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The Demagogue of Vienna

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07/23/2013Andrei Znamenski

[Part 2 of “In the Shadow of Dr. Lueger,” Independent Review, 2013. Click here for Part 1.]

Having discovered the enormous power of collective will, Dr. Lueger successfully blended into his propaganda work “three bigs”: nationalism, religion, and socialism. From early on, he billed himself as an advocate of the “little people.” Raised by a widowed mother, Lueger managed to get a law degree and quickly made a name for himself as a protector of the common folk against “big shots.” As mayor, he enjoyed the tremendous support of Vienna’s workers, shopkeepers, and underclass elements.1 These predominantly German-speaking Catholics felt that they were cheated by the rich and displaced by the influx of Slavic, Hungarian, and especially Jewish migrants to the city. The latter usually sided with another group of collectivists — Social Democrats, who challenged Lueger’s Christian socialism with their class-based Marxist socialism. The contest between these two groups of collectivists for the minds of the masses was epitomized in a personal tug of war between Dr. Lueger and Victor Adler, a Jewish Marxist and leader of the Austrian Social Democrats.2

Culturally and ethnically, many in the large Jewish community of Vienna did not fit into Lueger’s movement, which was heavily loaded with “soil-based” Catholicism and Germanic tradition. Thus, they instinctively gravitated toward the cosmopolitan message of Marxism (the famous Marxian motto being “workers have no fatherland”), which perfectly resonated with the people residing in diasporas. In fact, in the Austro–Hungarian politico-economic landscape, the terms Jews and socialism almost became synonyms. Friedrich von Hayek remembered how in early-twentieth-century Vienna his acquaintances sincerely wondered why Mises, being of Jewish origin, was somehow not a socialist.3

In all fairness, Dr. Lueger was not a consistent anti-Semite — the only thing that upset Hitler about his favorite mayor. Worried about the growing Jewish domination in Vienna’s economic and political life and convinced that Vienna should preserve its foundational core, German tradition, the mayor was nevertheless ambivalent about gambling exclusively on anti-Jewish sentiments. In fact, not only did he have several Jewish friends, but he also cynically admitted that anti-Semitism was only a slogan used to bait the masses and that he personally respected and appreciated many Jews. Once he even exclaimed, “I determine who’s a Jew.4

In a truly socialist manner, he explained to his electorate that the root of the “problem” was not the Jewish people themselves, but rather their “liberal way of life” (read free enterprise) — the system that, in his view, the Jews were able to ride better than anybody else. “Eliminate the poison” of economic freedom, the mayor stressed, and the “Jewish problem” would be gone on its own. He also added that his sentiments against the Jews were directed not against their poor segments, but against their rich brethren.5This sounded almost like a literal rendition of the famous Karl Marx article “On the Jewish Question,”6 in which the young founder of communism, who grappled with his own Jewishness, similarly argued that it was “evil” capitalism that sustained and nourished such “bad” habits of his tribe as commerce and usury.

Five consecutive times Dr. Lueger was democratically elected to his position as mayor. Powerful Emperor Franz Joseph did not like this popular politician who recklessly played with the fire of populism, thus threatening Franz Joseph’s multi-ethnic empire. Yet even he could not do anything to remove the mayor. Twice the emperor tried to depose Lueger, and both times he lost, probably without even realizing that he was fighting a losing battle — a phenomenon of the coming modern age when politicians were stopping to talk to people and learning to tune their ears to the sentiments of the masses and to speak the language of the street. The emperor was surely not aware that in this new era the movers and shakers of history were not kings and queens, but the collective will of the masses embodied in the charismatic figure of a strong leader who was viewed as one of the people.7

When Dr. Lueger was elected mayor for the first time, he promised the working masses there would be a “new deal,” and he lived up to his promise by initiating a wide range of public reforms and welfare measures. With an iron fist, Lueger dispatched his watchdogs to all corners of Vienna to check up on and ensure that Viennese merchants and businessmen had set “right prices” for their merchandise and services. He had electric power stations built, which brought light to the dark city. In addition to a new large hospital, he had 100 new schools erected, and he ordered that in-kind relief, including free lunches, be provided to the poor children of Vienna. The mayor’s crowning achievement was creating more than 100,000 temporary and permanent public jobs that would employ people at the city’s expense. A large army of bureaucrats emerged to administer this burgeoning “municipality socialism”; under Lueger, the number of such bureaucrats increased fivefold.

Under his guidance, the city’s entire infrastructure was eventually removed from private hands and transferred to the municipality: gasworks, power stations, street cars, waterworks, the slaughterhouse, and even the brewery. As part of this socialization scheme, Lueger set up special municipal banks to combat private “Jewish” banks. Decades later, commending his beloved Vienna’s mayor for building this “municipal socialism,” Hitler wrote, “Everything we have today in terms of municipal autonomy goes back to [Lueger]. He turned those businesses that were private elsewhere into municipal enterprises, which is why he could make the city of Vienna more beautiful and larger without raising taxes even by one cent.”8

To finance all these ambitious public ventures, instead of raising taxes, the mayor pioneered the use of a device that is so painfully familiar to current politicians: long-term domestic and foreign debt. By the time Lueger was gone, inflation “took care” of some of this debt. The rest of it had to be paid back to foreign banks in gold, which devastated the weak economy of the young Austrian republic that inherited this “glorious legacy” after 1918.9 At the turn of the twentieth century, however, these troubles were an unseen future, and the protector of the “little people” was shining.

When Lueger did not get his way or he simply needed to extract more money from private businesses for his projects, he turned himself into a community organizer, mobilizing masses for direct action: rallies, demonstrations, and boycotts against the rich, the rich Jews, the Slavic migrants, depending on the situation. He frequently led these public protests personally. Word about the brave mayor, who sided with the common man of Vienna, spread all over, and soon the entire lower half of Austria followed his gospel of social justice. Understanding the deadly power of democratic voting that he was able to harness, Lueger became one of the major driving forces behind the introduction of universal suffrage in the Austro–Hungarian Empire in 1905.

  • 1. Hamann, Brigitte. 2011. “Hitler’s Vienna: A Portrait of the Tyrant as a Young Man.” London: Tauris, p. 280.
  • 2. Wistrich, Robert S. 1983. “Karl Lueger and the Ambiguities of Viennese Antisemitism.” Jewish Social Studies 45, nos. 3–4: p. 260.
  • 3. Schulak, Eugene-Maria. 2011. The Vienna of Ludwig von Mises. Mises Daily, November 11.
  • 4. Hamann, p. 290.
  • 5. Frank, Walter Smoter. 2004. “Adolf Hitler: The Making of a Fuhrer.” Available at http://smoter .com/lueger.htm.
  • 6. Marx, Karl. 1844. “On the Jewish Question.” Available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/.
  • 7. Hamann, p. 284.
  • 8. Quoted in Hamann, p. 279.
  • 9. Hamann, p. 278.

Contact Andrei Znamenski

Andrei Znamenski, Professor of History, teaches at the University of Memphis.