I first came to Austria when I was six months old and left a little over a year later. Oddly, I can’t seem to recall it, but in college and the years that followed, I visited many times. Austria was the borderland of the Cold War and where many journeys started. It bordered Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. It also bordered Germany and Italy, as well as neutral Switzerland – allowing access to France and beyond. And since it was neutral and weak, people from all over the world could get to Austria and, from Austria, to the rest of Europe.

Vienna was a place where chaos and intrigue were easily stirred. Soviet intelligence used it as the gateway to the West. Western intelligence used it as the gateway to the East. Others used it as a way to simply get somewhere else. The cafes at the outer rings were filled with people who knew someone who knew someone who might get something done, for a fee. Nearer the center of the city were more official-looking, well-dressed men, pretending to know far more than they actually did. There were also extremely attractive women looking for official-looking men to cause them to commit a massive error in judgment.

Vienna was the city in which OPEC met to plan the oil crisis of the 1970s, and where Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as Carlos the Jackal, kidnapped 60 OPEC representatives and their staff in 1975 and flew some of them to Algiers with a plane provided by the Austrians. He was working with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and had close ties to the KGB. He found refuge and a base of operations in Budapest, right across the border. Needless to say, Western intelligence was operating intensely in Vienna, looking for him and his KGB handlers, as well as other terrorists.

Vienna, then, resembled the movie “Casablanca.” Everyone who came to the city wanted to go elsewhere and was prepared to make deals with the devil to get there. St. Stephen’s Cathedral, gray and disapproving, stood in the middle of this buying, selling and renting of souls. The cathedral is still a pillar the Catholic faith, which is very much alive in Vienna. It once brooded over denizens of the unredeemed plotting. Today, it is surrounded by the unredeemed named Giorgio Armani, Mont Blanc and Michael Kors. (I asked my wife who, in their right mind, would spend that much on clothes, pens or pocketbooks. She informed me that her handbag was from Michael Kors, that she had a coat from Armani, and that I had a pen from Mont Blanc. My point made, I let it slide.)

What I didn’t get to see was the Vienna I had heard of in my graduate school days: This was the Vienna of the last years of empire and the time between imperial collapse and Anschluss. This was a time when Vienna was the intellectual and cultural center of Europe. It was the time of Wittgenstein, Freud, Klimt, Schoenberg and Schrodinger. Put another way, it was the time of philosophy, psychiatry, art, music and physics. Vienna broke open new ways of thinking, brilliant insights and preposterous ideas that couldn’t and shouldn’t survive. Great moments are filled with a handful of brilliance and a great deal of trivia. Vienna became the center of European intellectual life, but that life was aborted by the most powerful and preposterous idea of all: Hitler’s vision of the world he wanted to create. Ideas can kill, and his did.

The coming of Hitler had another consequence. The brilliance and absurdity of Vienna was adopted by other countries, particularly the United States. The influence lasted. In graduate school, I wrote on Freud and Wittgenstein, declared myself incapable of tolerating atonal music and wasn’t smart enough to understand quantum mechanics. Still, the degree to which Vienna fed American intellectual life was stunning. Even later, when I came to Vienna and sat for long hours with the heirs of this tradition, I had a sense of inadequacy. They were part of the tradition of Viennese intellectuals, and I was not.

Wealth and Power

Why do certain cities have these extraordinary moments of efflorescence? One reason is wealth. Supporting intellect requires leisure, and leisure requires wealth, whether through rich families or grants. It also, like Paris in the 18th century, requires confidence. France was powerful, and intellectuals fed off that sense of power. There must also be migrants and a culture of travel – something to drive home that the laws of your city are not the laws of nature. And there has to be, from this dissatisfaction, a sense that conventions are arbitrary and that new things are needed. Intellectual uprising walks a narrow tightrope between disruption and collapse.

Vienna had all these things. It was wealthy, or wealthy enough to create leisure for some. It was powerful, though its power was fading. It was a city of Hungarians, Serbs and all the random wanderers of Europe, looking for a drink and a warm bed. And it contained those who harbored deep dissatisfaction with conventions, which became more rigid as the empire declined. Empires, once great and now on the edge, make for these moments.

Among the great empires was the Habsburg Empire. It was a dynasty that once dominated Spain and came to rest in Vienna. Its tentacles spread to Mexico, where a member of the House of Habsburg, Maximillian I, became the emperor in the 19th century, only to be executed by Mexican revolutionaries. The Habsburgs’ greatest moment came in 1683 when the Ottomans, having conquered Budapest, moved west, past the Danube, to capture Vienna. From Vienna, they could have moved south to the Italian Peninsula, which was already under attack by the Ottoman navy. This would have given the Ottomans effective control of the Mediterranean, as well as access to Spain and France. It could have also made American history very different than what it turned out to be.

