Central & Eastern Europe / Satellite Review / Popular Culture / Literature / Film / fiction

A Life in the Woods

Felix Salten, Bambi the Deer, and Twentieth-Century Vienna

Felix Salten’s press card for the year 1933 (© Wienbibliothek im Rathaus)

Salten caught the changing moods of the city through his essays on everything from daily politics to sport, strolling in parks, art exhibitions and the theatre.

Vienna’s central role in the rise of European modernism is remembered through an impressive roll call of prominent names. We have Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Robert Musil, Arthur Schnitzler and Karl Kraus. We also have Bambi the Deer.

Bambi the Deer? Nowadays remembered more for its Hollywood adaptation than the Viennese original, Bambi was always more than just a children’s book. Dealing with the pathos of life and death in the forest, and containing lyrical descriptions of a magical green world, it was intended as a hybrid form of literature that would suit people of all ages – and address deep yearnings left in the wake of World War I and the economic chaos that followed it.

Fist published in 1922, this classic among animal stories was authored by Felix Salten, the Austrian-Jewish journalist, novelist and playwright who arguably personified Vienna’s turbulent cultural energies more than any other writer. Shedding new light on this multi-faceted (but still little-known) man is Beyond Bambi, Felix Salten and the Discovery of Viennese Modernism, an exhibition which, epidemiological measures permitting, can be seen at Wien Museum (Vienna’s City Museum) until September 19 2021.

Bambi represented a total career change for an author who (already aged 53 and with grown-up children) had not written about animals before. As a keen huntsman, Salten knew the forest and its wildlife well; Bambi’s habitat was a spiritual landscape of silence and beauty that stood in total opposition to the city that had made Salten’s career.   

To the Prater

Born Siegmund Saltzmann in 1869, Felix Salten was publishing short stories and theatre pieces by the age of 21. He quickly made a name for himself as a sketch-writer for the Viennese newspapers, catching the moods of the city through his essays on everything from daily politics to sport, strolling in parks, art exhibitions and theatre life. His famous 1894 article on the city’s Prater Park, and the characters who strolled its avenues, marked him out early as one of the city’s most versatile, perceptive chroniclers. Going on to write political interviews, novellas and plays, he quickly became one of the commanding figures of Viennese cultural life. He was an intimate friend of dramatist Arthur Schnitzler and literary critic Hermann Bahr, and was in coffee-drinking terms with just about everyone else.

Salten also represented Vienna at its most exportable. He wrote for German newspapers; his plays appeared in German theatres. He briefly worked as editor of the Berliner Morgenpost, where he famously concocted “eyewitness” reports of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake from the comfort of is office chair.

An exhibition on Felix Salten is, by its nature, a journey into the heart of Central European culture. “The Vienna City Library Vienna bought Salten’s estate from his granddaughter in Zurich some years ago”, explains exhibition curator Ursula Storch. “The library has limited room for exhibitions, and looked to us as a partner who could join them in organizing an exhibition. Instead of producing a show on the “Life and Work of Felix Salten“, we decided to use the exhibition to tell a story about Vienna in around 1900, via Salten’s connections, including the letters he shared with many of the famous personalities of that time, Salten wrote a lot about the visual arts, which is why our exhibition displays works by Gustav Klimt, Max Oppenheimer and others, together with Salten’s comments on these works.”

Sourpuss Kraus

Salten was a master of the feuilleton, the discursive essay that often appeared at the bottom of a newspaper’s front page and was meant to be enjoyed by readers with literary tastes. The feuilleton might cover culture, travel, lifestyle, the theatre, or humorous takes on the social mores of the day. Feuilleton writers were the stars of the journalistic world, rather like weekend columnists today.

We often look at Viennese journalism through the eyes of Karl Kraus, the contrarian editor of Die Fackel who despised the superficiality of the feuilleton writers and considered their lightness of tone to be both a debasement of language and a deliberate falsification of the world as it really was. Salten, who had perfected the art of writing witty engaging prose about just about anything that caught hos eye, was the symbol of everything that Kraus disliked. Salten and Kraus actually came to blows when Kraus published details of Salten’s relationship with actress Ottilie Metzl, who Salten subsequently married.

