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Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Adolf Hitler down and out in Vienna – Part III: Brigittenau

The Männerheim at Meldemannstraße 25 - 29, Vienna
The Männerheim at Meldemannstraße 25 – 29, Vienna

Part I

Part II

We shall ask Brigitte Hamann (“Hitler’s Vienna”, 1st Ed. Oxford UP 1999, Tauris Parks 2010, ISBN 978-1-84885-277-8) to introduce us to the facility where Adolf Hitler was to live from February 9, 1910 to May 24, 1913:

The six-story men’s hostel in Vienna-Brigittenau, 25 – 29 Meldemannstrasse, was among the most modern in Europe. Opened in 1905, it was funded by the private Emperor Franz Joseph I Anniversary Foundation for Public Housing and Charitable Institutions, which was financed through donations, receiving significant contributions from Jewish families, particularly from Baron Nathaniel Rothschild and the Gutmann family. The hostel was administered by the City of Vienna. The first blueprints caused a stir during an exhibition in the Künstlerhaus (Artists’ House). The hostel was not to have common sleeping areas but individual compartments for each of its up to 544 guests, excellent hygienic conditions, and many social events to enhance “education and sociability.”

Brigittenau, at the outskirts of the city, had many new industrial plants, a great need for labourers, and the most rapid population growth in all of Vienna’s districts. Its population increased from 37,000 in 1890 to 101,000 in 1910. Most new residents were young single men who worked in the new factories and, because there were no cheap apartments, found places to spend the night as lodgers in overcrowded workers’ apartments.

This new men’s hostel was supposed to decrease the number of lodgers and thus protect the compromised morals of their host families. The foundation’s principal trustee, Prince Carl Auersperg, pointed this out on the occasion of Emperor Franz Josef’s visit in 1905: “In particular, this men’s hostel seeks to give an actual example of the … chance to effectively fight the pernicious phenomenon of lodging, to offer single labourers a home instead of the dull and overcrowded emergency quarters, providing not only an affordable place to stay but also providing the opportunity to nourish body and mind.”

Rent for one sleeping place was only 2.5 Kronen per week, an amount a single handyman or craftsman with an annual income of 1,000 Kronen could afford. In Vienna the hostel was thus praised as “a miracle of a divine lodging place on earth” and “a marvel of elegance and affordability.”

Viennese journalist Ernst Kläger, disguised as someone seeking shelter, spent a night at the hostel and wrote an article about it. The area between downtown Vienna and Brigittenau, beyond the Danube Canal, was desolate. … Finally Kläger found the new hostel.

“A large electric arc lamp over the gate guides those who are stumbling up the hill of dug-up soil. Compared to the other, smaller houses around and the bare factory buildings in the back, the shelter looks proud. I open the door and to my surprise find myself in a vestibule which no good hotel would put to shame. I am embraced by comfortable warm air.” The men’s hostel had both electric and gas lights and was heated by a modern, central low-pressure steam heater. At the counter the reporter had no difficulty in obtaining a ticket for one night for thirty Kreuzers (sixty Hellers; one Krone had 100 Hellers, i.e. cents). Kläger described the dining room in the upper mezzanine: “Again I am pleasantly surprised by the elegance of the room, which is lighted by two arc lamps and whose walls are covered halfway up with pale green tiles.”

Then he tried the dirt-cheap food and found the meals “all very good.” The occupants spent only an average of half a Krone per day for food in the hostel – for breakfast, dinner, and snacks – in other words, only approximately fifteen Kronen per month.

Kläger watched the lodgers: “The door opens constantly, and someone in a bad suit, usually a bag under his arm, enters. One could tell that most occupants were incredibly tired.” Because most of them worked during the day, it was quiet in the afternoon. Yet in the evening “it was lively, gregarious, but by no means boisterous, until around ten-thirty.”

There were kitchenettes with gas rings and kitchen utensils for those who wanted to prepare their own food. Cooking teams were formed: one of the unemployed would remain in the hostel, go shopping, and cook for some of the labourers, and in return could eat for free. Initially Hitler tried to cook, but with little success, for according to Reinhold Hanisch, the Upper Austrian milk soup he proudly offered had curdled and turned out more like cheese.

