienna: Culture between Tradition and Modernity (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2009).

[2]. Michael Steinberg, The Meaning of the Salzburg Festival: Austria as Theater and Ideology, 1890-1938 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).




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