KnowledgeBase Erwachsenenbildung

Who is Who?

“The intellectual liberation of the city”, or the scientific, artistic and literary avantgarde in early adult education

Before the term “public relations” was coined in the media age and was applied in practice in art, culture and science, adult education centres played a unique role as platforms for the passing on of education and knowledge and for the popularization of art and culture beyond the bourgeois salons. Up until 1934, when lecturers were removed from the programme in a first purge by the Austrofascist system, then continuing up until shortly before the Anschluss in 1938, the adult education centres provided a platform that was willingly used by people who had made a great name for themselves and by those who wanted to do the same. They came from the fields of literature, art, music, the natural sciences, law and political theory or economics and used this platform to introduce and increase the popularity of their subject areas and artistic productions beyond the narrow circle of experts in the subject.

One of the most prominent events is linked to the name Albert Einstein. In January 1921, the Urania invited the world famous physicist to come to Vienna to give a public lecture on the general and special theories of relativity in front of more than 3000 listeners in the Wiener Konzerthaus.

Besides the Wiener Volksbildungsverein and the Urania, it was mainly the Volkshochschule (Volksheim) Ottakring that attracted a large number of well-known personalities in the 1920s. This first Volksuniversität (“People’s University”) was supported and promoted by Ludwig Boltzmann, Ernst Mach, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Rosa Mayreder, Ferdinand von Saar, Karl Seitz, Eugen Philippovich, Eduard Sueß, and Emil Zuckerkandl, just to name a few. It was financially supported by Karl Wittgenstein and the Rothschild family. H. G. Wells, the president of the PEN Club, donated books. Despite the fact that he did not attend any courses, records indicate that Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was a full member – even though his renegade student, Alfred Adler, to a large extent dominated the content and teaching of the psychology courses offered by the “People’s University”. Thus it is not very surprising that such a location reflected the scientific and cultural happenings of that time through the names of its lecturers. Among them were Hans Kelsen and Adolf Loos; prominent representatives of the Vienna Circle such as Otto Neurath or Friedrich Waismann gave lectures on philosophy and mathematics; Josef Polnauer and Paul Amadeus Pisk, both students of Schönberg, were the directors of the professional music group (Musikfachgruppe) and the music unit (Musikreferat); Kurt Pahlen was the head of the theatre studio (Theaterstudio) and Walter Sorell of the opera studio (Opernstudio).

The adult education centres were places for social exchange and intensive intellectual discourse in the form of courses, lectures, discussions, reading books and magazines in the comfortable reading rooms and the often well-stocked libraries of the individual sections. Chamber music concerts, theatre performances, choir performances, art exhibitions, Kulturfilme (documentary films) or author readings brought the lay public closer to different forms of artistic expression.

A number of writers whose names represent the Wiener Moderne (“Viennese Modernism”) and part of whom were already well-known or had just started to become successful at the time introduced their works to a broader public at the Volkshochschule Ottakring. Thus, Arthur Schnitzler read from the book Grüner Kakadu in 1902. After World War I, people flocked to the lecture halls when authors such as Alfons Petzold, Franz Karl Ginzkey, Felix Salten, Anton Wildgans, Egon Friedell, Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, Franz Theodor Csokor, Elias Canetti, Heimito von Doderer, Karl Brunngraber, Theodor Kramer or Stefan Zweig gave readings of their works. In 1929, the Danish writer Martin Andersen-Nexö read in front of 500 listeners at the Urania. Hermann Broch gave several lectures at the Volkshochschule (Volksheim) Ottakring. In one of them, he gave a premiere reading from his yet unpublished novel Die Schlafwandler (“The Sleepwalkers”) and in another he introduced young Elias Canetti to the public for the first time. Thanks to the Volkshochschule (Volksheim) Ottakring, the literary talents of young poet and playwright Anton Wildgans as well as Jean Améry were discovered and fostered. Améry received much support from this institution and for many years it was his intellectual home, first as a student and later as the director of a small book shop in Zirkusgasse and as a lecturer for literature.

Many of the lecturers and the administrative employees had to take flight and emigrate after the Anschluss in 1938 or lost their lives in Nazi concentration camps. This “expulsion of reason” hit the adult education centres very hard since the (Jewish) intellectuals, scientists, artists, writers or musicians that had been forced to flee or had been murdered had made crucial contributions to the flair and character of these educational institutions for the general public.

The exodus of the country’s literary, artistic and scientific intelligentsia meant a consequential and sustainable defeat for the other Austria, the democratic Austria.
Selected bibliography Links