To say that Angus Robertson knows Vienna well would be an understatement. Bilingual thanks to his German mother and Scottish father, he moved to Vienna in 1991 as a journalist for the Austrian public broadcaster, ORF, and returned as Austrian correspondent for the BBC, before spending two decades as a British MP for the Scottish National Party, chairing the Austrian All-Party Group in the British Parliament.
So he comes exceptionally well prepared for his new book, Vienna: The International Capital, an in-depth look at the city’s critical and changing role at the forefront of Western politics over the last two millennia.
Robertson takes the reader from its beginnings as a Roman settlement, Vindobona and nearby Carnuntum as the aging Marcus Aurelius worked on his Meditations, to the present day as a diplomatic hub, marveling at the capital’s ability to remain central in world-shaping events.
While Vienna’s proud cultural legacy is well-known, Robertson’s history focuses instead on the works and words of leaders, diplomats and ambassadors and the military strategies of their eras. Robertson’s lens is a wide one, often taking in the changing politics across Europe, and Austria’s influence in the world – all part of the story of how the city came to be what it is.
In this history, the cultural and political intersect, each a backdrop for the other, well illustrated in his detailing of the 20 years of war with Napoleon, whose capture of Vienna in 1805 saw him interrupt the opening performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio. Or later, with Admiral Nelson’s return through Vienna from his victory against Napoleon in the Battle of the Nile, in time to attend a performance of the Te Deum of Haydn’s Mass for Troubled Times. But in Robertson’s telling, it is the political that takes center stage.
Diplomacy Between Dances
There is much on the diplomatic relations between nations and empires that held the intricate balances of power across Europe and beyond, and Vienna’s key position within that, giving it center stage for the Congress in 1815. A fascinating microcosm of diplomatic and haute bourgeois social life, Robertson deems the congress central to the development of Vienna as we know it today. “At the heart of the book is the idea that Vienna is home to modern diplomacy,” he said in a recent interview, “— its rules first codified and agreed at the Congress of Vienna.”
Robertson has drawn from a vast array of sources, ranging from Count August de La Garde-Chambonas to Austrian writer and painter Ludovika Gräfin Thürheim, detailing everything from the delegates’ accommodations to the banquet menu. Painting the picture of what he calls ‘The Glorious Moment,’ Robertson notes that “the perception of diplomacy to this day invokes dances, ballrooms and high society celebrations, images which all stem from the Vienna Congress.”
The Metternich System
With so many nations in close quarters, espionage was rife, and it’s within this environment that Klemens von Metternich emerges. One of the key diplomatic figures in the book, Metternich “plays an oversized role in both domestic Austrian and international European affairs,” from the Congress to the revolutions of 1848. Rising from foreign minister to chancellor, Metternich administered an era of extreme surveillance, wrote contemporary Irish diarist Martha Wilmot. “I suppose we never cough, sneeze, nor turn a child into the nursery to blow its nose without the events being reported to the government!”
With a firm lid on opposition at home, Robertson shows Metternich’s expertise in foreign affairs, securing Vienna’s status as an international capital throughout the 19th Century. In regular gatherings that became known as ‘The Metternich System,’ the prince “aimed at maintaining the balance of power” and resolving disputes between European nations, resulting in a century of stability that continued until shortly before the First World War.
Anti-Semitism is a recurring theme: Robertson cites mid-17th Century accounts by William Crowne and Johann Sebastian Müller of Jewish ghettos outside the city walls on the far side of the Danube (now the Danube Canal), the site where only a decade later, Leopold I would expel the Jews from Vienna, renaming the area Leopoldstadt.
Later, during the co-regency in her waning years of Empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II, Robertson notes the conflict between Joseph’s “religious toleration,” and the traditional Habsburg role as defender of Catholicism, exacerbated by the Empress’s marked “intolerance towards Protestants and Jews in particular.”
Anti-Semitism continues in the chapter on fin de siècle Vienna, in particular its spread “by two of the leading politicians of the age: Georg Schönerer and Karl Lueger.” He cites Frederic Morton’s late 19th Century history A Nervous Splendor, which ends ominously with the birth of Adolf Hitler in Upper Austria – set amongst the pivotal political decisions in Eastern European territories and the growing power of Prussia.
Rebuilding With Bridges
After regaining full sovereignty in 1955, Austria set about rebuilding, gradually emerging as the international capital Robertson views it as today. As part of the negotiating team for the State Treaty, later chancellor Bruno Kreisky is credited as one of its central architects, “pursuing an ambitious foreign policy agenda for Austria as a bridge-builder between East and West, and Vienna as the preeminent location for international organizations. His impact is still felt today.”
It’s a feature of the book that shows Austria and Vienna flourishing best through peaceful means, arguing the Habsburg Empire grew largely thanks to marriages rather than battles: “Let others wage war, but thou, O happy Austria, marry; for those kingdoms which Mars gives to others, Venus gives to thee.” Later, Robertson quotes English traveler John Morritt’s observations at the time of the Congress, illustrating Vienna’s enduring tendency to diversity, saying: “There is no town where languages are so much understood.”
Clearly a great admirer of Vienna, Robertson has recently cited Austria in his campaigns for an independent Scotland, saying that the nation should follow its lead, and also become “a bridge-builder for Europe,” echoing the words of the now-disgraced former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose quote heads up the book’s final chapter, ‘Diplomatic Capital.’
Robertson’s enthusiasm for his subject carries across in the breadth of accounts and the fine detail throughout. An impressive work of research, the book is a comprehensive history that in its best moments, manages to find fresh nuance in an already storied city.
Angus Robertson, Vienna: The International Capital, Birlinn General, October 2021, pp 464, €30.83