Mathilde Hanzel, whose letters reflect a critical attitude right from the start of the war, took an active role in various peace-promoting initiatives from 1916/1917.
By the end of 1916 an increasing longing for an early peace was being voiced by the population of Austria-Hungary. With no end to the conflict in sight, the countless casualties that the war had already claimed together with the continually deteriorating supply situation and food shortages, people were simply becoming ‘war-weary’.
On 23 May 1915, despite its alliance with Austria-Hungary and the German Empire, Italy entered the war on the side of the Entente. This act, sometimes referred to as ‘l’intervento’, aroused a wave of outrage and acrimony in the Monarchy. Later the same day a manifesto issued by Emperor Franz Joseph was published, capturing the general mood: ‘The King of Italy has declared war on me. A breach of fidelity the like of which is unknown in history has been perpetrated by the Kingdom of Italy on both its allies.’
From the perspective of the present, the images of demonstrations of public ‘enthusiasm’ from August 1914 are puzzling and rather difficult to account for. After the wars and genocide of the twentieth century it is almost impossible to understand how the outbreak of conflict between nations could be greeted with such fervour. However, there is a plethora of photographic evidence showing huge crowds of people in Vienna, Berlin or Paris celebrating with ‘exultation’ at the news.
Just three days after Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia on 1 August 1914, Ottokar Hanzel was drafted to Fortress Artillery Battalion No. 4, and from there to Reserve Company ‘Franzensfeste’ in Tyrol.
Mathilde Hübner met Ottokar Hanzel at some point in 1904. Aged twenty at the time, she was preparing for the Maturitätsprüfung and took private tuition in mathematics and descriptive geometry from Ottokar Hanzel, who was training to be a secondary school teacher in these two subjects.
At Easter 1905 Ottokar Hanzel ‚declared his love’ to Mathilde Hübner ‚in a letter‘.
Mathilde Hübner was born in Oberhollabrunn in Lower Austria in 1884 as the third of five daughters to Agnes Hübner (née von Coulon) and Gustav Hübner. In 1895 the family moved to the imperial capital Vienna, where Mathilde Hübner became a pupil at a private lower secondary school for girls in the same year. From 1898 she attended a higher secondary school for the daughters of civil servants in Vienna, but left after only a year in order to start professional training to become a teacher, like her parents, the following year.
In 1989, as part of an exhibition celebrating seventy years of women’s suffrage in Austria, a group of female historians, headed by Edith Saurer (1942–2011), professor of Modern History, an important pioneer and representative of the history of women and gender in Austria, placed an appeal in the press for private holdings of letters and documents relating to this topic. This appeal led to contact with the descendants of Mathilde Hanzel-Hübner, as a result of which the first extensive holdings of accounts and letters were handed over to the archive.
The daily newspapers in Austria and Hungary published frequent appeals urging women to send only cheerful and edifying letters to their relatives at the front.
In everyday wartime life, which was dominated by propaganda and censorship, letters from the front assumed a special status. The ‘immediate proximity of its writers to the events of the war at the front’ gave it an otherwise almost unachievable ‘authenticity’.