Vienna, the Post-War Abyss


Ernst Lothar: Die Rückkehr (English title: The Return to Vienna) ISBN 978-3-552-05887-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Felix von Geldern returns to Vienna after the war. He is the envoy of a Jewish family that emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis, and now he is supposed to look after those of the family who stayed in Vienna – his mother – and after the family’s business in Vienna. He doesn’t travel alone, he is accompanied by his grand-mother, and his time in Vienna becomes a series of brutal reality checks, experienced by Felix on different levels.

When Felix and his mother go ashore in France, no warm welcome is waiting. The port lies in ruins, food is scarce and thieves try to steal the travelers’ luggage. Once they arrive in Vienna, they see a city partly destroyed, hungry citizen, refugees, beggars and thieves, a flourishing black market and US soldiers fraternizing with former Nazis. People live as if the Holocaust never happened, the hate against Austrian Jews is alive and kicking. And emigrated Austrians, displaying their moral superiority, quickly trigger death threats and physical violence.

Felix’ mother and his grand-mother pick one fight after the other, their rivalry exemplifying the divide between those who chose to flee and assimilate to Americans and those who stayed and found a modus vivendi with the Nazis. Felix, who got engaged to an American girl, falls for his former love, an artist with a distinguished career made possible by the Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels.

The plot narrated by Ernst Lothar is fascinating, the moral abysses he explores are frightening. The novel is partly autobiographic. Lothar fled from Austria in 1938 after Germany had annexed it and made it a part of the Reich. When he returned, he found a country he would not recognize. It is no surprise that the novel, published in 1949, did not exactly trigger a wave of enthusiasm in Austria. Vienna is being confronted not only with its past under the Nazis, but also with the fact that it seemed to be slow to draw any lesson from that past.

The book is first of all an excellent read. Readers familiar with Vienna and the “Wiener Schmäh” will instantly feel at home, fascinated and horrified. Furthermore the current political developments – the gains of the right-leaning coalition party FPÖ in term of votes – can be partly explained by the fact that Austria, unlike Germany, never critically debated the Nazi period and its co-responsibility for the Holocaust. These phantoms have been haunting the country since 1945, showing their ugly face every now and then and each time with less inhibition.

Obviously, any novel linked to Vienna should be matched with music from a Viennese composer, and to compensate for the bleak picture painted by Lothar, here is Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major, D.664:

Seeking freedom, independence, identity