Schnitzler's Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture 1815-1914

Schnitzler's Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture 1815-1914

by Peter Gay

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"This is cultural history of the first order, and it is liberal and humane history at its very best."—David Cannadine

An essential work for anyone who wishes to understand the social history of the nineteenth century, Schnitzler's Century is the culmination of Peter Gay's thirty-five years of scholarship on bourgeois culture and society. Using


"This is cultural history of the first order, and it is liberal and humane history at its very best."—David Cannadine

An essential work for anyone who wishes to understand the social history of the nineteenth century, Schnitzler's Century is the culmination of Peter Gay's thirty-five years of scholarship on bourgeois culture and society. Using Arthur Schnitzler, the sexually emboldened Viennese playwright, as his master of ceremonies, Gay offers a brilliant reexamination of the hundred-year period that began with the defeat of Napoleon and concluded with the conflagration of 1914. This is a defining work by one of America's greatest historians.

Editorial Reviews

David Nasaw
I can't remember the last time I had such fun—and learned so much—from any work of history or nonfiction.
David Cannadine
This is cultural history of the first order; and it is liberal and humane history at its very best.

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Schnizler's Century

The Making of Middle-Class Culture 1815-1914
By Peter Gay

W. W. Norton & Company

Copyright ©2002 Peter Gay
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0393323633

Chapter One


Everything in the scene starting Arthur Schnitzler's diary speaks of prosperity: the boy inhabiting a room of his own complete with desk; his attending a Gymnasium, which only a select minority of Vienna's families could afford; his father's well-appointed consulting room. The ambiance exudes an aura of comfort, with expensive music lessons — Schnitzler became a competent amateur pianist—and with servants hovering in the background. At the time of this closet drama, the Schnitzlers were living in Leopoldstadt, Vienna's Second District. It was being rapidly transformed into a quarter populated by Jews, most of them poor, who were immigrating by the thousands from the countryside and the eastern reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in search of a better life and relief from anti- Semitic outrages: around 1880, nearly half of Vienna's Jews lived there. But during Schnitzler's childhood, he recalled, it was "still genteel and respectable." As a young man, he mainly frequented "good Jewish middle-class circles," which is to say, his own.

Through the years, he would not confine himself to his thriving, well-educated Vienneseworld as he traveled across the range of respectability at times beyond. As a physician, he had professional, if rather distant, connections with the medical world. As a writer, he came to make friends with publishers, journalists, novelists, playwrights, critics, actors, to say nothing of actresses. As a bachelor—he did not marry until 1902, at forty—he spent many evenings in his favorite haunt, the café Griensteidl, with friends like Richard Beer-Hofmann, Felix Salten, Hugo yon Hofmannsthal, all of them writers, trading literary gossip, manuscripts, sometimes mistresses. And, as will emerge, as a lover he ventured among women from the petty bourgeoisie of the outer districts, the Vorstadt. He was crossing boundaries, knew it, and used in his writings the knowledge he stockpiled by living hard.


Schnitzler's excursions up and down the social ladder provide an instructive glimpse of a wider social reality. They are just one instance of an important characteristic of nineteenth-century urban life: the Victorian bourgeoisie was sizable, diverse, and deeply fissured. One other telling illustration of this complexity will suffice. In the 1850s, the marchese Massimo d'Azeglio, painter, novelist, and politician, then prime minister of Piedmont, noted that in his country, "the hierarchical instinct dominates the whole of society." To capture these subtle gradations, one needed "a whole series of subcategories" more refined than merely "nobility, bourgeoisie, people and plebs." He believed a little complacently that such shadings were more nuanced at home than elsewhere, but there he was mistaken. Everywhere, the slightest subdivisions in the middling ranks could generate social discrimination, economic nepotism, envy, and gossip, to say nothing of marital strategies wherever bourgeois clustered in appreciable numbers. The historian attempting to understand the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie must come to terms with pervasive conflicts among those who defined themselves as "middle class" as much as with the qualities that made them kin.

