Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The impact of the war on civilian society

The Austrian parliament (‘Reichsrat’) had not been convened since March 1914. At the outbreak of the war its splendid home on the Ring was demonstratively transformed into a military hospital.

The body representing the people of the Austrian half of the Monarchy (‘Cisleithania’) had already been suspended a few months before the outbreak of war in July 1914 – and was to remain inactive until May 1917. The government operated with the constitution’s infamous emergency paragraph, which enabled it to carry through measures it considered necessary without reference to Parliament. This procedure had by that time become something of an Austrian tradition, having been used frequently before 1914.

This had to do with the specific political situation in Cisleithania, where parliamentarism was crippled by the conflict between the nationalities. As a result the Reichsrat had long since not functioned as a parliament but was, rather, a platform for the open display of nationalist chauvinism and radicalism.

Nevertheless, the suspension of the Reichsrat was an extreme measure that was not taken either in Hungary or in Germany, even though the representative bodies there were also increasingly forfeiting their role as monitors of government. In all three countries the military leadership was gaining increasing influence in the political sphere; furthermore, censorship and the general imperative to ‘all pull together’ resulted in the suppression of any criticism of the war policies.

The first months of the war saw the pressure rising in all fields of public life. The complete subordination of the civil administration to the needs of the army led to a state of affairs that Otto Bauer fittingly described as ‘bureaucratic war absolutism’. Under the direction of the army the civil service became the most important instrument of power, and one that was entirely beyond the control of any democratic body.

This dirigisme was particularly evident in trade and commerce, where all areas from production to distribution came under state supervision. The massive war measures were intended to effect a swift reorganization of an economy that had originally only been prepared for a war of short duration. Rationing was brought in to stabilize the failing food supply. As the war went on, the civil service was confronted with such an enormous catalogue of tasks that it could not possibly fulfil all the demands made upon it. Deficient coordination and a deluge of orders that could at best only be partially carried out soon made it clear to all that it was failing to perform its function.

The first year of the war saw the situation being aggravated by a number of painful military setbacks. The generals compensated for their failure with a more aggressive approach to problems at home. The militarization of society peaked with a call for the army to be entrusted with the administration of Bohemia and Croatia, where it was thought that there would be a greater propensity towards resistance. Finally this demand was not fully carried out.

Nevertheless, those areas of the Monarchy that were in the theatre of war were entirely subjected to army administration: in Galicia and the regions on the Italian border the civilian population was forcibly evacuated, with sectors of society considered ‘unreliable’ for reasons of nationalism or political orientation being brutally eliminated.

Measures became ever more draconian as the prospect of an end to the war receded. To all intents and purposes the demands of the army were aimed at the introduction of a military dictatorship.

It was with the country in this state of extreme tension that the news burst of the assassination of the Austrian Minister-President (Prime Minister) Count Karl Stürkgh on 21 October 1916. The very embodiment of the authoritarian military-bureaucratic regime that had been established in the Habsburg Monarchy, Stürkgh had obstinately refused to reconvene the Reichsrat. The man who killed him was a leading Social Democrat, Dr Friedrich Adler, who gave as grounds for his deed the necessity of drawing attention to the impossible state of affairs that had been reached.

Translation: Peter John Nicholson


Bihl, Wolfdieter: Der Erste Weltkrieg 1914–1918. Chronik – Daten – Fakten, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2010

Hamann, Brigitte: Der Erste Weltkrieg. Wahrheit und Lüge in Bildern und Texten, 2. Aufl., München 2009

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

    Guiding the masses

    Guiding the mood of the masses was an important aspect of warfare during the First World War. Considerable information and communication work was carried out to persuade the population of the “true facts”. All areas of life were influenced by propaganda in a way that had not been seen hitherto: reports in the newspapers, posters on the walls, even teaching material in schools now communicated controlled information. What methods and media were used? How did the various warring nations attempt to influence public opinion? What was communicated and how effective was the propaganda?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Monitoring & control

    Everyday life in the Habsburg Monarchy was characterised by propaganda, monitoring and control, as can be seen by the many blank spaces in the daily newspapers and deletions in private correspondence and telegrams. At the same time an attempt was made in texts and audio-visual media to whip up general enthusiasm for the war. Not even the youngest inhabitants of the empire remained untouched, and the influence of the state was also felt in the schools of the Monarchy.

  • 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.

  • Event

    Suspension of the Austrian Reichsrat

    The parliament of the Austrian half of the empire was suspended indefinitely and thus disabled. The government ruled with the aid of emergency legislation, introducing a bureaucratic authoritarian state.