Wiener Moderne and Austrian Economics – A product of times of turmoil

There are some certain incredibly rare constellations of time and space which result in one of a kind decades. The peak of Greek civilization from 5th to 4th century BC, the Californian Gold Rush from 1848–1855 and the Fin de Siecle from 1890-1920. The latter one is of specific interest to me for a long time. Some of the most worlds most famous painters (Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka), philosophers (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Edmund Husserl) or authors (Georg Trakl, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler) coined the decade. Even more intriguing for me is that the Viennese intellectual live happened in very close circles. All intellectuals being witnesses of the downfall of one of the greatest empires of the 19th century, each discipline coped with this fate in their very own way. Especially if one compares the movements of that time in literature and economics, it becomes clear that the self-imposed demands of the authors and scientists on their science differ considerably.

The Wiener Moderne:  Flight into the irrational

Driven by the predictable crumbling of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the anticipated increasing tensions in the multi-ethnic empire and the threating of financial recession, the civil society was teetering on an abyssal edge. Furthermore, the Halleyscher comet was predicted to “destroy” the world in 1910, the titanic sunk in 1912, a European war was lingering just around the corner. Concerning the breakdown of stable order, people sought a way out of ruins of what once has been a stable authoritarian order. When existential threats become more and more realistic, one would expect cultural life to totally drain or at least decrease sufficiently. However, the complete opposite was the case.

At first, art merely revolted against the prevailing naturalism. Why would anybody need a detailed, accurate depiction of reality if reality itself is flawed with incomprehension, irrationality and impenetrability? Missing a stable external framework, many writers turned the back against their environment and focused on the Ego. To express the inner tensions of most contemporary people, many authors sought to dive deep into the human consciousness. Inspired by the psychoanalytical insights provided by Sigmund Freund, who had vivid relationships with many important authors such as Arthur Schnitzler, human behaviour and especially human decision making became a topic of increasing interest. Therefore, news ways of narrating such as interior monologue were founded.

Many writers such as Albert Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Georg Trakl found in transcendence a necessary counterbalance to supra-rational society. Reality and dream blurred into a foggy haze; rational preferences gave way to impulsive needs; time horizons shortened, emotions overcame facts. The individual was portrayed without any responsibility towards society, their family or other institutions. In the Dream Story (By far my favourite book) by Arthur Schnitzler, the successful doctor Ferdinand risks his marriage and his family to pursue subconscious, mysterious sexual needs. If you have the time, check out the movie based on the novel “Eyes Wide Shut” by Stanley Kubrick, truly a cinematic masterpiece.

Karl Kraus, on the other hand, founded the satirical newspaper “The Torch” in 1899 and offered often frequented point of contact for aspiring young talented writers. The content was mostly dominated by craggy, harsh satirical observations of the everyday life which sought to convince the public of the predictable mayhem caused by currents politics. Franz Wedekind, Adolf Loos and Else Lasker-Schüler could use the torch as a stepping stone for their further careers.

What they have in common is their understanding of their craftmanship: It is not of the concern of art to save civilization or to convince us to be better humans, but to describe, document and in a way aestheticize human behaviour. This does by no way means that the Viennese authors of the early 20th century were not politically or socially involved: Antisemitism (Karl Kraus & Arthur Schnitzler), Free Press (Karl Kraus), Sexuality (Franz Wedekind and Arthur Schnitzler) were, for example, reoccurring themes. However, in most works, the protagonist struggles with these problems on an individual level, without addressing the problem as a social problem. Also, the authors seemed to lack the entire puzzle picture: Although many individual pieces were criticized, the obvious final picture was rarely recognized (Especially Schnitzler).

Economics – Role of the scientist in society

Meanwhile in economics another exciting clash of ideas took place: The second wave of the Historical School economist, mainly Gustav Schmoller, Karl Büchner and Adolph Wagner, were waging a war against Austrian School of Economics, mainly Carl Menger. The Historical School sought to identify the patterns in history through which one could deduce certain principles of economics. Individual preferences are not the result of personal desires, but rather the sum of social forces acting on the individual depending on space and time, they asserted. Thus, instead of methodological individualism, methodological collectivism must be used to conduct economic research. To determine the historical-temporal circumstances, one must first collect an enormous amount of empirical material, based on which one could formulate a theory. Austrian Economists, in turn, claim that individual preferences stem from personal desires. Although the Austrian emphasize the constraints emerging from interpersonal interactions, they rejected the idea, that free individuals are confined in their will through culture and norms. Thus, economics is a science of aggregated individual preferences and must be studied through the lens of methodological individualism.

As Erwin Dekker (Dekker 2016) has argued, the works of Austrian Economists must be seen as an endeavour to understand society and civilization in the first place. One must carefully study human interaction and acknowledge the ridiculously small amount of knowledge we actually possess about the mechanism of a complex society before one can “cure” the many ills of humankind. With the socialist calculation debate, Austrian Economist tried to convince other academics of the impossibility of economic calculation in the absence of prices.

Apart from their academic debates, they were very much concerned with the development of common society: Authoritarian proposal, the constant erosion of norms as a foundation for civil society, the increasing overall hostility lead them to the decision to leave the ivory tower of economics and argue for their ideas in public discourse. “The road to serfdom” is THE peak of this development. Hayek impressively explains to the general public the fragility of liberal democratic order and how far-reaching even well-intended governmental interferences can eventually be. Joined by Karl Popper’s masterpiece “The open society and its enemies”, Austrian Economist were now defending the achievements of liberal democracy more vigorously than ever.


