A Lost Story of the Rise of Fascism: Kay Boyle’s “The White Horses of Vienna”
By Ann Boyd Rioux
Last week in my “Forgotten Books” class we read some stories from Kay Boyle’s The White Horses of Vienna and Other Stories. The title story dominated our discussion. (See the end for where to find “The White Horses of Vienna.”) It was published in Harper’s magazine in 1935 and won the O. Henry Award for best story that year. Today it’s a rather surprising story, as it’s about a doctor living in the Austrian Alps who breaks his legs going up into the mountains to help light swastikas on fire. He is a member of the Nazi Party, which was outlawed in Austria, so his acts are a threat to the local population, not unlike the KKK’s burning of crosses. Since he can no longer go on his rounds to his patients, he sends to Vienna for a replacement doctor, who turns out to be a Jew. The doctor’s wife has a hard time accepting him, but the doctor himself treats him fairly. In the end, after the chancellor’s assassination by a Nazi, the doctor is hauled off to prison and the visiting Jewish doctor promises to throw peaches and chocolate up to his prison window.
Many of my students were confused by the story’s seemingly positive portrayal of the Nazi doctor. This is how I felt when I first read the story. I felt disoriented and confused and realized that I had to seek out more information to understand exactly what was going on “in real life” at that time. It became clear that we couldn’t really understand this story without its historical context, namely that Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933, Austria was ruled by a Mussolini-leaning dictator (Dolfuss), and the Austrian Nazi Party (which was very strong in the Tyrol region, where the story is set) was outlawed but growing in numbers and trying to overthrow the government and join with Germany.
This raises an interesting question that another student posed in her discussion starter: should literature be accessible to us without knowing much outside the story? She had been taught that we should be able to interpret a work of literature without a lot of historical or biographical context. This is certainly the traditional approach to literature. As a student, I had always been dissatisfied with such an ahistorical approach because any text that piqued my interest inevitably made me want to know more about the author and the time it was written in. It’s no wonder, then, that my scholarly focus has been on literary history and biography, seemingly old-fashioned approaches to literature. Yet, scholars are again recognizing the importance of historical context. In the case of “The White Horses of Vienna” and, to some extent, “Count Lothar’s Heart” (another story in the collection that we read) you absolutely must have that context, or the stories remain closed books. I have rarely read works so grounded in a precise time and place (whereas setting seems completely irrelevant in “The Astronomer’s Wife,” the third story from the collection that we read). Boyle seems to drop us in media res, or in the middle of things, with little explanation or background, or not enough to orient us completely. This can create a disoriented feeling in the reader but also, if we’re lucky, intense curiosity. Reading Boyle’s stories feels to me like time travel, as if I’m suddenly right there among real people at a specific time and in a specific place. The setting can be so specific, as in “White Horses,” that you feel like the events of the story actually happened. (She wrote many stories about wartime France and post-war Germany that have the same quality.)
The context required to understand many of Boyle’s stories can also be a reason why they aren’t widely read today, because, frankly, that historical knowledge is being lost. “The Astronomer’s Wife” is an exception, and it is included in some fiction anthologies. Not surprisingly, it requires very little context to interpret. “White Horses,” has also been anthologized but somewhat less successfully. During the period of canon expansion (which has more or less come to an end), it was added to the Norton Anthology of American Literature. However, it didn’t stay in for long. When editors create new editions (every few years), they survey teachers to see which pieces they are assigning to their students. If a text isn’t being taught much, they will remove it from the new edition. This is what happened to “White Horses.” Consider how much work is required to explain to students what is happening in the story. How many teachers want to take the time (or have the time) to educate themselves about Austrian politics in the 1930s? Some might have also questioned how “American” a story like this is. It was written by an American, but it is not set in America, and none of the characters are American. I can imagine teachers having a hard time figuring out not only how to teach the story but where it belongs on a syllabus. What works would you pair it with? What other American literature is it in conversation with? Boyle was, admittedly, writing about things that few others were considering. Yet, “White Horses” was published in America (in Harper’s magazine) and thus was written for and read by an American audience (and it was considered so powerful as to be chosen as the best story of the year). It is interesting to consider that context as well—not only the context in which the story is set or was written, but also that in which it was read. At the time, American readers did not yet know a whole lot about the Nazis in Germany, Hitler having been in power for less than two years, nor did they take him very seriously. In fact, they thought he was rather a joke.