Although Salten is a better guide to the richness of Viennese life than sourpuss Kraus, Ursula Storch thinks that it would be a mistake to throw Kraus away entirely. “The best would be to read both Kraus and Salten. Everybody knows that Kraus was obsessed by language. But since he concentrated on this aspect of culture, he neglected many others. Salten shows in his essays a much broader range of topics in Vienna at that time.”

Salten was long thought to be the anonymous author behind the “autobiography” of Viennese prostitute Josephine Mutzenbacher, a notoriously pornographic work published in 1906 (and banned in 1913). The book’s graphic descriptions of under-age sex have always been difficult to justify, although the book’s apologists often claim that it is a social novel depicting the poverty and degradation of the Viennese working class.

Tutankhamun Superstar

Salten was dogged throughout his career by insinuations that he was the Mutzenbacher man, a device used by enemies and satirists alike to imply that Salten the liberal commentator was far more morally compromised than he liked to appear. But did Salten actually write it?  “Today’s experts think that the book was not written by Salten at all” says Storch, “but most probably by a journalist called Ernst Klein, who wrote a lot of pornographic texts under different names at that time. However colleagues from the City Library did find a pornographic story among Salten’s papers. It is in his handwriting, and probably dates from the 1930s. This previously unpublished text is included in the catalogue to our exhibition. Salten succeeded in writing just about everything, so it should come as no surprise that he could write pornography too”

After spending World War I editing Fremdenblatt, a propaganda newspaper published by the Foreign Ministry, Salten continued where he had left off, reeling off a string of novellas, stage plays and screenplays for the emerging art of cinema.

In many ways Salten was just as good a guide to the post-war world as the one that preceded it. An article on the recently-discovered tomb of Tutankhamun, filed from Luxor in 1924, riffed on the theme of modern celebrity and the fact that a long-dead boy-king could become a twentieth-century media star.

A Life in the Woods

Salten’s emergence as a writer of animal stories came as something of a surprise. An early version of Bambi was serialized by Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse in 1922. The book (the full title of which is Bambi: ein Leben im Walde or “Bambi: a Life in the Woods”) was initially released by German publisher Ullstein at the end of 1922 but failed to make much of an impression. Sales picked up when the book was taken over by Zsolnay, who successfully pushed Salten’s prose into the best-seller lists.

“Is it a fairly story? Is it a novel? Or an accusation, [designed to show] that of all living things, the most inhuman is the human being?” asked Viennese daily Der Tag’s critic Artur Gerber in in November 1926. For Gerber, Bambi was a book with a distinct spiritual message: respect life, respect other living beings and fellow humans, just as the creator would have wished.

Indeed Bambi was widely discussed in its time, written about at length by critics accustomed to addressing big novels. Frequent Nobel-Prize nominee Rudolf Hans Bartsch saw Bambi as a kind of charter for animal rights, a manifesto against zoos and wildlife parks. Human beings for Bartsch were “evil monkeys” given rule over the world by an “incomprehensible God”.

According to Bartsch, Salten’s love of hunting had given him an understanding of the forest and its natural inhabitants, a sense that all living things were related to each other and depended on each other. Salten’s contemporaries found something brilliant in his ability to write an animal book that adults could also read. The fact that the main character was a young deer exposed to inexplicable and seemingly abstract dangers introduced an element of pathos that would have not been present had it been a book about people. The variety of Nature, as seen by a young deer, was astounding and spellbinding.

A new frontier

Bambi was far from being Salten’s only foray into animal territory. At around the same time Salten had written a story entitled Der Hund von Florenz (“The Dog of Florence”), in which a man changes into a dog - and it is as a dog that his nobility and heroism come out.


The other theme with which Salten was preoccupied in the post-World War I years was the Zionist settlement of Palestine. He travelled there in 1924, producing a book entitled Neue Menschen auf alter Erde (“New People on Ancient Land”).

Most of the Jews Salten met in Palestine were urban, educated people who had given up established professions in order to grow fruit and keep cows; it was the back-to-nature lifestyles of these pioneers that fired Salten’s imagination. Palestine also represented an escape from European anti-Semitism; an escape from a culture in which Jews, however much they tried to assimilate, were constantly questioned about their identity. In Palestine, thought Salten, people could just be themselves. Like many pro-Zionist writers of his generation, Salten produced only a hazy picture of who the local Arabs were and what they might want. He spoke of Palestine being sacred to Christians and Muslims, but insisted that it was “more sacred” to the Jews because it was their original homeland and the cradle of their civilization. He presented Zionist leaders as conciliatory figures who were actively smoothing over their difficulties with local Arab communities, but was nebulous in his comments on where those difficulties might actually have been.

