Vienna’s Inferiority Complex
In the book Café Europa, Slavenka Drakulic claims that, wherever you go in eastern Europe, you see places naming themselves Europe, Paris, London, New York. They do this, she says, because they have want to show that they are striving for something, they want to emphasize their European identity. And in doing so, they show their insecurity.
But over a decade after the book was written, I thought for sure that the situation had changed. Then I got to Vienna.
Café Europa. Hotel Europe. Europe Hotel. Again, again, again, ostentatious displays of European identity, in all parts of the city old and new.
Vienna is in a precarious geographic position. It has long sought to be Western European, but it is East of Prague. It is on the outermost edge of its language, of its country, and of its region.
It has always felt that it is a bit behind on the times, because it is. The Ringstrasse, the three-mile walkway that surrounds the old city, is where the wall stood until the 1800s. By the time the wall was torn down, no other Western European city had maintained its siege defenses.
The city is filled with huge buildings screaming their grandeur to the skies. Classical motifs abound, and every stature and fountain and building has a Michealangelean nude watching passersby.
Over a century later, one of the most noticeable things I found while visiting was not the city’s decoration: it was the street blockages caused by renovations. Everywhere within the Rigstrasse, the buildings are covered with decorative motifs, are painted whites and creams and covered in statues and frescos.
According to the tour guide, the city government performs these renovations, constantly, on every street. Every building is refurbished every few years, kept looking shiny and new. Kept looking European.
Vienna has something to prove to outsiders. But it also has something to prove to itself. This is the city that nurtured the last true Hapsburg Crown Prince to his suicidal grave. The city that welcomed Adolf Hitler, banished its Jewish inhabitants, and stands still in the shadow of that sin. A city that experimented with socialism while standing at the gateway to the Eastern bloc during the Cold War.
Any outsider can tell based on the ridiculous prices the Viennese classify as “sales” that the city is firmly in the developed world. The place is as European as London, as Paris, and more even than Prague. But in the end, the opinion of the outsiders does not matter. Vienna cannot geographically fix itself in the Western half of Europe, and it can never mentally secure itself in its status as a Western city. If you don’t believe me, try counting the number of Café Europas.