Professor Andrew Barker (University of Edinburgh): Rehabilitating the First Austrian Republic

Authors

This is the transcript of a lecture held at the Austrian Cultural Forum, London, on 29th October, 2013. Austrianresearchuk would like to thank Professor Andrew Barker for his permission to publish his lecture. His most recent book, “Fictions from an Orphan State” (Camden House, 2012) can be ordered here. RECENT NEWS on 15 Jan 2014: Austrianresearchuk is delighted to be able to add that Fictions from an Orphan State has just been selected as an “Outstanding Academic Title” by CHOICE, the journal of the American Librarians Association. It is an accolade awarded to less than 3% of the more than 25,000 titles submitted each year for review in CHOICE.

 

barker_fictions_orphan state

REHABILITATING THE FIRST AUSTRIAN REPUBLIC

“Cultural memory” thrives on a diet of contradictions. Reflecting on Victorian Britain, we realize that any pride in its achievements jostles with disquiet at the Dickensian cruelties and hypocrisy which accompanied much of that success. We recall America in the 1920s as the time when individual freedoms finally broke the mould of nineteenth century conformism – this was the great age of Jazz, Hollywood and the flapper – yet it was also an era when it became impossible to ignore the terrible downside to the freedoms which free trade and industrial development had brought. Remembering German-speaking central Europe in the same period, the picture is equally contradictory. The Weimar Republic is derided for its political ineptitude yet celebrated for the overwhelming vitality of its artistic culture. The Berlin of Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill, the films of Fritz Lang, not to mention the memoirs and novels of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, have combined to establish in popular memory a society which was vibrant, febrile, undoubtedly dangerous, and somehow unforgettable.

So why do we hear so little of what was going on in Austria during that same period? In an age when cultural commemoration is such big business, and when business is king, why does the Austrian equivalent of Berlin or New York in the 1920s enjoy such a low profile? “Vienna 1900” was the German-speaking city which helped to shape much of the modern world for both good and ill, but the memory of it as a place of primary cultural significance after 1918 has faded along with the Habsburg monarchy at whose heart it lay. How is it that within two decades a city and its culture came to lose their place in the cultural consciousness of the twentieth century and beyond?

The short response is that Austria’s interwar culture remained considerably more vibrant than its rather meagre representation today would suggest. What it most obviously lacked when set alongside Germany were visual artists with the ferocious immediacy of Georg Grosz and Otto Dix, whose brutal images charted the country’s progress from postwar destitution and anarchy through to the Great Depression In the supreme satirist Karl Kraus interwar Austria had a literary equivalent of  Dix and Grosz, but his message was clothed in a style so consciously intractable that it could only speak to a relatively small band of acolytes. As Goethe famously reminds us, a single picture is worth a thousand words.

Unlike post-Habsburg Austria, Germany has remained a constant focus of international attention, and the almost obsessive Germany-centred focus in the mapping of German-language culture after 1918, one which has concentrated relentlessly on Berlin and the Weimar Republic, means that Republican Austria is in danger of being written out of the script. A telling indicator of this chronic imbalance in historical cultural perspective can be found when looking at one of the standard literary histories of the period. In Hanser’s multi-volume Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur, published in 1995, Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler’s magisterial survey of Austrian literature between 1918-1938 appears tucked away in the volume entitled Literatur der Weimarer Republik 1918-1933.[1] In other words, Austrian writing in the entire First Republic was held to be nothing more than a subset of German literature up to the point when Hitler came to power. My aim in writing the book Fictions from an Orphan State [2] was quite simply to redress that critical imbalance, an imbalance which, sadly, is as noticeable in Austria itself as it is abroad.[3]

