Dear fellow travellers
Recent news from America demonstrate that truth is often stranger than fiction. But fiction can be extremely strange, and often rather prophetic. In 1922, Austrian writer Hugo Bettauer wrote a satirical book in which he imagined a Vienna without Jews. Die Stadt ohne Juden (City without Jews) was an imaginative flight of fancy inspired by the utterly improbable notion that a city might expel its entire Jewish population. The book was quite a publishing success, precisely because of the seemingly absurd premise upon which the story was based.
In Die Stadt ohne Juden, fictitious Austrian Chancellor Karl Schwertfeger signs an executive order decreeing that all Jews must leave Austria by the end of the year. As the last of the trains carry the hapless Jews over the country's borders, the Aryans in judenrein Vienna celebrate. Food prices drop and it's now very much easier to find a desirable apartment. The Nazi party no longer has anyone to rail against and becomes an irrelevance.
But slowly the Viennese begin to appreciate a downside to the new order. The city relied considerably on Jewish doctors and lawyers, so slowly the queues in the hospitals and law courts get longer. The city's opera house depended largely on Jewish patronage; audiences dwindle and before long there is no more opera. A similar fate befalls theatres and libraries. Publishers and bookshops lay off staff.
In time, it dawns on the Viennese that life is becoming incredibly dull. Their city has lost its colour and cultural diversity. Businesses are moving away. But, above all, there is the crushing boredom of a homogeneous society which has lost the very group upon which the blame for all ills might be pinned. Eventually, the Jews are invited back into Austria again.
Although Hugo Bettauer's plot seemed fanciful in the extreme, it provoked wide debate in Austria. It revealed the raw anti-Semitism which lay just below the surface of the First Austrian Republic. A film was made out of the book, and a German writer, Artur Landsberger, wrote a similarly dystopian novel in which the entire Jewish population of Berlin is expelled, but then also welcomed back again after the Berlin population realise that a city without Jews is ultimately a city without soul.
The initial success which attended the publication of both books quickly soured as the political narratives of the late 1920s unfolded. Each novel turned out to be uncomfortably close to the emerging truth.
A Nazi activist called Otto Rothstock assassinated Hugo Bettauer. Landsberger killed himself with an overdose of barbiturates a few months after Hitler came to power in Germany.
Speculative fiction can sometimes turn out to be eclipsed by real-life events. Margaret Atwood's fictional Republic of Gilead is now beginning to look like more than merely a nightmare in a novel. Atwood's compelling account of Gilead is the centrepiece of her 1985 book The Handmaid's Tale.
hidden europe 51 is published next week. No flights of speculative fancy in this issue. But there's a good news story on Jewish life and culture, as we explore the remarkable renaissance of Judaism in Warsaw. This new issue of hidden europe costs just €8. It is available for purchase in our online shop.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)