Hadi Matar, the man charged with the attempted murder of the distinguished novelist Salman Rushdie, admitted that he had only “read like two pages” of “The Satanic Verses,” Rushdie’s 1988 novel that angered fundamentalist Muslims around the world. Iran’s former Supreme Leader, Ayatalloh Ruhollah Khomeini, who announced a fatwa calling on all Muslims to murder Rushdie in 1989, hadn’t read it at all.
“The Satanic Verses” wasn’t the first – and won’t be the last – novel to provoke the rage of a fanatic who has no grasp of literature’s nuances.
In 1922, an Austrian writer named Hugo Bettauer published a novel set in Vienna called “The City Without Jews.” It sold a quarter of a million copies and became known internationally, with an English translation issued in London and New York. A silent movie adaptation, which has recently been recovered and restored, appeared in the summer of 1924. The following spring, a young Nazi burst into Bettauer’s office and shot him multiple times. The author died of his wounds two weeks later.
A novel published in a polarized city
As in the U.S. today, there was a major gap between rich and poor in early 20th-century Vienna.
The impressive architecture of the inner city sheltered immense wealth, while there was desperate poverty in the working-class districts beyond. The opulence of the banks and department stores, the culture of the theaters and opera house – especially in the predominantly Jewish district of Leopoldstadt – inevitably stirred deep resentment.
In the years immediately preceding World War I, populist mayor Karl Lueger saw his opportunity: He could win votes by blaming every problem on the Jews. Many a Jewish refugee would later say that the antisemitism in Vienna was worse than Berlin’s. An impoverished painter living in a public dormitory in a poor district to the north of Leopoldstadt was inspired to build a new ideology following Lueger’s blueprint. His name was Adolf Hitler.
Hugo Bettauer was born Jewish. Though he converted to Christianity, he never lost touch with his roots. He worked as a journalist and became a prolific novelist.