1421 vs. 1942


Alas, my blogging is a bit curtailed this trip so far, as I don’t have in-room internet access.  Also, with Vienna so full of activity, we’ve been on the move all day.   Last night (Wednesday) we climbed St. Stephens, went to the Jewish Platz museum, spent time at Schloss Schoennbrunn, had some amazing cakes (Wiener Maedltorte is yummy!), and went to a really interesting E-Guitar concert from Seth Josel at the Essl Museum just north of town.  Dinner after that, and it was midnight before getting back to the hostel.

Vienna from Stephansdom

Vienna from a top St. Stephan's Cathedral

The visit the Judenplatz Museum was interesting.  In 1421, as the Viennese were in the midst of building up St. Stephan’s, a holocaust took place.  The entire Jewish community of the city was killed, the synagogue destroyed, and no trace of this event remained until recently.  While “holocaust” may not be an apt term — the numbers were in the hundreds or perhaps a couple thousand, not millions — the event was as violent, destructive and evil as that perpetrated by the Austrian Adolf Hitler and his German supporters five hundred years later.

Jewish synagogue ruins

Excavation on the site of the old Synagogue, now under Vienna

Vienna is also the city where Hitler learned to hate Jews.  As an aspiring artist, his work was mediocre, and he was constantly turned down in his quest to enter the art academy.   Jewish artists were gaining fame with works he thought weird and  out of step with tradition.  As the empire was decaying, the anti-semetic and pan-German rhetoric appealed to him.   Yet as the 1421 example shows, this was only a continuation, or at least a repeat of Austrian history.

To be fair, in European history the Germans and the Austrians have a better record than other countries in their treatment of Jews.  Prussia granted Jews full rights in the 18th century, including access to professions that had been limited.   Joseph II liberalized Austrian laws at the end of the 18th Century.  Jews were mistreated throughout Europe.   Still, the symbolism of 1421 vs. 1942-45, and the fact a holocaust shrine is built on the site of the synagogue destroyed in 1421 speaks volumes of this shameful aspect of European history.

Many in the West speak ill of Israel, or of Muslim states.   The Israelis are oppressing  the Palestinians, or the Muslims are dangerous, strange and all potential terrorists.  Yet who are we in the West to cast stones?  Sure, now Christianity does not support genocide or mass killing, and now our enlightenment values embrace human rights.   But those are recent developments.   We seem to pretend that past ills are irrelevant, or that it was natural for us to move from there to here.   Muslims are violent, people say, whitewashing the intense and centuries long violence from the West.

The bottom line seems to be fear of difference.  That’s what caused such animosity to the Jews in the 15th century, and why Americans now see Muslims as dangerous and strange.  Such fear can easily turn to aggression and a rationalization of violence and injustice.  I’m sure the 15th century Viennese who supported the action against the Jews were not all blood thirsty immoral cretins.   Nor were the Germans of the Third Reich, the conquistadors of Latin America, the US cavalry spreading West or the slave holders of the deep south.  Throughout human history greed and/or fear of difference has lead to dehumanization of others and acts of evil.   That’s true in all civilizations, East, West, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Rwandan, etc.  It can extend to ideology as well, as the acts of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others demonstrate.

Yet, Austria also represents an effort to embrace difference, at one point holding a multi-ethnic empire, and now being a strong supporter of the UN and international efforts to promote peace.  I get the sense, reflecting on this history, that part of the human condition is somehow learning to accept that others can be different in custom, thought and history.  It seems an easy lesson to learn, but reflects an effort to expand culture beyond the shared ideas that keep a small group united, and to embrace pluralism and diversity.   That is a remarkably hard lesson to learn, though hopefully we’ve come a ways since 1421!

  1. #1 by Diane on May 20, 2010 - 13:47

    Great post, Scott, and I am glad you are having a terrific trip.
    You say “Such fear can easily turn to aggression and a rationalization of violence and injustice.” We shouldn’t ever think ourselves above such issues, because our memories are just short term and we conveniently forget our own brutal past. Today, for example, what is happening in Arizona is being rationalized by many, and real claims of racial profiling and discrimination are being pushed aside.

    Xenophobia is at the root of so many atrocities, and it is so absurd. What is wanted by this, a world where all are assimilated into some kind of homogeneous population?

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