Not unexpectedly, conflicts within the middling orders were more pronounced than peaceful cooperation. Tariffs on imports were a boon to domestic manufacturers but a burden on merchants. Distribution of largesse from the central government, whether paintings donated to provincial museums or subsidies provided to struggling industries, led to disputes about favoritism among cities or regions. The issue of state support for sectarian schools became a contentious issue between devout and secular citizens. The location of the railroad network, which speedily spread through most of Europe in the 1840s and 1850s, became a matter of virtual economic life and death across the map. And, as we shall see, limitations on the right to vote on the basis of income were sore points between bourgeois safely at home in the political elite and bourgeois aspiring to join them. Some of these contests were trivial: in the late nineteenth century, Munich and Berlin engaged in a rivalry, carried on mainly in the press, over which was the cultural capital of Germany. But most of the time, the stakes were higher than this. Economic self-interest, religious agendas, intellectual convictions, social competition, the proper place of women became political issues where bourgeois battled bourgeois.

These divisions were so acute that it is tempting to doubt that the bourgeoisie was a definable entity at all. This nominalism can only be fed by the recognition that all collective statements necessarily oversimplify the rich diversity of social life and likely slight singular variations. But unless historians reduce every report on the past into a collection of biographies, a literally impossible task, they must, however circumspectly, gather into diverse baskets substantial similarities, shared family traits. I have written this book in the conviction that while it may be hard to live with generalizations, it is inconceivable to live without them.

At all events, for at least two centuries, journalists and politicians, ideologues and historians, intent on making partisan, or at least intelligible points, have ignored glaring exceptions to their global statements about the bourgeoisie. And grand simplicities about it have long been particular favorites among its detractors. Yet it will emerge that there are ways of gathering Victorian bourgeois into a single class, even if its internal strains are as interesting as its fragile unity. The nineteenth-century British practice of resorting to the plural—the "middling ranks" or the "middle classes"—has much to commend it.

Though average victorians were no doubt impatient with fine discriminations, their linguistic conventions document their awareness that the bourgeoisie was one and many at the same time. They retained the collective name but subdivided it: the Germans had their Grossbürgertum and Kleinbürgertum, the French the grande, bonne, and petite bourgeoisie. In the course of years, they sliced these rough divisions even more exquisitely: the Germans drew a distinction between the bourgeoisie of property and that of cultivation—Besitzbürgertum and Bildungsbürgertum. Everywhere, popular locutions underscored the intricacies of class hierarchies: in France, the epithet l'aristoeracie financière paid homage, in an amalgam of jealousy and disdain, to the political weight of bankers, as did the term Geldaristokratie for the German aristocracy of money. Contemptuous of the bottom of the heap, Germans nicknamed the lowest segments of their Bürgertum, the lowest paid in the army of clerks, proletarians in stand-up collars, Stehkragenproletarier. Such oxymorons were essential to the search for precision.

In the professions, gifted bourgeois—painters, singers, poets, eminent professors, or natural scientists—carved out careers outside the familiar economic hierarchies to establish a ranking of prestige rivaling that of wealth. Their grateful society showered them with medals, provided them with access to privileged circles, invited them to marry into the gentry, or buried them in national shrines. It even bestowed on a handful of them titles of nobility. The German painter Adolph Menzel was elevated to Adolph von Menzel; the English poet Alfred Tennyson, to Alfred, first lord Tennyson.

Less dazzling, though still gratifying rewards awaited other Victorian bourgeois. A phalanx of lawyers, physicians, middling bureaucrats, bankers, merchants, and industrialists, the solid core of the bourgeoisie, respected and respectable, were content with being of the middle classes, even proud of it. Some tycoons, like Alfred Krupp, the preeminent munitions maker in the German empire, politely rejected the offer of a title, saying that he would "rather be the first among industrialists than the last among knights." Another example: In Austria, Friedrich Lohmeyr, scion of a dynasty of glass manufacturers that took great pride in its craft origins, refused ennoblement, a rare and striking gesture in a society in which the imperial court scattered titles by the thousands. Mainly the upper crust of the bourgeoisie, the great plutocrats, some of them aching to escape into the aristocracy, and its lowest counterpart, poverty-stricken petty bourgeois afraid of being plunged into the mass of plebeians, monitored the prospects of their status closely and anxiously.

