Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Heroes or victims? War invalids and their impact on general awareness

War invalids were a conspicuous reminder of the misery of the war and of defeat at the end of it, thus always aroused very strong emotions and had to face being blamed for a great deal.

War invalids acted as an ideal projection screen. At the beginning of the war they were acclaimed as heroes sacrificing their physical integrity to emperor and Fatherland, as the wounded returning home, whose reception and care in the homeland embodied the country’s own patriotic ethos. However, towards the end of the war and after it, they were increasingly seen as unsettling victims, painfully reminding people of their own distress and defeat in the war, men who made demands and were in competition with other groups in the struggle for the meagre post-war resources. The image of war invalids fluctuated as well not only in the view of others but also in their own: they had made a sacrifice and had been sacrificed to it themselves. They were attributed with high symbolic capital, which they capably exploited, but were at the same time disadvantaged, since they had to cope all their lives with their physical disabilities, and many died an early death.

A particularly striking aspect is the employment of war invalids in the initial years of the war. Aristocratic and middle-class women realised that the care and support of wounded soldiers was a respectable and respected activity, allowing them to manifest their support of the war effort. Physicians did the same in their field and used their medical skills to great effect on amputated patients. Even the armaments industry demonstrated their responsibility for war invalids in diverse actions – for instance in setting up workshops for invalids. The general public supported war invalids financially through charitable actions and thus gave practical expression to their patriotism. In all these actions invalid veterans were merely objects of the most diverse interests.

In the course of the war their numbers rapidly increased and beggars in the city streets became more numerous – men frequently did not discard their uniforms, aware that their physical disabilities in combination with the military attribute would arouse more sympathy. This frequently caused a shift in public attitude . Voices became louder accusing war invalids of being work-shy and exploiting public charity. The tattered misery on the streets was not compliant with arousing patriotic sentiments. After the war, the functionalising of war invalids and their employment continued for very diverse purposes – whether revanchist or pacifist. The political parties always addressed this group as well in their campaigns.

Translation: Abigail Prohaska


Kienitz, Sabine: Beschädigte Helden. Kriegsinvalidität und Körperbilder 1914–1923 (=Krieg in der Geschichte (KRiG) 41), Paderborn/München/Wien 2008

Kienitz, Sabine: Der Krieg der Invaliden. Helden-Bilder und Männlichkeitskonstruktionen nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift, 60 (2001) 2: Nach-Kriegs-Helden, 367-402

Überegger, Oswald: Erinnerungskriege. Der Erste Weltkrieg, Österreich und die Tiroler Kriegserinnerung in der Zwischenkriegszeit (=Tirol im Ersten Weltkrieg: Politik, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft 9), Innsbruck 2011

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    Violence in war

    Violence was a universal social phenomenon during the First World War. Soldiers, civilians, men, women, children and old persons were all confronted by it in one form or another. The way it was experienced differed. It was practised and suffered, it had mental and physical manifestations, it took place at a structural and an individual level, and it was felt directly and indirectly.

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Experiences of violence

    While some of the front soldiers experienced the “storm of steel” as the apotheosis of their own masculinity, most soldiers suffered on account of their physical and/or mental injuries. The destructiveness of modern mechanical warfare and the mental strain caused by the days and weeks in the trenches, the constant noise of the artillery and the sight of seriously wounded and mutilated comrades produced not only an army of war wounded but also masses of soldiers suffering from war neurosis.

  • Object


    In November 1920 a report appeared in Neuigkeits-Welt-Blatt about the happy return of all seven brothers in the Baumgartner family. Six had returned unharmed from the front directly after the end of the war, while Otto arrived in Vienna in 1920 after five years as a prisoner of war. Whether wounded or intact, released from captivity or not, returnees faced difficulties in reintegrating in the post-war civilian world.

  • 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.


  • Development

    Gender roles: change/no change?

    It is a widely held view that the First World War revolutionised the traditional roles of men and women in society. Photos of tram conductresses, female coach drivers and postwomen would appear to confirm this, as does the assumption by women of the traditional male role as providers for the family. But did things change that much, and what was left of the supposed changes after 1918?