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Saturday 24 March 2018

Die Stadt Ohne.... Juden Moslems Flüchtlinge Ausländer (The City Without…Jews Muslims Refugees Foreigners), Exhibition at the Austrian Film Archives, Vienna, 8* out of 10

Illustrated by projections of scenes from the recently rediscovered 1924 film "The City Without Jews", this exhibition explains and demonstrates the escalating steps by which members of a majority group can be made to ultimately exert violence on a distinct minority group. The curators are to be commended to doing a good job with a difficult subject.

Die Stadt Ohne… is an exhibition at the Austrian Film Archives in Vienna that attempts to illustrate the mechanisms by which majority groups in society can deal with minority groups in dysfunctional ways that lead to increasing marginalization, dehumanization and mistreatment of minorities. The title of the exhibition alludes to an Austrian silent film of 1924 by Karl Breslauer, "The City Without Jews" which was thought to be lost until a complete version was found by accident in a Paris flea-market in 2015. The first showings of the film, which has been restored with funds obtained from a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign, took place this week in Vienna. 

The film, based on a satirical novel by the Austrian journalist, writer and activist Hugo Bettauer published in 1922, describes a fictional city, resembling Vienna after the World War I. The population and its politicians round on its Jewish population. They blame, exclude, mistreat and finally expel the Jews. But once the Jews have left the city ceases to function properly. In an improbable happy ending the Jews are asked to come back. They return to resume their crucial role in the economic and social life of the city. 

Hugo Bettauer, himself a Jew who had converted to Christianity,  became a campaigner for women’s rights, decriminalization of homosexuality and proponent of free love. He was assassinated in March 1925 by Otto Rothstock, a young National Socialist whose subsequent trial turned into tribunal against the victim. His fellow citizens sent Rothstock letters of support brimming with antisemitic invective; some of these letters are on show in the exhibition. Rothstock was still proud of his heinous deed when interviewed for Austrian television in 1979. 

The exhibition takes place at a moment where Austria is commemorating the “Anschluss” to Hitler’s Germany in March 1938 and the accession to government of the Austrian Freedom Party, a party that has antisemitism and virulent resistance against anything that in their view threatens the German nature of Austria in its DNA. That includes migrants and asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East that bring their customs and religions, in particular Islam, to Austria. 

Illustrated by projections of scenes from the film "The City Without Jews", the escalating steps by which members of a majority group can be made to ultimately exert violence on a distinct minority group are demonstrated explained: polarisation, scapegoating, loss of empathy, brutality/violence. The reality of what happened to Vienna’s Jews between 1938 and 1945 is recalled by photographs of the empty apartments Vienna’s Jews left behind on their way into exile or to the death camps. A second line of narrative looks at how similar mechanism play out after World War II against Jews (not that there were many left in Austria, but that did not matter) and other minority groups in Austria. Posters from post-World War II electoral campaigns, and quotes from Austrian politician show that playing the antisemitism card and the anti-"foreigners amongst us"-card was common among all political parties in Austria, Nationalist, Christian, or Socialist. The National Freedom Party and the student fraternities with which it is associated use antisemitism in the most openly blatant way while the Christian people’s party in a clever way ensuring plausible deniability. For the Socialists, it’s complicated, but less so when they are not in government, as is the case right now. They are ideologically opposed to antisemitism and racial prejudice, but while the statutes are willing the flesh is often weak. The exhibition illustrates all this with a series of antisemitic and racist quotes from 1945 to 2018 asking the visitor to indicate which political party the quoted politician belonged to. 

While mistreatment a minority by the majority and the state does not necessarily lead to mass murder, it still undermines the humanity of a society and of individuals within it. At the same time, each one of us is potentially attracted to the narratives and mechanisms shown and predisposed to conform with our social group. This makes it hard for individuals to resist; but resist we can, particularly if we are aware of our own predispositions. 

Bettauer’s vision of the Jews being expelled was not just an eerie premonition of what was to happen to the Jews of Vienna within 20 years of the book being written and the film made. Jews had been expelled from Vienna in the 18th century by the empress Maria Theresia who had very much the same visceral dislike for them as the politicians in Bettauer’s novel, a relevant episode in Viennese history which is unfortunately not mentioned in the exhibition.  And, of course, Jews were expelled from other countries too, for example in Spain at the end of the 15th century. 

I can recommend this exhibition which is compact and to the point. The curators Andreas Brunner, Barbara Staudinger and Hannes Sulzenbacher are to be commended to doing a good job with a difficult subject. Texts are in both German and English. There is also a useful Digitorial (digital tutorial) on the exhibition’s website including excerpts of the film; an excellent use of modern media in conjunction with the exhibition. This is only in German; an English version would be welcome. The digitorial includes interesting excerpts from “The City without Jews”. Perhaps there will be an English version in due course.  One hour to 90 minutes is plenty to see everything. The link to the newly rediscovered film-version of The City Without Jews gives a topic that is not new an interesting and original aspect. I happened to be present when school classes (14 to 17 year olds) were led through the exhibition by guides from the Austrian Film Archives and they were not bored. I was pleased that the guides made clear that their comparisons of the mechanisms that played in 1938 against Jews and that are playing now against Muslims and other migrants do not mean that another Shoah is in the offing; only that certain patterns and mechanisms of exclusion and dehumanization can be recognised. In that way, young and old who visit the exhibition do not only learn about the history of their country and of film but by thinking about the methods used to set the in-group against vulnerable minorities can resist our innate tendencies to conform and develop our individual critical spirit which can help to resist this temptation. 

Perhaps a future exhibition can look at the problem from the other side: what strategies have been deployed by individuals and groups within minorities to prevent, combat or avoid being targeted by majorities and how successful were they? Is it a realistic goal to eliminate antisemitism and racism or is the best we can do to reduce harmful effects to a minimum? 

If you cannot make it to Vienna, the film “City without Jews”, will have its London premiere in November 2018 at the Barbican Cinema.

Poster of the Exhibition

Hugo Bettauer

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