Behind the walls of war lived the peaceable and amiable people of Vienna, a reasonably tolerant mixture of Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Moravians, French, Italians, Poles, and Russians—190,000 souls. The great majority were Roman Catholic, and, when they could, worshiped the city’s patron saint in St. Stephen’s Church. The streets were mostly narrow, but there were some spacious and well-paved boulevards. A congeries of majestic buildings focused on the palatial Schönbrunn, which housed the Emperor, his family, and the main offices of the government. The “blue” Danube passed along the edge of the city, carrying commerce and pleasure in amiable confusion. Sloping toward the river, the park called the Prater (meadow) gave old and young a place for carriage drives or promenades. And just outside the city gates the Wienerwald, or Vienna Woods, invited those lucky walkers who loved trees and trysts, the smell of foliage, the song and chatter of winged residents.
All in all the Viennese were a docile and well-behaved people, quite unlike the Parisians, who, with or without revolution, lived on excitement, resented marriage, hated their nobles, suspected their King, and doubted God. There were nobles here too, but they danced and musicked in their palaces, respected pedestrians, indulged in no snobbery, and died gallantly, however ineffectually, before Napoleon’s businesslike warriors. Class consciousness was keenest in the upper middle class, which was making fortunes by supplying the Army, or lending to aristocrats impoverished by a feudalism without stimulus, or to a state always fighting and losing wars.
A proletariat was beginning to form. By 1810 there were over a hundred factories in or near Vienna, employing in all some 27,000 men and women, nearly all at wages that sufficed to keep them alive and multiplying.7 As early as 1811 there were complaints that oil refineries and chemical plants were polluting the air.8 Commerce was developing, helped by access to the Adriatic at Trieste, and by the Danube that touched a hundred towns plus Budapest and reached the Black Sea. After 1806 Napoleon’s attempt to exclude British goods from the Continent, and French control of Italy, hampered Austrian commerce and industry, and left hundreds of families to unemployment and penury.
Finance was mostly managed by Jews, who, excluded from agriculture and most industry, became experts in the handling of money. Some Jewish bankers in Austria rivaled the Esterházys in the splendor of their establishments; some became the cherished friends of emperors; some were honored as saviors of the state. Joseph II ennobled certain Jewish bankers in appreciation of their patriotism. The Emperor liked especially to visit the home of the financier Nathan von Arnstein, where he could discuss literature and music with the banker’s pretty wife. This was the versatile and cultivated Fanny Itzig, who maintained one of the most favored salons in Vienna.9
The government was administered by the nobility with middling competence and inconsiderable honesty. Jeremy Bentham, in a letter of July 7, 1817, mourned this “utter moral rottenness of the Austrian state,” and he despaired of finding “an honorable person.” No commoner could rise to a commanding post in the armed services or the government; consequently there was little stimulus to soldiers or bureaucrats to take pains or risks for promotion’s sake. The ranks of the Army were filled by shiftless volunteers, or by conscription through lottery, or by the impressment of beggars, radicals, or criminals;10 no wonder these Austrian armies were periodically routed by French legions in which any private might rise to leadership, and even join Napoleon’s covey of dukes.
Social order was maintained by the Army, the police, and religious belief. The Hapsburg rulers rejected the Reformation, remained loyal to the Catholic Church, and depended upon its well-trained clergy to man the schools, censor the press, and bring up every Christian child in a creed that sanctified hereditary monarchy as a divine right, and comforted poverty and grief with the consolations and promises of the faith. Great fanes like the Stefanskirche and the Karlskirche offered a ritual solemn with song and censer and collective prayer, and exalted by Masses that Protestants like Bach and skeptics like Beethoven were eager to provide. Religious processions periodically brought drama to the streets, renewing the public memory of martyrs and saints, and celebrating the merciful mediation of Vienna’s queen, the Virgin Mother. Aside from the disciplinary fear of hell, and some unpleasant pictures of saintly tortures, it was as comforting a religion as has ever been offered to mankind.
Education, primary and secondary, was left to the Church. The Universities of Vienna, Ingolstadt, and Innsbruck were manned by learned Jesuits. The press was strictly controlled; all Voltaireana were stopped at the nation’s borders or the city gates. Freethinkers were rarities. Some Freemason lodges had survived Maria Theresa’s attempt to destroy them; but they confined themselves to a moderate anticlericalism which even a good Catholic might allow, and a program of social reform which an emperor could endorse. So Mozart, a firm Catholic, was a Freemason; and Joseph II joined the secret order, approved the principles of reform, and made some of them laws. A more radical secret society, the Illuminati—which Adam Weishaupt, an ex-Jesuit, had founded at Ingolstadt in 1776—survived, but in comparative decay. Leopold II renewed his mother’s prohibition of all secret societies.
The Church accomplished well the task of training the people to patriotism, charity, social order, and sexual restraint. Mme. de Staël reported in 1804: “You never met a beggar…. The charitable establishments are regulated with great order and liberality. Everything bears the mark of a parental, wise, and religious government.”11 Sexual morals were fairly firm among the commonalty, much looser in the upper classes, where the men had mistresses and the wives had lovers. Beethoven, Thayer tells us, protested against “the practice, not uncommon in the Vienna of his time, of living with an unmarried woman as a wife.”12 But family unity was usual, and parental authority was maintained. Manners were genial, and gave little welcome to revolutionary sentiments. Beethoven wrote, on August 2, 1794: “It is my belief that as long as the Austrian has his dark beer and sausage he will not revolt.”13
The typical Viennese preferred to be entertained rather than reformed. He readily surrendered his kreuzers or groschen (pennies) for simple amusements, such as watching Niklos Roger, “the incombustible Spaniard,” who claimed to be immune to fire.14 If he could spare a bit more he might play billiards or bowl. Vienna and its outskirts abounded in cafés—so called from the coffee that was now rivaling beer as the favorite drink. These were the clubs of the poor; Viennese of ascending status went to Bierhallen, which had gardens and fine rooms; the well-to-do could lose their money in gambling halls, or go to a masquerade ball—perhaps in the Redoutensaal, where hundreds of couples could dance at the same time. Even before the days of Johann Strauss (1804–49) the men and women of Vienna lived to dance. The restrained and stately minuet was yielding to the waltz; now the man might enjoy electric contact with his severed half, and lead her into the exciting whirl that had given the dance its name. The Church protested, and forgave.