Thunder at Twilight

Vienna 1913/1914


By Frederic Morton

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Thunder at Twilight is a landmark historical vision, drawing on hitherto untapped sources to illuminate two crucial years in the life of the extraordinary city of Vienna-and in the life of the twentieth century.

It was during the carnival of 1913 that a young Stalin arrived in Vienna on a mission that would launch him into the upper echelon of Russian revolutionaries, and it was here that he first collided with Trotsky. It was in Vienna that the failed artist Adolf Hitler kept daubing watercolors and spouting tirades at fellow drifters in a flophouse. Here Archduke Franz Ferdinand had a troubled audience with Emperor Franz Joseph-and soon the bullet that killed the Archduke would set off the Great War that would kill ten million more.

With luminous prose that has twice made him a finalist for the National Book Award, Frederic Morton evokes the opulent, elegant, incomparable sunset metropolis-Vienna on the brink of cataclysm.





The Hound
The Darkness Below
Asphalt and Desire
The Witching Ship
The Schatten Affair
Snow Gods
An Unknown Woman
The Forever Street


The Rothschilds
A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889
Crosstown Sabbath: A Street Journey Through History


VIENNA 1913/1914


TO M. C. M.




IN JULY 1916, FRITZ MANDELBAUM, A JUNIOR OFFICER IN AUSTRIA’S Seventh Army on the Russian front, near the river Dnjestr, was shot in the abdomen and died shortly thereafter. Twenty-four years later the name suffered erasure again. This time it was borne by a refugee boy arriving in New York in 1940. His father changed the family’s name. Fritz Mandelbaum became Frederic Morton.

In a way this book is a memorial to the first Fritz Mandelbaum—my uncle—and to the more than ten million who died with him in the Great War. But since much of this book is set in Vienna, it is also an exploration of history backstage. The baroque died in Vienna with flamboyant afterquivers while at the same time some peculiar force here generated energies that would shake the new century. Here were streets uniquely charged with both nostalgia and prophecy. Three of my recent books have tried to penetrate the phenomenon.

My novel The Forever Street centered on a family of Jewish manufacturers in Austria, from fin de siecle to Anschluss; it is based on the real-life Mandelbaum factory whose machines stamped out Habsburg military decorations, then political badges for the successor republic; then, suddenly and just as smoothly, Wehrmacht medals after the Nazis took it over in 1938.

My nonfiction work A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889 is an account of the months before and after the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf. The story ends on the Saturday of the Easter weekend of 1889, when Rudolf’s sarcophagus was consecrated at the hour of Adolf Hitler’s birth.

The present book deals with the events, ideas, unpredictabilities and inevitabilities surrounding the death of the next Crown Prince, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The bullet that tore into his jugular sounded the initial shot in the most devastating slaughter mankind had known so far. It set off the dynamics leading to World War II. In other words, it galvanized a Zeitgeist whose consequences live today in the international news, on the street corner, in encounter sessions, on the canvases of Soho galleries. Many of the threads of the scene all around us were first spun along the Danube in the year and a half preceding the thrust of that pistol at the Archduke’s head.

Imperial Austria has become a byword for melodious decay. It also stoked—crucially—the ferment that is the idiom of modernity. Why did that happen just then and just there? And how? In what twists of the labyrinth did the world of the first Fritz Mandelbaum fragment into the world of the second? Is there a pattern to the maze? The pages that follow attempt an answer.


I cannot begin to tell you the flavor of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a ramshackle affair
but it was charming, gay and I experienced more
kindness [here]. . . . than ever before or since in my
life. Times past cant return, but I wish they were


And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went

The Waste Land



ON THE EVENING OF JANUARY 13, 1913, VIENNA’S BANK EMPLOYEES’ Club gave a Bankruptcy Ball. It was the height of pre-Lenten carnival—in mid-winter at its meanest. Ice floes shivered down the Danube, galas sparkled inside baroque portals, and the bankruptcy gambol really warmed the Viennese imagination.

A number of ladies appeared as balance sheets, displaying voluptuous debits curving from slender credits. Othe7rs came as collateral. Their assets, ready to be garnisheed, were accented sometimes with a decolletage, sometimes with a bustle. Thin men were costumed as deposits, fat men as withdrawals. Sooner or later everybody ended up at Debtors’ Prison—the restaurant of the Blumensaal where the festivity was held. Here mortgage certificates served as doilies for Sachertortes. Ornamented with the bailiffs seal, eviction notices made colorful centerpieces; each was topped by a bowl of whipped cream. If you wrote your waiter an I.O.U., he would pour you a goblet of champagne.

