Before the First World War military monuments were reserved exclusively for high-ranking personalities such as commanders and generals. In this respect the war led to a paradigm shift: now people wanted to have monuments in remembrance of the ‘ordinary’ soldiers and to ‘honour’ them in this way. War memorials dedicated to the soldiers who fell in the First (and later also the Second) World War were put up in many towns and even small villages.
The ‘Siegfried’s Head’ was commissioned from the sculptor Josef Müllner by the German Student Fraternity in honour of the members of the university who fell in the First World War and was placed in the main entrance hall of the University of Vienna. The sculpture has been an object of controversy for decades, because Müllner and the fraternity who commissioned it are linked to an anti-Semitic, German nationalist and anti-liberal way of thinking.
Erected in 1660, the Burgtor was originally one of the gates in the fortifications surrounding the city of Vienna and was the site of fierce fighting during the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683. After the gate was blown up by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1809 it took fifteen years for the military to rebuild it. The foundation stone was laid in the presence of Emperor Franz I in 1821. The opening ceremony took place on 16 October 1824, the eleventh anniversary of the battle of Leipzig, the so-called ‘Battle of the Peoples’, at which the joint forces of Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden defeated Napoleon in a ‘heroic fight’.
The observer cannot but get the impression that in the struggle of the publicists for sales and attention it is the interpretation which comes up with the pithiest and most memorable labels for historical periods that finds favour.
In treatises and reports about the First World War the same concepts and labels crop up time and time again. Many of them have been taken over from the period of the war itself or from the years immediately after it. They represent – in most cases unthinkingly – a point of view which does not do justice to the present state of historical research. At the same time they repeat a narrative which appears problematic from a present-day perspective.
There is probably hardly any other phrase which is mentioned more often in Austria and Germany in connection with the First World War than ‘original catastrophe’. The term is derived from the words of the George F. Kennan, an American historian and diplomat for the United States, who in 1979 spoke of ‘the great seminal catastrophe’. This was shortened in German translation to Urkatastrophe (original catastrophe), and this word has meanwhile become a frequently used narrative, but one which generally does not bear in mind its origin, meaning, and above all its effect.
As a ‘site of memory’ the First World War was overlaid by the remembrance of the Second World War and the Holocaust in Austria, and in Germany too. In the cycle of years of celebration and remembrance the ‘8’ years (1918, 1938) always received more attention than the ‘lesser’ ‘4’ years (1914, 1934). In Austria’s historical memory the year 1918 marked less the end of the First World war than the end of the Monarchy, and this led to interminable discussions about the identity of the former world power which had become a small state as a result of the post-war treaties signed in the suburbs of Paris.
Almost all those composers from the countries fighting in the war who had already become very well-known before the war adopted a nationalistic pro-war stance. For some, however, the war years meant a sharp drop in their creativity. The death of many friends and acquaintances and in some cases their own experiences at the front led to the rapid disappearance of their initial enthusiasm. The music composed during the war is thus almost always marked by the mood of the war.
As far as the history of music is concerned, the First World War did not mark a significant turning-point. This had occurred several years earlier with the advent of atonal music, and for many contemporaries it was this that represented a major catastrophe of a different kind. What the war marked was rather a sharp drop in the production of music, with hardly any really great works being written. Musical life was also adapted to war service within a very short time, and especially at the beginning of the war, when composers and performers were meant to make their contribution to mobilization, their productivity was considerable. What innovations there were resulted primarily from technical developments and the consequences of the war.
“Il suffit d’ajouter ‚militaire’ à un mot pour lui faire perdre sa signification. Ainsi la justice militaire n’est pas la justice, la musique militaire n’est pas la musique.“ (Georges Clemenceau)
(It is enough to add ‘military’ to a word for it to lose its meaning. Hence military justice is not justice, military music is not music.)
Musical life in the other belligerent states was hardly different from that in Austria-Hungary or Germany. There too folk songs were turned into battle songs and the vast majority of musicians placed themselves at the service of the patriotic cause.
In an exchange of letters, the composer Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (or in some cases Gerty, his wife) expressed their views on the First World War in a form which was sometimes ironic and sarcastic, sometimes patriotic. However, for Strauss what was most important was not so much commenting on contemporary events as the effect these had on his own personal state of mind.