Few things are more tedious than the recital a long list of names. Interminable university graduation ceremonies spring irresistibly to mind here. Yet in order to understand why there is a need to “rehabilitate” the cultural reputation of Austria in the two short decades between the collapse of empire and the Anschluss of 1938, it is necessary to point out just what was achieved in those twenty years of the First Republic, in that unloved “state which nobody wanted”.[4] So here, briefly, is a reminder of just some of the major figures active in the First Republic. In belles lettres, Hermann Broch, Elias and Veza Canetti, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Werfel and Stefan Zweig were all active. In the theatre Max Reinhardt set standards which the world followed. In music we find figures of the stature of Alban Berg, Hans Gál, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernst Krenek, Franz Lehar, Franz Schmidt, Anton von Webern and Alexander von Zemlinksy. In musicology, Heinrich Schenker became the most influential theorist of the twentieth century, while Oskar Kokoschka and Adolf Loos continued to shine in the worlds of painting and architecture. Until his departure for Cambridge in 1929, the First Republic remained the home of  Ludwig Wittgenstein. His impact upon Anglo-American philosophy, along with that of “Wiener Kreis” centred on Rudolf Carnap & Moritz Schlick, has been immeasurable.

This list of often seminal figures who lived and worked in the First Republic is surely long enough to make a prima facie case for Austria being at least as significant a locus of cultural production as Weimar Germany. On top of this, we must not forget that this new, unwanted state also saw the birth of the Salzburg Festival, the prototype of all subsequent festivals grounded in the celebration and commemoration of high art which transcends political and cultural boundaries. It could be argued that this concept of the all-inclusive festival is one of the greatest of all the First Republic’s gifts to posterity. Without the example of Salzburg, our own Edinburgh festival, founded in direct imitation of Salzburg immediately after a terrible and divisive war, and with considerable input from Austria, would simply not exist.

You may well have noted that the case I have made for the cultural significance of the First Republic fails even to mention the name of Sigmund Freud. Freud it was, however, who expressed more clearly than anyone the sense of consuming loss, loss of both cultural and political identity which, far more than in Germany, remained a defining emotion throughout the short life of the First Austrian Republic. Writing on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918 Freud’s sentiments will serve to encapsulate the reactions of millions:

Austria-Hungary is no more. I would not wish to live elsewhere. There is no question of emigration for me. I shall continue to live with the torso and imagine it is the entirety.[5]

Freud was as good as his word. He stayed loyal to Vienna virtually to the end of the First Republic, only moving to London in 1938, when, already terminally ill, it was only too clear to him from which direction the wind was blowing.

It is not inconceivable, I would suggest, that one of the many reasons why the First Republic evokes no nostalgia even today in Austria is precisely because it has come to represent a time of acute loss, a loss which continues to be felt far more deeply in Austria than does the loss of the Wilhelminian empire in Germany, whose imperial past stretched back barely fifty years.[6] It was the French premier Georges Clemenceau who spelt out what the First Republic represented after 1918 when he bluntly declared: “L’Autriche, c’est ce qui reste” – Austria is what is left.

It is no coincidence that the literature of the First Republic, most especially in works written by Jewish writers, returns time and again to the days of the  lost empire. In the later works of Arthur Schnitzler, for example, the reader or spectator is often hard pressed to know whether the action of a story or play is set prior to or after the 1914-1918 war. One looks in vain within German-German literature for writing which memorialises the loss of the Wilhelminian empire in a similar fashion. Now compare that situation with the one in Austrian literature, where two novels written in memory of the Habsburg empire now count amongst the outstanding masterpieces of all writing in German in the twentieth century: Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch and Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. It is an irony of literary history that both novels were written not in Austria but in Berlin, and in apartments situated just a few hundred yards from each other on the Kurfürstendamm. It is a lesser irony that one of the very few works which does attempt to memorialise the Second German Empire was written by a Viennese Jewish writer. I refer here to the novel Pasenow oder die Romantik, by Hermann Broch, the opening volume of the impressive Schlafwandler  trilogy.

But can a nagging sense of loss in latter-day Austria be the main reason why this imbalance in cultural memory has become so entrenched? In fact, why should a society and culture which nurtured figures of the stature of Wittgenstein, Freud and Berg, as well as spawning a thousand festivals, require any “rehabilitation” at all? Was Berlin’s culture in the 1920s and early 1930s so incomparably superior to Vienna’s? The answer, of course, is not simple, and like many other truths, it begins at home. For quite simply, post-1945 Austria itself has never really come to terms with its First Republic on a multitude of levels, whereas postwar Germany, in all its varying manifestations, has been only too happy to seize on the kudos generated by the cultural reputation of the Weimar Republic in order to salvage some dignity from its own historical miasma, most especially between 1933-1945.

