cult of personality

Guest commentary by
Harald D. Gröller

Harald D. Gröller, born 1978, studied history and literature in Graz, Hannover, Debrecen, Mag. DDr. phil., lecturer, MOEL scholar

When, about a hundred year ago, Karl Lueger died one of Austria’s most controversial politicians dies with him. As mayor of Vienna he was, on the one hand, deservedly known for his intense concern with the city’s municipal development and, on the other, for mading use of the exclusory and discriminatory political strategies of a populist anti-Semite and anti-Hungarian to obtain, and maintain, his power. This ambivalence during his lifetime, combined with the instrumentalization of his figure after his death, is responsible for, among other things, the fact that around a century after his death his place in collective memory is contested. This illustrated, for example, by the repeated and heated discussions about renaming the Dr. Karl Lueger Ring in Vienna. So how did this personality cult develop around Karl Lueger?

Even Lueger himself, as one of the most conspicuous political figures of the era when parties appealing to the masses were being formed, engaged in something which nowadays would be regarded as a normal part of merchandizing. However, at the time it was absolutely innovative because of the extent to which he and those surrounding him. carried it out. Whether it was the illusion of availability he presented to his female followers based on his bachelor status (or keeping his relationships secret), the Lueger March composed for him by Eduard Nerradt and played at various events or, to name but one example from an extremely wide selection from the raft of devotional objects, the Lueger plate distributed at election meetings. These carried sausages and mustard and visualized exactly who the eaters had to thank for the meal they had just consumed in the form of a portrait of Lueger.

In addition there was something which would nowadays be called corporate identity, viz, Lueger’s characteristic beard. This allowed him to be easily identified in any of the representations. There were, and are, a wealth of these: diverse paintings (e.g. by Wilhelm Gause), portraits, postcards, caricatures, relief’s, etc.

Yes, there are even altarpieces (e.g. in the Vienna central cemetery, in Lainz and in Hietzing) in which Lueger is depicted. They explain a further level of the cult round the Christian Socialist “people’s tribune” – the religious/sacred. So it causes little wonder that there is a creed for the “Lord God of Vienna” another of Lueger’s nicknames. It begins, “I believe in Dr. Lueger”. Additionally his name is imprinted on public places all over Vienna e.g. the 1907 renaming of Rathausplatz [City Hall Square] into Karl Lueger Platz [Square] and the diverse plaques with the inscription “Built during the administration of Mayor Karl Lueger”. Apart from those, various monuments, busts etc. were erected to Lueger who was also the subject of literary works—by, for example, Andreas Eckhart and Karl Conte Scapinelli—even when he was still alive.

After Lueger’s death, which took place after a long process of wasting away in public, he was used by the Christian Socialists as an exhortation for party unity. This was necessary because their whole strategy was tailor-made for Lueger as the person representing classic Germanic Austria in the multi-ethnic capitol and royal seat, Vienna. At the same time the party programme was almost non-existent.

After the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy, the municipal administration being taken over by the social democrats, and the appearance of another charismatic Christian socialist leader, Dr. Ignaz Seipel, the Lueger cult experienced a certain decrease in the 1920s. There were exceptions though, such as in the literature sector where various historical-biographical novels were written (e.g. by Edmund Daniek and Theodor Heinrich Meyer) and in the monumental Lueger statue ensemble on the Stubenring that was unveiled in 1926.

The Lueger cult experienced a renaissance from 1934 on when the Christian corporatist state came into being and an “Austrian consciousness” was being heavily pushed. This can be seen in e.g. changing the name of one section of the Ring into Dr. Karl Lueger Ring or the performance of the popular theatre piece “Lueger, the great Austrian” which was promoted by the highest political representatives. Now Lueger was being instrumentalized as a prime example of an Austrian. This was something that could be seen in the area of numismatics when, in 1935, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, his portrait was issued on a double schilling coin in a series which included, amongst others, coins with Dollfuss, Seipel, but also Prince Eugene, Mozart and Haydn. Besides that, a romanticisation of the Lueger era took place as evidenced by various songs, the best known of which is certainly “Dr Lueger once shook my hand” interpreted by Hans Moser.

After the so-called “Anschluss” Lueger—named by Hitler in “Mein Kampf” as the “greatest German mayor”—served Nazi propaganda aims as a regional figure of identification for the population of what was now the Ostmark (or Alpen- and Donaugaue [Alpine or Danube Administrative Areas]. The mediums used here included film, leading to the production of the Nazi film “Vienna 1910. The Last Three Days in the Life of the People’s Mayor Karl Lueger”.

After 1945 Lueger (and his time) were dealt with in, for example, Maria Stöckler’s “Lueger Lied [Lueger Song]” or the theatre play “Der Pumera” in a completely uncritical and romanticised way. In the sphere of biography Lueger’s populist agitation was, with a few exceptions, also “excused” because of his political achievements for the city. At that point in time a critical confrontation only took place in a very qualified manner. The short appearance of an actor dressed as Lueger in the film “The 1st of April 2000” might be considered in this category. Lueger was given much more attention again in the 1980s and 1990s (amongst other things because of the 75th anniversary of his death). This took the form of exhibitions, wreath laying ceremonies etc. However, it is only recently that a trend has developed towards treating Lueger, his achievements, but also his dangerous populism, in a really differentiated way. In this vein the American and English Lueger biographers (Geehr, Boyer) on the one hand and projects such as Bernd Fasching’s “The Vienna Mirror - das starke und verwundbare Herz der Demokratie [The strong and vulnerable heart of democracy]” (2003), “Zeitfenstern in die Vergangenheit [Time Windows to the Past]” by Erich Koller (2009) have made their contributions. The current project of transforming the Karl Lueger statue into a monument against anti-Semitism and racism in Vienna (and Austria) intends a critical and differentiated confrontation with Lueger and the associated memorial culture and I wish it success in that endeavour.