Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Italy’s ‘betrayal’ in 1915

Ottokar Hanzel is deployed to the front line

On 23 May 1915, despite its alliance with Austria-Hungary and the German Empire, Italy entered the war on the side of the Entente. This act, sometimes referred to as ‘l’intervento’, aroused a wave of outrage and acrimony in the Monarchy. Later the same day a manifesto issued by Emperor Franz Joseph was published, capturing the general mood: ‘The King of Italy has declared war on me. A breach of fidelity the like of which is unknown in history has been perpetrated by the Kingdom of Italy on both its allies.’


These sentiments are closely echoed by Ottokar Hanzel when describing Italy’s entry into the war in a letter to his wife dated 24 May 1915: ‘How much longer before the thunder of cannon echoes off the faces of the mountains. Italy has perpetrated an unparalleled breach of fidelity; may it be punished for this.’

For Ottokar Hanzel, who had been drafted into the reserve companies ‘Franzensfeste’ and ‘Riva’ until May 1915, the war became a direct threat that aroused concern and anxiety for his own wellbeing and that of his comrades in arms. His awareness that there was a very real possibility of his being wounded or killed caused Ottokar Hanzel to draw up his will in May 1915. The degree to which these daily threats occupied him can be seen from the following lines written to Mathilde Hanzel on 6 June 1915: ‘E. and I have agreed that if anything should happen to one of us, his wife will be notified by the other. Here is the address of E.’s wife [...]. Keep it somewhere safe.’

This is one of the rare passages where Ottokar Hanzel acknowledges directly to his wife that something might happen to him. It stands in direct contrast to most of his descriptions of everyday life at the front, which largely down-played the situation. Thus for example the following comment, from a letter dated 12 November 1915: ‘The firing from the Italians wasn’t bad and what is more was ineffective.’

His letters to Mathilde Hanzel seldom mentioned violence, battles or death. As in other correspondence from the front, particularly those written by officers, the constant danger and destruction were omitted from Ottokar Hanzel’s letters. When he did write about what he was doing at the front he tended to describe visiting other officers or superiors, or harmless leisure occupations such as swimming or reading; his military duties and activities remain vague and his letters give little insight into his actual routine or duties.

The evocation of ‘normality’ that can be seen in Ottokar Hanzel’s letters was intended to spare the feelings of the loved ones they were addressed to. In addition to this form of self-censorship the official censorship regulations also had a limiting effect on what he chose to relate.

Translation: Sophie Kidd


Hämmerle, Christa: „… wirf Ihnen alles hin und schau, dass Du fortkommst.“ Die Feldpost eines Paares in der Geschlechter(un)ordnung des Ersten Weltkriegs, in: Historische Anthropologie (1998), 6/3, 431-458

Rebhan-Glück, Ines: „Wenn wir nur glücklich wieder beisammen wären …“ Der Krieg, der Frieden und die Liebe am Beispiel der Feldpostkorrespondenz von Mathilde und Ottokar Hanzel (1917/18), Unveröffentlichte Diplomarbeit, Wien 2010

Sturm, Margit: Lebenszeichen und Liebesbeweise aus dem Ersten Weltkrieg. Zur Bedeutung von Feldpost und Briefschreiben am Beispiel der Korrespondenz eines jungen Paares. Unveröffentlichte Diplomarbeit, Universität Wien 1992



„The King of Italy has declared war on me ... “: Manifesto by Kaiser Franz Joseph from 23 May 1915, in: Extraausgabe der „Wiener Zeitung“, 24 May 1915, quoted from: Afflerbach, Holger: Der Dreibund. Europäische Großmacht- und Allianzpolitik vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg, Wien 2002, 870 (Translation: Sophie Kidd)

„How much longer before the thunder ...“: Ottokar Hanzel to Mathilde Hanzel, 24.05.1915, Sammlung Frauennachlässe, Nachlass 1, Institut für Geschichte der Universität Wien (Translation: Sophie Kidd)

„E. and I have agreed that if anything should happen ...“: Ottokar Hanzel to Mathilde Hanzel, 06.06.1915, Sammlung Frauennachlässe, Nachlass 1, Institut für Geschichte der Universität Wien (Translation: Sophie Kidd)

„The firing from the Italians ...“: Ottokar Hanzel to Mathilde Hanzel, 12.11.1915, Sammlung Frauennachlässe, Nachlass 1, Institut für Geschichte der Universität Wien (Translation: Sophie Kidd)

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    Staying in contact

    The First World War separated thousands of families, in some cases for many years. It was therefore all the more important for each individual to stay in touch with loved ones far away. Many people hitherto unaccustomed to writing now took up a pen or pencil and attempted to stay in contact with absent families, friends and acquaintances.

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.

  • Person

    Ottokar Hanzel

    Ottokar Hanzel was a mathematics and descriptive geometry teacher from Vienna. During the First World War he was a Landsturm captain on the Italian front.

  • Person

    Mathilde Hanzel (geb. Hübner)

    Mathilde Hanzel, a teacher in Vienna, was a member of the AÖFV, an association that militated constantly during the First World War for peace.

  • Object

    Personal war testimonies

    For a long time, the First World War was narrated only from the point of view of prominent personalities or generals. The way in which the people of the Austro‑Hungarian Monarchy experienced and survived it remained unheard. Personal documents like this diary give us new and diverse insights into how individuals experienced, understood and felt about the war.