Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Decline and Long Rise of Vienna from the Great War

Cut off from all roots, and even from the earth that used to nourish these roots—this is how I truly feel. . . . I was born into a great and powerful Empire, the monarchy of the Habsburgs, but you’d better not search for it on the map: it got washed away without a trace.

Stefan Zweig, 1936

Vienna 1900

By Peter Berger

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, 2,149,834 persons were registered as residing in Vienna, meaning that the imperial capital's population had grown by almost 50 percent [in the past quarter century]. In Europe around 1900, no more than five capitals exceeded the one million mark. Besides Vienna, these were London, Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg.

On the eve of the murders of Sarajevo, Vienna was a place of blatant contradictions. Within its boundaries, one would meet striking poverty in the heavily industrialized peripheral districts, the “no man’s land of social life” (to quote the American sociologist and architecture critic Lewis Mumford).  Violent manifestations of working class discontent were not the norm, but one particular instance of revolt, the “price-hike riots” of September 1911, had left a lasting impression on the rulers in Vienna’s Rathaus. Coexisting with widespread urban poverty, but mostly ignorant of it, was Vienna’s affluent and numerically small business and professional elite.

While [with war] Vienna was slowly drained of its young male population deemed fit to fight, an influx of newcomers almost immediately made up for the loss. The first transport of wounded combatants arrived in the Austrian capital as early as 24 August 1914. In the initial seven months of the  conflict alone, an estimated 260,000 war casualties were treated in Vienna’s medical facilities, hospitals in the first place, but also buildings which originally had served other purposes like the university, parliament, etc., and now got subsequently converted into makeshift infirmaries.

Wartime Food Queue in Vienna

Food supply and hunger would a persistent problem throughout the war. According to historian Andrea Brenner, Vienna’s permanent food chaos was a combined effect of false expectations concerning the duration of the war, Allied blockade measures, military events on the Eastern front, rivalries between the monarchy’s administrative bodies (competing ministries, army and civilian bureaucracies), and unresolved tensions between Austria and Hungary.  As a prewar net exporter of agricultural products, the Habsburg monarchy had never given much consideration to preparing for times of food scarcity. Neither was there such a thing as a contractual basis for the supply of Vienna with Hungarian grain and meat. It was simply treated as given. Due to weather caprices, the 1914 wheat harvest of the Hungarian plains turned out to be disappointing, and Magyar authorities withheld parts of the usual Viennese share of the crop for home consumption. The prevailing sentiment at the outset of the war had been one of national unity in the face of foreign aggression. 

But very soon it became obvious for everyone that instead of promoting  consensus, war acted as a great divider of society. This was particularly true for the patchwork middle class “little folk” coalition which, before 1914, had endorsed Vienna’s Christian Social government of both mayors, Lueger and Weiskirchner. With the decision to introduce the protective measure of “Mieterschutz” (a set of laws curtailing the right of landlords to expel tenants or to raise their rents at will, largely aimed at safeguarding soldiers who returned from the front) in early 1917, the Christian Socials made the hard choice between homeowners and middle-class tenants, both of them potential supporters of political Catholicism. Similar choices had to be made between small manufacturers squeezed out of the market by lack of available raw materials and labor, and others who supplied the army and hence did enjoy privileged access to resources; or between civil servants pressing for “indexed,” i.e. inflation-adjusted, salaries and those segments of the bourgeoisie for whom the public service and its privileges, imagined or real, had always been a thorn in the flesh.


“When the end of the Habsburg Empire came after four years of war, which for Vienna included almost three years of want and unfreedom, and when the capital of a large realm became overnight the capital of a small, isolated, defeated Republic of six million inhabitants, another Vienna rose from the shambles…” Ilsa Barea wrote in 1966. This was Red Vienna of the Social Democrats who had conquered the city hall following victory at the first communal elections under universal (male and female) franchise in May 1919. It was the Vienna legally separated in 1922 from the rural province of Lower Austria whose majority of Catholic land folk would hardly have welcomed the social experiments now launched by the Viennese socialists: banning compulsory religious education at public schools, legalizing divorce, seizing “excess” living space from apartment owners to accommodate the homeless, introducing luxury taxes to pay for a vast program of construction of flats for workers, etc., etc. It was the Vienna of a timidly defensive bourgeoisie, unsettled by the departure of the old gods (throne, altar, and uniform), and chafing at the “social disorder” caused by the apparent emancipation of the working class, and by soaring inflation which in a few hours destroyed savings it had taken years to accumulate.

In his beautiful account of the Viennese atmosphere in the August days of 1914, Edmund de Waal speaks of “two speeds” discernible in the  imperial capital: a fast one of the soldiers’ marching feet, and a slower one of the food lines shuffling along in front of groceries, tobacco stores, and warm rooms for homeless persons. In the early 1920s, there  reigned a third speed, that of the rattling calculators behind the counters of banks or shops adding up millions, then billions and trillions to amounts equivalent of a worker’s daily pay, or the cost of a few bottles of drink. No wonder the question of whether Austria would be capable of surviving within her new boundaries occupied the minds of her contemporaries. According to the composer, Ernst Krenek, everyone from the secretary of state down to the last chimney sweep was convinced that Austria could not last. According to Krenek, Pan-Germanic and Nazi “Anschluss” propaganda easily fed on this general sentiment.

While the war caused the number of people residing in Vienna to swell  from 2.15 to 2.4 million, a reverse trend set in following the collapse of Habsburg rule. Many who lived in Vienna left the city for one of the new successor states who offered passports and jobs to those who, as ethnic Czechs, Slovaks, South Slavs, etc., chose to return to the land of their forebears. Some 20,000 Jewish ex-refugees from Galicia, however, remained—to the intense dislike of Vienna’s anti-Semites. Viennese façades looked dull and impoverished, partly due to wartime neglect, and partly because homeowners did not bother to invest in objects that, because of new rent regulations, failed to produce returns on capital. As a heritage of the war years, undernourishment and tuberculosis continued to plague the urban population. As late as 1919, more people died than were born in Vienna. The rate of underfed schoolchildren amounted in 1920 to an estimated 75 percent. An average Viennese child in the 1920s could not hope to exceed the height of children of equal age living around 1800.  Countries that had remained neutral in the World War I took pride in hosting Viennese “war children” for a period of several weeks or months of abundant diet and medical care. The number of children invited to Denmark, the  Netherlands, and Switzerland is reported to have been 90.000.

The Strudlhofstiege

And yet, Vienna rose again. It did so, with lasting effect and visibly for everyone, only in my lifetime, to be precise: during the 1960s. I recommend to those who wish to sense a distant echo of the feelings shared by a generation who went through World War I and its aftermath to visit Vienna’s ninth district. There, at the feet of the “Strudlhofstiege” (a stairway leading from the baroque gardens of the aristocratic Liechtenstein dynasty to the one-time residence of Count Berchtold, Francis Joseph’s foreign minister in 1914) a memorial plaque bears the lines of a poem by the novelist Heimito von Doderer

When the leaves lie on the steps
Autumn breath arises from the old staircase
What has walked on it ages ago.
Moon within two closely
 Embraced, light shoe and heavy steps
The mossy vase at its core/Outlives years between wars.
Much has fallen to our sorrow
And the beautiful lasts the shortest.

Source: Excerped from "Exiles of Eden: Vienna and the Viennese During and After World War I,"  Contemporary Austrian Studies, Volume 23

1 comment:

  1. Vienna and by extension Austria is a study in European unity which deserves closer examination and study.