The Vienna of old days! How was it like? What kind of people would one meet while walking on its streets? Was it a crowded, colorful, noisy and vibrant place comparable to modern metropolises, or was it rather a quiet, dignified, and, perhaps, even a boring old European city? It was, after all, a capital of a huge Empire hosting several dozens nationalities, so at least some color it must have had! The Vienna of Ludwig von Mises’s youth, we learn in the second chapter, had all the elements of modernity we tend to associate with that glorious age of enormous cultural and technological advancements â€“ the emergence of the electric light on the streets, first telephone lines, the plumbing system, first motor vehicles that began to displace horse carriages, and, of course, the famous music of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Strauss.
Along the marvels of modern material civilization that we take for granted, nineteenth century Vienna had an advantage that many of us today think it simply cannot exist in this world, not anymore â€“ the serenity of a deeply dignified place where the Emperor himself could drive in his carriage fearlessly being accompanied “by his equally elderly adjutantâ€! Try to make a trip (make sure you are diving in a fast enough car) through certain areas in New York or Berlin and you will be able to imagine the difference. Or just observe how our statesmen appear in the public: with a security personnel armed to the teeth and numerous enough to occupy Paris.
The Viennese weren’t a homogeneous crowd but they shared quite a few qualities that made them so special: the music and the passion for serious intellectual debates ran through virtually all strata of society.
Mises’s family moved from Galicia to Vienna, when Ludwig was six years old or so, as part of a significant influx of Jewish intellectual and business elite coming from all corners of Austria-Hungary. Vienna was relatively small, even by standards of the time, so the density of highly educated and motivated people must have been simply astonishing.
Growing up and going to school under such conditions was certainly a constant thrill for young Ludwig, who already in his teenage years appears to have formed a definite idea about the German Historical School. For example, this school advanced the notion that modern liberal society was no good allegedly because there were no such instances in the past! Mises, of course, found such “argumentsâ€ pure nonsense.
The school years were anything but easy. Graduating from a gymnasium (comparable to high-school in the US) meant to undergo years of intense studies of Latin, Greek, mathematics, and classical literature. The details of the educational system are rather frightening and they made me seriously wonder if I would have survived such a gruelsome treatment.
However, amidst the admirable politeness and civility, ethnic and social conflicts were a constant problem. We must not forget that the nineteenth century was far from being an age exclusively of the free-market’s reign. Socialistic ideas in all their ugly variety seemed to have thrived along the economic progress brought by capitalism. A good portion of the chapter is devoted to a fascinating account of various socialistic parties, the rise and fall of Marxism as a serious economic and sociological doctrine.