Listen to this article
In his memoir The World of Yesterday, published in 1942, four years after Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, the author Stefan Zweig wrote: “I grew up in Vienna, an international metropolis for 2,000 years, and had to steal away from it like a thief in the night before it was demoted to the status of a provincial German town.”
For businessmen such as Stefan Haid, a German-born executive at the Roland Berger consultancy, the international flavour of life restored in Vienna after the second world war is one of the capital’s most appealing qualities. “My international friends who don’t speak German tell me that you can get by in Vienna without a problem in English. It’s a truly international city,” Mr Haid says.
“Vienna is much better than its reputation. Other Austrians . . . see it as unfriendly and arrogant. But actually Vienna is very friendly. It is an extremely beautiful and charming city and people are not in much of a rush. It feels almost like a small town, even though it has almost 2m people,” says Mr Haid, who has lived in the city for four years.
“For arts, culture, classical music, museums, theatre, it’s one of the centres of Europe, in fact the world, and all of that is reasonably priced.”
There are few traffic jams, public transport is good and many associates do not bother with a car, he adds.
Mr Haid and his wife started out renting an apartment in the city’s 4th Bezirk, or district, “a typically high-ceilinged apartment in a very central location, with all the arts and cultural splendour close by”.
After the birth of their first child, they moved to Döbling in the 19th Bezirk, a northern suburb close to the Vienna Woods and famous for its Heurigen wine gardens. They still rent. “Renting is one of the most attractive things about Vienna. Munich is much more expensive, and so are Hamburg, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, not to mention London.”
Mr Haid makes frequent business trips to Europe and beyond. For him, Vienna is convenient because Austrian Airlines, a subsidiary of Germany’s flag-carrier Lufthansa, operates direct flights to cities such as Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many other capitals and secondary cities in western Europe, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East are on the airline’s route map.
“It’s a blessing that you can fly direct from Vienna and don’t have to go through Frankfurt or Istanbul. So much quality of life is gained if you can leave for the airport at 08:30 instead of 06:00 and return home by 19:00 instead of 23:00,” he says.
An international outlook comes naturally to a city that, along with New York, Geneva and Nairobi, is one of the world headquarters of the United Nations. Its most important agencies in Vienna are the UN Industrial Development Organisation, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Mr Haid, who met his wife at a Viennese ball in Washington, enjoys the annual IAEA ball, a charitable event that is a highlight of Vienna’s winter season. “The IAEA ball is like an alumni reunion for me, because I get together with old friends from when I studied at Johns Hopkins University in Bologna,” he says. “A ball at the Hofburg palace can attract up to 5,000 people. You waltz all night, and then you go and have breakfast at the Café Landtmann next to the Burgtheater,” he says, referring to one of Vienna’s most renowned cafés.
Vienna’s international standing does not depend only on the UN agencies. The city also hosts the headquarters of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a 57-nation body for arms control, human rights and other security-related issues, and of Opec, the oil producers’ group. The final, crucial rounds of last year’s negotiations over curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme took place at Palais Coburg.
Mr Haid recognises some blots on Vienna’s record. “Austria is not doing so well economically. There are not enough reforms. I wonder what would happen if the welfare state came under pressure here and the politics became sour.”
He also worries about the efficiency of Vienna’s police. “I think about Frosch, the drunken gaoler in Die Fledermaus,” he says, recalling the bumbling character in Johann Strauss’s light opera.
Overall he has few complaints. “Unless something major changes in our professional lives, I don’t see us leaving Vienna. It’s the perfect combination. I don’t miss Germany here,” he says.