A catchword of the day in 1920s Austria was simply “Wos hamma von de Republik?” – what’s the Republic ever done for us? – a complaint reflecting domestic unhappiness with the very existence of the new state, crystallised in the feeling that something of real significance, the Empire, had been replaced by something inferior, the Republic. This embedded disenchantment with the state of Austria between the wars has meant that Austrians themselves have been reluctant to celebrate its achievements on their own terms. Moreover, as Allan Janik, the distinguished American scholar of Austrian culture around 1900, and himself a long-time resident in Austria, has noted, it is a feature of Austria’s cultural history that so much of the recording of it has been the province of non-Austrians.[7]

Where, he asks, would our knowledge of Gustav Mahler be without the work of the Franco-American musicologist Henri-Louis de la Grange and the English Donald Mitchell? Is our appreciation of Karl Kraus’s contribution to European civilisation conceivable without reference to the work of the Englishman Edward Timms and the American Leo Lensing? However, such examples merely beg the question of  why this should be the case. A slick and cheap answer would be that Kraus and Mahler were both Jews, and that the reluctance of gentile Austrians to engage with such figures has all-too-obvious cultural and political roots. On the other hand, Josef Haydn and Johann Nepomuk Nestroy are two very great figures who could never find a place in the pantheon of Austro-Jewish culture, yet the scholarly work on these figures too would be infinitely the poorer without the work of the American musicologist H.C. Robbins-Landon and the British Germanist W.E. Yates.

Janik contends that an answer to the Austrians’ reluctance to take the lead in dealing with central figures within their own culture lies primarily in the nature of how academe itself operates in Austria, especially in the absence of any tradition of intellectual biography, a tradition lying at the heart of proper cultural history. Janik further argues that interdisciplinarity (which also has to be at the core of all proper cultural history) is typically conceived of in Austria as a matter of convening symposia between groups of scholars from different fields, inspired by a common theme which then results in the publication of an anthology on the subject. These anthologies can, of course, be extremely valuable – in fact, the only book in German or indeed any language on the culture of the First Republic as a whole is just such an anthology, published as long ago as 1981 – but such potpourris are only the beginning, not the end of cultural history, which at its best demands huge intellectual effort in synthesising the various ways of posing problems across a variety of disciplinary perspectives.[8] Probably the finest, and almost certainly the best-known example if this, is to be found in the American Carl Schorske’s astonishing capacity to think across the conventional boundaries of history, music, painting and literature in his epochal study of Vienna around 1900.[9] In other words, Schorske demonstrates how the best cultural history goes beyond accruing more facts and demands the ability to “think out of the box”.

The varied responses to the question of why the First Republic has failed to engage the attention of cultural historians and commentators are intriguing, and to my mind often convincing, but again they do not paint the whole story. Of major importance is the fact that from the very outset the First Republic failed to garner the allegiance or the affection of the majority of the citizens who lived in it, simply because it was the state nobody particularly wanted. There can be no doubt that when the Republic was founded, the majority of its citizens would have preferred to become part of the new German Republic. Therefore, when it ceased to exist after 1938, there was never a sense of loss comparable with that felt after the collapse of the Empire. From the moment the victorious powers refused to allow the new Republic to use the name which it had chosen for itself – which was, after all, Republik Deutsch-Österreich – it was felt that the new state lacked credibility, validity and authenticity. Many felt that its chances of economic success were meagre, and therefore simply departed for the new German Republic. Typical of this negative reaction was that  of the great Jewish writer Joseph Roth, born in what had become Polish Galicia. On quitting Vienna in the early 1920s, Roth noted wearily how he had become a stranger in what had been his own country. He remarked that Austria had no future, and that if he had to be a refugee, then he would rather be one in a land which had a future. So he went to Berlin, and it was there he produced his great novel Radetzkymarsch written in memory of the now-lost land which had nurtured him.

