Vienna again a center of intrigue and spying |

Vienna again a center of intrigue and spying

Weekend holidaymakers pose for the camera in Vienna’s restored Prater Park, which was devastated by WW II and served as a setting for the 1949 film “The Third Man.”

VIENNA, Austria – It is perhaps fitting that our visit to Europe to observe some of the commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II should come to a close in Vienna.

Adolf Hitler, who was born in a small Austrian town about 170 miles west of here, came to Vienna as an impoverished young man to work as a hotel janitor. Later, he settled in Germany where he founded the Nazi party, ordered the annexation of Austria into Germany in 1938, led Germany to defeat in WW II and committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945.

Ceremonies observing the war’s end continue to be held throughout Austria and Europe, and those in Vienna have been particularly moving, such as speeches given by a Nazi concentration camp survivor and an underground resistance fighter as well as memorials held at the Monument Against War and Fascism, a stark grouping of white statues honoring the victims of Nazism when this nation was under the yoke of Hitler from 1938 to 1945.

Vienna suffered terribly during WW II. More than 5,000 citizens were killed by Allied bombings and German guns, and much of the city was reduced to ruins. An estimated 2,000 bombs were dropped, destroying 20 percent of its housing, hundreds of office buildings, factories, oil refineries and virtually all of the water, electrical and gas lines.

Following the end of the war, the Austrian Republic was reestablished under the occupation of the WW II allies France, Britain, the Soviet Union and the U.S. The occupation lasted until 1955, when Austria’s full independence was achieved during the height of the Cold War.

Because Austria remained neutral throughout the Cold War, Vienna, its capital and largest city, became the spy center of the world. Located between the capitalist West and the Soviet-dominated communist East, Vienna thrived as a seething nest of secret agents and counter-intelligence operatives of all stripes.

Motion picture executives soon realized that this Cold War playground close to the mysterious Balkans would be a ripe location for exploitation and profit, and in 1949 one of the greatest spy films of all time that was centered in Vienna hit the screen.

That film, of course, was the British-made “The Third Man” which starred Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton and Trevor Howard. It’s screenplay was written by Graham Greene, the noted English novelist who also wrote “Confidential Agent,” “The Quiet American,” “Our Man in Havana” and “The Human Factor.” Greene himself served as a spy, working as an undercover agent for Britain’s M16 secret intelligence agency during WW II.

Set in post-WW II Vienna, a city devastated by colossal piles of rubble, bombed-out buildings, black-marketing, desperate poverty and infighting between its four occupying powers, the motion picture portrays Welles as Harry Lime, an expatriate American murderer, con-man and racketeer who makes his living selling diluted penicillin to local hospitals and clinics.

Patients who received the doctored penicillin, many of whom were children, died horrible, lingering deaths caused by meningitis and other dread diseases. Some of those infected went insane.

Orson Welles, the star of the film, who died in 1989, would have turned 100 two months ago.

All exteriors and many of the interiors of “The Third Man,” which features a haunting musical theme played on a zither, were filmed in Vienna. They include the giant ferris wheel in the Prater Amusement park where Welles is confronted by pulp fiction writer Cotton, his hapless, former childhood friend who becomes entangled in a widening web of deception and murder, the sewers where Welles was chased by the police, the Central Cemetery where he was buried after being shot by the authorities and the Mozart Café, Opera House and several churches.

This month, a just-completed, high-definition digital restoration of the original black-and-white 35mm film, which greatly enhances its contrast, sound, color and nocturnal scenes of Vienna’s post-war destitution, will begin showing at theaters in the U.S. and abroad.

As for Vienna today … it has been completely rebuilt and regains its reputation as a beautiful city of culture, art and music.

The city’s parks host thousands of picknickers, sunbathers, counterculturalists and sports addicts, as evidenced by the photo accompanying this column.

But Vienna also is reacquiring its reputation as a “den of spies” because of the proliferation of intelligence agents and conspirators seeking to ferret out the secrets and methods of operation of the diplomats and international agencies headquartered here that are attempting to eradicate drug and human trafficking, organized crime, the clandestine sale of heavy weapons to Third World nations and the recruitment of young Muslims living in the West to join Islamist terrorist cells in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to seeing the new digital version of “The Third Man” which will soon be showing in movie houses across the the U.S.

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus and may be reahed at