But the Ottomans were defeated, largely through an alliance between the Habsburgs and other European powers. This accomplished two things. It stopped Ottoman expansion in Europe, and it began the Ottomans’ long retreat that ultimately led to World War I and the current reality. In the Balkans, the Ottomans’ control was fractured. The Serbs – the Ottomans’ most stubborn resisters – did not want to become a colony of the Austro-Hungarians. This was in part due to national pride and in part due to religion. The Catholics and Orthodox played a complex game with Muslims in the Balkans. Serbian opposition to both Turks and Austrians led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Habsburg Empire buffered all of Europe against the Turks, and it was, to a great extent, configured for this purpose. Unlike other empires that aggressively demanded the subservience of client states, the Habsburgs were far more liberal. They did not seek to exploit the regions under their control economically, preferring them to be relatively well-off. This way, they were prepared to stand against the Turks, having as much to lose at the Turks’ hands as the Habsburgs themselves. And when the Hungarians demanded independence in the 19th century, the Habsburgs made them equal to Austria. There are two kinds of empires: the kind that rules through ruthless exploitation, and the kind that seeks to induce allies into defending themselves through economic incentives. The Habsburgs did not pioneer this. But the came close to perfecting it.

Return of the Past

Some in the region still speak nostalgically about the Habsburg Empire, as if it did what the European Union has tried but failed to do. And some want to turn this nostalgia into policy. Take the Three Seas Initiative, for example. The initiative promotes integration of European countries stretching from the Baltic to the Black and Adriatic seas, including Austria, Hungary and several Eastern European nations. It’s seen as a supplement or even an alternative to the EU. Some proponents believe it could be a way to block Islamic migration and even Turkish influence on the Continent.

In my own life, I have seen examples of the eternal return of the past in Europe. In the winter of 1944-45, my mother was taken to build roads in the Austrian town of Lichtenworth. The death camps were clogged, and bombers were attacking roads. My mother and her three sisters had the good fortune to be sent south of Vienna. Two of the sisters died; two lived. (It must not be forgotten that Hitler was Austrian, and that the Austrians greeted unification with enthusiasm. They fully participated in Hitler’s exploitative empire, emptying Vienna of Freud and the rest.)

Yet my mother also took refuge in Austria after I was born. She said the Austrians were both distant and kind. There was no sense of residual loathing or even resentment. Perhaps Hitler was just a bad dream we all had and then woke up from. Given that history always returns in Europe, perhaps the Habsburgs will come back with an empire ruling through indifference. And as the Austrians insist, they will speak German but will not be Germans.

On Sunday, my wife and I attended a show at the Spanish Riding School featuring Vienna Lipizzaner performing horses. The horses are interesting because they are born black and turn pure white as they mature. (They reminded me of John le Carre’s “A Most Wanted Man,” in which bank accounts used to launder black money are referred to as Lipizzaners.) For my wife, this was a trip of a lifetime, as she grew up in Australia loving horses and riding her own horse. I, meanwhile, grew up familiarizing myself with money laundering. So, we both could appreciate the show.

I was taken less by the horses than by the horsemen and horsewomen. Their discipline and perfect sense of place was extraordinary, particularly when saluting. The riders raised their arms to the brim of their hats with slow and utter control while sitting on a horse. They paused for a second at the brim of the hat, removed their hats in unison to the perfect point, and then together placed them back on their heads. It reminded me of superbly trained troops at a moment of significance.

The grace displayed by the riders was magnificent beyond anything I had seen. It’s not enough to make one forget about Austria’s past, following Hitler down his path of destruction, either enthusiastically or through resignation. But it was a beautiful thing to see. As is St. Stephen’s Cathedral towering over the banal brands around it. Vienna is quite ordinary today. Like most cities since World War II, it has grown more similar to all the others than different. But it has a complicated history, magnificent and terrible. It sat on the edge of Europe and blocked the surge of Islam. It sat on the edge of the Third Reich and helped make it what it was. It nurtured the most extraordinary thoughts and bred nonsense as genius. It was the place where much of the Cold War was fought. The desire to be less than magnificent for the moment can be forgiven. It is decent, and in Europe, that is not a trivial thing.

George Friedman
George Friedman is an internationally recognized geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs and the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures. Dr. Friedman is a New York Times bestselling author and his most popular book, The Next 100 Years, is kept alive by the prescience of its predictions. Other best-selling books include Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, The Next Decade, America’s Secret War, The Future of War and The Intelligence Edge. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. Dr. Friedman has briefed numerous military and government organizations in the United States and overseas and appears regularly as an expert on international affairs, foreign policy and intelligence in major media. For almost 20 years before resigning in May 2015, Dr. Friedman was CEO and then chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996. Friedman received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of the City University of New York and holds a doctorate in government from Cornell University.