Seen from today’s perspective, it is clear that from the moment of its inception until its absorption into the Third Reich, the First Republic was assailed by a combination of issues which it never properly solved, and which then became a source of embarrassment after 1945, when today’s Second Austrian Republic was established. As is widely known, the Second Republic was based upon the foundation myth, concocted in Moscow in 1943, that the Austrian Republic had been the first victim of German fascism. Given that the First Republic had itself embraced a form of fascism with some warmth after 1933, and that its history had shared a multitude of communalities with the Weimar Republic which had spawned National Socialism, this led to the widespread suppression and repression of the memory of the First Republic in what was perceived to be a greater and far more urgent cause. That cause was to create a new, durable, and specifically Austrian state with an obviously Austrian identity out of the rubble of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich. Above all else, this reborn state would have to be an Austrian Republic in which the application of the vexed prefix “Deutsch” would no longer be an issue. Hence it was felt that in order to foster the new consensus which the post-45 state so desperately required, and in the paramount interest of creating a specifically Austrian identity in the aftermath or National Socialism’s pan-Germanism, the best way of proceeding was to have as little as possible to do with the First Republic, an institution which could plausibly be accused of creating the conditions which had led to Austria being what Hella Pick has described as Hitler’s willing victim.[10]

So what were the characteristic features of that First Republic which led its quasi-pariah status after 1945? Here we have to say again that perhaps the overriding reason why the First Republic is recalled with so little fondness is that it represented not simply a time of inestimable loss, it also represented a time of confusion and contradiction which the “new”, democratic Austria post 1945 simply preferred to forget about. Looking back with hindsight at the history of the First Republic, there were clearly many issues which, at least in its early days, were best pushed under the carpet if  the new Second Republic were to stand any chance of success. That far too many things were pushed too far under the carpet, in particular most things relating to Austria’s Jewish citizens, does not need to be pursued further here.

Of overriding significance for the new Second Austrian Republic was the vexed issue of the “German” identity of its predecessor – the issue that led the founding fathers of the First Republic to dub it “Deutsch-Österreich”. For an illustration of this besetting problem we need to look no further than at the text of a new national anthem which the Carinthian poet/priest Ottokar Kernstock wrote in 1929 to succeed the original anthem to words written by the Republic’s inaugural chancellor, Dr Karl Renner. Sung to the melody of Haydn’s “Kaiserhymne”, which Renner’s anthem had dispensed with, the opening stanza went:

Sei gesegnet ohne Ende,
Heimaterde wunderhold!
Freundlich schmücken dein Gelände
Tannengrün und Ährengold. 
Deutsche Arbeit ernst und redlich,
Deutsche Liebe zart und weich — 
Vaterland, wie bist du herrlich,

Gott mit dir, mein Österreich! (my italics)

In fact, the issue of Austria’s national anthems is hugely revealing of the problem of Austria’s identity as a whole.[11] To illustrate this we need only look at what happened outside parliament on the eve of the Anschluss in March 1938. As Chancellor Schuschnigg tried to rally support inside the building with his rousing exhortation to remain “Rot-Weiss-Rot bis in den Tod” (“Red-White-Red until we’re dead”) the crowds milling outside broke into song. The melody which they all sang was that of Haydn’s Imperial Anthem, but no fewer than three different texts were bellowed out in opposition to each other. Some of the group sang Kernstock’s “Sei gesegnet”, some even sang the Imperial anthem itself, “Gott erhalte!”, while a further group reeled off “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles”, the words by Hofmann von Fallersleben adopted initially by the Weimar Republic in 1922 which had then been appropriated by the Nazis in 1933.

I have already used the term “ironic” in this presentation, but when it comes to describing the fate of Haydn’s great tune it is difficult to see beyond that much abused epithet. When the question of adopting an anthem for the new Second Republic arose, it was felt that yet more new words had to be found, along with a new melody, just as had been the case after 1918. In the new Federal Republic of Germany, on the other hand, there were seemingly fewer qualms about maintaining a German grip on Haydn’s tune, now to be sung to the third stanza of the “Deutschlandlied”, and transformed into an anthem for democratic times. Even in the German Democratic Republic Johannes R. Becher’s text for the anthem “Auferstanden aus Ruinen” was written to accommodate the melody of the “Kaiserhymne” if necessary.[12] In Austria, however, it was felt that Haydn’s tune itself was simply too contaminated, no matter what the words to which it was sung. And so Austria’s finest tune had to be ceded to the Germans. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that today’s national anthem, and its less than catchy melody, have outlasted all the other anthems in Austria’s history. What this means, however, is that the most intractable issue dogging the First Republic has now been overcome, since most Austrians now accept that speaking German does not automatically equate with being German, just as in these islands, and indeed across the globe, to speak the English language in no way presupposes an English cultural or political identity.

