Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Apathy and resistance – The mood of the people

The parliaments of the Central Powers were still manned by the old elites, who were unable to throw off the chains of war and continued to cling to the illusion of a victorious peace. Amongst the general population, by contrast, the long lists of the fallen, the ubiquitous presence of war invalids and the shortage of basic necessities made many question the sense of the war that they had initially welcomed so heartily.

In the wake of the breakdown of the supply system in Austria-Hungary large sectors of the population lost their sense of orientation and fell into a state of apathy. Now that it was ever more difficult to acquire the basic necessities of life, people closed their ears to the clamour of the war propaganda and were deaf to the voices urging them to hold their heads up in the face of adversity. Beneath the calm surface, however, discontent was beginning to brew.

One of the state’s principal last resorts was to call in the military. Soldiers did not only fight at the front but were also used in so-called ‘assistance operations’ in the hinterland when public order needed to be kept. Uprisings, hunger protests and plundering were countered with great brutality, so that revolutionary tendencies would be firmly nipped in the bud. However, even in the army it was not always possible for order to be maintained. Desertion was common and in February 1918 there was a revolt amongst the naval troops on ships lying at anchor in the bay of Kotor (then in Dalmatia, now Montenegro), which was followed by further local mutinies in various parts of the Monarchy.

The government responded to the exacerbation of the problems by intensifying its authoritarian course, taking characteristically police-state measures and limiting civil rights. In the field of workers’ rights in particular there were stringent measures such as the prohibition of strikes, the raising of the working week to sixty hours, and cuts in wages. Extreme measures were taken in the armaments industry, where the workers were put under a strict military regime.

On the other hand, the government tried to compensate for their repressive measures by making concessions in the sphere of social change, through the Rent Restriction Act, for example, with its freezing of rents at pre-war levels. Measures in accordance with the ideal of social partnership such as the involvement of workers’ representatives gave the workforce a greater feeling that its contribution to keeping the state going was being recognized.

On the left wing of the political spectrum the longing for peace was accompanied by the desire for radical social change, for which there was a ready model in the Russian revolution and the downfall of the Tsarist regime. The spectre of Socialism caused the traditional elites of the nobility and upper middle classes to fear that history might take a similar course in Austria.

After pro-Soviet demonstrations in November 1917, January 1918 saw the Socialists and the left wing of the Social Democrats issuing calls for united political action. These struck such a chord in the hearts of the working people that over 700,000 workers from all the nationalities of the Monarchy joined forces in a general strike.

Translation: Peter John Nicholson


Hanisch, Ernst: Der lange Schatten des Staates. Österreichische Gesellschaftsgeschichte im 20. Jahrhundert [Österreichische Geschichte 1890–1990, hrsg. von Herwig Wolfram], Wien 2005

Hirschfeld, Gerhard/Krumeich, Gerd/Renz, Irina (Hrsg.): Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg. Aktualisierte und erweiterte Studienausgabe, Paderborn/Wien [u.a.] 2009        

Leidinger Hannes/Moritz, Verena: Der Erste Weltkrieg, Wien [u.a.] 2011

Rauchensteiner, Manfried: Der Erste Weltkrieg und das Ende der Habsburgermonarchie 1914–1918, Wien u. a. 2013

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect


    The longer the war lasted, the more disagreement was voiced by representatives of the Austrian peace and women’s movements and also by sections of the Austro‑Hungarian population. They became increasingly tired of the war, reflected in strikes and hunger riots and in mass desertions by front soldiers towards the end of the war.

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Strikes, revolutionary movements

    The transformation of production facilities for war work and the departure of the men to the front meant that women increasingly performed typical male jobs, in the armaments industry and elsewhere. They also had to feed their families and were thus the first to react to the increasingly precarious food situation and the extremely bad working conditions.

  • Object

    Flight and deportation

    Millions of people fled during the war from the fighting and the marauding soldiers. The situation was particularly dramatic in ethnically heterogeneous regions on the eastern front. Apart from the invaders, local soldiers also attacked minorities. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were deported far away from the front and behind the lines, in some cases because they were seen as untrustworthy “internal enemies” and in others to exploit them as forced labourers.

  • Object

    War invalids

    No other war left such an army of invalids and men with diseases and life-long psychological scars. Mechanical aids such as this writing aid were designed to restore functions to those wounded in the war and in this way to help them to reintegrate into the labour market. Even several years after the end of the war, it was impossible to determine the number of people who had returned injured or diseased from the front. In 1922 there were around 143,000 war invalids living in Austria.