Kläger made his rounds through the shelter and reported: “Right next to the dining room is a large, very nicely furnished reading room with two sections, one for smokers and one for non-smokers. It has dailies and a nice library which is available to the lodgers. Most books are easy-to-digest novels and writings on popular science. There are also desks with the necessary utensils for doing one’s correspondence.” On Sunday afternoons there was entertainment plus the opportunity for continuing education through concerts and lectures. On the lower mezzanine there were laundry and shoe-shining rooms, luggage and bicycle racks, and a cobbler and tailor room.

Residency Card from Sechshauserstrasse, Summer 1909
Residency Card from Sechshauserstrasse, Summer 1909

Hygienic conditions were exemplary: a house doctor practiced for free, offering outpatients services in a “sick room” for minor illnesses. As in all shelters, there was a disinfection room for delousing the newcomers. Apart from lavatories, there were also a shaving room and a shower room with sixteen showers, twenty-five footbaths, and four bathtubs. One bath was twenty-five Heller, about a third of the price in a public bath. All this bore fruit in the cholera year of 1910; the dreaded disease spared the fully occupied men’s hostel.

The sleeping wing, comprising the four top floors, was opened at 8:00 pm and had to be vacated by 9:00 am. It consisted of long rows of tiny, separate sleeping compartments, each measuring 4.6 x 6.9 feet. There was enough room for a bed, a small table, a clothes rack, and a mirror. Permanent guests had their sheets changed every seven days, and one-night guests every day, as in hotels. As an extra convenience, each compartment had a door with a lock and a light bulb. It was probably the first time Hitler had electric light in his room.

Hitler, however, was not prone to sing the praises of the hostel in his later years, for the Führer legend had him sleeping in parks and ditches, which he had done, but only for a few months before moving into the hostel and soon doing comparatively well. For the basic difference between the asylum and the hostel was that the former was the last step, perhaps, before starving or freezing to death, while in the latter, at least in theory, a man could convince himself that he was on the way to a better future. One might be poor but still harbour a ray of hope.

Here we must return to the problem of Reinhold Hanisch’s veracity. He claimed that he followed Hitler into the hostel a few days later, and since Hitler had filed his new address at the Männerheim with the police on February 9, Hanisch would have to have arrived soon afterwards. We do know that Hanisch was frequently seen in the hostel, and did indeed pick up Hitler’s paintings to sell them, but he was still registered at that time at Herzgasse 3/4 in the distant Xth District. The records for Adolf are clear: with one small interruption, he stayed at the Männerheim from February 9, 1910 to May 24, 1913, thirty-nine months. He might have left on errands here and there, but for more than three years the building on Meldemannstrasse was his home – for 2.80 Kronen a week. Poor as the occupants undoubtedly were, the administration tried hard to keep up their dignity. The men could take correspondence courses, apply for the Social Democratic Party’s job placement program, or read the bibles provided by the Catholic Homeless Association. “Ruhe and Ordnung”, silence and order, were strictly enforced, as was a dress code. All in all, the Männerheim provided a calm, monastic atmosphere in which Hitler nicely fit in, except for some political arguments.

Staircase
Staircase

Whether residing in the hostel or not, Hanisch set up their business. The first step was to place Adolf and the art materials recently obtained through Angela’s or Aunt Johanna’s charity into the reading room, non-smoker section. There was a long oak table close to the window, which provided the natural light Adolf needed. The company now supplied the “market for postcard-sized paintings to be sold in taverns or to art dealers, who acquired them not so much for their artistic value as for filling empty frames.” Soon Hitler had realized which motifs were in demand, mostly local sights and nature, and his postcards and small paintings sold rather quickly.

For a few months, the partnership blossomed. Hanisch was easily able to find buyers in the maze of the backstreets, the lanes that meandered between dark taverns and paltry shops, newsstands and tobacconists, but also in the wine gardens of the Prater, and the art shops in the better quarters of the capital. The sums realized initially hovered between five and ten Kronen, which were split fifty-fifty. A business routine slowly established itself and Hitler’s life stabilized, although he still possessed only a single change of clothing.

