Spiel, Hilde (1911–1990)

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Spiel, Hilde (1911–1990)

Austrian novelist, essayist, journalist, historian, critic, and major literary figure who examined the values of her fellow Austrians with a sharp critical eye. Born Hilde Maria Spiel in Vienna, Austria, on October 19, 1911; died in Vienna on November 29, 1990; daughter of Hugo Spiel and Marie (Gutfeld) Spiel; graduated from the University of Vienna, 1936; married Peter de Mendelssohn; married Hans Flesch Edler von Brunningen; children: daughter, Christine; son, Anthony Felix.

Hilde Spiel was born in Vienna in 1911, less than three years before the outbreak of World War I, a global conflagration that would destroy the venerable Habsburg Empire. There, she grew up in middle-class comfort and security. Her parents, both Jewish, had converted to Roman Catholicism and were in love with the imperial city that boasted of the Ringstrasse, the Opera House, Grinzing, and St. Stephen's Cathedral. When she was 15, Hilde was enrolled by her liberal-minded parents in the famous progressive secondary school directed by educational reformer Eugenie Schwarzwald . The intellectually precocious Spiel found herself exposed to some of the most original and challenging minds of the day, having as her teachers such brilliant artists as Oskar Kokoschka and Adolf Loos. Young Hilde was not merely a bookworm, however. She won a school championship in water polo and, like many young Austrians, looked forward every winter to skiing in the nearby mountains.

As a student at the University of Vienna, Spiel continued to take full advantage of a city, which, though impoverished by war and inflation, still remained intellectually exciting. Among her professors at the university were two scholars of world distinction, philosopher Moritz Schlick and psychologist Karl Bühler. At age 22, in 1933, Spiel published her first novel, Kati auf der Brücke (Cathy on the Bridge), a surprisingly mature work that won her the Julius Reich Prize that same year. Over the next few years, she enjoyed the carefree life of an unmarried young woman of the 1930s, including a trip to Italy where she had a brief affair with the novelist Alberto Moravia.

Spiel completed her studies at the university in 1936, with a dissertation, Darstelllungstheorie des Films (A Theory of Representation for Films), that was in many ways prophetic of post-1945 film theory and indicated her promise. By this time, although she loved Vienna, she had decided to leave Austria. The bloody suppression of the Social Democratic Party in 1934 destroyed the last vestiges of democracy, and a reactionary pro-fascist regime showed signs of making major concessions to the growing power of the Nazi Third Reich to the north. In 1936, too, Spiel's teacher Moritz Schlick was assassinated in the University of Vienna by a student thought to be demented but very likely also attracted to Nazi ideals. Having married the writer Peter de Mendelssohn that same year, Spiel and her husband emigrated to London in October 1936. In February 1937, her maternal uncle Felix, who had volunteered as a medical orderly on the side of the Spanish Republic, was killed in the defense of Madrid during the bloody battle of Jarama.

Soon after their arrival in London, Spiel and her husband mastered English, and by 1939 she had published a novel, Flute and Drums, in that language. The war years were spent raising a daughter and a son, and staying alive under the constant threat of aerial bombardment. By 1946, Spiel was back in Vienna, now as a journalist wearing the uniform of a British officer. She wrote her husband describing how much she was enjoying herself in the bombed-out city, asking him, "Is that very bad of me?"

In 1963, after years of agonizing about the decision, Spiel returned to Vienna for good. Though she was fully aware of Austria's considerable

complicity in the crimes of the Third Reich, including the Holocaust which cost the lives of some of her relatives (a grandmother had died in the Nazis' "model ghetto," Theresienstadt), she was so drawn to the city of her birth that she felt it was where she belonged. Returning to Austria did not, however, mean that Spiel became complacent about her fellow Austrians' faults. In her writings, she continued to examine their weaknesses as well as their cultural energy and capacity for old-world charm. From this period of her life, in which Spiel became increasingly interested in the rich history of pre-1914 Austria, came her highly regarded biography of the influential salonnière Fanny von Arnstein . Over the next decades, Spiel would become an important personality in Viennese intellectual life, regarded by many as the city's most outstanding femme de lettres, and indeed the reigning Grande Dame of Austrian literature. To the delight of many loyal readers, she reported on Austrian affairs, both literary and political, in elegantly written journalism that appeared in the New Statesman as well as in Die Welt.