What intrigues me about the particular time and place that Boyle documents in “White Horses” is that it was near the beginning of the hazardous road that would lead to the Holocaust. We know what happened in the end, but do we know what led to it? The story is a reflection of Boyle trying to figure what this new political movement means, and the conclusions she comes to in the story suggest a lot about the roots of genocide. First some biographical context: Boyle was living in a small alpine village, Kitzbühel, in the Tirol region in western Austria, which was a hotbed of Nazi activity. Here she explains the situation:
[From the 1988 Afterword to Death of Man, originally published in 1936, about similar themes.]
(The Duke of Windsor was then Prince Albert, who would become King Edward VIII of England, and abdicate to marry the American Wallace Simpson, who became the Duchess of Windsor. They were notorious Nazi sympathizers. It was an era when many famous people in America and England flirted with the Nazis.)
As Boyle explains, she had hired a governess to take care of the children, and they got along very well, and then Boyle learned she was helping to light the swastika fires and was a Nazi. How could she make sense of that? The young woman had been kind and good with the children. Boyle also knew a doctor in Innsbruck whom she respected very much and who also was a Nazi. I think what she does in this story is give us two kinds of Nazi sympathizers, one rather noble and able to look beyond prejudice (the doctor) and one who is more small-minded and very much hampered by her prejudices (the wife). Yet both are leading Austria down a dangerous path. The defining characteristic, in Boyle’s eyes, the thing that marks them as either good or evil, so to speak, is their attitude toward Jews and those who are outsiders. Even after the Holocaust, people wondered if a good Nazi was possible. In 1935, however, most people weren’t yet asking that question.
One of my online students dug into how Boyle portrays prejudice against Jews (referring to how the wife helps save Dr. Heine from the fire but then pulls back again): “Boyle writes on page 16, ‘And then she bit her lip suddenly and stood back, as if she had remembered the evil thing that stood between them.’ I thought this was interesting not only because she has to remind herself of her prejudices after reacting like a normal human being, but I think that Boyle’s word choice here is interesting: the ‘evil thing that stood between them.’ To the wife, the ‘evil thing’ is the fact that Doctor Heine is Jewish–to us, the evil thing is her prejudice and Nazi ideas.” And another student considered the doctor more fully during our online discussion: “I realized that I find the doctor to be a lot more scary than when I initially read the story. Here is a compassionate, loving man who literally cares for the people in his community. He is in a position of power, and he is a Nazi. That’s terrifying. People like that have much more influence than people such as the wife.” However much Boyle may be portraying the doctor positively, he certainly poses the greater threat because he knows better but is unwilling to challenge the Nazis’ persecution of Jews.
Another student was also very perceptive about the doctor’s attitude toward the visiting doctor, Dr. Heine: “[Boyle’s] trying to get us to see the normal, caring and concerning sort who saw these sorts of beliefs as necessary for a people. If he is welcoming and perhaps supportive of Dr. Heine, then he’s one who got into Hitler for the pro-German, pro-working class rhetoric and not for the anti-Semitism or belligerence. It feels a lot like people now who say they voted for the tax cuts and not the white supremacy or the concentration camps.” This is so well-put, and also rather chilling. I think the particular context Boyle was writing about is more important than ever for us to understand now, because it is easy to see parallels between her story to the rhetoric we hear now and the deep divisions we face as a country.
What is truly remarkable about “White Horses” is the way that Boyle predicts the devastating consequences of Nazism for Jews, at a time when very few people could see the Nazis as truly dangerous. (People began to wake up after Kristalnacht, in 1938.) As Dr. Heine watches the fires on the mountain, he feels nothing but foreboding: “He felt himself sitting defenseless by the window, surrounded by these long-burning fires of faith. They were all about him, inexplicable signals given from one mountain to another in some secret gathering of power that cast him and his people out, for ever out upon the water of despair” (20). By presenting his point of view in the story, she absolutely shows us where this all can lead.
“White Horses” made one student reflect more generally on the Holocaust and slavery: “Those types of things are mind boggling to me, almost to the point that they don’t seem real. But this line [‘’But don’t you see, don’t you see what he is?’ asked his wife’s wild whisper.’] suggests that reality, and I guess that is an important part of literature. It shows the reality of life.” Yes, Boyle brings to light how such atrocities begin. As another student pointed out, by simply saying “It’s just politics,” Dr. Heine excuses the Nazis and thus also helps to normalize them. His denial is naïve and also contributes to the problem. They have made a connection in a very turbulent time when they are being asked to be enemies, but it is uncertain whether their bond will last.
