Carl E. Schorske: Scholar of Vienna’s Golden Age

‘Fin de Siecle’ Helped Restore Vienna to its Rightful Place on the International Map of 20th Century Cultural and Political Studie

News | Victoria Oscarrson, Dardis McNamee | May 2007

Carl E. Schorske: The Man Who ‘Wrote the Book’ on Vienna (Photo: Victoria Oscarrson)

The faux gothic Festsaal at Freyung No.1 was host on Apr. 20 to the awarding of the prestigious Victor Adler Prize to Carl E. Schorske, eminent American historian who with his universally admired Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, literally ‘wrote the book’ on Vienna 1900, the city’s undisputed golden Age.

Dark walnut paneling and embossed leather rising to the ceiling lent an air of scholarly dignity to the room. Schorske must have felt at home.

Surrounded by fellow academics, former students, respectful bureaucrats, old friends and others, Schorske was being honoured for his enormous contribution to scholarship, an interdisciplinary, synthetic approach to the analysis of the social fabric of modern life intertwining culture, history, religion, psychology, philosophy and science.

Schorske is an intellectual who refused to be categorised, and thus was uniquely able to reveal the interrelationships of thought and experience that gave birth to modernism. Equally significant, the event was a recognition of his gift to Vienna, that with Fin-de-Siecle, published by Knopf in 1980 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he helped restore  Vienna to its rightful place on the international map of 20th century cultural and political studies.

The Viktor Adler award, presented by the Ministry for Education, Science and the Humanities and Culture, is named for the founder of the Austrian Socialist movement, publisher of the leftwing journals Gleicheit (Equality) and the Arbeiterzeitung (Workers’ Paper) and leader in the fight for universal suffrage.

Carl E. Schorske was born March 15, 1915 in New York to a family energised in politics, history, travel, arts and music.

With this ‘elite cultural equipment’ that Schorske described in a 1987 talk, his life journey as an intellectual historian may have been sealed. His father, the banker son of a German born cigar-maker, was also a socialist. His mother was Jewish to which he attributes a sense of his ‘marginal identity’ that inspired his desire to comprehend the contradictions and evolution of history.

With a B.A. from Columbia and a PhD from Harvard, he worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II getting to know Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, discussing Aristotle and Nietsche, Keynesian economics and Marxist politics.

Taking up a teaching post in history at Wesleyan in 1946, he described becoming fascinated with the ’emergence of cultural modernism and its break from the historical consciousness’ along with the ‘saw-toothed’ divides of East and West in Europe following the war.

He chose to study Vienna, as a city where he could explore the "common social experience, for its impact on cultural creativity," work that resulted in Fin-de-Siecle, his brilliant, multidisciplinary study of competing ideologies that became a model of its kind.

From Wesleyan in 1960, he moved to University of California, Berkeley where he became an activist for the Free Speech movement, challenging the relationship between university life and the state as America lurched into two stormy decades of profound social change.   In 1969, he arrived at Princeton, where he remained for the rest of his career, today Professor Emeritus.

Dr. Gerhard Pfeisinger concluded his introduction; not a pin dropped in the hushed chamber, as 92 year old Carl Schorske walked, frail and somewhat bent, up to the podium.

‘You are my Lehrer and Lehrerinen;’ he told the audience quietly in German, with apologies for not speaking more fluently.

Not just another speech, one might have thought, until mid third sentence he exploded into English.  The moment was almost theatre like reviving a weary student drifting off in a lecture. Back in his native tongue, Schorske then embraced his audience several times inventing language as needed, once even stopping himself, with a twinkle in his eye, to ask, ‘is that even a word?’

Fin-de-Siecle Vienna "is not my substance, but your substance," he insisted, emphasising his approach to scholarship. The book’s fate, though, had been "a strange peregrination." Now in twenty languages, always going eastward, each new translation is slightly different, a phenomenon he explains as simply part of ‘life.’ One of the most recent translations into Korean, he refers to as ‘Korean Baroque,’ beautiful pages with strange convolutions of ‘searing pictures,’ like a frame added to a Klimt reproduction not in the original version. He enjoyed this phenomenon, to show how culture evolves, how language is altered and preserved.


"There is reinforcement on all sides of life," he said, "impulses that drive the intellect must come from the heart."

With age, immediate recall may fail, but reminiscences become strong. He related how in kindergarten in Scarsdale, New York, he had been asked to sing a song and broke out into a family favorite, "Morgenrot" about a German soldier contemplating death.

Americans were sensitive to anything German in 1919, and he was reprimanded and promoted to first grade where there was no singing.

Now at 92, he sings what he pleases, and without embarrassment, he burst into full song before the assembled audience:

"Morgenrot, Morgenrot, 

leuchtest mir zum frühen Tod? 

Bald wird die Trompete blasen:

dann muß ich mein Leben lassen,

ich und mancher Kamerad!"

In his retirement, he has returned to singing both in private and public, Schubert among his favorite lieder such as "Morgenrot." As the notes faded, he gazed gently over the microphone, moved by the moment. "My voice is there as my intellect disappears," he said softly.

And in his old kindergarten, he recently discovered, the banners of many nations hang now where in his childhood, there was only the American flag.

Holding himself tall, Carl E. Schorske thanked the audience for "prosperity of the intellect, in the deepest sense."  He once wrote, "in education as in scholarship, one must live in the provisional, to be ready to acknowledge obsolescence, and adapt one’s methods to the changing world." Thus with generous spirit, and extraordinary humility, Dr. Schorske returned to his seat.

Still not a pin dropped, until suddenly the hall resounded with applause.


Viktor Adler was founder of the Socialist movement in Austria and publisher of the leftwing journals Gleicheit (Equality) in 1886 and Arbeiterzeitung (Workers’ Paper) in 1889 and played a leading role in the fight for universal suffrage. In 1918, as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs under the interim government of Karl Renner, he advocated the Anschluss (unification) of Deutsch-Österreich with Germany.

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