The fact that different strands were emerging within the settler movement – with ultra-religious Orthodox Jews seeking a different kind of promised land to that envisaged by non-observant, urban Jews from Vienna – was for Salten the biggest problem facing Zionism. The potential for a much more serious conflict with Palestinian Arabs was something that Salten dramatically underestimated – or chose to ignore.

With its emphasis on new starts, Neue Menschen was very much a book of the time. One can see Salten’s work in the 1920s as a retreat from the inhumanity and savagery of World War I, a war that destroyed the confidence of liberal Viennese society. Bambi represented a retreat into the emerald world of the forest, where a higher, natural morality reigned. Zionism fascinated him because it represented a new beginning, a new civilization that left Europe and its politics behind. The city of Vienna remained Salten’s main source of inspiration, although even Vienna-based novels like Martin Overbeck (1927), about a rich young man who gives up aristocratic comforts to be with the woman he loves, suggested that the old world was crumbling and new modes of life had to be sought.

Dubrovnik 1933

“Salten himself did not change his understanding of being a journalist after the First World War” says Ursula Storch, “But since the economic situation, politics and so on had deeply changed, he had to cope with the new reality. Salten’s open mindedness, his interest in nearly everything around him, seems relevant to me in whatever age.”

Salten certainly adapted himself to new media. He became a master of the radio talk (the modern world’s answer to the feuilleton), and worked as a dialogue consultant for film companies eager to meet the challenges posed by talking movies.

However Salten’s talent for remaining abreast of modern times deserted him totally in 1933. As chairman of the Viennese branch of the international writer’s organization PEN, Salten led the Austrian delegation to the PEN conference held in Dubrovnik in July 1933. Held 18 days after the notorious book burnings in Germany, the conference was under pressure to make a stand against Nazism. Salten attempted to keep Austrian PEN aloof, arguing that it was not the job of PEN to interfere in German affairs. When PEN president HG Wells announced that there would be a debate on Germany and that the anti-Nazi German writer Ernest Toller would be invited to speak, Salten actually took to the stage to complain. A majority of Austrian PEN members (many of whom were, like Salten, Austrian Jews), were shocked by his stance. Salten was denounced in socialist daily Arbeiter Zeitung for effectively taking Hitler’s side. Salten was induced to write an open letter denouncing the barbarities of the Hitler regime (and also re-declaring his own Jewishness) in order to try and limit the damage done to his reputation; he resigned his PEN chairmanship two months later.

Salten naively believed that Germany was a nation of culture, and that it was culture, rather than Nazism, that would ultimately shape its future. Germany, with its large reading public, was also the country that had kept his career alive after 1918. He found it hard to believe that his lucrative professional relationship with Germany might now be over.

Bring on the dancing horses

Salten had never committed himself to any political option, and seemed to accept the Clero-Fascist coup that took place in Austria in 1934. However he appeared less frequently in the newspapers. His books were banned in Germany in 1935, depriving him of royalties from what was his biggest market. After the Anschluss of 1938 he became un-publishable in Austria too. As a prominent Jew he was in danger of intimidation or arrest; his international fame as the Bambi Man may well have offered a degree of protection. The following year he emigrated to Switzerland where, prohibited from working as a journalist, he died in October 1945.

The Walt Disney version of Bambi had been released in 1942. Salten had famously sold the film rights for $1000 in 1933 (to another company who subsequently passed it on to Disney). This was probably considered a reasonable deal at the time; Salten can’t possibly have foreseen that the kind of full-length animated films pioneered by Disney were about to become massively popular.

One of the last of Salten’s books to be published in Austria was Florian Das Pferd des Kaisers (“Florian, the Emperor’s Horse”), the story of a Lipizzaner stallion who becomes an imperial favourite at Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School. Observing the last years of the Habsburg Empire, and the first years of the Austrian republic, through the eyes of a beautiful equine beast, the book served as a fitting metaphor for the glittering, cultured, self-possessed Vienna that burned so brightly in the early years of the 20th century, and was quietly snuffed out after 1934.

© Jonathan Bousfield

German-language edition of Bambi from 1936. (Courtesy of Wienbibliothek im Rathaus, ©Gerhard Bauer