The merriment increased steadily until 5 A.M. when the orchestra leader stopped his men, suddenly, in the middle of the Emperor Waltz. To great laughter he announced that since the musicians still hadn’t been paid, there would be no more music.

The next day parliament voted on the flotation of a bond issue; its proceeds would subsidize the installation of plumbing into apartments that had none. In working class districts like Hernals and Favoriten most families must use outside toilets and corridor sinks. The bill was killed. Such news would anger the toiling poor when they read about it later. It did not affect their carnival routine. Many trudged to work with their ball clothes in a paper bag. Changing at home would have meant an extra streetcar ride beyond their means. Therefore they went directly from wee-hours waltz to morning shift. Before the lunch bell sounded, soot had grayed the confetti in their hair.

That week glacial winds punished the streets. But—rare for Vienna in the winter—the sun shone. In the center of town the Ringstrasse, a palatial wreath of a boulevard, glowed like a mirage. The snow capping its hundreds of rooftop statues looked more marmoreal than the imitation marble of the figures. During carnival everything Viennese seemed to revel in being what it was not.

On the night of January 18, for example, Prince Auersperg gave a “Bucolic Lark” at his palais. The Duke of Teck made an entrance in the homespun of a shepherd. Prince zu Windischgrätz honed his sickle with a weariness as peasant-y as his leather-shorts. Princess Festetics and Countess Potocka, milkmaids, in dirndls authentic down to the grease stains on their bodices, swung pails.

The greengrocer Mataschek, on the other hand, threw a Fancy House Ball in his basement store. Turnips and potatoes had been cleared away to make a dance floor. Produce crates impersonated tables and chairs. For the price of a beer, Mataschek’s uncle, though blind at eight-two, had agreed to scrape some three-quarter time out of a violin borrowed from the pawn shop around the corner. He struck up the first bars of the Fledermaus overture when—behold!—Alois, the cobbler’s apprentice, sauntered over to Nandl, the chambermaid. A blue-blooded lieutenant of the hussars could not have improved his bow. She curtsied almost as impeccably. Together they swept into the waltz.

In the Vienna of January 1913, illusion and reality embraced elegantly, seamlessly. The smoothness of their mingling affected even the publisher of The Truth. He was a firebrand from Russia, in charge of a Vienna-based monthly that became a fortnightly whenever he could scrounge enough funds. He called his paper Pravda—that is, The Truth as seen by his cause, the revolution. Vienna was not an ideal place of exile, as he would write later in his autobiography: He would have preferred Berlin, but the police were more lethargic by the Danube.

Still, under that January’s arctic sun, he entered wholeheartedly into the Viennese spirit of intimate contradiction. With his wife and his two blond boys he began the day by freezing in style. During winter the family occupied a villa in the fashionable suburb of Huetteldorf—at a very low rent. It was not winterized. When it became too cold, he left the house to warm up the Viennese way, in a coffeehouse. On the street, this professional insurgent, nemesis of the upper classes, showed a touch of the lordly flaneur. His clothes were simple but well cut; his black hair handsomely combed. Even the pince-nez on his nose managed a certain dash. Under his arm he carried the latest French novel. He read it on the tram ride to the center of town.

A ceremonious welcome awaited him at the Café Central. “Oh, a very good morning, Herr Doktor Trotsky,” the head-waiter said. “My compliments. Compliments also from Herr Doktor Adler who much regrets he will not be available for chess today as he has a psychoanalytic emergency. A mocha as usual? And the London Times? The Berlin Vorwärts?”

Dr. Trotsky nodded. He sipped his steaming mocha. His scrutiny of newspapers in various languages produced political jottings in his notebook. But he also played litterateur among the literati; argued rather charmingly with a neighbor about Stefan Zweig’s feuilleton in the Neue Freie Presse; exchanged repartee here, kissed a hand there—in short, practiced the Viennese brand of courtliness, that is, the art of maintaining an entirely pleasant mask over a psyche of usually mixed emotions.

