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Belle Necropolis

Ghosts of Imperial Vienna


Katherine Arens

Since coming to public notice through major museum catalogues and the work of Carl Schorske around 1980, fin de siècle Vienna has been cast as the final bloom of a dying culture. Yet this assessment is itself a historical construct, deriving from the politics of the twentieth century. This volume argues that «Habsburg nostalgia» is anything but backward looking: instead, images from this glittering Habsburg past become evidence of a culture’s sophisticated sense of how and why history is made, in both official and popular spheres. Including the first translation of an original account of Crown Prince Rudolf’s suicide at Mayerling in 1889, Belle Necropolis argues for Austria’s continued reuse of its own history to point the way toward the future rather than simply memorializing a past that only exists as living memories of shared stories, not as a truth in itself. Case studies included here range from imperial stereotypes before 1900 through their adaptations in the film 1. April 2000 and today’s musicals, and from the politics of representing Austria since Rebecca West up through Schorske’s master narrative of the Ringstrasse. Through these studies, Habsburg culture emerges as a culture of commemoration that uses its own past to overcome the limits of a small country seeking a role on the contemporary world stage.
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Necropolis: Introduction to the Ghosts of Imperial Vienna


Introduction to the Ghosts of Imperial Austria

Austria, successor state to a Holy Roman, then Austrian, then Austro-Hungarian Empire that never had an official name, is remembered today principally for its marketing. The popular mind settled on fin de siècle Vienna as the image of an imperial power that was disassembled at the end of the First World War. But it has always had an allure, a myth surrounding it.

At least since the 1970s, complaints have been raised against Vienna as the heart of Austria’s museale Kultur—a fossil, museum (even mausoleum) city, rather than an environment fostering innovation. This image was reinforced by the plethora of “Vienna 1900” museum exhibits of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and by Schorske’s discussion of theRingstrasse in Fin de siècle Vienna (1981). To this day, these charges have stuck, no matter that, in the 1970s, Austria’s young intellectuals and artists actually were actively working against these stereotypes, taking aim at what they considered the excess state funding directed at the Vienna Opera and the Salzburg Festival by an increasingly conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) administration. Nonetheless, Vienna persists in the musty, funereal image established in the public mind by the Third Man ’s tour through its sewers and perpetuated on webpages calling it die Nekropole, the necropolis.1

In what follows, I will offer some glances into dustier corners of that myth—into the great lost torso of an imperial culture that incubated so...

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