What further complicates any attempt to define the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie is the fact that it had a history. It was not static; many bourgeois harbored great expectations, of wealth, of prestige, of fame, of social ascent. They were not wholly unrealistic; there was a measure of upward social mobility in the Victorian century for the unusually talented, unusually lucky, or unusually unscrupulous. Only the very few could even dream of emulating John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, but the rise of these two to stunning riches made for tales that fostered fantasies. A slender minority of enterprising bourgeois climbed economically, and soon after that socially, at vertiginous speed. The brothers Eugène and Adolphe Schneider, sons of a modest provincial notary, became the steel kings of France in one generation. And Carnegie himself had arrived in the United States from Scotland with his indigent family, yet made himself into one of the wealthiest men in the world, the stuff of legends.

One could recount many such stories, a number of them even true, of rags transformed into riches within a few decades. Aristide Boucicaut, the son of a lowly hatter, founded the Parisian department store Le Bon Marché and was worth 22 million francs at his death in 1877. George Peabody, born in 1795 to an impecunious branch of an old American family in a small Massachusetts town, had to leave school at eleven to work in a general store, but soon managed his own wholesale dry goods store in Washington, with branches in New York and Philadelphia. By 1827, he was worth $85,000; only a decade later, having become an international trader, he moved to London and went into banking. Twenty-five years later, in 1852, he had amassed a fortune of over $3 million, perhaps some $50 million in today's currency.

Arthur Schnitzler's father, the highly esteemed laryngologist Dr. Johann Schnitzler, belongs among these favorites of fortunes, one of many Jews—even unconverted Jews—whom the century of widespread liberation granted an entrance into the world of success. His life graphically demonstrates how far a bourgeois could go in that age with ability and ambition, especially if decorated with agreeable manners. Born in the Hungarian town of Gross-Kanizsa in what his son called "indigent, indeed shabby circumstances," the son of a skillful but illiterate and alcoholic joiner, he made his way to Vienna in a wagon, and there, like other penniless students, financed his medical education by giving lessons. Yet he climbed up the social and professional ladder to reach the summit with a professorship at the university and the prestigious title of Regierungsrat, coveted in a society in which waiters invariably addressed their regulars as Herr Baron or at least Herr Doctor, whether earned or not. No doubt ability counted for much in such life histories, but so did opportunities. In these social and economic success stories the cooperation of the historical moment was an essential prerequisite.

That moment of course appeared particularly sustained and alluring in the United States; the country, a virtually legendary beckoning giant, invited daydreams of easy success among Europeans desperate or enterprising enough to leave their continent behind. Germans looking westward for opportunities they could not hope for at home imagined the golden land overseas as the land of unlimited possibilities—das Land der unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten—although they discovered after they landed that the country often proved reluctant to give them access to the secret map that showed the way to wealth and security.

Numerous newcomers to the United States accumulated fortunes, growing with its western and southern reaches, and in the burgeoning cities. But others remained mired in the shallows of the New World as they had been in the Old. After midcentury, the glut of Victorian success literature, modern fairy tales predictably addicted to happy endings, had become an international mainstay for publishers. Horatio Alger's vastly popular confections, mainly recounting the climb of a penniless orphan—he perpetrated more than a hundred narratives chronicling a near-miraculous rise in the world—was a tribute to the power of the imagination. Far from documenting an open society, Alger and his imitators displayed wishful thinking at its most inflamed, in which all too real barriers to quick wealth melted away. In fact, the spectrum ranging from success to failure in America was very wide and far from predictable. Ascent was on a ladder with many broken rungs.


One trait that distinguished nineteenth-century bourgeois publics from one another was their habitual, though not unchangeable, mind-set concerning the authorities that governed them—here, as elsewhere, the definition of the Victorian bourgeoisie depends heavily on attitudes. Obviously enough, the more unchecked the holders of power, the more subservient their middle-class subjects, the less able they were to mount initiatives not just in politics but also in the arts, literature, or education. Two extreme middle-class types coexisted in Victorian civilization, the one forceful, the other inert, with mixed types in between.