In her sometimes critical books about Austria, Spiel angered her conservative or complacent compatriots with her portrayals of the dark side of a culture that the outside world frequently saw in terms of Strauss waltzes and Sachertorte. She turned down an invitation in 1988 to speak at the opening of the prestigious Salzburg Festival, because she did not want to share the podium with Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, who had been accused of concealing his activities as an officer of the German armed forces in Yugoslavia during World War II. At other times, however, she would declare her affection for the best in Austrian culture, as she did in her essay "I Love Living in Austria," in which she explained why she had returned.

In the final years of her life, Spiel battled cancer but refused to let her declining health stop the writing of her memoirs. She was able to complete both volumes of her autobiography, Die hellen und die finsteren Zeiten: Erinnerungen 1911–1946 (The Bright and the Dark Times: Memoirs 1911–1946), which was published in 1989, and Welche Welt ist meine Welt? Erinnerungen 1946–1989 (Which World is My World? Memoirs 1946–1989), which appeared in 1990. In early 1990, Hilde Spiel received the last of her many awards, the coveted Goethe Medal. She died in Vienna on November 29, 1990.


Beller, Steven. "Reflecting on the Murk," in TLS: The Times [London] Literary Supplement. No. 4539. March 30–April 5, 1990, p. 340.

Brinson, Charmian, et al., eds. "England? Aber wo liegt es?": Deutsche und Österreichische Emigranten in Grossbritannien 1933–1945. Munich: Iudicium Verlag GmbH., 1996.

Davy, Richard. "Group to Plead for Detained Czechs," in The Times [London]. March 10, 1972, p. 7.

Fliedl, Konstanze. "Hilde Spiel's Linguistic Rights of Residence," in Edward Timms and Ritchie Robertson, eds., Austrian Exodus: The Creative Achievements of Refugees from National Socialism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995, pp. 78–93.

Frederiksen, Elke, ed. Women Writers of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland: An Annotated Bio-Bibliographical Guide. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

"Hilde Spiel, Austrian Writer," in The Washington Post. December 3, 1990, p. D4.

Hildebrandt, Irma. Hab meine Rolle nie gelernt: 15 Wiener Frauenporträts. Munich: Eugen Diederichs, 1996.

Lorenz, Dagmar C.G., ed. Contemporary Jewish Writing in Austria: An Anthology. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

McLaughlin, Donal. "Written in Britain: Publications by German-Speaking Literary Exiles in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century," in Panikos Panayi, ed., Germans in Britain Since 1500. Rio Grande, OH: Hambledon Press, 1996, pp. 95–112.

Spiel, Hilde. The Darkened Room. London: Methuen, 1961.

——. "Exil und Rückkehr: Hilde Spiel im Gespräch," in Hartmut Krug and Michael Nungesser, eds. Kunst im Exil in Grossbritannien, 1933–1945. Berlin: Verlag Frölich & Kaufmann und NGBK, 1986, pp. 289–295.

——. Flute and Drums. London: Hutchinson, 1939.

Strickhausen, Waltraud. Die Erzählerin Hilde Spiel, oder, "Der weite Wurf in die Finsternis." NY: Peter Lang, 1996.

Thomas, Gina. "A Literary Traveller between Worlds," in The Guardian. December 6, 1990, p. 39.

"Werwowarum," in profil: Das unabhängige Nachrichtenmagazin Osterreichs. Vol. 14, no. 2. January 10, 1983, p. 62.

Wiesinger-Stock, Sandra. Hilde Spiel: Ein Leben ohne Heimat? Vienna: Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik, 1996.

Zeller, E. "Nicht Figur geworden: Laudatio für Hilde Spiel," in Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung, Darmstadt, Jahrbuch 1981, 2, 1982, pp. 63–66.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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