Heavily armed police stand outside the Vienna State Opera following shots fired in the city center on November 02, 2020 in Vienna, Austria. (Photo by Michael Gruber/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Vienna is becoming much like every other European capital

“Vienna is different” is the city’s proud motto, but sadly, Vienna is much like every other European city

The day that I arrived in Vienna I almost died. I was walking along a street called Marxergasse on my way to register my presence in the Austrian capital with the police (a legal requirement) when a shoe struck my shoulder. Simultaneously, a large dark shape crashed into the road a couple of feet from me.

A man – I later discovered he was a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Forests – had leapt to his death from his office window, missing me by a fraction. His head had been destroyed by the impact, and a small lake of blood spread across the street. Cars carefully negotiated their way around the gory mess of teeth, bone, and brain matter and drove on.

The Ottoman occupation of most of Central Europe has left a legacy of fear and distrust of Islam

Shocked and dazed, I bent and picked up the shoe. It was a sultry summer day and the inside of the shoe was still hot and clammy with the sweat of the man who had died. Absurdly, I placed it by the foot of his body. I briefly considered covering what had been his head with my expensive new jacket, but instead went on to the police station to report the suicide. Passing the site again a few days later, I saw that a black banner marking his fall had been hung from the window he had jumped from down to the ground. A peculiarly macabre Austrian touch.

I had come to Vienna to take up a journalistic job with ORF, the state broadcaster that is the Austrian equivalent of the BBC. On the surface the city is one of the most beautiful in Europe, with its baroque palaces, enormous green parks, and cosy coffee houses. But first impressions can be deceptive, and beneath the gorgeous surface all is not what it seems.

Just as certain cities, Paris and Rome for example, are cities of life and light, others, Venice and Vienna pre-eminently, are for me always associated with death. It is no coincidence that the three best known modern movies set in Venice: Death in Venice, Don’t Look Now and The Comfort of Strangers, all culminate in death. Similarly, films set in Vienna like The Third Man, The Night Porter and Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing all reflect the city’s dark underside.

Even the city’s huge cultural achievements are tinged with its death obsession

Even the city’s huge cultural achievements are tinged with its death obsession. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler all died here, and Freud first formulated his theory of the death instinct in Vienna. The history of its former ruling dynasty, the Hapsburgs, is inextricably entwined with violent death: Empress Elisabeth “Sissi” was stabbed to death by an anarchist; her son and heir, Crown Prince Rudolf died in a suicide pact with his teenage mistress; and the next heir apparent, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife, were famously assassinated in Sarajevo. Most of Vienna’s Jewish community and cultural elite were expelled or extirpated in the Anschluss with Nazi Germany and the horror of the Holocaust that followed.

Vienna was the capital of a multi-ethnic empire in which Czechs, Hungarians, Croats, Italians, and a dozen other ethnicities mingled with Germanic Austrians to form a racially and religiously diverse population, who since the World Wars have called the shrunken and much-reduced Austrian republic their own home.

It may, therefore, be surprising to some that, given this history, until this month the city had largely escaped the acts of Islamist terror that have disfigured most other Western European capitals in the 21st century. This is especially so since twice Vienna has endured and survived sieges by the armies of the Turkish Ottomans which proved to be turning points in the tide of Islamic conquest threatening to engulf Europe.

In 1529, the 100,000 strong army of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to the city for a fortnight before being beaten back by sorties of the armed citizenry. In 1683, the Turks returned with an even larger army of 150,000 and besieged the city. This time, Vienna was saved in the nick of time by a combined Christian relief force of German and Polish soldiers who defeated the Ottomans on the hills outside the city.

My introduction to Vienna had been violent, and so was my departure from it

To encourage the others, the commander of the besiegers was ritually strangled with a silk scarf for his failure when he got back to Belgrade. On a culinary note, the siege led to the introduction of the croissant into European cuisine – a tribute to the Islamic crescent – and to the birth of Vienna’s cafe culture when milk was mixed with coffee beans found in the abandoned Turkish tents. In the years after the second siege, Austrian armies led by Prince Eugene of Savoy gradually pushed the Ottomans out of Hungary and back into the Balkans.

The long Ottoman occupation of most of Central Europe has left a lasting legacy of fear and distrust of Islam in the region, fuelling the anti-immigrant policies of countries like Hungary and Poland that so distress the EU.

The murderous attack by a lone Islamist that killed four people in central Vienna came as a body blow to the city’s cosy complacency; its sense of gemutlichkeit that charms so many visitors to the city. Particularly shocking was the discovery that the gunman was one of their own: though of north Macedonian descent, he was born and bred in the city.

My introduction to Vienna had been violent, and so was my departure from it. After four years there I was awoken one hot summer night by the sound of a gunshot. I stood at my apartment window and watched as medics tried in vain to save the life of the owner of the Latin American restaurant opposite. He had been shot through the heart by a gunman trying to lift the evening’s takings. He had managed to snatch his assailant’s spectacles in his death agony which were later used to identify the Hungarian killer. The victim was a Chilean political exile. Yet again, death stalked the streets of this aesthetically lovely city.

I have added my own spoonful to Vienna’s exotic gene pool, where my half-Austrian son now runs his own bodybuilding and fitness business. When news came through of the shootings in the same area of bars and cafes where I first met his mother, I endured an anxious half hour before I learned that they were safe and well. “Wien ist anders” (“Vienna is different”) is the city’s proud motto. Sadly, since that night, Vienna is much like every other European city.

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