Salman Rushdie wasn’t the first novelist to suffer an assassination attempt by someone who hadn’t read his book

Hadi Matar, the man charged with the attempted murder of famed novelist Salman Rushdie, admitted he only had “read like two pages” of “satanic versesRushdie’s 1988 novel that angered fundamentalist Muslims around the world. Former Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatalloh Ruhollah Khomeini, who announced a fatwa calling on all Muslims to assassinate Rushdie in 1989, I hadn’t read it at all.

“The Satanic Verses” is not the first – and will not be the last – novel to provoke the rage of a fanatic who does not know the nuances of literature.

In 1922, an Austrian writer named Hugo Bettauer published a novel set in Vienna entitled “The city without Jews.” It sold a quarter of a million copies and rose to international fame, with a English translation issued in London and New York. A silent film 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 repeatedly. The author died of his injuries two weeks later.

A novel published in a polarized city

Like in the United States todaythere was a big gap between rich and poor in early 20th century Vienna.

The impressive architecture of downtown sheltered immense wealth, while beyond that reigned desperate misery in the working-class neighborhoods. The opulence of banks and department stores, the culture of theaters and opera, especially in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Leopoldstadt – inevitably sparked deep resentment.

In the years immediately preceding the First World War, the populist mayor Karl Luger saw his opportunity: he could win votes by blaming every problem on the Jews. Many Jewish refugees would later say that anti-Semitism in Vienna was worse than in Berlin. A poor painter living in a public dormitory in a poor neighborhood north of Leopoldstadt was inspired to build a new ideology according to Lueger’s plan. His name was Adolf Hitler.

Hugo Bettauer was born Jewish. Although he converted to Christianity, he never lost touch with his roots. He worked as a journalist and became a prolific novelist.

Hugo Bettauer’s novel “The City Without Jews” has sold more than 250,000 copies.
Austrian Cinematheque

“The City Without the Jews” (“Die Stadt ohne Juden”), ominously subtitled “A Novel of Tomorrow”, is a dystopian satire.

“A solid human wall,” he begins, “stretching from the University to Bellaria, surrounded the magnificent and imposing Parliament building. All of Vienna seemed to have come together on that June morning to witness a historic event of incalculable importance.

They came to hear a politician named Dr. Schwertfeger – clearly based on Lueger – proclaim that all Jews must be expelled from the city.

“Heil Dr. Karl Schwertfeger,” shouts the crowd, “Heil, heil, heil, the liberator of Austria.”

Names, facial features and ancestry are studied; even half-breeds are on the list of people to be deported. The synagogues are desecrated and the entire Jewish population is crammed into railway cars with their suitcases. To watch this scene in the silent version of 1924 of the novel is a frightening experience: it’s like witnessing the Holocaust before it happened.

nazi anger

The ingenious twist of the novel is that once the Jews are expelled, Vienna’s economy and culture collapse: no bankers, no tailors or hoteliers, no theatre, no newspapers. The exiles find a royal welcome and all ends well. The book is a simple but extremely powerful satire on anti-Semitism, which grabs the reader’s attention by focusing the story on a handful of well-drawn characters.

But both the novel and the film angered the nascent Austrian Nazi movement. Bettauer was denounced as a communist and corrupter of the city’s youth. Otto Rothstocka 20-year-old dental technician who had soaked up all the anti-Semitic propaganda of the time, decided to act and murdered the author in March 1925.

Bird's eye view of the murder scene.
A drawing of the crime scene used during Otto Rothstock’s trial.
Austrian Cinematheque

In court, Rothstock said he was saving European culture from “degeneracy”. He describes Bettauer’s journalism, which often celebrated erotic liberation, as pornographic, and gave no indication that he had actually read the novel. His defense attorney, Walter Riehl, was the leader of the Austrian Nazi Party. He got his man out with an insane plea and a mere 18 months in a mental institution.

Rothstock lived until the 1970s, never repent of his Nazism. Surprisingly, HK Breslauer, the director of the film adaptation, later became a propagandist on behalf of Hitler’s Nazi Party. However, Ida Jenbach, the Jewish woman who co-wrote the screenplay, was deported to the Minsk ghetto. She was liquidated either there or nearby Maly Trostenet Concentration camp.

Ironically, given the parallels between Rushdie’s attack and Bettauer’s murder, in Vienna today it is Muslims who are demonized, like the Jews 100 years ago.

The blinders of extremism

Writers seem to be especially vulnerable in these polarized times where beliefs harden into dogma and those with opposing views are demonized.

Rushdie’s novel is populated by angels and demons, propelled by dreamlike sequences and fantastical provocations. It celebrates diverse identities while poking fun at prophets and politicians, Britons and their empire, and all manner of divisions and dogmas. It is a work of “magical realismwhich begs to be read playfully, not literally.

But religious and political fundamentalists have no time for games, for questioning, doubt and curiosity. In one passage, Rushdie drew inspiration from ancient heterodox texts to portray the Prophet Muhammad being addressed by the devil instead of God, and that was enough to spark fury in the Muslim world. Along the same lines, Bettauer’s satirical “novel of tomorrow” — a thought experiment intended to make readers think twice about the Jewish contribution to Viennese life — enraged anti-Semites.

A woman in a headscarf is holding a newspaper.
An Iranian woman reads a newspaper in 2000 with a cartoon depicting British author Salman Rushdie as a hanged man.
Henghameh Fahimi/AFP via Getty Images

“Fundamentalism,” writes critic Terry Eagleton, “is essentially an erroneous theory of language”: it assumes that every word of a text, whether sacred or profane, should be read as the statement of a literal truth or the proclamation of the unshakeable beliefs of the author. He is deaf to irony, metaphor, satire, allegory, provocation, ambiguity, on the contrary.

So it probably wouldn’t have made any difference if Otto Rothstock had read “The City Without Jews” or if Hadi Matar and Ayatollah Khomeini had read “The Satanic Verses”. They would have heard only the message they wanted to hear.

It is a disturbing sign of the times which the number of students graduating in literature is in decline worldwide. In our divided age, it’s more important than ever that people continue to learn the art of reading with imagination and empathy — and without the blinders of politics or religion.