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Cosmopolitan Vienna's Children

What was the great cultural contribution of the late Hapsburg empire?

December 10, 2002

What was the great cultural contribution of the late Hapsburg empire?

Many people contemplate and write about the future of the world in general — and of business in particular. Among these, very few achieve guru status. Let me present one of the rare exceptions.

No other management author has had such an impact on our thinking as Peter Drucker, who was born on November 19, 1909 in Vienna.

What makes him so exceptional? What distinguishes him from the others? My hypothesis: Mr. Drucker interprets the future in a unique way — because he is a man of the past.

I once asked Professor Drucker whether he considers himself more as a historical writer or a management thinker. Without much hesitation he answered, "more as a historical writer."

But what kind of history? In his memoirs, "Adventures of a Bystander," he sweeps us away into a world that has since disappeared. Another famous former Viennese, the writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), called it "yesterday's world" in his own autobiography.

The environment into which Peter F. Drucker was born and raised was unique in many ways. In the upper middle classes of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, great emphasis was placed on education, culture, art, music, historical consciousness, urbanity and international openness.

To take just one example: It was common during this time for children of the educated classes in Vienna to be raised speaking several languages, as they were often brought up by English and French governesses.

This world is reflected most convincingly in the minds that it produced.

The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Bolshevism in Russia, the Nazi period in Germany — this "volcanic tremor across our European earth," as Stefan Zweig calls it — uprooted an entire generation. Simultaneously, it released tremendous creativity.

A few examples of the fertile Viennese diaspora would surely start with Stefan Zweig himself. He first emigrated to England and later moved on to Brazil.

The philosopher Karl Popper was born in Vienna in 1902. He wrote his main work, "The Open Society and Its Enemies" during the Second World War, while in exile in New Zealand. He later returned to England.

Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001), the world-famous art historian, was born in Vienna in the same year as Drucker.

His voluminous work "The Story of Art" (688 pages!), which sold more than six million copies, was first published in England.

The writer-philosopher Elias Canetti (1905-1997) was born in Bulgaria, but grew up in Vienna. Eventually, he made his way to England and later to Switzerland.

But it wasn't just about Vienna. The Austro-Hungarian empire was known as the "dual monarchy" because it had two capitals — Vienna and Budapest. The other capital provided its share of the 20th century's great thinkers as well.

The path of the mathematician John von Neumann (1903-1957) — to whom we owe the development of game theory and the computer — led from Budapest via Germany to Princeton, New Jersey.

The science journalist Artur Koestler (1905-1983), born in Budapest, lived a restless life in Israel, Germany, Russia, France, Spain — and finally England.

Peter Drucker's life fits well into this exceptional group: Vienna, Hamburg, Frankfurt, England — and the United States.

With its own decline, the Danube monarchy set its children free. Far from their homelands, these people accomplished great achievements — and left permanent marks on the cultural inheritance of humankind.

The children of Austria's "royal and imperial monarchy" were able to achieve such success because they had become exemplary world citizens. Long before the era of globalization, they were educated, culturally flexible, multilingual — and historically conscious.

"Yesterday's World" had clearly prepared them for the world of the future. Their works are an echo of a unique culture. All of this also explains Peter Drucker's great strength as a management consultant — as well as the great weakness of nearly all other management authors. Typically, management "gurus" have little knowledge of history.

Without this type of historical understanding and consciousness, it becomes easy for management consultants to fall victim to the current buzzwords or trends of the day.

The comments of the philosopher George Santayana — that history will repeat itself for those who do not want to learn from it — is perhaps especially applicable to management ideas. These often purport to be something new — although often it is nothing more than old wine in new wineskins.

Peter Drucker teaches us with history as his tool. He holds a backward-oriented mirror in front of us that opens new views. This retro-perspective helps us to better understand the future.

It was the Danish Philospher Søren Kierkegaard who once said, "Life can only be understood by looking back, but can only be lived by looking forward." Precisely because he is a man of the past, Peter Drucker shines as a thinker of the future.