It was a courtliness he would preach nine years later from the Kremlin as co-ruler with Lenin over the Soviet Union. “Civility and politeness,” his booklet Problems of Life would instruct the proletariat, “Civility and politeness and cultured speech are a necessary lubricant in daily relationships.” In 1913 he was just a hand-to-mouth expatriate, but he lived in a city lavish with civilities (if short on a few other things), and he was a quick study. He read his French novel during the ride home, where he proceeded to edit a Pravda article (on the new strikes in Moscow) in his unheated mansion, freezing in style.

A rather different Russian revolutionary arrived in Vienna during that glacial January week. He was thirty-four, exactly the same age as Trotsky, and when he stepped out of the train from Cracow at the North Terminal, not even the most Viennese of headwaiters would have been tempted to call him “Herr Doktor Stalin.”

In fact, the name “Stalin” had barely begun to exist. Only that week it had made its debut as a brand-new pseudonym in The Social Democrat, a legal Socialist periodical published in Russia. In its pages K. Stalin* attacked the editor of the Vienna Pravda as “Trotsky, a noisy champion with fake muscles, a man of beautiful uselessness . . . ”

And indeed K. Stalin was not good at noising clever words or beautiful phrases like Trotsky. Felicity of attire, elegance of limb did not distinguish him. In Cracow (then capital of the Austrian province of Galicia) he had just spent some weeks with Vladimir Lenin, chief of Russian Socialists abroad. Lenin had tutored him in the politics of exile; but he had also tried to teach him biking. The result was a bruised knee. And now, as K. Stalin walked from the North Terminal toward his first Viennese tram ride, he still limped a bit in his peasant boots. The sleeve of his coarse overcoat hung over his somewhat withered left hand. In his good right hand he carried a wooden box with a handle—a peasant suitcase. A thick peasant mustache covered much of his face, but not enough to hide the pockmarks.

Of the five weeks he lived in Vienna (much more time than he would ever spend in any other city outside Russia), K. Stalin did not waste one hour in any of the town’s intellectual coffeehouses. Yet he might have been a sensation at the Café Central because he would have beaten both Dr. Trotsky and Dr. Adler at chess. In Cracow he had trounced Lenin seven times in a row, and Lenin had not been a bit surprised. It was probably one of the reasons why he had dispatched “our wonderful Georgian” to the Austrian capital.

The fact was that carnival-minded Vienna and this limping yokel shared a trait: a talent for disguise, for the cunning feint. Stalin’s real name was Joseph Dzhugashvili. His passport read Stavros Papadopoulos. He had learned to give his Georgian gutturals a vaguely Greek cast. The tram he boarded by the North Terminal did not take him to any slum in which one might expect a Socialist to go undercover. No, K. Stalin rode toward the aristocratic district of Hietzing. He got off at Schönbrunner Schlossstrasse and walked toward No. 20. One of the most important missions of his prerevolutionary career began as he, his crude boots, and his wooden suitcase disappeared into a facade splendid with stucco garlands.

Just a few hundred yards away from Stalin’s hide-out in the Schönbrunner Schlossstrasse loomed Schloss Schönbrunn, the vast Habsburg summer palace whose seclusion the Emperor Franz Joseph had begun to favor even in winter, now that he was eighty-three. Here a meeting took place the week of Stalin’s arrival that also fit the carnival season. It was a sort of masquerade. But it was a masquerade that had gone on for years. The very opposite of merry make-believe, it involved the bitter summit level of political reality.

Its protagonist sat in a motorcar, as huge as it was hurried, which barely slowed for the opening of the palace gates. Abruptly, it crunched to a halt. Peremptorily, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Crown Prince of the realm, debarked. He scowled past the salutes of guards. To the clinking of the sabers of his entourage, to the blunt drumming of boots against parquet, he marched toward the emperor’s study. His eyes were pale blue and glared. His black mustache was the fiercest south of Kaiser Wilhelm. His bruiser’s shoulders, his wrestler’s chest swelled the uniform of a general of the Imperial and Royal Army.

When he met Franz Joseph, the archduke’s face glowered forward and swooped down as if to bite his sovereign’s hand. Of course he only kissed it. But he kissed it unsmiling. Then he stood at grim attention, waiting for the Emperor’s invitation to sit. It came. He sat. Instantly he hammered away at the Serbian Question.

