Vienna’s Most Controversial Statue Is of a Still-Beloved Mayor Who Wedded Anti-Semitism to Democratic Politics

October 20, 2021 | Liam Hoare
About the author: Liam Hoare is a freelance writer whose work on politics and literature has featured in The Atlantic, The Forward, and The Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

In the past two years, the United State has seen a series of controversies over the fate of statues of historical figures whose real or imagined sins have rendered them unfashionable. Just this week, New York City’s municipal government decided to remove a sculpture of Thomas Jefferson from city hall. The people of Vienna, influenced by the American example, have been dealing with a more complex case: the prominent likeness of Karl Lueger, who was the city’s mayor from 1897 to 1910. An immensely popular figure who did much to modernize the city, Lueger and his Christian Social Party also made anti-Semitism a key part of their political platform, and Viennese enthusiasm for Lueger did much to convince Theodor Herzl that Jews had no future in Europe. Liam Hoare explains:

The monument is one of the largest in Vienna. At its summit stands Lueger, thirteen feet tall, cast in bronze, staring out eastward across the Ringstrasse, [the grand boulevard that surrounds the city’s historic central district], as if addressing an expectant crowd. His feet are placed upon an enormous octagonal stone pedestal which is layered like a wedding cake. Its sides are engraved with reliefs depicting his various achievements: the municipalization of the gas and electricity supplies, the preservation of the forests surrounding Vienna, entitlements for widows and orphans, and charitable housing for the destitute. Its scale, position, and propagandistic quality all stand to burnish the cult of Lueger.

Even if Lueger himself was not [personally] an anti-Semite—and the historian Florian Wenninger tells me he suspects he was not—it was certainly the case that through anti-Semitic rabble-rousing, anti-Jewish agitation, and a party platform steeped in nationalism and xenophobia, as well as Germanic and Catholic supremacism, Lueger rode a wave of hatred and hostility among the Viennese lower-middle class to reach the highest office in city hall.

It was Lueger who, for instance, campaigned against the “Judaization” of the University of Vienna, which Lueger decreed to be a matter of “Christian” honor, and for a numerus clausus [restrictive quota] to protect “German-Austrians” against the influx of what he termed Hungarians and Galicians, [by which he meant Jews]. Rhetorically, Lueger often couched his anti-Semitism as a defense of Christianity, but his underlying ideology was evidently grounded in ideas of ethnicity or nationhood.

Another famous Viennese, Adolf Hitler, was one of Lueger’s most devoted admirers.

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