The old world was increasingly falling apart. The collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy and the proclamation of the republic marked a clear change, but wartime and post-war Vienna showed remarkable parallels. An improvement in the living conditions of the people of Vienna was not in sight. Added to this was the fear or hope, depending on ideology, of revolution and a soviet dictatorship. From the end of October 1918 to June 1919 Vienna was the scene of bloody demonstrations and clashes.
The economic, social, cultural and political basis on which Vienna rested had been shaken to the core. Anger and bitterness were evident, and revolution was in the air. Newspapers reported that a raging mob had pulled down the double eagle from the wall of purveyors to the court in Kärntnerstrasse. The mood was even reflected in Wiener lieder: ‘What will become of these noble gentlemen? The noble gentlemen with the golden stars will be sweeping the streets!’ Through strikes, the largest in January 1918, and demonstrations, the reinvigorated workers’ movement helped bring on the proclamation of the republic on 12 November. More radical groups such as the Red Guard and parts of the soviet movement wanted more and demanded a socialist republic, but the Social Democratic party leadership was strictly opposed to a revolutionary takeover – possibly also because it anticipated an election victory. Christian Socialist Vienna became ‘red’, and at the local elections in May 1919 the Social Democrats won 100 out of 165 seats. Vienna was the only large city with a Social Democratic administration. Workers and the workers’ movement ended the First World War in a much stronger political position than they had entered into it.
Change was to be seen at many levels – in the introduction of universal suffrage, including for women, and in the social offensive of the years 1918 to 1920. The change brought about through the infiltration of women into traditionally male professions during the war was short-lived, however, and merely a temporary form of emancipation. After 1918 female employment was once again considerably cut back.
The war had functioned to a certain extent as a social leveller. Civil servants and salaried workers were particularly affected by poverty and inflation, as their wages could not keep pace with the increasing cost of living. Many small business owners had to close shop, and house owners suffered losses in income because of rent control. Studies of the income shifts in Austria during the First World War all agree on the ‘decline of the middle classes’. The war had levelled the workers and lower middle class while also accentuating the social divisions between these classes, in particular because of the fear of the middle class of descending into the proletariat. The war had winners and losers, it impoverished some and enriched others. Bankrupt nobles and industrialists who had lost their social status and senior officers on the one hand, profiteers, speculators and adventurers on the other, who formed a class of nouveaux riches on the other, were the protagonists in the last hours of an empire with 50 million subjects and the first years of the small republic.
At the end of the war, the Austrian economy was in tatters. Production had shrunk to a fraction of the 1913 level. Energy, heating and food were in short supply, not least because foreign trade was based almost exclusively on inadequate compensatory deals. The shortage of energy in turn had a negative impact on industrial employment. Many companies failed to convert from wartime to peacetime production, and the loss of markets and isolation policies of the successor states severely affected some sectors. At the same time, the armaments industry had brought about progress in some industrial sectors such as the electrical engineering, tool and automotive industries. Austrian farmers were not in the slightest able to cover the demand for food. It was not until 1920 and after that rationing was gradually lifted. Inflation destroyed many fortunes and made business activity more difficult. It is not therefore surprising that increasing doubts were expressed about the economic viability of the new state. The end of the war and the Monarchy turned the former imperial capital and residence of the Habsburgs into the capital of a small state, a ‘hydrocephalus’ with an overmanned civil service and administration, an excessive population and an impractical decentral geographical situation. A move to break away from Vienna was heard in practically all Austrian provinces. They refused, for example, to give up any of their supplies.
The transition from an empire to a republic made little difference to everyday life. In Vienna the food rations were not enough to live on. Theatres and cinemas were closed, trains were irregular, the tram service was reduced. Factories had to interrupt production because the power stations had no coal to generate electricity. The cold winter of 1918/19 made it even more difficult, and the Spanish flu claimed thousands of victims. The health of Viennese children in particular was dire.
The trauma of the war endured for a long time. Hunger and undernourishment, extreme shortage, cold, diseases and epidemics like Spanish flu or tuberculosis, the dead and wounded in many families and broken relations left lasting marks.
Translation: Nick Somers
Butschek, Felix: Das makroökonomische Umfeld während des Krieges und danach, in: Pfoser, Alfred/Weigl, Andreas (Hrsg.): Im Epizentrum des Zusammenbruchs. Wien im Ersten Weltkrieg, Wien 2013, 200-209
Kretschmer, Helmut: Ende und Anfang – Wien um 1918, Wiener Geschichtsblätter, Beiheft 3/1993
Maderthaner, Wolfgang: Krieg und Frieden, in: Csendes, Peter/Opll, Ferdinand (Hrsg.): Wien. Geschichte einer Stadt, Band 3: Von 1790 bis zur Gegenwart, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2006, 317-360
Stekl, Hannes: „Die Verelendung der Mittelklassen nimmt ungeahnte Dimensionen an…“, in: Pfoser, Alfred/Weigl, Andreas (Hrsg.): Im Epizentrum des Zusammenbruchs. Wien im Ersten Weltkrieg, Wien 2013, 88-95
Tálos, Emmerich: Sozialpolitik in der Ersten Republik, in: Handbuch des politischen Systems. Erste Republik 1918-1933, Wien 1995, 570-586
"What will become of these noble gentlemen …": Wienerlied, quoted from: Stadtchronik Wien. 2000 Jahre in Daten, Dokumenten und Bildern, Wien/München 1986, 402 (Translation)
- The growing city: Vienna on the eve of the First World Wa
- The war takes over the city
- Rebuilding for war: barracks and hospitals in Vienna
- Vienna as a refugee camp
- Vienna as a centre of the war economy
- Goodbye to the world of yesterday
- Self-help: unofficial allotments and deforesting the Vienna Woods
- Overthrow of the old values: post-war Vienna