A prickly matter; for Serbia, the feisty little kingdom, had become a thorn in the Empire’s southeastern flank. Serbia was challenging Austria’s predominance east of the Adriatic. Serbia subverted fellow-Slavs in the adjacent Habsburg province of Bosnia-Hercegovina; Serb-inspired radicals there smeared walls with slogans, threw stink bombs, plotted the assassination of Austrian governors. Most disturbing, only last year Serbia had destabilized the whole area in the Balkan War of 1912. With Bulgaria and Greece it had fought Turkey for the Sultan’s European possessions. After victory, Serbia claimed much of Albania, hitherto under Ottoman rule but presently a strategic prize the Serbs could use against Habsburg. No wonder Serbia vexed Vienna even during Mardi Gras. Between toasts and tangos the question kept coming up: How severely must Serbia be disciplined? Or should it be utterly destroyed?

Serbia, then, was the inevitable subject of the All-Highest meeting at Schloss Schönbrunn. (“All-Highest” was Habsburg parlance for the Emperor.) The Crown Prince fulminated. But all the trappings of a fierceling—the booming basso, the vehement gestures, the trembling of medals on his chest—were deceptive. They disguised a fact to which very few were privy. The Crown Prince was a dove. A dove all the more ferocious because there was hardly any other in the Empire’s highest council.

He utterly condemned, he said now, the thought behind the Chief of Staffs memorandum to the Emperor, the one dated January 20, a copy of which had just reached his chancellery. He loathed the lunacy of a preventive war against the Serbs. He detested all those trigger-happy fools who didn’t realize that such rashness must provoke Russia as Serbia’s great Slav protector. He couldn’t emphasize too strongly to His Majesty that war between Russia and Austria would be a catastrophe for Habsburg and Romanov alike. Therefore, in view of recent tensions he must urge His Majesty to send a special emissary to St. Petersburg with a personal note for the Tsar stating Austria’s peaceful intentions. Furthermore . . .

His Majesty listened. Franz Joseph had been on the throne for sixty-five years, but he still sat ramrod straight. His white sideburns, long become emblems of his empire, were just slightly turned away from all those “furthermore’s.” Not that he necessarily disagreed with them. But the man who thumped them out was so disagreeable. Franz Joseph followed the dictum of his forebear Franz I: A just ruler distributes discontent evenly. And this spouting nephew of his would never achieve any kind of evenness. Franz Ferdinand had a bully’s temperament, and Franz Joseph did not like being subjected to it for one second longer than protocol demanded.

He rose. So did his nephew. With his low, supreme voice the Emperor said: “I’ll have it thought about.” Silence. Franz Ferdinand’s mustache quivered as the Archduke swooped down for the hand kiss. His heels thundered away, down the parquet. Behind him, the sabers of his retinue clinked. To fight frostbite, the guards outside presented arms with extra energy. The liveried chauffeur cranked the motor of the mountainous Gräf & Stift. The automobile roared through the palace gates, and His Imperial and Royal Highness, the heir apparent, was gone.

Most Viennese who saw the swerve of that automobile guessed who was riding in it. The darkness of the man’s mood expressed itself in the brute speed of his driver. Onlookers shook their heads. The older ones remembered the Crown Prince before this one, the Archduke Rudolf. He, too, had been notorious for his rush, though his vehicle had been the two-horse fiacre. And where had these horses gotten him, too fast? To the hunting lodge in Mayerling where he had put a bullet through his temple. Now there was this newfangled motorborne Prince with his booming golden-spiked chariot. What impatience, what sullenness powered his thrust? Toward what end was he receding?

Let others worry. Josip Broz did not. If, on his holidays in Vienna, he watched Franz Ferdinand sweep past, he was not one to frown at the Habsburg prince. The archducal car was much too enthralling. A twenty-year-old mechanic, Broz came from Croatia, another Slav province the Serbs were subverting against Austria. In his mind, though, automobiles outranked ideologies. He worked at the Daimler auto plant at Wiener Neustadt, very close to the capital. There, as he was to confess later, he got his first “whiff of glamor . . . from the big powerful cars with their heavy brasswork, rubber-bulb horns and outside handbrakes.” The best thing about his job was the thrill of test-driving exciting new models. Decades later he would glide in even longer limousines, his chest aglitter with more medals than an archduke’s. But in 1913 Josip Broz was not yet Marshal Tito. He didn’t see the world as primarily a political arena. For him Vienna was a seductive metropolis where he spent much of his wages on dancing and fencing lessons and on any pretty girl whose eye he might catch from an adjoining cafe table. Many of his best young weekends were Viennese. Saturday night and all day Sunday he was a playboy by the Danube.

