The Historical Flavors of Hysteria in 19th Century Vienna (Abridged)

Psychology has taken great strides in establishing itself as a sturdy science. Firmly based on the scientific method, the study of the mind is no longer antagonistic to empirical data and predictable, observable outcomes. But despite psychology’s attempts to distance itself from its humanistic, murky beginnings, the historical basis for the various branches of this field is fascinating in its own right. The birth of psychoanalysis exemplifies the powerful influence historical, socio-cultural forces have in shaping our conceptions of the human psyche.

Photo source: Watercolour of SuperStock image

The origins of modern-day psychodynamic theory can be found in 19th century, fin-de-siècle Vienna. Prevalent social conditions of the Viennese zeitgeist led to a particularly intense manifestation of hysteria, an elusive disorder plaguing man since ancient times. The nature of this epidemic which weakened the bourgeoisie of Viennese society was a compelling enigma to an ambitious Moravian neurologist; it wouldn’t be long before Dr. Sigmund Freud developed a theory of psychopathology which would shift the course of clinical psychology forever.


Historical Backdrop to 19th Century Vienna

Rain, Steam, and Speed, Thee Great Western railway by J.M.W. Turner, 1844

Europe in the 19th century underwent massive political, technological, and social upheavals. By the end of the century, many were still reeling from the Napoleonic Wars and other conflicts which dragged in so many nations to battle: Britain, France, Russia, Spain, Prussia, Italy, and Austria are only a few of the countries which partook in these military endeavors. In spite of the seemingly innate human impulse to fight and destroy, scientific creativity was also flourishing. The Industrial Revolution, budding from England, spread like a wildfire over the Continent, speeding up communication, expanding construction, at once creating new and destroying old livelihoods of countless people.

Aside from reshaping economic systems, this revolution cemented the emergence of a new, predominant middle class which awkwardly bridged the quite downtrodden, fatigued working class to a now fading aristocracy, all in the context of urban life. Cities are places where ideas develop, and looking at cities in moments of particular historical significance, one can see the origins of trends fated to sweep beyond their assumed scope. While Paris was being Haussmanized, London socially reformed, and Berlin politicized, Vienna, located as it was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the hand of the Hapsburg monarchy, was living in a quaint, gilded dream of cultural decadence whose doom was hazily yet rapidly approaching on the horizon.

After decades of military conflicts with Italy and Prussia, the Austrian Empire joined the Kingdom of Hungary to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The royal House of Hapsburg now shared power with a new liberal Austrian government. The small, ruling liberal-bourgeois elite, under the watchful eye of the Emperor Franz Joseph, was supported mostly by middle class Germans and Jews. The liberal party in turn supported these minorities, and advocated for improved access to civil rights and more feasible social mobility. Sir Peter Hall poetically describes this period in Vienna as “a society of outsiders who, for all too brief a time, became a society of insiders” (5). This world, Stephen Zweig’s “wonderful and noble delusion, more humane and fruitful than our watchwords of today” (as quoted in Hall 4), remained a delusion nonetheless, and it was as ephemeral as it was beautiful.

From the 1860s through to the beginning of the 20th century, the ethnic and religious tensions spawned between these liberal ideas and the ever-menacing, conservative forces bent on snuffing such progressive sentiments were palpable. Two oppositional political parties came to the forefront in the latter half of the century, threatening the vulnerable liberals: the German Nationalists and the Christian Social Party. Anti-Semitism and authoritarian rule characterized both these parties, and threatened with social violence the transient tranquility which had settled on the Empire after the Agreement of 1867.

The need to mentally escape from this collapsing culture, flooded as it was with a persistent sense of disintegration of the comfortable, monarchy-supervised rule, along with the toppling of a glittering, carefree world, bred a moment of tremendous cultural creativity. Literature, visual art, music, philosophy, theatre, and of course psychology, were all a part of this cultural explosion. All these modes of expressions stemmed from new and necessary values and mindsets.


Carl Schorske, one of the most knowledgeable historians of 19th century Europe, wrote that the Viennese intelligentsia of the period was “preoccupied with the problem of the nature of the individual in a disintegrating society” (4). The advent of modern mass movements, crushing those fugacious Viennese views of the confident, liberated, individual self, led to a nervous feeling of impotence, an inability to preserve this doomed artificial world the Viennese inhabited. Paradoxically, as Vienna’s Golden Age precipitated toward its end, culture regressed into an ever more self-involved, pleasure-focused, and frivolous entity, a far cry from the enlightened liberal values which characterized and helped spark its beginning. However, originality and creativity continued to flourish under these conditions. Indeed, in light of the failure of politics, art was seen as the new deity to worship; no longer a monument to human reason and virtue, but rather a refuge from reality, a shining, brilliant refuge.

Peter Hall sums up Schorske’s perception of fin-de-siècle Viennese cultural trends quite nicely:

Two sets of values were struggling for supremacy – though, in this most easy going of cities, the word has to be understood in a relative sense. There was a bourgeois-liberal-moral-scientific set of values: secure, righteous, morally repressive, politically in favour of rule of law. It held that the mind ruled the body, and that social progress came through science, education, and hard work. It struggled with an older and deeper and ultimately more significant aesthetic culture, which overlaid and undermined it: ‘an amoral Gefühlskultur’, a culture based on feeling, on the senses rather than the mind.  (190)

Judith and the Head of Holofernes, Gustav Klimt, 1901.

The Vienna of the 19th century was thus torn between Eros and Thanatos, between joie de vivre and guilt, between carelessness and anxiety, a “cheerful nest of contradictions” (Stein as quoted in Brandstätter 322). The rational man, infused with liberal values, was being replaced by “that richer but more dangerous and mercurial creature, psychological man” (Schorske 4), one who would now more than ever need help dealing with this newfound, inner turmoil.

Adding all together this instinctive crouching-behind-the arts, the industrialization which only increased at a rapid pace as the years passed, and the social upheavals everyone was experiencing as different Austrian political parties called for the dawning of a new age for either socialism or Pan-Germanism, all located in this nervous splendor of Vienna, the result was an “overstimulation of the nerves” which particularly affected the middle and upper classes; people had the unspoken choice to either analyze their lives, or flee from them (Hofmannsthal as quoted in Brandstätter 323), figuratively, that is. The Viennese became obsessed with emotional states; the “heightened awareness of the brutality of social existence” (Schorske 6) became internalized and manifested itself in physical ailments. And so began the archetypal reemergence of hysteria, forever tied to its sparkling backdrop of Victorian, particularly Viennese, life, and one of the most fascinating periods of mystifying mental illness in recent history.


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