Two Histories From Austria: Hitler and the Habsburgs & Hedy’s Folly

Although it was overshadowed by the US Election Day beginning the next morning, on November 2 there was a terror attack in my former home of Vienna. I lived there for more than seven years and met my husband there, so it’ll always be a place precious to me, even if I was very ready to leave when I did.

The shootings in and around the Bermudadreieck, a popular area of bars and cafes in the old city center just across the river from my husband’s employer felt all the more harrowing for the familiarity of the scene. It’s one thing to have distance from these kind of events and another to know how the very air feels there, and how the light falls on the tiny side streets at night, and exactly where there are dips in the cobblestones you’d have to avoid if you were running. I’ve lived in four major cities, three in Europe, and this was the fourth of those to experience a terror attack. It exhausts me as much as it sickens me. I know news coverage of scary events is sensationalized and overblown, but an attack in Vienna, a place that prides itself on being safe and secure (one murder will make news headlines for like, weeks) shook something deep in me.

Anyway, I mention this because Vienna really means so much to me and Austria is a place that doesn’t often get a lot of attention outside of Europe, or maybe only attention for very bad reasons. The biggest and baddest being Hitler, its most (in)famous native son. Although they’d certainly prefer Arnold Schwarzenegger hold that title. But it’s probably Hitler.

Austria is also known for being the historical seat of the Habsburgs, the monarchy whose vast empire once spanned much of Europe (honestly, I don’t think the Austrians have forgotten that, but I digress.)

Historian and professor James Longo’s Hitler and the Habsburgs (a last-year Nonfiction November suggestion from Eva @ The Paperback Princess!) is a concise history that gets straight to the point of why Hitler had a bee in his bonnet towards the Habsburgs during his infamous time living down ‘n out in Vienna as a failing art student.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the central Habsburg at that time, a modernist and more liberal especially compared to Kaiser Franz Josef, who’d ruled the Austrian Empire for nearly sixty years by the time of his death in 1916. If Franz Ferdinand had lived, history most certainly would’ve taken a very different course, as he espoused a more multicultural global perspective and wasn’t shackled by the conservative restraints that characterized Franz Josef.

Hitler’s biggest beef with Franz Ferdinand was the latter’s multiculturalism, and in fact the Austrian Empire was quite a melting pot of cultures, languages, and nationalities. Even Austria today, tiny country that it is, is a polyglot’s dream. On the streets of Vienna you hear so many languages and easily meet people from as varied a range of backgrounds as you do in New York. How satisfying, then, that what Hitler wanted most for Vienna he didn’t achieve.

The book opens with scenes from the Hotel Imperial, which still stands on the Kärntner Ring Road in the city center, a symbol of old-world luxury (I’ve stayed there for work; very fancy-shmancy). It was a symbol to Hitler too, returning triumphantly to the most luxurious address in the city that had rejected him, ready to impose his vision of an Aryan world as far removed from Franz Ferdinand’s multiculturalism as he could possibly make it. His vendetta against the storied family even extended to the imprisonment in Dachau of Franz Ferdinand’s two sons — the first Austrians arrested by the Gestapo following the 1938 Anschluss.

It’s fast-paced and doesn’t get bogged down in extensive history while still providing all the context a reader would need to understand its main events. The highlight is really a look at Hitler’s psychology, disturbing as that may be. It’s not a far leap from the snubs and inferiority he felt to needing someone to take the blame for it, and an aristocracy interested in multiculturalism was an easy target for his hatred.

It’s also incredibly up to date, following the surviving Habsburgs up to the time of its publication in 2018. Even if you’ve read plenty of WWII history, this still adds something new, and the perspective of Hitler’s angry relationship to Austrian institutions, even his curiously split feelings during his early time as Chancellor, is a fascinating one. (He personally helped multiple Jewish people emigrate, including a doctor who’d treated his mother before her death!)

Hitler and the Habsburgs: The Vendetta Against the Austrian Royals, by James Longo, published November 2018 by Diversion Books. Bookshop.org

And perhaps Austria’s most famous native daughter is Hedy Lamarr. Often labeled the world’s most beautiful woman, she lived a troubled life, and didn’t get the credit for her invention of radio frequency hopping, a technology that allows us for bluetooth, WiFi, GPS, cordless and cellular phones — basically anything that uses wireless technology. Don’t make me explain more of how it works because I really didn’t understand and although the language used in this book was clear and simple, my mind when it comes to technology is simpler.

What stuck with me is that Hedy was so affected by seeing a German U-Boat attack a ship of British refugee children that she was spurred to develop the technology so that Allied submarines could utilize radio to thwart such attacks. Hedy herself had emigrated to the US to flee the growing animosity towards Jews in Europe, as well as to escape her suffocating marriage to an older Viennese businessman, and it was touching to see how doggedly she insisted on contributing to the American war effort.

Hedy’s Folly begins by looking at her early life, growing up in a Jewish family in Vienna, and then at her inventing partnership with George Antheil, a pianist and composer who the author frequently reminds us was a “bad boy.” I still don’t know what that actually means, despite that he just sounded like a self-important philandering ass who wrote letters to his wife about how he was being “good” and not cheating on her. So good; many thanks. I didn’t want to read a book about that, and way too much of this book was about him. Skim city.

