While anti-Semitism was common in Austrian politics at the turn of the century, particularly in Vienna where the vast majority of Austria’s Jews lived, the 1867 constitution had eliminated all remaining laws discriminating against Jews. The end of World War I, the fall of Habsburg monarchy and the subsequent political and economic turmoil in the former empire ushered in a new, more violent, more organized form of anti-Semitism. The Antisemitenbund (Anti-Semites League) was founded in September 1919. That same month eight speakers stood in front of Vienna’s city hall advocating the expulsion of all Jews from the city before a rapt crowd of 5,000 people. When the Antisemitenbund organized a congress of anti-Semites in 1921, 40,000 people attended.
It wasn’t just talk. Prominent Jews — writers, intellectuals, publishers — were beaten on the streets. The courts provided little justice to the victims of these hate crimes, no matter how brutal the perpetrators. Best-selling novelist Hugo Bettauer became a target of anti-Semitic parties including the Nazi Party, the Christian Social Party and the Greater German People’s Party because of his writing. Born in 1872 the son of prosperous Jewish stockbroker, Bettauer converted to the Evangelical denomination of Christianity when he joined the army at the age of 18. It was a formality, not a genuine conversion, done because it was well known that Jews were denied advancement and promotion in the military. In the end Bettauer was too much of a free spirit for the army and the career he’d converted for ended after a few months.
He made his name writing satirical fiction. His most famous novel was Die Stadt ohne Juden: Ein Roman von Übermorgen (The City Without Jews: A Novel from the Day After Tomorrow), published in 1922. Set in Vienna, the book satirizes the growing anti-Semitism in politics and culture. A politician named Dr. Karl Schwertfeger, modelled after former mayor of Vienna Karl Lueger who Hitler would write about in glowing terms in Mein Kampf for his anti-Jewish beliefs, orders that all Jews be expelled from Vienna. In a chilling preview of future events, Schwertfeger borrows 30 stock car trains to pack the 200,000 Jews of Vienna (out of 220,000 total in Austria) off to the east. In short order, the city completely falls apart and the politicians beg for the Jews to come back. The novel sold more than 250,000 copies and was translated into multiple languages.
The response from the anti-Semitic parties was immediate and vocal. He was accused of Communism and, in what one hopes is a classical allusion but was probably unironic pomposity, of being a “corruptor of the youth.” Bettauer was even put on trial for these so-called offenses. He was charged with 16 counts of harming public morality. Surprisingly, he was acquitted of all them.
A year later, the novel was being made into a movie by director Hans Karl Breslauer. Keen to avoid some of the controversy around the book, Breslauer changed the setting from Vienna to a fictional city named Utopia and obscured other recognizable real world details. He also emphasized comedic aspects of the story. It didn’t help at all. The film premiered in Vienna on July 25th, 1924, and even though it wasn’t the blockbuster the novel had been, Nazis still protested, causing a ruckus at showings of the film and ramping up their criticisms of Bettauer in the press. Austrian Nazi Kaspar Hellering wrote screeds exhorting the lynching of “polluters of our people” like Bettauer. On March 10th, 1925, Otto Rothstock stepped up to do just that. He shot Bettauer in his office. Two weeks later, Bettauer died of his wounds.
Rothstock claimed he was motivated by Bettauer’s immorality (he advocated free love, wrote and published an erotic lifestyle weekly), but it was no coincidence that he was a former member of the National Socialist party. His financial supporters and legal defenders were either Nazis or had strong ties to the party. Even though he never admitted it, the murder was motivated by anti-Semitism, both against the author’s own Jewishness and the mockery he’d made of anti-Semitism in the book and movie. Rothstock was tried by a sympathetic court and sent to a psychiatric facility. He was released in 18 months.
The movie suffered greatly from state and local censorship. A severely edited and incomplete version of it managed to survive in a Dutch film museum archive (it was rediscovered there in 1991), a miracle in and of itself given the volatility of nitrate film and the toll the war took on Austrian films. Die Stadt ohne Juden is one very few Austrian expressionist films still extant. In October of 2015, a French film collector contacted the Austrian Film Archive to tell them he’d found a film relevant to their interests at a Paris flea market. When the Austrian experts examined the footage, they found it was a version of Die Stadt ohne Juden complete with missing footage and original ending.
It includes the hitherto lost ending of the film, while the other sequences found reveal an obviously dramaturgically staged parallel narrative. Previously unknown images show Jewish life in Vienna with a clear anti-Semitic connotation. The famous expressionist scene featuring Hans Moser in the role of a ruthless anti-Semite is available in its entirety for the first time. All in all, the political message of the film and the depiction of murderous anti-Semitism in Vienna in the wake of World War I are now significantly more sharply articulated. Upon completion of the restoration work, it may be possible to present DIE STADT OHNE JUDEN, more than 90 years after its premiere, in an almost complete and authentic version once again.
To bring this culturally and historically significant movie back to modern audiences, the Austrian Film Archive needed funding, first to copy it from highly explosive nitrate film to a stable medium and then convert it to digital. They started a crowdfounding campaign to raise the 75,500 euros necessary to conserve the film. The campaign exceeded its goal and currently stands at 85,159 euros with hours left to go.