The Emperor received the Crown Prince on January 24, a Friday. Just on that Friday, Broz might have been in town. He had an excellent reason for coming to Vienna a day early, as soon as the factory let out, even if he had to take the milktrain back to Wiener Neustadt for the Saturday morning shift. He and other young bucks of his particular craft had a motive for taking some extra trouble: On the night of Friday, January 24, the Sophiensaal in Vienna gave an Automobile Mechanics Ball.

In Vienna almost every walk of life generated its own carnival festivity. Even the Insane Asylum at Steinhof held a Lunatics’ Gala. But there was no fete for psychiatrists. Sigmund Freud, fifty-seven years old and becoming globally controversial as arch-analyst and founder of the psychoanalytic faith, stooped alone over his desk at Berggasse 19. He was filling page after page of a big lined notebook. Outside the windows of his study, the city was transmogrified into a masked ball. Inside, the master explored the origins of the mask—the primeval mask, the totem. In January 1913 he was finishing an essay called Totem and Taboo. It turned out to be a subject eerie not only in theme but in timing. For all carnival celebrations crest toward Lent; they all say “carne vale”— good-bye to the flesh—as penance for the death of the Lord. Freud’s essay deduced from the anthropology of primitive man that the totem was an animal symbol of greatness slain, of the father-leader killed by his sons and followers. After his murder they donned a mask representing the sacred corpse. As their victim’s worshippers, they banded together under his symbol in order to bear their guilt better in unison. They ate his flesh or assumed his face to partake of his power, to obtain his forgiveness.

Here was not only the dynamic of primeval myth. Here was the drama of the Eucharist and the plot of Easter, explored by a pen in the Berggasse, scratching on into the night. The ambivalence of carnival/Lent—so opulently celebrated in Vienna— pulsed around the once and future murder of the prince.

The brooder in the Berggasse was not the only man to stay aloof from the city’s revels while being inwardly attuned to its darker currents. About nine tramway stops northeast of Freud’s study, a twenty-three-year-old artist subsisted at Mel-demannstrasse 25. This was the address of the Männerheim, in a desolate corner of the district of Brigittenau.

The municipal government had established this barrack to keep failures from becoming beggars. The Männerheim— “Home for Men”—gave shelter to the black-sheep baron who had drunk away his last remittance, the evicted peddler, the bit-actor too long between engagements, the free-lancer down on his luck, the day laborer always missing out on a steady job, the confused farm boy from the Alps, the flotsam from the Empire’s Balkan fringes. They were men without anchor, without family, without sustaining women. All of them were lost in the merciless glitter of the metropolis. For three kronen* a week the Männerheim gave them a last chance. That small sum provided a clean cubicle with a bed, a communal kitchen, a library with penny dreadfuls, a writing room for composing letters of application unlikely to be answered.


  • Costa Mesa Daily Pilot, 4/18/14
    “The detail surrounding the many people involved in the slice of history building up to World War I is amazing…This book, with its accounts of the activities of many countries' politicians and the culture of Vienna at the time, explains what was going on so well that you almost feel as though you are there.”

    Huffington Post, 5/31/14
    “A book about war and madness…A fascinating and well-written account of the social origins and context of [World War I].”
  • "While we're still marching through the centennial of the First World War, this is the perfect time to delve into the history, not just of the war itself but of the world that produced it. Frederic Morton's vivid portrait of antebellum Vienna begins with the intrigues and tensions roiling the Hapsburg capital in 1913 and ends with the breakdown of diplomacy among the Great Powers and the outbreak of war in the fall of 1914. Along the way, he introduces the reader to major historical figures of the twentieth century."—The Federalist, "Notable Books of 2016"

On Sale
Mar 25, 2014
Page Count
416 pages
Da Capo Press

Frederic Morton

About the Author

Frederic Morton was born in Vienna and lives in New York City. His short stories have been chosen for Best American Short Stories, and two of his critically acclaimed nonfiction works, The Rothschilds and A Nervous Splendor, have been bestsellers.

Learn more about this author