The reading rooms were the place where the more educated occupants met, of which there were quite a few, former students of the Austrian schools and colleges. They discussed politics and art, money and women, as lonely men do. Some tried to entice neophytes to whatever political cause they believed in, and workers were tolerated in the discussions if they appeared salvageable from the poison of socialism. Sometimes Hitler tried to moderate the debates, as arbiter elegantiarum; this was perhaps a family trait, for we remember his father’s obituary mentioning that Alois was wont to “pronounce authoritatively on any matter that came to his notice.” At other times he just listened, hulked over his work on the long oak table. …

After a couple of months in which the postcard operation worked as planned, something went wrong, but, alas, we do not know what truly happened. Out of the blue, one day Hanisch failed to find his associate at the oak table. Hitler had left the building accompanied by his (Jewish!) friend Josef Neumann: rumour had it that they planned to emigrate to Germany. When they eventually returned, a week later, Hitler avowed that they had only been on a protracted sightseeing trip through the capital. It would seem possible that Hitler and Neumann had tried to open a business sideline: due to the latter’s familiarity with the Jewish side of Vienna’s art trade, Neumann might have been a better business agent than Hanisch. After a week they were back, but Hitler appeared penniless and self-absorbed, as if shocked. His personal relations to both Hanisch and Neumann, who left the hostel on July 12, 1910, were to end soon.

Could the incident be explored, it might offer tantalizing insights. Helene Hanfstaengl, society-sage and wife of Hitler’s first foreign-press agent Ernst Hanfstaengl, and a no-nonsense woman in her own right, reported that Hitler told her more than once that his loathing of Jews was “a personal thing”, and that the genesis of this hate occurred in Vienna. Adolf’s sister Paula later testified to her opinion that his “failure in painting was only due to the fact that trade in works of art was in Jewish hands.”

Perhaps this is the proper place to inquire into the reality of Hitler’s anti-Semitism during the Männerheim years. Hanisch reports, not happily, that at least three Jewish hostel occupants were Hitler’s friends, the aforementioned Neumann, Simon Robinson, born 1864 in Galicia, a locksmith’s assistant, and Siegfried Löffner, born 1872 in Moravia, a salesman. Another witness from the men’s hostel, Karl Honisch [with ‘o’,not to be confused with Hanisch, ¶] mentions another Jewish man, Rudolf Redlich from Moravia, as an acquaintance of Hitler. (32) Hanisch’s discontent was clearly based upon the fact that they all helped Hitler in selling his paintings. Even worse, Hitler soon began to sell his works directly to art dealers, and thus Hanisch was out of game and money. Many of the traders who bought Hitler’s paintings were Jewish (or of Jewish origin): Jakob Altenberg, who converted to Christianity in Vienna and eventually became a rich frame manufacturer, Samuel Morgenstern, who always dealt directly with Hitler and also introduced him to the lawyer Dr. Josef Feingold, who became a steady buyer, and another dealer, named Landsberger. As Brigitte Hamann sums it up, it would appear that Hanisch was the anti-Semite in these years, not Hitler. It is true that from Mein Kampf onwards, Hitler knitted the legend of his early discovery of the damnable role of the Jews, and the hagiography of the Third Reich elevated this doctrine to the status of Holy Writ, but, indeed, the sources before 1919 are either silent on Hitler’s presumed anti-Semitism or actually contradict the dogma. It is true that Hitler learned from the socialists that political propaganda cannot allow for ambiguity: there must be one enemy and only one. Yet it would appear, as we will see later, that Hitler did not begin to develop a coherent anti-Semitic concept until 1919 at the earliest.

It would seem that in this autumn of 1910 Adolf gave the Academy another shot. He secured an appointment with Professor Ritschel, the curator, and brought examples of his work, but nothing came of it; either because the professor denied him entry or because Adolf did not have the funds for a renewed application.

From the little we know, the third rejection perhaps did not surprise him anymore, but for a time deepened his funk; he became even more of a recluse, neither liked nor disliked by the other hostel occupants, living in a dissonant universe of his own design. …

Meanwhile he had become an institution himself, a part of the hostel’s inventory. His demeanour had changed somewhat and he had recovered some of his old confidence: to the fellow occupants that clustered around the oak table and admired his work in statu nascendi, he confessed that he was only toying around; that he had not yet learned how to paint properly, that they should not take these efforts too seriously. In 1944, he admitted to photographer Heinrich Hoffmann that “Even today these things [i.e. paintings, ¶] shouldn’t cost more than 150 or 200 Reichsmark. It is insane to spend more than that on them. After all, I didn’t want to become an artist, I painted the stuff only to make a living and afford going to school.” If he sought artistic pleasure, he did architectural drawings, not watercolours. In some way, the work gave his life back the element of structure that it had lost when he ditched school; now he spent his days in the sort of dependability developed by men who neither fear nor hope for change.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

Part I

Part II

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2 Comments

  1. Desert Sage

    Quite interesting. I never knew much about this time of Hitler’s life.

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