Monday, June 30, 2008

Notes from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams
15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
June 30, 2008

A Return to Vienna

“If you start to take Vienna – take Vienna.”
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

“Love: a temporary insanity, curable by marriage.”
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
The Devil’s Dictionary

Forty-three years and sixty-eight days after celebrating our first wedding anniversary at restaurant Griechenbeisl in Vienna, Caroline and I returned on June 18th. We were accompanied by a good friend and his parents, both of whom were Vienna born. I brought visa photos that had been taken forty-three years earlier. My friend indicated that the restaurant, as Vienna’s oldest, had not changed; Caroline, he pointed out, looks identical today to her photo of forty-three years earlier, but that I was unrecognizable from my photo. I could not deny the truth of his statement. However, whatever alteration the body may have undergone, in mind and spirit I feel the same. While cognizant of the past, and casting an eye toward the future, I live in the present.

Vienna seems to be of like mind. It has reverence for its past, as the classical music capital of the world - a city where Mozart, Beethoven, Joann Strauss (both senior and junior), Joseph Haydn and Joannes Brahms lived, wrote and practiced their music. It was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918), an aggregation that emerged from the Austrian Empire (1804-1867), which, in turn, had been founded by Emperor Francis I of the Holy Roman Empire. A hundred years ago it sat at the center of an empire consisting of sixty million people – an empire that had largely been achieved through marriage, not war. The Hapsburg women were supposedly so prolific that, as we were told by a guide, they were referred to as baby machines. Daughters married heirs to thrones in places such as Spain, Naples, Romania and Czechoslovakia; many of these rulers then chose to cast their lot with the Hapsburgs.

World War I - in many respects the most tragic of all European wars - was ignited by the assassination on June 28, 1914 of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph and heir to the Hapsburg throne. Four and a half years and twenty million deaths later Europe was devastated. Austria had lost an emperor and an empire. Vienna, which had been capital to sixty million citizens, was now capital to about six million Austrians.

The years between the wars (the First Republic) were dominated initially by Karl Renner and the Social Democrats, then increasingly by right wing parties. Hopes for peace and democracy evaporated as economic depression enveloped the globe. By 1934 Austrian Fascists essentially imposed a dictatorship; on March 12, 1938 the Germans annexed Austria in a bloodless Anschluss. Fascism and Nazism emerged in Europe to fill a leaderless vacuum, taking advantage of, and adding to, rising nationalism and economic fear that had become ubiquitous throughout much of the world. My friends’ parents were fortunate to emigrate (though ‘fortunate’ seems a gentle euphemism, as they had to leave behind everything they could not carry.) Hitler’s armies occupied this proud city, which produced, besides the musicians named above, the Spanish Riding School, with their magnificent Lipizzaner stallions, Sigmund Freud, St. Stephen’s cathedral and the Sacher Torte – a city which governed an empire whose antecedents preceded the unification of Germany in 1871 by a thousand years. By war’s end many of the city’s structures were in rubble and its Jewish population of two hundred thousand had shrunk to five thousand.

During the long years of the Cold War, Vienna served as a salient in the line demarking the East from the West. Similar to Berlin, Vienna was divided though less imperiled. It served as home to transients making their way from the suffocation of Communism to opportunities in the West, a situation depicted in the 1949 British film noir, “The Third Man” starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. Ten years after the War, the Soviets suddenly and without explanation departed and Austria’s renaissance began. The Austrian State Treaty, relieving Austria of foreign occupation, was signed on May 15, 1955 at Belvedere Palace. Dr. Leopold Figl, Foreign Minister (and former Chancellor) stepped to the balcony and proclaimed to the crowd below, “Osterreich ist frei!” (Austria is free!)

Much of Europe’s economic growth is dependent upon former Eastern Europe, with its natural resources and an ambitious population eager to raise its standard of living. Vienna’s geographic position proved to be of strategic importance as the City bridged the gap between old Europe and new. Today that location puts it near the center of the European Union. The EU comprises twenty-seven member states and five hundred million people and as the Union gradually expands south and east, Vienna’s strategic center will become even more obvious.

The City is lively, catering to tourists and business alike. It is a dynamic and optimistic place whose people enjoy life amidst its coffee shops and opera houses. And, of course, over the past couple of weeks it has been serving as host for Euro 2008, the Continent’s quadrennial soccer championship.

The Soviets had been gone for ten years by the time Caroline and I arrived in April 1965. However, a dinginess within the City betrayed the earlier Soviet occupation. Its beauty lay beneath a grimy surface. Today that is all gone. A significant portion of the inner ring has been set aside for pedestrians. High-end western retailers abide within historic buildings and alongside local stores of ancient lineage. In a city noted for its coffee houses, Starbucks has found a place. Commercialization has been done tastefully and its four opera houses continue to produce some of the world’s great music. The Lipizzaner stallions in the Spanish Riding School live as magnificently as ever.

Above all, Vienna is a city for lovers, so provided a perfect venue for Caroline and myself rejoicing in forty-four years of marriage. And, oh! There were times when even Ambrose Bierce got it wrong.

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