With Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif’s one-day trip back to Tehran for consultations with supreme leader Ali Khamenei, it was a slow day for the nuclear talks here in the Austrian capital. Journalists are shuttling back and forth between the press tent and the lobby of the adjacent Marriott where Iranian intelligence officers, many of them posing as journalists, unabashedly photograph and film anyone that catches their attention. I opted out and spent the morning wandering around the city.
It’s a small city, say Viennese. It’s a very small city, several Viennese have now told me. It’s true Vienna has only 1.5 million residents, but it’s the former capital of a mighty empire. And the scale of the city—its monumental architecture, and broad avenues— is appropriately imperial. But for current residents, Vienna perhaps resembles the enormously oversized wardrobe of an ancestor with exquisite, if impossible, taste. That is, Vienna isn’t small—it’s the Austrians that got smaller. The country is unable to project power even in its near abroad and thus its foreign policy is driven entirely by business concerns. And that’s one reason why the Austrians are happy to host this round of the P5+1 talks—an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program means business opportunities for Austrian industry.
And then there’s also something fitting about the talks being held here. For quite a while now Vienna has served as something of a crossroads where opponents meet, or at least intersect, even if they don’t quite yet understand they’re adversaries. This path was blazed even before the Cold War when Vienna was a center for both Western intelligence services and their Eastern bloc adversaries. After all, this is the city whose famous late 19th-century mayor Karl Lueger, an anti-Semitic populist, shaped the thinking of two very different Vienna residents, one who plotted to destroy the Jews, and another who sought to restore them to their national homeland.
Maybe we should call such circumstance “the Café Central phenomenon,” since this Vienna coffee shop, now well over a century old, is the staging ground of so much twentieth-century historical coincidence. Both Adolf Hitler and Theodor Herzl were regulars here, though there is no chance they met since Herzl died before Hitler started hanging out there. However, according to the great Austrian-American writer Fredric Morton, who died this April at age 90, Hitler surely crossed paths with the future dictator of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, as well as Lenin and Trotsky.
It was a sunny morning, so after I peeked inside at Café Central’s beautiful art deco furnishings, I took a table outside and ordered a coffee. I tried to listen for the echoes of old arguments reverberating in the courtyard. I didn’t want to hear what Hitler might have to say or Lenin either, but Trotsky and Herzl, who also never met, that I’d want to listen in on. Also I wanted to hear Freud, another patron, have it out with the Vienna Circle of logical positivists, who also met here. If the Vienna Circle believed in a philosophy premised on enlightenment values, empirical science, where did Freud stand? Or rather, to what extent did Freud want to map unreason like a man of science, or was he rather meaning to tap something untamed, that large part of the human psyche that escapes reason, and does not partake of the enlightenment?
Maybe Herzl was the only one who saw it coming—not just what would happen to the Jews but to the rest of civilization as well, how vulnerable it was. And it’s worth recalling he only came to see this after placing too much faith in civilization. If France, the leading light of modernity, could turn on the Jews, then it could happen anywhere. Anti-Semitism wasn’t for the Jews to solve—that was a problem for the societies sick and rotten with anti-Semitism. The issue for the Jews was to build their own state.