Perhaps more important than the question of whether or not the Nazis are portrayed sympathetically is the question of whether the Jewish character, Dr. Heine, is. America was a highly anti-Semitic country in the 1930s. (Here is an overview of American anti-Semitism in the 1930s from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_antisemitism_in_the_United_States#1930s.) At key points in the story, such as that already quoted, we see Dr. Heine’s point of view and realize that he is the one most in need of our empathy. Although the doctor is carted off to prison in the end, I don’t think we are supposed to feel very sorry for him. He has brought this on himself, by climbing the mountains to light the fires and by belonging to an outlawed party. As he tells Dr. Heine, “I used to play cards . . . But now there is something else to do. One’s hands are not tied” (21). So he is doing something, and he seems to welcome the consequences. Dr. Heine, on the other hand, has done nothing to incur anyone’s wrath. The only negative ideas or descriptions attached to him come from the wife’s point of view, which the narrator undercuts, such as when the wife thinks he “his skull was lighted with bright, quick, ambitious eyes” (“ambitious” implies that she thinks he is greedy and conniving), and the narrator continues, “But at lunch he talked simply with them . . . He listened to everything the doctor had told him about the way he liked things done; in spite of his modern, medical school and his Viennese hospitals, taking it all in with interest and respect” (15). In other words, he could feel superior to them, but he does not. This certainly presents him in a light that counters the wife’s (and likely many of the readers’) prejudices.
The story ends at a very interesting point in time: Chancellor Dolfuss has been assassinated by Nazis in an attempted coup. All known Nazis where then rounded up all over Austria and thrown in jail to prevent an uprising. What would happen after this assassination was unknown. Many thought the Nazis might take over and/or the Germans would invade, but in fact the Nazis were suppressed. Interestingly, Boyle doesn’t fill in the aftermath for us (nor does she in her novel Death of Man). She leaves us hanging with the Heimwehr soldier’s words, “Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow” (27), creating the impression that the Nazis have not been suppressed and could still come to power—through violence. The burning swastikas weren’t simply pretty night fires, they were threats of violence and bloodshed. The Heimwher, we should note, was a repressive paramilitary organization supporting the chancellor, who had basically become a dictator. Democracy never did take hold in Austria after WWI. It was a bloody period of Austria’s history. So while Boyle and her family had gone to this ski resort in the Alps to live peacefully for a while in the mountains, what they found there was the beginnings of the next war. As one student perceptively wrote, “She couldn’t have known how awful the following decade would be, but like the student-doctor and likely the people living in Europe at the time there must have been a sense of foreboding as they witnessed the political unrest and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.”
Another important passage to examine is that where the wife has a negative reaction to Dr. Heine’s appreciation of the doctor’s play:
“Yes,” she said, “Yes, I suppose you do think a great deal of art.”
“Yes, of course,” said Dr. Heine, quite guilelessly. “Art and science, of course.”
“Yes,” said the doctor’s wife, saying the words slowly and bitterly. “Yes, Art and science. What about people being hungry, what about this generation of young men who have never had work in their lives because they factories never opened since the war? Where do they come in?” (22-23)
In other words, the wife is here opposing art and politics. If one is interested in art, then one is above or apart from political and social conditions, ignoring what really matters. This story, of course, is not doing that. In the 1930s, many writers became more socially engaged. In the U.S., they were writing about the Depression and its affects on workers and farmers. In Europe, which also felt the effects of the Depression, they were writing about the political situation and poverty. But there was still a tension between those who believed art lived outside history, and those who believed, like Boyle, that is should live within it. And indeed, the more a story or work of art speaks directly to its immediate time, the more likely it is not to endure. It is then considered to be anything but “timeless.” Yet, I think that our discussion of “White Horses” indicated that although it might not have seemed that important for many years after the war, it is once again speaking to us and our present moment.
“The White Horses of Vienna” is currently available in print in Kay Boyle, Fifty Stories, published by New Directions. The collection covers her entire career, from stories of her youth and race relations in America to stories about her time abroad in pre-war Austria, war-time France, and post-war Germany.
Anne Boyd Rioux is a writer and expert on American women writers, uncovering the stories of their lives and fostering renewed appreciation for their forgotten or undervalued works. She is currently at work on a nonfiction narrative book about the 20th-century expatriate writer Kay Boyle, focusing on her years in Europe before, during, and after WWII, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The recipient of three NEH awards, one for public scholarship, Anne has a Ph.D. in American Studies and has been a professor for over twenty years. She is on the Board of Directors of the Biographers International Organization, and her essays and reviews appear in the Washington Post, Salon, Lit Hub, Lapham’s Quarterly, and elsewhere. Anne has published seven books, the latest of which is Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters (Norton 2018). Anne’s 2016 book Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist (Norton) helped bring Woolson the renewed attention she deserved. A hauntingly beautiful writer, Woolson was famous in her day but neglected as the all-male American literary canon formed in the twentieth century. Anne also edited a collection of Woolson’s stories published by the prestigious Library of America in 2020.