Book Review: Paul Hofmann's The Viennese and The Spell of the Vienna Woods

The distinguished Vienna-born correspondent dies in Rome

TVR Books | Dardis McNamee | February 2009

"The capital of Gemütlichkeit, of hand kissing and the waltz, of coffeehouses and wine taverns in the green, of whipped cream and the annual opera ball, has long had one of highest suicide rates in the world," Paul Hofmann pointed out wryly in the introduction to his extraordinary1988 portrait of his native city, The Viennese: Splendor, Twilight and Exile. 

A distinguished foreign correspondent and a prolific author of travel books who died Dec. 29 at the age of 96, Hofmann had no illusions about his native city and its people, about their ambivalence, their contradictions, their pomp and their pretence.

The Viennese love their dogs, but are less sure about their children; they make their living from tourism but are ill at ease with strangers. In the city of psychoanalysis, the stickiest situation can always be finessed with a bit of Viennese Schmäh.

Born in Vienna in 1912, Hofmann grew up with an uncle who was a Socialist and whose leftist values were to shape his politics for the rest of his life.  After studying law at the University of Vienna, Hofmann joined the Christian Socialist Party and began his career as editor of the federation’s publication, Die Sonntagsglocke.

In the years leading up to World War II, Hofmann wrote boldly urging resistance to the growing power of the National Socialists and, in his later writings, described fleeing to Rome at the Anschluss, only hours before the Gestapo searched his apartment.

He was soon drafted into the Wehrmacht, working as an interpreter for two Nazi generals. From the offices of a New York Times reporter, he was able to pass on information on troop movements and deportations of Jews and political prisoners to the resistance underground. He worked briefly at Allied Psychological Warfare Bureau, broadcasting to areas still under German occupation, and testified for the prosecution at War Crimes Trials in Florence. After the war, he went to work for the Times in Rome, for which he would write for over 50 years. He never lived in Vienna again.

But he wrote about the city richly and well, with a nose for the telling anecdote that revealed its complex character. He wrote with particular appreciation of the life of the Viennese coffeehouses, whose habitués included the Russian émigré Lev Davydovich Bronstein (alias Trotsky). In one famous anecdote, he wrote of how the foreign minister, told that revolution might break in Russia, guffawed in disbelief.

"And who, if you please, will make that revolution? Not Mr. Bronstein who is playing chess at the Café Central!"

Less well known was the deadpan comment of the headwaiter. "I always knew Herr doctor Bronstein would go far," Hofmann quoted the waiter, "but I shouldn’t have thought he would leave without paying for the four moccas he owes me!’ "

Yet with all the Schmäh, with all the pretensions and contradictions, one senses Hofmann loved the Viennese none-the-less, as if within them, he found the necessary room to be human.


The Viennese: Splendor, Twilight and Exile

Doubleday, New York, (1988), 

Anchor Paperback, (1989)

ISBN-10: 0385239750


The Spell of the Vienna Woods: Inspiration and Influence from Beethoven to Kafka

Henry Holt & Co, New York (1994); 

1st Owl Book Ed, paper (1995)

ISBN-10: 0805038507

Both available used from

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    the vienna review February 2009