The Real History Behind 'Vienna Blood'

Daniel Hautzinger
Max and Oskar in season 2 of Vienna Blood. Photo: Endor Production Ltd/MR Film GmbH
Max and Oskar end up in the midst of geopolitical maneuverings that eventually helped set off World War I. Photo: Endor Production Ltd/MR Film GmbH

Vienna Blood airs Sundays at 9:00 pm and is available to stream at the same time.

While the characters in the mystery Vienna Blood aren’t real historical figures for the most part, the milieu they exist in is very much based in history, with ground-shaking developments occurring just in the background of the crimes Oskar and Max try to solve.

Turn-of-the-century Vienna was a fervid place, with a vibrant intellectual culture roiled by new innovations in psychology (epitomized by Sigmund Freud), art (Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka were among the painters working there), music (the atonal composers Arnold Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern were all born there), and architecture (as in the influential Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos). It also served as a proving ground for troubling new political developments like a surge in populist anti-Semitism. And, as the seat of the declining, multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, it would soon see crises that would help spark World War I.

See how this hothouse historical context operates behind Max and Oskar’s investigations in Vienna Blood.

Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis

Max Liebermann is a young doctor enamored with the ideas of Sigmund Freud, who began developing his theories of the unconscious, dream interpretation, and psychoanalysis in the late 1890s in Vienna. Max is thus at the contested vanguard of an influential new set of ideas, and is doubted and opposed by the establishment in the form of his former professor Grüner, who tries to use the death of one of Max’s patients as a proxy to discredit Freud’s ideas.

Freud’s focus on and investigation into the unconscious mind was hugely influential, affecting everything from psychology to literary theory to feminism over the decades. Unsurprisingly, his ideas have been the target of intense critique and debate ever since they were first introduced, as can be seen in the suspicion with which many people regard Max in Vienna Blood.

One other fascinating tidbit about Freud that relates to Vienna Blood: he was a devoted user and proselytizer of cocaine, until he almost killed a patient while under its influence. The “melancholy” countess in the first two episodes of Vienna Blood’s second season was prescribed another drug that we now know is addictive but back then was regarded as medicine: opium.

Slavic unification and the Austro-Hungarian Empire

The second case of the second season of Vienna Blood thrusts Oskar and Max into geopolitical affairs that eventually helped lead to World War I, as they try to track down a killer associated with the Black Hand, an extremist organization working towards the unification of South Slavs into a single territory. Bosnia and Herzegovina had been under the administration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire since 1878, to the distaste of many Slavs, who wanted the regions to be independent. In 1903, the king and queen of independent Serbia was assassinated by Serbian Army officers associated with the Black Hand, putting into power a government opposed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (In Vienna Blood, the killer is suspected to have been involved in this coup.)

Amidst continuing instability in the region, Austria-Hungary planned a full-scale annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Alois Aehrenthal (who appears in Vienna Blood) attempted to secure an agreement with Russia that they would allow the annexation, a meeting depicted in Vienna Blood. But it is unclear what, if any agreement was actually made, and the sudden annexation damaged Austria-Hungary’s relations with other European powers.

Eventually the movement for Southern Slavic unification would culminate in another royal assassination, this time the killing of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Bosnian student aided by the Black Hand. This helped set off the crises that sparked World War I. Following the war, Slavic nationalists saw their goal realized with the combination of South Slavic peoples into a single country in Yugoslavia, which existed until 1992, when it broke again into smaller nations in part due to ethnic tensions. The Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist after its defeat in World War I.

Anti-Semitism

The Liebermanns are Jewish, and while Max’s father manages to run a successful business, there are hints of growing anti-Semitism in Vienna in the show: the Aryan nationalist Brotherhood of Primal Fire in the first season, the extremist Catholic monk in the second season. At the time that the show takes place, in the first decade of the twentieth century, the mayor of Vienna was Karl Lueger, an influential politician who espoused anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric against non-German-speakers in Austria-Hungary as a means of generating populist support.

Lueger’s xenophobia did not extend nearly as far as that of the notorious Austrian politician Georg Ritter von Schönerer, who advocated for the unification of all German-speaking peoples into one nation—an idea later taken up by Adolf Hitler, along with Schönerer’s anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism also plays into the final mystery of Vienna Blood’s second season in the form of the blood libel, a claim frequently levied against European Jews from the medieval period onward in which Jews were falsely accused of murdering Christians in order to use their blood in rituals. It frequently led to persecution or violent pogroms against Jews.