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  • Writer's pictureSyed Akhtar Mahmood

When Stalin may have tipped his hat for Hitler

Updated: May 1, 2021

It was January 1913 and a young man had just arrived in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, whose monarch, Franz Joseph was then in the 65th year of his reign. The man had arrived by train from Krakow in Poland, bearing a passport with a false, Greek, name. He was an aspiring revolutionary and these were uncertain times - caution was thus called for. Arriving in Vienna, the man with a difficult Georgian name and an even more complicated Greek pseudonym on his passport, made an announcement – henceforth, he will be known as Joseph Stalin. And so he has been, for the rest of his life, in the books of history and the annals of infamy. Stalin lived in Vienna for just about six weeks in an apartment near the Emperor’s home, the Schonbrunn Palace. The apartment belonged to someone with connections to Russian revolutionaries, many of whom would stay there, or simply pass by. In February came Trotsky who, many years later, wrote about his first encounter with Stalin in that house: as he was sitting in the dining room, Stalin came down, and virtually ignoring him, went straight to a ready samovar, got his tea and went back to his room. That was a very benign introduction compared to what was to come later. That same month, February 1913, in another corner of the continent - Barcelona, Spain to be exact - was born Jaime Ramon Mercader del Rio Hernandez. Many years later, historians tell us, Stalin hired him to assassinate Trotsky during his exile in Latin America. Stalin loved to walk in a park near the Schonbrunn Palace. So did another young man - an Austrian who had come to Vienna with an ambition far benign than the one which consumed him later in life. Writers of historical fiction have played with the notion that the two men, as they passed each other in that beautiful part of Vienna, may have tipped their hats in silent politeness. That young man was Adolf Hitler, whose greatest ambition then was to be a painter. Their walks in the Schonbrunn Park may be closest he and Stalin had ever come to each other. These are just some fascinating anecdotes from a city that is now my home for the next two years (some of which are from a very interesting book with an unusual format, 1913 by Florian Illies, where each chapter is about a month). Vienna has beautiful architecture, rich culture and a comfortable ambience that, for the past several years, has earned it recognition as one of the most livable cities in the world. But it is its history that is most fascinating – inspiring, depressing and sometimes macabre. It attracted all kinds of people, many of whom had great roles to play, for better or for worse, in the recent history of mankind. In 1913, as Stalin took his walk in the Schonbrunn Park, as Freud analyzed the depth of human psychology in 19 Berggasse, as Trotsky played chess in nearby Café Central with revolution on his mind, as Hitler made ends meet by drawing paintings of the Viennese landscape, and as Franz Joseph carried on with the affairs of his empire while grieving over the memory of a beloved wife assassinated in Geneva and an only son who had taken his life in the idyllic woods` just outside Vienna, it was in many ways business as usual in this stimulating city, where the word “usual” of course had a different meaning. Very few could then predict that, just one year later, the world would fall apart and that Vienna would be, in many ways, an epi-center of all that.

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