"I was just lighting the Christmas tree for my children, when Güdemann [the Chief Rabbi of Vienna] arrived. He seemed upset by the 'Christian' custom. Well, I will not let myself be pressured! But I don't mind if they call it the Chanukkah tree – or the winter solstice”.
Theodor Herzl, Complete Diaries, Vol. 1, p. 285.
Who was a Jew in Vienna at the turn of the century? Many of the most well-known "Jews" in Vienna at that time were either baptized at birth or converted later, the children of converts or of mixed marriage. The historian Steven Beller has argued that in Viennese society one was still likely to be seen as a Jew by Jews and non-Jews alike, even if one had converted or was the offspring of a mixed marriage. Beller claims that the presence of Jewish ancestors in the past of a family meant that one started with a view of the world which was substantially different from that of others who were not of Jewish descent. This was due to the experience of assimilation.
The social and cultural effects of the integration of the Jews into their host societies took place over a rather brief period and was a matter of only three or four generations. But these assimilating Jews and their descendants had a great influence on modern culture in Europe, especially in Vienna. Their "contribution" was, as such, a product of the historical process of assimilation.
Until the 1880s the number of Jews who left the Jewish Community was small and compensated by a nearly equal number of Christians who converted to Judaism on marriage. This changed drastically in the last decades of the 19th century. Between 1868 and 1900, the number of Jewish conversions to Christianity in Vienna increased 80 times. Between 1891 and 1914, about 12,000 Jews (nearly 0.5% per year) left Judaism. Until World War I, some 20,000 Viennese had formally left the Jewish fold either by conversion or by a declaration of no religious affiliation. The most likely candidates for conversion were young, single men in their 20s who either wanted to marry a Christian woman or to increase their chances of a government job. Baptism was still a de facto, though not a de jure, requirement for the highest civil positions. Converts were frequently university students, members of the free professions or high-level business employees. The conversion rate in Vienna was by far the highest in Europe. On the other hand, the relatively large community and the great variety of Jewish social and cultural organizations made it possible for even Westernized Jews to mingle with other Jews which reduced the number of mixed marriages. In Vienna, less than 10 % of Jews married non-Jews.
Jews who hoped that converting to Christianity would remove the last social barriers to full integration into Austrian society were likely to be disappointed. The long-time Austrian diplomat, Hans J.J. Thalberg, who converted to Protestantism as a child, wrote in his memoirs that "nothing has changed as a result of my baptism. On the contrary, baptism was a social obstacle because I belonged neither to the one group nor to the other." On the other hand, the relations between converts and Jews were certainly not as tense as they had been prior to the 19th century. Jewish newspapers did publish the names of Jews who had left the fold, but this may even have encouraged people because it showed how common it was.
The particular situation of the multi-national Habsburg Empire, where exclusivist national self-consciousness was tainted with anti-Semitism, encouraged the rise of a Jewish nationalism which conceived Jews as a separate and viable nation. The rise of Jewish nationalism in Austria was rooted in the emergence of Zionism and in the development of Jewish national self-consciousness in Eastern Europe. From the peculiar constellation of political forces in Austria, combined with hostility to Jewish participation in the dominant nationality groups, there emerged a unique Jewish-national movement. The Austrian-Jewish nationalist movement demanded a place for the Jews side-by-side with other nations in the Empire. It hoped that once they received nationality status of their own, the Jews of the dual monarchy would be able to assert their Jewishness proudly and be fully accepted participants in Austria's future.
The Jewish national camp was composed of two factions: the Zionists and the Diaspora-nationalists. While the Zionist movement as a whole devoted its energies to the revival of a Jewish nation in its historic homeland, Austrian Zionists were dedicated to raising Jewish national consciousness in the Diaspora. The Diaspora-nationalist, on the other hand, were former Zionists who had split with Herzl and non-Zionists who believed that the cause of Jewish nationalism could be best served at home.
The central argument in Jewish-nationalist ideology was that the Jews were not Germans, Czechs or Poles, but their own separate nation. While a German Jew might speak, think and even feel German, he was thought to be a Jew of German culture, not a German. The Jewish nationalists rejected assimilation as "the outmoded style of the past century" and "a big mistake."
Jewish nationalists envisaged that the Jews would form an autonomous entity within an Austrian federation of nations. No longer only citizens of the Jewish faith, the Jews would be Austrian citizens of the "Jewish nationality". Unlike other national groups in Austria, the Jewish nationalists thought that a supra-national "Austrian" framework would be necessary to guarantee their rights and maintain the peace. Thus, despite their demand for nationality rights, they, just like the "assimilationists" in turn, remained Austrian patriots.
Most Austrian Jews no longer considered themselves to be members of a separate Jewish nationality after the First World War. They rather saw themselves as German-Austrians, but anti-Semitism constantly reminded them of their roots.