The beginning is superb: beautifully written and entirely compelling as it lays the foundations of Hedy’s life, her attraction to acting and early sexualization as a teenager in a boundary-pushing “erotic” film, and her quick marriage to the much older, very rich and very controlling Fritz Mandl, an arms manufacturer. And then it completely falls apart.

It becomes less a biography of Lamarr than of Antheil. There are throwaway lines about seemingly major events in Hedy’s life — like that she disowned her adopted son. Curious, I gave that a quick google and found that allegedly, he was actually her biological son, born while she was married to a man who wasn’t his father. The drama! More on this, please!

We went to an exhibit “Lady Bluetooth,” at the Jewish Museum in Vienna this summer that also brushed over her inventions, which is why I sought out this book in the first place. She is indeed impossibly gorgeous, and as much as I like looking at pictures of her, she wanted to do something more than act and pose and only got a tiny bit of recognition for her non-Hollywood achievements very late in her life.

It must be difficult to source accurate information about her when biographies and museum exhibits fail beyond the superficial. And yet the exhibit also gave the impression of a very sad person, especially later in her life. The Hedy who speaks in these pages though is bold, self-assertive, and presses on after every setback or “folly.” But she clearly struggled in many ways too, and we don’t see that. The chapters switch to Antheil, who’s only interesting in connection to the work he did with Hedy and his whole biography, even intersecting as it does with some of the Parisian artistic and literary set of the time, was tedious.

The technical aspects of the inventions were written very drily, so I didn’t get much out of them. What comes across is how badly she wanted to be recognized for her contributions in inventing, and not only remembered for her beauty, which ultimately meant very little to her.

Have you read a better biography of Hedy? I’ve heard mixed things about Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr, but I was so disappointed in Hedy’s Folly, especially after its outstanding opening chapters, that I can’t imagine something being worse. Maybe the definitive biography on this mysterious woman remains to be written.

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes, published November 2011 by Doubleday. Bookshop.org

12 thoughts on “Two Histories From Austria: Hitler and the Habsburgs & Hedy’s Folly

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  1. Pity about the Hedy biography but the Hitler one sounds fascinating.

    I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t even know there was an attack in Vienna, I’ve been so consumed with the election and post-election madness. I’m so sorry. It must feel so much more real and horrific when it’s a place you know intimately.

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    1. It was so interesting, he framed that bit of history and psychology really well.

      Yeah, the attack in Vienna was almost completely overshadowed by the election. Maybe it’s almost a positive, because the more news these things stir up the more potential for copycat crimes and the like. It was extremely upsetting, especially as my husband is still there. It feels bad to say that it hits harder when it’s somewhere you know but it does have a different impact.

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  2. Sorry about the biography, I hate it when those are so misleading about their contents — i.e. they end up being more about someone other than the titular subject (who is there to sell the book).

    On the Habsburgs, I just finished Danubia by Simon Winder, a very different take on a similar subject. He takes quite a dim view of Franz Ferdinand, I did not at all get the sense that if he had lived things would have taken a liberal and multicultural direction. But we can never really know, will we?

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    1. That’s a good point, they find a selling point and then don’t stick to it.

      I think there’s some historical disagreement around Franz Ferdinand but hard to know since there wasn’t time for much to happen. The argument this author makes is that the Habsburg multiculturalism is what annoyed Hitler though. Did you like Danubia? I have an ebook copy I bought on sale but I really didn’t like the author’s other book, Germania, so I’ve never been motivated to read it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If you didn’t like Germania I can’t imagine you would like the other one! I quite enjoyed it but I can see that it would be annoying if you don’t take to his style. I did learn something about the area and its history, but in a jumbled and opinionated sort of way. I’m going to post a review soon actually.

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      2. Yeah I found his style very grating, and opinionated was a good word for it. The humor didn’t quite chime with me either but I thought I’d heard elsewhere that Danubia was a bit different and I know that region better so was interested in giving it a try. Looking forward to your review!

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      3. Hmmmm… I fear you may be even more annoyed by it if you know and love that region well. I appreciated that the book got me thinking about some of the issues there, but need to read some other books about it, for balance and less biased information.

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  3. Terror attacks really are a new level of disturbing when you have some personal connection to where they take place. There was a shooting within the last year (but pre-Covid) at a local festival I’d been thinking of going to and it made me feel a lot more aware of the fragility of our sense of safety than more distant news.

    Ugh, I can’t believe a bio on an already overlooked female inventor ended up devoting so much time to her male colleague instead! That sounds quite disappointing. I’m happy to see her name come up so much more often now though. My perception, at least, is that a lot more people have become aware of her work in the past few years. My office even has a conference room named after her 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There really is something about the familiar being the thing that shatters the sense of security. It must be a defense mechanism we have in place for processing news when it happens elsewhere or something.

      Yes, you put that perfectly: “a bio on an already overlooked female inventor ended up devoting so much time to her male colleague instead.” I couldn’t have said it better. So disappointing. It does seem like she’s getting more recognition in the mainstream though, as you said, so at least there’s that. That’s so cool that you have a conference room named after her too! 🙂

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