Vienna's terrorist ordeal this week is a reminder of past nightmares

The enemies of Western civilisation respect neither borders nor politics. The peoples of Europe stand or fall together. Op-ed.

Daniel Johnson ,

Austria's Parliament building in Vienna
Austria's Parliament building in Vienna
iStock

In this week’s terrorist attack on Vienna, a lone Islamist targeted innocent people enjoying one last drink before lockdown, killing three of them. Here in Britain, few will be deterred by this monstrous assault from taking the opportunity to raise a glass tonight, even though the alert level was immediately raised to “severe” by the Home Secretary.

The lesson should not lost on any of us: the enemies of Western civilisation respect neither borders nor politics. The peoples of Europe stand or fall together — and for these purposes at least, the British are very much still Europeans.

The Viennese had hitherto been spared the terror to which Parisians and Londoners have become accustomed in the past few decades. Taking a longer historical perspective, however, the Austrian capital is no stranger to the clash of Christianity and Islam. Besieged by the Ottomans in the 16th and 17th centuries, Vienna was also Europe’s gateway for Turkish influence, as its coffeehouses still testify. Mozart and Beethoven wrote popular tunes alla turca. By 1900 Vienna had become one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the Continent and the Habsburg empire had developed a relatively tolerant relationship with its millions of non-Christian subjects.

Once the imperial city had become the oversized capital of a much-diminished Austria, however, that tolerance seemed to evaporate. No sooner had Hitler annexed his native land in 1938, than the largest Jewish community in Europe was successively humiliated, expropriated and murdered. Few of the Jews who escaped ever returned.

The postwar Vienna depicted in The Third Man is a haunted, sinister place, its cultural pre-eminence and open society merely a distant memory. Anti-Semitism had not ebbed away even long after the Holocaust: it resurfaced in the late 1980s during the Waldheim affair and has been exploited by the far Right ever since.

Today’s Vienna is once again a city of art and music, even if it feels a little provincial compared to the intellectual powerhouse of the past. The Viennese are proud to be a multicultural microcosm of modern Europe. Monday’s onslaught took place next door to a synagogue and mosques, too, are dotted around the periphery. Outside Vienna, Austrians are often fearful of foreigners: up to a third of them vote for the anti-immigrant Freedom Party.

Hence the appeal from the Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, to his compatriots not to allow this week’s attack to divide the nation. Vienna, he said, had lost its sense of security as an “isle of the blessed”, but he refused to fall into the trap of identifying Muslims with terrorists. Alluding to the Nazi past, he proclaimed: “Our enemy is never all those who belong to a single religious community. Our enemy is never all the people who come from a particular country. No, our enemies are extremists and terrorists.”

These are noble sentiments with which it is hard to disagree. Unfortunately for Europe, the Turkish President Erdogan seems determined to elide the distinction between Islam as a faith, which is entirely compatible with Western values, and Islam as a radical ideology, which is not. Political Islam, usually referred to as Islamism, has been the basis of Erdogan’s domination of Turkey over the last two decades. His claim to represent European Muslims may be bogus, but many of the imams on the Continent are Turkish and Erdogan has repeatedly sought to exercise influence in Germany, France and elsewhere.

Now he is engaged in a war of words with Emmanuel Macron, who has vowed to curtail his influence and that of other Muslim countries. Macron has challenged the use of “Islamophobia” as a wedge issue to silence criticism.

Yet many European Muslims inhabit a parallel universe in which the authorities turn a blind eye to barbaric or antisocial cultural practices, while young people are often forced to choose between their families and their freedom. When terrrorism and demagogy are added to resentment of a ghetto existence, the result can be explosive.

Vienna is no longer the intellectual heart of Europe. That Vienna died or was dispersed in the 1930s. Those who want to learn more about how it happened should consult the excellent new book about the Vienna Circle of philosophers by David Edmonds: The Murder of Professor Schlick (Princeton University Press, £22). Yet this ancient Danubian metropolis remains one of the most elegant and civilised cities on earth.

We must hope that this week’s rude awakening from Vienna’s dreams of past glory does not lead to a resurgence of past horrors — either in Austria or across Europe. As Goya’s chilling engraving reminds us, the sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

Daniel Johnson is the founding Editor of TheArticle. For two decades he was a senior editor, editorial writer and columnist for The Times and the Daily Telegraph, before leaving to set up Standpoint magazine, which he edited for 10 years. He contributes regularly to Daily Mail, Wall Street Journal, Commentary, New Criterion, National Review and other papers, magazines and websites.@DANBJOHN| @DANBJOHNSON

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