Book Review: Return to Vienna, by Hilde Spiel

A Journal offers a tortured portrait of Vienna grappling with the aftermath of World War II

TVR Books | Mary Albon | October 2012

Austrian writer Hilde Spiel returned to ­Vienna in a British uniform (Photo: C. Schuttelworth)

In a City Shadowed by Memories

"Sometimes in dreams we unexpectedly stand face to face with ourselves. Something of the shock of such confrontations lies in the encounter with our own past." The Austrian writer Hilde Spiel experienced just such a jolt when she revisited the city of her youth in 1946, as she recounts in her poignant memoir, Return to Vienna: A Journal. 

Spiel (1911 – 1990) was a leading figure of the postwar Austrian literary scene, but when she arrived in Vienna in 1946, she wore a British military uniform and was a correspondent for the New Statesman. She had been living in London since 1936, and she returned to Vienna filled with apprehension and ambivalence toward her native country and compatriots.

Although it reads like a journal, Return to Vienna is based on notes Spiel jotted in a pocket diary during January and February 1946, which she later shaped into this slender volume. Originally published in German in 1968, Return to Vienna includes one final entry dated 1967, which suggests that Spiel needed time to absorb the emotional impact of her visit. Moreover, it would have been difficult to publish it earlier because Austrians and Germans were reluctant to read about the war’s aftermath, especially from the perspective of a returning exile.

The first English edition, translated by her daughter Christine Shuttleworth, was published in 2011 by Ariadne Press, whose mission is to bring Austrian writers and thinkers to the attention of English-speaking readers.

As Spiel’s plane descends for landing in Vienna, "it becomes clear to me that from now on all my journeys will be shadowed by memories." In the following weeks, she seeks out old acquaintances, including writers and intellectuals, former neighbours and household servants, and "the king of all head waiters" at the Café Herrenhof.

As she makes her way amid Vienna’s ruins and rubble heaps, Spiel discovers that, "devastated, toothless and singed, the face of the city still has its old features." Stephansdom, though wounded, still stands at the city’s heart.

In some respects the Viennese also remain unchanged: "the inflexible gaze of the caretakers, the inquisitiveness of the old women in their headscarves, and that mistrustful, unfriendly smile … was there before the Nazis and will always be there."

"The consciousness of not belonging here any more is a mixture of pain and gratification," Spiel writes. Acknowledging that she experienced a very different war in England, she knows that Austrian exiles and concentration camp survivors rarely received a warm welcome home. Their return challenged the new status of victimhood that both the Austrian government and people eagerly grasped after the Nazi defeat.

The caretaker of the building where Spiel grew up shows equal disdain for a Nazi who fled Vienna’s Soviet liberators and a Jew returned from the camps. "It occurs to me vaguely", Spiel writes, "that she was probably a Nazi herself. Or not? I feel indifferent about it. The pettiness of these people is more significant to me than any party allegiance, but even more compelling is their suffering – hopeless and touching, insoluble and beyond salvation."

Anna, a former servant, "spreads before me a whole carpet of disasters" that befell her former neighbours. Though she was born and raised Catholic, Spiel had Jewish ancestry, and Anna relates the final days of her Jewish grandmother, who suffered the indignities foisted upon her with a certain obliviousness: She "quite generally regarded the new regime as an uprising by the insubordinate little people, which was to be countered by stubborn resistance." She died in Theresienstadt.

"Vienna’s gates have always opened to barbarians," Spiel notes. She delivers a letter from London to a count and countess living in severely reduced circumstances in the Soviet zone of occupation. Spiel has heard about the rapes and robberies by Soviet soldiers, and understands why the Viennese fear them. "Nevertheless it was probably inevitable that these strange, inscrutable, and pitiless men should now rule the city. Their presence, more than that of the other Allies, confirms the grim reality of this war. It brutally prevents any flight into illusion, otherwise seldom denied to the Viennese." Yet she also recalls that the count and countess "have lived for seven years shoulder to shoulder with barbarity – except that their own barbarians were softly spoken, quite capable of discussing Goethe and Mozart in well-bred tones…."

Spiel meets an old friend who edited a daily newspaper during the war. She knows he deplored the Nazis and tried not to betray his own principles. "But during all this time he not only profited from the situation … but in reality helped to support and maintain the regime, a small cog in the mechanism, which kept the whole appliance working."

"But who in Austria," she asks, "is not equally involved?" Spiel concludes that most Austrians were neither heroes nor victims. They accommodated to survive. She finds it difficult to judge them, knowing from experience "not to expect more from other people than I can demand of myself."

"Does the breath of the great world still blow in this land?" Spiel wonders. She is disheartened by the provincial outlook, petty concerns and stale thinking of the politicians and young intellectuals she meets. "There are moments when I ask myself if there is anything living and contemporary in this city that I can admire without reservation, that is not saturated like a sponge with the past or filled only with a feeble glimmer of hope for the future."

After a few weeks in Vienna, Spiel is no longer sure where she belongs. "I will always, again and again, need to ask myself where my true home lies." It took her 17 years to complete her homecoming; she moved back to Vienna permanently in 1963. In retrospect, Spiel understood that her return was inevitable.

Return to Vienna: A Journal

by Hilde Spiel

Translated by Christine Shuttleworth

Ariadne Press (2011)

pp. 128         

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