Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Between a truce policy and left-wing radicalism

The Austrian Social Democrats during the First World War

The outbreak of war in July 1914 put the Austrian labour movement in an ambivalent position. It basically supported peace, following the model of international socialism, but at the same time it was becoming a party of the establishment.


The resolution adopted at the Imperial Conference of the Austrian German Social Democrats in May 1915 made the pro-war attitude manifest. It stated: "This crisis has put all the peoples of Austria-Hungary in a state of self defence […] to defend the Western economic, legal and cultural lands against the Tsar's addiction to conquest. For the time being the necessity of joint defence displaces political work towards peace."

The prime aim of the Social Democrats during the war was to maintain the party organisation, an objective they did not really attain in the light of the huge decline in membership numbers between 1914 and 1917. At the same time, they demanded the revival of the Reichsrat, which had been sidelined by Minister-President Stürgkh in 1914, and the re-establishment of the basic foundations of democracy.

In the first two years of the war, the majority of Social Democrats pursued a "policy of domestic truce". They supported the government's actions instead of calling for solidarity between the workers of all nations. In this way, it developed into a party that served the state and, despite its avowal of pacifism adopted in the prewar period, did not pursue a policy of peace. As soon as the war began, the inner-party disputes on the old question of worker participation in government affairs (the moderate right wing under Karl Renner, Victor Adler, Engelbert Pernerstorfer) or the rejection of the state, the Habsburg monarchy and the war (radical left wing under Robert Danneberg, Otto Bauer, Julius Deutsch and Friedrich Adler) were resurrected.

The latter fraction had found a leader figure in Friedrich Adler, Victor Adler's son, but for the time being it remained a small minority. It criticised the truce policies of the party leadership, which waived confrontation with the government, and instead argued strongly in favour of peace. Friedrich Adler's assassination of Minister President Stürkgh in October 1916 stirred up the forces of the left, which saw Adler as the spokesman of their hopes for peace.

The longer the war lasted and the more hope of victory faded, the more the left wing prevailed within the Social Democrats. Following Adler's assassination of Stürkgh and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in March 1917, more and more party members shifted to the left camp. Finally, the party leadership agreed to reintegrate the left wing, now under the leadership of Otto Bauer, and modified its course. Thus once again it proved possible to preserve the unity of the Social Democrats. Although it now spoke out in favour of peace without territorial gains, it did not pursue an insistent peace policy and persevered in its opportunistic approach. The editor-in-chief of the Arbeiter Zeitung, Friedrich Austerlitz, wrote accurately: "The views of the left have become the dominant views, while it is generally the tactics of the right that are regarded as correct."


Translation: David Wright


Buchmann, Bertrand Michael: Kaisertum und Doppelmonarchie, Wien 2003

Berchtold, Klaus: Österreichische Parteiprogramme 1868-1966, Wien 1967

Ehrenpreis, Petronilla: Kriegs- und Friedensziele im Diskurs. Regierung und deutschsprachige Öffentlichkeit Österreich-Ungarns während des Ersten Weltkriegs, Innsbruck/Wien/Bozen 2005

Hautmann, Hans/Kropf, Rudolf: Die österreichische Arbeiterbewegung vom Vormärz bis 1945. Sozialökonomische Ursprünge ihrer Ideologie und Politik, Linz 1974

Ardelt, Rudolf G.: Sozialdemokratie und bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit. Überlegungen zum Hainfelder Parteitag, in: Ackerl, Isabella/Hummelberger, Walter/Mommsen, Hans (Hrsg.): Politik und Gesellschaft im alten und neuen Österreich. Festschrift für Rudolf Neck zum 60. Geburtstag. Bd. I, Wien 1981, 214-238

Wandruszka, Adam: Österreichs politische Struktur. Die Entwicklung der Parteien und politischen Bewegungen, in: Benedikt, Heinrich (Hrsg.): Geschichte der Republik Österreich, Wien 1977, 289-486



"This crisis has put all the peoples …“: Resolution, quoted from: Berchtold, Klaus: Österreichische Parteiprogramme 1868-1966, Wien 1967, 29 (Translation)

"The views of the left  …“: Austerlitz, Friedrich, quoted from: Ehrenpreis, Petronilla: Kriegs- und Friedensziele im Diskurs. Regierung und deutschsprachige Öffentlichkeit Österreich-Ungarns während des Ersten Weltkriegs, Innsbruck/Wien/Bozen 2005, 284 (Translation)

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    On the eve of war

    The last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth were a time of modernisation, mechanisation and speed. In 1910, Vienna, capital of the Habsburg empire, had 2.1 million inhabitants and had grown to become an international metropolis. New technologies changed working life and leisure. Railways increased mobility, as did the bicycle, motor vehicle and aeroplane. How did this development manifest itself and what other trends emerged in the last years before the outbreak of the First World War?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Person

    Otto Bauer

    Otto Bauer was a social democrat politician and, from November 1918, the first Foreign Minister (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs) of the First Republic. Bauer resigned from his office in July 1919 following the failure to achieve unification with Germany.

  • Person

    Friedrich Adler

    Friedrich Adler, son of the Social Democratic Party leader Victor Adler, was the Party Secretary of the Austrian Social Democrats between 1911 and 1914. As an opponent of the war, he objected to the Social Democrat war policy and ultimately resigned from his position as Party Secretary. On 21 October 1916, Friedrich Adler assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Prime Minister Karl Graf Stürgkh, whom he regarded as being responsible for the continuation of the war. Adler was then sentenced to death, but reprieved by Emperor Karl and amnestied shortly before the end of the war.

  • Event

    Austrian Minister President shot

    The Austrian Minister President Count Karl Stürkgh was shot by Social Democrat Friedrich Adler. New Minister President was Ernest Koerber.