- Alone in the City:Hugo Bettauer's Er und Sie
Scholarship on German and Austrian Jewish topics of the early twentieth century is inevitably influenced by our knowledge of what is to follow. Whether we view Weimar culture as part of a continuous tradition that contains the roots of National Socialism, or a moment of unprecedented freedom and creativity cut short in 1933, we cannot forget about the Third Reich and the Holocaust. This lens not only impacts how we interpret texts produced in the interwar period, it also influences which texts we choose to read. Current scholarship on Hugo Bettauer and his writings demonstrates the limitations of such an approach. In recent years there has been renewed interest in his novel Die Stadt ohne Juden, an interest sparked in large part by the rediscovery and restoration of the film version in the 1990s. The 1922 novel and the 1924 film have been read as tragically prophetic warnings about National Socialism, as they portray a city that decides to solve its economic crisis by expelling all the Jews. This reading of the texts as prophetic of anti-Semitic violence is influenced by the murder of Bettauer (himself Jewish) at the hands of a dental assistant with Nazi affiliations. Our readings of these texts and of Bettauer's life create a cause and effect explanation for Bettauer's death - he was the victim of those anti-Semitic elements of Viennese culture that he astutely wrote about.
The validity of this causal relationship is challenged by a closer look at Bettauer's other writings and their reception. This article argues that the majority of Bettauer's writings did not focus on specifically Jewish topics and that this absence is itself significant. By looking at these texts, in particular Bettauer's short-lived periodical Er und Sie: Wochenschrift für Lebenskultur und Erotik, which appeared in five weekly issues, from 14 February to 13 March of 1924, this article shows how Bettauer positioned himself as a nonjudgmental giver of advice, someone who could help others navigate the confusing and often lonely circumstances of urban life. As such, Bettauer and his writings fit into another category of Jewish identity, that of the assimilated, secular, cosmopolitan Jew. This position is one that relies on a universalization of modern alienation, so as to make the outsider someone who can speak for others. At the same time, it is also rooted in a specific historical and cultural context and it is not a coincidence that so many of the writers concerned with questions of modernity and urban alienation - writers such as Georg Simmel, Siegfried Kracauer, and Walter Benjamin - were of Jewish ancestry. In this [End Page 559] context, we might also see Bettauer as another kind of victim, to the extent that the attacks on him and his work demonstrate the rejection of a notion of the universal stranger that includes Jews. This article argues that in Bettauer's writings we can see an insistence on the possibility of agency within the modern city and on the possibility of an individual to decide how to live his or her life, and that this insistence has in part to do with his Jewish identity. Bettauer is both a victim and a privileged stranger; these discourses are not in opposition to one another, but rather interact to create a more complicated position. On a broader level this position is about the relationship between discourses of urban modernity and those of Jewish identity in interwar Germany and Austria, a relationship that both creates the possibility of individual freedom and limits it.
What follows expands and augments how others have seen Bettauer and how he positioned himself. The discussion begins with Bettauer's background and examines some of the writings about him and his work in ways that challenge the current narrative that sees Bettauer's role solely as that of a victim of anti-Semitism. It considers in particular Béla Balázs's article about Bettauer and how Balázs navigates various forms of Jewish identity and tries to find a balance between them. It then looks at Er und Sie and how Bettauer used the...