Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Arousing Patriotic Sentiments in the Concert of Nations

For it was ever so, when on the dial of fate
The hand to history’s great hour pointed,
That this people of dancers and of fiddlers stood
Like God’s angels before paradise.

(Anton Wildgans, ‘A Prayer for Austria’s People and Warriors’, August 1914)

The founder of musicology in Vienna, Guido Adler, referred repeatedly to the importance of music for international understanding; at the same time in 1917 he did, however, emphasize the superior role of Austrian music. This was, of all the cultural elements of the Austrian nation, ‘undoubtedly one of its most valuable possessions. … In it the life of our spirit and imagination is revealed in a splendid way, we can say in all modesty and without presumption.’ The author Anton Wildgans saw the matter in a similar manner, when at the beginning of the war he contrasted the Austrians as the ‘people of dancers and of fiddlers’ with the Germans as the ‘people of poets and thinkers’.

Patriotic invocations of qualities supposedly found in or claimed for a people were made by all the nations waging war, with musicologists and critics – but also musicians – placing themselves at the service of war propaganda every bit as much as other intellectuals. ‘The ability of music to liberate, inspire and seduce has never been felt more strongly than at the present time,’ Richard Specht, one of Vienna’s best known music critics, commented at the beginning of the war.

Even if Adler repeatedly regretted the horrors of the war, which hindered international exchange and harmed music because it led to the deaths of talented young people, he nevertheless pointed to the necessity to defend cultural achievements. And at the same time he confirmed that in the nature of Austrian music, which represented the ‘purest image of what is genuinely Austrian … in its ramifications and concentration’, there was to be found, as it were, a practical guide to ‘solving the burning political problems of our time’. This was, according to him, to be seen in the ‘undeniable’ fact that it was the German element that stood at the centre of everything that was Austrian and that in its perfection led to its supremacy in music, which was enriched by exchange with ‘other ethnic elements’, which could only attain ‘limited validity in their own right’. However, from the middle of the nineteenth century other national schools of art had succeeded in developing freely – admittedly under the leadership of German art! ‘It is precisely in Austria that we can … learn a great deal from comparing art and life, just as this war will for a long time be the master of world history,’ Adler concluded.

In Germany, too, there were similar patriotic sounds. Arthur Seidl, a musicologist who had won respect with his works on Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, published his theses on the danger for German culture from its opponents in the war, a culture which was ‘the first, most important, the “deepest” and superior to all of them’. The French composer Claude Debussy expressed his patriotic frame of mind in a pithy way: ‘Since Paris has been cleansed of those tiresome foreigners, whether by shooting them or by throwing them out, it has become a charming place from one moment to the next.’

Translation: Leigh Bailey


Adler, Guido: Weltkrieg und Musik, in: Neue Freie Presse vom 2.7.1917, 1-3

Giesbrecht, Sabine: Musikalische Kriegsrüstung. Zur Funktion populärer Musik im 1. Weltkrieg. Gießen 2008. Unter: (20.06.2014)

Nussbaumer, Martina: „Jetzt ist die Stunde da, in der nur das Höchste laut werden darf.“ Zur Aufrüstung des klassischen Musiklebens, in: Pfoser, Alfred, Weigl, Andreas (Hrsg.): Im Epizentrum des Zusammenbruchs. Wien 2013, 374-385



„undoubtedly one of its most valuable ...": Neue Freie Presse vom 2.7.1917, 1 (Translation)

„The ability of music to liberate ...": Specht, Richard: Die Musik im Krieg, in: Der Merker 5/116, Wien 1914, 522-525, hier: 523, zitiert nach Nussbaumer, Martina: „Jetzt ist die Stunde da. in der nur das Höchste laut werden darf.“ Zur Aufrüstung des klassischen Musiklebens, in: Pfoser, Alfred, Weigl, Andreas (Hrsg.): Im Epizentrum des Zusammenbruchs. Wien 2013, 374-385 (Translation)

„purest image of what is genuinely Austrian ...", „Wir können gerade in Oesterreich ...": Neue Freie Presse vom 2.7.1917, 1 (Translation)

„the first, most important’ ...": AMZ XLII, 1915, zitiert nach: Giesbrecht, Sabine: Musikalische Kriegsrüstung. Zur Funktion populärer Musik im 1. Weltkrieg. Gießen 2008, 169. Unter: (20.06.2014), 163 (Translation)

„Since Paris has been cleansed ...": Barraqué, Jean: Claude Debussy. Reinbek bei Hamburg 1964, 148 (Translation)

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    War and art

    Many artists, intellectuals and writers welcomed the outbreak of the First World War. They saw it not as an apocalypse but as the opportunity for a change for the better. As such they joined in the patriotic fervour of the first weeks and months of the war. What motivated them not only to devote their artistic energies to the fatherland but also to take an active part in the fighting? How were anti-war sentiments articulated by artists? What other forms of relationship were there between art and warfare during and after the First World War?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

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    The year 1914 brought about an incisive change in their private and professional lives of many intellectuals. Formerly international intellectual and artist circles collapsed, many intellectuals entered the war, voluntarily or not, and many of them failed to return.

  • Person

    Claude Debussy

    Claude Debussy's attitude to the First World War was characterised by an extreme nationalism, which was also reflected in his musical works. Debussy died of cancer shortly before the end of the war.

  • Object

    The foreigner, the adversary, the enemy!

    To popularise the greeting “Gott strafe England” [“May God punish England”] and the response “Er strafe es” [“May He do so”] it was printed on posters, badges and postcards. The idea was to promote patriotism and hatred of England. Right after the start of the war, animosity and mutual attributions of blame by the two sides were manifest. Xenophobia was officially encouraged as a sign of patriotism. This singling out and denigration of the enemy was designed to strengthen solidarity and justify the country’s own war policy.