Returning to the First Republic, we can now see that uncertainty about an Austrian identity which was not predicated on Germanness in one form or another meant that it was always going to be dogged by the the Anschluss question – one which was only finally put to bed after 1945. The Anschluss ended the First Republic at a stroke, yet it was also the event which more than any other finally awakened in the Austrian people as a whole the realisation that they had an identity which could not be subsumed into the rhetoric of the German “Volk” and its destiny (one is tempted to use the word “ironic” here too.)

That the Anschluss was the culminating act in the drama that was the First Republic is not in doubt, but any examination of it comes with considerable baggage in the assessment of what this annexation means for Austrian history as a whole. Today everybody knows that the events of March 1938 signalled the end of an independent Austria, and that the annexation was widely welcomed across the country, at least initially. In the narrative of “goodies” and “baddies” to which it is all too easy to reduce complex historical events, the “death of Austria” is glibly ascribed to the “baddies” on the political right, as exemplified by National Socialism. That there were many dyed-in-the-wool Austrian Nazis prior to 1938 is a plain fact, and their commitment to the incorporation of Austria into the Third Reich can be taken as read. What is more problematic is that support for the Anschluss had been widespread since the very birth of the Republic, and amongst its most fervent supporters were not just extreme right-wing politicians and their supporters, but also the broad swathes of the left as represented by the Austrian Social Democratic Party, people who were profoundly opposed to everything else that National Socialism stood for. Here at least, and very embarrassingly for post-1945 posterity, the “goodies” and the “baddies” were both hankering after the same thing. Dr Karl Renner, inaugural chancellor of the First Republic and then first president of the Second Republic, was just first among many on the left who had desired union with Germany. In other words, the ambition to see the end of an independent Austrian state was a strongly uniting feature across the board of Austrian politics long before the Anschluss.

Most inconveniently for the narrative of “goodies” and “baddies”, the strongest support for an independent Austria came from those generally reckoned to be on the right of the political spectrum – the Roman Catholic Church (which feared influence of protestants in the Greater Germany) and many Christian Socials – the party from which today’s ÖVP is descended – a lot of whom were still either residual monarchists and/or supporters of the Austrian “Reichsidee”. This was the notion that Austria’s mission was to save Western civilisation from the Eastern hordes. Looking at what was happening in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, you can appreciate where they were coming from, providing you are prepared to ignore the strong whiff of antisemitism which frequently emanated from such thinking.

Thus in the interests of a simple post-Nazi narrative for the Second Republic, the complexities of the Anschluss question were simply best ignored. However, even more contentious for the Second Republic than the Anschluss question was what I now believe to be the most compelling reason of all why the First Republic is so often glossed over in the cultural memory of Austria, and that is the brief but bloody Civil War in February 1934. I wonder if there are any plans to memorialise the 80th anniversary of this event in 2014?

Civil War is beyond question the worst domestic crisis that can assail any nation. In the heartfelt and, I feel, mostly genuine commitment to building a democratic and independent Austria after 1945, something to which both Left and Right were dedicated, memories of a civil war just a dozen years earlier were profoundly unwelcome. As Mark Allinson has pointed out, even in twenty-first century Austria this period remains too sensitive to allow a wholly non-partisan, unemotional view, and it is this which so clearly demarcates the historiography of the First Republic from that of Weimar Germany.[13]

The bare facts speak for themselves. Alone in the German-speaking world, it was the Austrian Social Democrats who, with only the most marginal support from the Communists, took active steps to try and stem the rising tide of fascism when they took on the authoritarian regime ushered in by Engelbert Dollfuss early in 1933. Of course their revolt was a chaotic failure and ushered in the four years of Austro-fascist rule under Dollfuss and his successor Kurt von Schuschnigg. Nevertheless, nearly eighty years after the event, the time is surely ripe for an Austria which seems at ease with itself and its identity to acknowledge that the Civil War was something more than a dirty secret  which pitted Austrian against fellow Austrian, and that there was something noble in this unique attempt to resist fascism, no matter how miserably inept that attempt turned out to be.

