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Last Waltz in Vienna Extract | Part Two | Youth and Freedom

Kirtag in St Gilgen was a very different occasion, and though my memories of that Day of Atonement visit long ago were somewhat vague, it still seemed impossible to believe that this was the same building. Austria’s best stage designers had changed it into a very life-like imitation of that famous holiday resort not far from Salzburg. They could not, even if they wanted to, put a good part of Vienna under water and bring the St Wolfgang lake into the Konzerthaus, but the White Horse Inn, the lakeside hostelry known to operetta lovers all over the world, had been reconstructed inside the building, so had the village square, maypole and all, and on various levels there were farms with real cows and horses in their stables, country-inn gardens with buxom waitresses in old-style peasant costumes serving wine and beer, and any number of bands from the genuine ‘tara-ra-boom-de-ay’ to modern ones playing the swing hits from Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers films by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, evergreens that have outlasted my youth.

How I managed to get tickets for this ball, sold out months in advance, I have no idea. But I know that this was the ball I wanted to go to. It was known to be more fun than any other and presented no dress problems. At the Kirtag men did not wear dinner jackets or white tie, but lederhosen, peasant jackets, open-necked shirts, in short my usual Bad Ischl summer outfit would do admirably. The ladies wore their peasant dirndls, though admittedly some were of such elegance and made of such expensive materials that no St Gilgen maiden could ever have owned them, unless – as had been known to happen – she found favour in the eyes of some princeling or rich banker.

For a seventeen-year-old at his first ball this was fairyland. Somehow in all this throng I managed to lose Lisl in the course of the evening or, equally likely, she lost me. I remember that I stood alone, at least I think I did, though vaguely there are memories of a blonde holding my arm – and Lisl was not a blonde – on the main dance floor when the Chancellor entered the box of the Federal President and Frau Miklas. Schuschnigg, wearing Tyrolean dress, was welcomed by frenetic, almost hysterical, applause and cheers. This ovation lasted for several minutes. The Chancellor had to rise again and again, bowing stiffly from the waist. Schuschnigg, though not yet forty, was prematurely grey with a small moustache over a tightly drawn mouth, the short-sighted eyes hidden by sharp glasses glinting in the strong light of the stage lamps which had been trained on him. It was clear from the way he responded to this overwhelming acclamation what a closed-in and inhibited man he was. Austria’s answer to Hitler was a university don. Admittedly he had risen above himself in one great speech, but the streak of stubbornness he did possess was not enough to deal with his own problems or those of the world in which he lived.

And how much of the applause in the Konzerthaus was really an expression of confidence in him? Perhaps the cheers of that crowd – many of them Jews – were so loud only to drown its fears.

As for me, it was my first ball. I enjoyed the dancing, the drinking, the gaiety, the amazing speed and ease with which one found partners. I stayed until the band had played the last waltz.

How do I remember my few remaining days of youth and freedom, when I still felt that everything was possible, that I was special somehow, that life was only about to begin? I know that even the ever more vehement Nazi demonstrations appeared more exciting to me than threatening. I went about most of the time wearing white knee-socks, a black raincoat and a Tyrolean hat, very much the sort of clothing the Nazis liked to be seen in, not so much as a camouflage for the Jewishness in my face, but more as a sign of my own militancy, my readiness to fight. Looking like a Nazi as much as possible instilled a feeling of toughness in oneself, even gave one a more aggressive expression, and the more you looked and behaved and bore yourself as they did, the less likely were the Nazis to touch you. That changed, of course, after the Anschluss when they had become the masters, but during the last few days before it, when they were still unsure whether the executive, particularly the police, was for or against them, they carefully chose their victims from among the most defenceless.

Extract from Part Two
Slightly Foxed Edition No. 56: George Clare, Last Waltz in Vienna
© The Estate of George Clare 1980

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