A comparison between two nineteenth-century cities, Manchester and Munich, will mark the outer limits between bourgeois enterprise and bourgeois complaisance. The citizens of Manchester, a booming textile town, produced an efficient and magnanimous army of self-started philanthropists. In 1846, they founded Owens College—it was granted a university charter in 1880—from a private legacy of about 100,000 [pounds sterling]. Two years later, the year of revolutions across the Continent that left Britain unscathed, three local merchants invited the German conductor and piano virtuoso Karl Hallé, long resident in France, to take Manchester's musical life in hand. In his long and impressive career—he died Sir Charles Hallé in 1895—he energetically transformed the city into one of the preeminent centers of music in the Western world. Before long, the Hallé Orchestra, launched in 1858 (typically Hallé's private property), secured an international reputation. There was more for Manchester's leading citizens to be proud of through the decades: they built themselves an assertive Gothic town hall, an art museum, and great libraries. In 1895, Her Majesty Queen Victoria graciously consented to have the exalted term "Royal" added to the name of the new Manchester conservatory. But that was pure decoration; local capitalists had already donated all the necessary funds.

Munich, the capital of Bavaria's Wittelsbach monarchy, could not have been more different. In twenty-three years of rule beginning in 1825, the art-loving Ludwig I had set the tone for, and largely financed, the city's cultural institutions. He was his country's unrivaled first builder, giving welcome employment to a swarm of architects, masons, carpenters, glaziers, framers, sculptors, muralists, and gardeners. The king's record is impressive: he was responsible, among other things, for moving the university to Munich from the provincial town of Langhut; building the Glyptothek, which provided a magnificent backdrop for classical sculpture, and the Alte Pinakothek, which housed a fine collection of old masters. Not content with these monuments to high culture, he permanently altered the appearance of Munich, commissioning churches, exhibition halls, and broad avenues. Only his forced retirement in 1848, compelled to abdicate over a pathetic (and expensive) affair with the dancer Lola Montez, kept him from completing yet another project, the Neue Pinakothek, designed to display his superb collection of contemporary German art.

Under his successors as under his benevolent autocracy, the Wittelsbach spirit, and money, were active wherever Bavaria's, and Munich's, high culture needed attention and support. Maximilian II kept Ludwig's program alive, though at a more restrained pace, and invited humanists from northern Germany to settle in his capital. And it is only too well known that without Ludwig II, Richard Wagner's Bayreuth would have remained a pipe dream. It was typical of Bavaria's cultural style that the conductor Hermann Levi, who raised the city's opera and orchestra to the highest levels in Germany, perhaps in Europe, should be a civil servant. And, a few insubordinate gestures apart, the city's Bürger, at once pampered and patronized, followed their dynasty's lead. Even a private organization like the Kunstverein, which brought together practicing artists and art-loving amateurs, had to obtain the king's permission for its statutes and met under the vigilant eyes of the Royal Academy. It was not until late in the century that some enterprising Munich citizens began to organize their own exhibitions. It had taken them many long years before they dared to throw away the crutches of all-knowing authority.

Nineteenth-century Manchester and Munich were extremes. Most cultural capitals of the time—Vienna, Paris, London, and, after the 1860s, Berlin—were mixed types, combining private and public sources of inspiration and of funds wrestling for supremacy, with the pressures from the top usually prevailing. But Manchester and Munich were not alone. Amsterdam's celebrated Rijksmuseum and Concertgebouw were the creations of a few cultivated and enterprising merchants. Berlin's Philharmonic Orchestra, which rapidly vaulted to the top of Germany's finest ensembles, was founded by its musicians in 1882. Similarly the Boston Symphony Orchestra was the product of Brahmin, which is to say private, initiative. And in serving literature and the arts, Birmingham was in many respects the twin of Manchester. After midcentury, it opened a major free public library complete with branches and founded an art museum, the first financed from local taxes and the second from the profits garnered by the municipal gasworks, remarkable exercises in democratic culture. Filled with justified pride, the citizens of Birmingham placed an eloquent inscription in the museum's entrance hall: "By the gains of industry we promote art." Nothing could contrast more sharply with the servile, but accurate, legend that Munich's grateful town fathers engraved into a copper plate they placed next to the corner stone of the Alte Pinakothek: "Bavaria owes the building and its art treasures to the noble disposition of its rulers, the House of Wittelsbach." Together, these two lapidary texts attest to the coexistence of bourgeois self-reliance and bourgeois dependency in the Victorian age.