Perhaps in the initial desire finally to establish a truly “Austrian” identity post-1945, one which would overcome the divides which had bedevilled the First Republic, it is understandable why it was felt that vital elements of Austria’s history between 1918-1945 were best left ignored as far as possible. However, this failure at “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, culminating in the global embarrassment of the Kurt Waldheim scandal, has also encouraged the widespread suppression Austria’s cultural history too. One wonders just how long it will be before Austria is ready to examine this major part of the country’s history in a dispassionate and objective manner. It would appear that this time is still some way off. However, only then will there be enough space to allow the artistic and intellectual legacy of the First Republic – which as we have seen were not inconsiderable – to speak for themselves and finally be integrated into the cultural narrative of Austria, and indeed Europe, as a whole.



[1] Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, “Abschied von Habsburg” in: Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur, vol. 8, Literatur der Weimarer Republik 1918-1938, edited by Bernhard Weygraf (Munich: Carl Hanser, 1995), 483-548.

[2] Andrew Barker, Fictions from an Orphan State. Literary Reflections of Austria between Habsburg and Hitler (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2012).

[3] There are just two similar works in German on the same theme: Walter Weiss and Eduard Beutner, eds., Literatur und Sprache im Österreich der Zwischenkriegszeit (Stuttgart: Hans-Dieter Heinz Akademischer Verlag, 1985) and Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, Ohne Nostalgie: Zur österreichischen Literatur der Zwischenkriegszeit (Vienna: Böhlau, 2002).

[4] See: Hellmut Andics, Der Staat, den keiner wollte (Vienna: Herder, 1962).

[5] Sigmund Freud, quoted in: William Johnston, The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History 1848-1938 (Los Angeles: U of California P, 1983), 445.

[6] In truth, the Habsburg state which ceased to exist in 1918 was not much older than the Second German Empire, having taken on its final shape after the Ausgleich of 1867.

[7] Allan Janik, “To Understand Austria, Ask a Foreigner!”, The Vienna Review, July/August 2012, www.viennareview.net/Vienna. Accessed 08.11.2013.

[8] Franz Kadrnoska, Aufbruch und Untergang österreichichischer Kultur zwischen 1918 und 1938 (Vienna: Europa Verlag, 1981).

[9] Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Politics and Culture (New York: Knopf, 1980).

[10] Hella Pick, Guilty Victim: Austria from the Holocaust to Haider (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000).

[11] See Andrew Barker, “Setting the Tone: Austrian Anthems from Haydn to Haider”, in: Austrian Studies 17, Words and Music (2009): 12-28.

[12] The composer of that sublime melody was the Austrian Hanns Eisler (1898-1962).

[13] Mark Allinson, “Reading the Dollfuss Years”, in: Austrian Studies, 14. Culture and Politics in Red Vienna (2006): 337-48, here 337.

1 Comment

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  1. Elisabeth Attlmayr

    Thank you for posting this! I bought “Fictions from an Orphan State” when it first came out and read it with great enjoyment; attending the lecture was unfortunately not possible so it is great to read it here! Danke.
    It is quite a fascinating topic. Having studied in Austria myself, I would add that (at least when I was a student) there was quite a lot of engagement with authors and issues of the first republic as far as seminars, lectures and dissertations were concerned. Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler has already been mentioned, and my doctoral supervisor Sigurd Paul Scheichl (Innsbruck) has also pubshed a lot on issues related to the First Republic. I am sure there are others too. I am adding this not to contradict the above but to maybe point out that there is scholarship in Austria about this topic….
    Finally, I would argue that many Austrian writers at the time actually contributed to the impression that the first republic was a backward and less than exciting place compared to Germany and particularely Berlin. Certainly I have come across a lot of references to this, and the fact that many writers decided to leave Vienna for Berlin speaks for itself.

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