It would be exaggerated to claim that the literary-historical “flight into the irrational” had excessive influence on the economic debate between the historical school and the Austrian school. Nevertheless, it has already been proven that intellectual Viennese life took place in a few closely networked interdisciplinary circles. There is no direct connection between the Viennese literary circles and famous contemporary economic circles such as the Mises-Kreis. However, the intellectual breadth of contributions and the interwoven relationships of many contributors became an important point of study in recent years (See: Dekker 2014). Especially Sigmund Freud could have been a “middle man” between Austrians (especially Hayek) and the authors of the Wiener Moderne (especially Schnitzler).

What definitely is remarkable is how different the various scientists and artist reacted to the existential threats of the early 20th century.
Resignation? Internal Exile? Counterattack? There were many options on the table.

The “flight into the irrational” pursued by many, by far not all, authors of Wiener Moderne was a return to surreality, irrationality and individualism. Austrian Economist, however, went from individualism to social responsibility. According to them, scientists had an obligation to preserve that kind of liberal democratic system, which fosters peaceful human cooperation. To achieve this shared goal, many Austrian Economists left the ivory tower of academic debates, where they also fought for the same purpose, and temporarily became public intellectuals; starting a much more active defence of liberal democracy.

Afternoon Tea: Minerva or Pallas Athena (1898)

NOL art Klimt minerva or pallas athena
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From my main man Gustav Klimt.

Afternoon Tea: Fredericke Maria Beer (1916)

By the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt:

NOL art Klimt fredericke maria beer 1916
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This beauty is in a private collection, somewhere on this planet…

Afternoon Tea: The Three Ages of Woman (1905)

By the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt:

NOL art Klimt the three ages of woman 1905
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A short note on Klimt and Schiele

I hope y’all have been enjoying my new “Nightcap” series. Many of the articles eventually end up at RealClearHistory (my bad ass editor has the final say-so), so I thought I’d be doing y’all a favor by sharing them here, in smaller doses, first.

This BBC article on Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, a couple of Austrian artists, won’t make the cut (RCH‘s readers don’t really enjoy art history), but I thought you’d love it. Vienna was the center of intellectual life for not only economists and philosophers in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, but also for artists and other academics and critics as well.

Klimt (bio) is my favorite painter, ranking just above Picasso, Chagall, BoschHokusai, and Dalí. Check this out:

[…] a decision was made to permanently display the paintings in a gallery rather than on the ceiling [because they were so scandalous]. Klimt was furious and insisted on returning his advances and keeping the paintings. The request was refused but after a dramatic standoff in which Klimt allegedly held off removal men with a shotgun, the Ministry eventually capitulated.

Tragically the paintings were destroyed by retreating SS forces in 1945 and all that remains are hazy black and white photographs.

How could you not like the guy?

PS: I’ve heard, through the grapevine, that Lode and Derrill have posts on the way. Stay tuned!

The Origin of Expression “Nazi” and How it was Introduced into English Usage

My hearty greetings to the Notes on Liberty “tribe” and special thanks to Brandon for inviting me to become part of this forum. I would like to share with you my side project that recently mutated into an article submitted to Independent Review. Last June, I was doing research in Vienna, Austria, working on a totally different topic (Mongol-Tibetan religious prophecies (Shambhala and the like) and their perceptions by Westerners). Taking advantage of my stay in that gorgeous city, in my spare time, I visited local museums and various prominent landmarks.

Thus, I strolled into so-called Jewish Plaza in downtown Vienna. The place has a monument that commemorates the memory of 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered by Hitler’s regime during World War II. In fact, I briefly visited this place earlier during one of my previous trips to Vienna. Yet, now looking at three identical inscriptions in three languages at the foundation of the monument I noticed something that earlier had not caught my attention. The inscription on the left is in German, the one on the right is in English, and the one in the middle is in Hebrew. The German one says, “In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the National Socialists between 1938 and 1945.” So does the Hebrew one in the middle. Yet, the English version reads: “In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945.”




The same day I happened to go to Thalia, the biggest bookstore in Vienna. There, browsing shelves with social science and humanities literature that I stumbled upon a German translation of Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, a 2009 book by the noted American historian Mark Mazower. The German edition of that book, which has the same cover picture, reads Hitlers Imperium: Europa unter der Herrschaft des Nationalsozialismus [Hitler’s Empire: Europe under the National Socialism Rule.]


So I became curious about this linguistic discrepancy. Eventually, my curiosity took me further and further. The first thing one notices is that when English-speaking people write and talk about the 1930s-1940s’ Germany, more often than not they routinely use the word “Nazi.” Thus, in English we have books and articles about Nazi economy, Nazi labor policy, Nazi geopolitics, Nazi genetics, and so forth. In contrast, when Germans refer to the same turbulent years, they usually say “National Socialism” (Nazionalsozialismus).

So here is the result of my quest – an attempt to answer why in English we use “Nazi” and also who and why introduced this expression in English. The article has not been published yet. At first, I decided to prepare a brief digest of that paper and post it on this forum. Then I changed my mind. To make things more interesting, I decided to prepare a small multimedia audio presentation about why, how, and when the expression “Nazi” emerged in the first place and how it was introduced in English language and post it as a 20-minute video clip on my YouTube channel maguswest. Here it is:

National Socialists into Nazi: Politics and the English Language

A good friend of mine, who is an excellent narrator, assisted me in this. Click this link to see/listen to this talk and, if you wish, give me your critical feedback: Do not skip the ending of the clip, for it features a music tune (so-called Aviation march) that was shared by both Soviet Stalinist and National Socialist marching bands in the 1930s (words are different but music is the same).