The question whether the bourgeoisie of any country should be counted among the self-assertive or the submissive raises the tragicomedy of the nineteenth-century middle classes in politics. Nothing can advance—and complicate—the search for a definition of the Victorian bourgeoisie more fruitfully than this line of inquiry. For the historian, the study of past politics entails more than tracking the pursuit of power under specified rules; showing classes in action, it points directly at fundamental self-appraisals, at expectations and anxieties. The most energetic among Victorian bourgeois had to confront royal arbitrariness, aristocratic claims, clerical interference, time-honored cultural habits. Yet the quest for political power obsessed middle-class activists across most Western societies. "The middle class must govern," the Zurich politician and physician Johannes Hegetschweiler asserted in 1837, tersely summing up the agenda of those bourgeois across Europe smarting under their lack of access to public influence. For their part, obedient and indifferent bourgeois could only dream of power, much of the time not even that, and remain content with scratching a living and avoiding disputes with local potentates. "The Tuscan bourgeois," wrote Stendhal in the mid-1820s, hard as it was for him to admit it, "of a timid disposition, enjoys his quiet and his well-being, works to enrich himself and a little to enlighten himself, but without ever dreaming of taking his place in the government." All he and his kin aimed to do was to avoid work and annoyance. The same charge could be leveled against bourgeois in other countries.

A preponderance of discontented Italian opinion echoed Stendhal's rebuke through the decades. In fact, nineteenth-century Italian bourgeois, before their country's conclusive unification in 1870 and even after that, serve as a model of tameness. The elites essentially running the country were highly concentrated and rarely questioned. That celebrated Italian motto in praise of idleness, Dolce far niente, seemed to be inscribed over the entrances of banks, shops, and factories. Middleclass initiative and inventiveness, without which capitalism must stagnate, were rare.

Four decades after Stendhal, in the 1860s, another observant French visitor, Hippolyte Taine, literary and political historian and perceptive psychologist, virtually copied his precedessor. "Is there in Rome any degree of moral energy?" he asked, and responded skeptically, "Most of my friends reply, no; the government has demoralized men." Aided by the church, it had systematically obstructed independent thinking. "People are extraordinarily intelligent, adroit, and calculating, but no less egotistical." It followed that "as enterprise and action are prejudicial and regarded unfavourably, indolence becomes honourable." All that other eyewitnesses could add was that the country was beset by crippling corruption, that well-to-do northern borghesi were blasé about the appalling poverty and illiteracy in the country's southern regions, and that their own endemic attitude toward work was one of unabashed aversion. And it was true: Italian industrialization failed to match that of other European countries, and its most spectacular advances, as in the steel industry, were mainly generated by the state rather than through individual enterprise. The Italian bourgeoisie, witness to historic transformations in the peninsula, mainly sat and waited.

Other political cultures, however, experienced drastic shifts, learning to cope with world-shattering inventions and devising political instruments, like the widening of the suffrage, to keep the social peace. Each bourgeoisie took its own path, though most also responded to stimuli from their neighbors: the European revolutions of 1848 were sparked in France with the embers rapidly leaping across frontiers. These revolutions were essentially middle-class efforts with the working classes their weapon and their victim, and by and large failures; Yet by around 1900, the grip of the middle classes on political power was far tighter than it had been only a century before, even though it was far from complete.


Excerpted from Schnizler's Century by Peter Gay Copyright ©2002 by Peter Gay. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Peter Gay (1923—2015) was the author of more than twenty-five books, including the National Book Award winner The Enlightenment, the best-selling Weimar Culture, and the widely translated Freud: A Life for Our Time.

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