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The Vienna of Ludwig von Mises

Mises Daily: Friday, November 11, 2011 by and

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Vienna

Ludwig von Mises, whose great-grandfather, Mayer Rachmiel Mises, had been raised into the hereditary peerage by Emperor Franz Joseph, was born into a Jewish family who were among the leading representatives of German-Jewish culture in Lviv. Ludwig (born 1881) attended primary school for a time in his native city. Between 1889 and 1892 the family moved from Galicia to Vienna when his father, an educated engineer, took a leading position with the Ministry of Railways. According to Lehman's General housing indicators, the family first lived at Elisabethgasse 3 (in today's fourth district, close to Karlskirche or St. Charles Church); from 1893 at Friedrich Strasse 4 (not far from Elisabethgasse 3) and from 1912 on, in the city center, Vienna's first district, at Wollzeile 24 (the apartment that was later looted by the Nazis, depriving Ludwig of his entire library). The grave of his parents, Arthur and Adele, which stands out clearly due to its unusual beauty and prominent location, lies at Vienna's Zentralfriedhof or Central Cemetery (1st gate, ancient Jewish section, group 5b, row 15, grave 1c). The gravestone inscription indicates that Arthur von Mises was a representative of the Jewish community; that is, a democratically elected member of the Jewish Consistory of Churches.

The obituary of Arthur von Mises, who died unexpectedly in Halberstadt in 1903, in his 50th year, after a gall-bladder operation, is found in Dr. Bloch's Austrian Weekly (Dr. Bloch's Österreichischen Wochenschrift: Centralorgan für die gesammten Interessen des Judenthums [Central Body for the Entire Interests of Judaism]; Volume XX, No. 41). The following lines offer a touching insight into the nature of the family who, with its high moral standing, was a model for many:

Mr. von Mises took part wholeheartedly in humanitarian works; he gave of himself with kindness. Whereas others were more blessed with means than he, he was able to lend his deepest sympathy to those in need. He was one of the hardest-working members of the Cultusvorstandes [A board, consisting of elected officers who represent and make recommendations to a Jewish community]: a model of loyalty and devotion. In particular, he dedicated watchful care to the administration of the retirement home and the hospice, just as he earned respect and love of his board colleagues through the directing of important reviews in the area of poverty relief.

Rabbi Taglicht dedicated these words to the deceased in the house of mourning in which Arthur von Mises was laid out:

Conversations of a higher order almost always animated (your home): whether the essentials of Judaism or philanthropy or the work of helping others. Through your noble nature and workings, and that of your wife, your home seemed to us a sacred place, which we quitted with an elevated sensibility.… You have carefully guarded and developed the great traditions of your outstanding family and its pure nobility of heart. (emphasis in the original)

Mayer Rachmiel Mises, Ludwig's great-grandfather, had already founded, along with his wife, several orphanages and schools in Brody and Lviv — and a library as well — all of which most certainly contributed to his elevation to the peerage.

Having spent his high-school and university years in Vienna, Ludwig von Mises grew into this new world — which had only little in common with the Jewish traditions of Galicia — quite naturally. But what had already begun to characterize Mises was, as Friedrich August von Hayek wrote in his preface to Mises's Memoirs, that he nevertheless did not fit into the Vienna of his time. The very fact that he was a Jew and not a socialist, said Hayek, seemed strange to many at the time. Mises was anything but fashionable; on the contrary: he was principled, straightforward, uncompromising, and almost stubborn in his views.

His nonconformity thwarted his having a conventional career in the system. But this offered him the advantage of being able to create a free space, his own sphere of activity in which he could let his scientific and pedagogical talents run wild. In addition to his work at the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, he was, as a lecturer, able to train a number of students and familiarize them with the teachings of the Austrian School. His writings revealed him to be one of the sharpest analysts of his time — who stood up to the up-and-coming, corrupting ideologies of communism and socialism like no other. In the winter of 1918–1919 he managed to convince the leading Austrian Marxist, Otto Bauer, to keep his distance from a Bolshevik experiment in Austria. Mises was the "economist of the land," as he later described himself in his memoirs. And it is to Mises's credit that the Austrian School, already forgotten in Vienna, gained new recognition in the United States.

The liberal constitution of 1867 afforded members of minority groups hitherto unimagined possibilities for economic and social advancement. Around the turn of the century, Jews in the inner city amounted to more than 20 percent of the population; in all of Vienna, their proportion was 12 percent. More than 50 percent of all lawyers, doctors, and journalists in Vienna were of Jewish descent, as were a quarter to half of all university professors, writers, and artists. The leading liberal and socialist newspapers were owned by Jews or published by Jews. But the more these Jews adapted to the German culture in their fields of expertise as they rose through the ranks, the more they were suspected of being carriers of a decadent modernity, troublemakers in general, and enemies of Christianity.

Mises blamed envy and resentment for the burgeoning anti-Semitism. He expressed this clearly in Omnipotent Government:

Many decades of intensive anti-Semitic propaganda did not succeed in preventing German "Aryans" from buying in shops owned by Jews, from consulting Jewish doctors and lawyers, and from reading books by Jewish authors. They did not patronize the Jews unawares — "Aryan" competitors were careful to tell them again and again that these people were Jews. Whoever wanted to get rid of his Jewish competitors could not rely on an alleged hatred of Jews; he was under the necessity of asking for legal discrimination against them. Such discrimination is not the result of nationalism or of racism. It is basically — like nationalism — a result of interventionism and the policy of favoring the less efficient producer to the disadvantage of the consumer. (p. 184)

Indeed, as Viennese composer Johann Strauss II is reputed to have said, citizens of Vienna had two faces. And according to poet Franz Grillparzer, Vienna was beautiful — but also dangerous. A sword of Damocles seemed to hang over the city: "[Vienna was like] a monster, warped and distorted, geared toward glamour but hopelessly verhatscht [tired or worn out]," wrote Karl Kraus in The Torch (No. 50, 1907, p. 5). The dramatic irony and latent danger that distinguish Vienna to this day are also found in a song by Helmut Qualtinger and André Heller, in which Vienna is compared to a Taschenfeitel, a small but sharp folding knife. With the takeover of Vienna by the Nazis, Jews began to suffer the consequences of the Taschenfeitel in a real way.

After experiencing humiliation and expropriation, whoever could not leave the country in a timely way was carried off and eventually killed. Along with his wife, Margit, Mises was able to fight his way through from Geneva to New York just in time.

He would never go back to Vienna. In 1947 he wrote to his friend and colleague Carl Brockhausen: "I do not long to face the mob that applauded the slaughter of distinguished men."

After the Second World War, there was hardly any serious interest in encouraging Mises and other representatives of the Austrian School to return to Vienna. Displaced or migrated "Austrians" were largely buried in scientific enterprise, and were rarely mentioned in lectures concerning political and economic ideas. But this situation seems to have improved a little. There are now a number of people in this city who have begun to recognize and appreciate Ludwig von Mises as one of freedom's leading thinkers — even if perhaps they are not many more in number than they were during Mises's own lifetime.