Outbreak of the war
End of the war

‘War fever’ versus the longing for peace

From the perspective of the present, the images of demonstrations of public ‘enthusiasm’ from August 1914 are puzzling and rather difficult to account for. After the wars and genocide of the twentieth century it is almost impossible to understand how the outbreak of conflict between nations could be greeted with such fervour. However, there is a plethora of photographic evidence showing huge crowds of people in Vienna, Berlin or Paris celebrating with ‘exultation’ at the news.

According the historians Matthias Rettenwander and Oswald Überegger, many artists and intellectuals attempted to explain their personal experiences during those days in early August by resorting to the notion of a classless ‘community of the people’. As the two historians have demonstrated, the perspective of the so-called Augusterlebnis (‘August experience’) until very recently was adopted more or less uncritically by scholars researching this period. However, research carried out over the past few years into regional and everyday history, including personal accounts of the period, have led to doubts emerging about this postulated general enthusiasm for the war. More recent studies have shown that it was not a single mood shared equally by everyone; from the very beginning there were large numbers of critical and anxious voices.

The mood of the letters written by the Hanzels in the first months of the war also veers between euphoria and censure. Ottokar Hanzel writes to his wife on 3 August 1914: ‘The movement of people that is now taking place and in which I am participating is overwhelming and without parallel in history. Only a modern state that is technically equipped [for it] can carry it out successfully. Until now everything has worked out well. Many are full of enthusiasm, almost all of us firmly resolved to do our part in this war that has seized all of Europe.’

In his letters from this time the ‘strength’ and ‘power’ of Austria’s ally Germany are invoked as is the will to fight and courage of the Austro-Hungarian forces. Ottokar Hanzel notes in August 1914: ‘We are all pleased at Germany’s powerful bearing, standing alone in the history of the world. We trust in the united strength of Austria and Germany, and will not be made to fear.’

Mathilde Hanzel saw the outbreak of war in a more critical light. On 12 August 1914 she writes: ‘I deeply lament every drop of blood that has been and will be spilled in this war. Yes, the fatherland, honour, justice; I recognize all that and do my duty; but that in the 20th century so-called civilized people can find no other expedient than war? What a debacle for humanity. Fighting, vanquishing, dying, survivors doomed. We are not yet possessed of true civilization!’

Mathilde Hanzel retained this critical attitude throughout the war. And in her husband’s letters the initially positive view of the war gradually faded. Like the majority of frontline soldiers and most of the population of the Monarchy he was convinced that it would be of short duration and over by Christmas at the latest, with Austria-Hungary and Germany emerging as victors. But when by December 1914 it became obvious that there was no end in sight, the first critical tones start to appear in Ottokar Hanzel’s letters. Thus on 4 December 1914 he writes: ‘Modern warfare is dreadful. On every combatant it places enormous and constant privation, strain, and sadly only too often unutterable suffering.’

Translation: Sophie Kidd


Überegger, Oswald/Rettenwander, Matthias: Leben im Krieg. Die Tiroler Heimatfront im Ersten Weltkrieg, Bozen 2004



„[…] many artists and intellectuals attempted to explain ... “: Überegger, Oswald/Rettenwander, Matthias, Leben im Krieg. Die Tiroler Heimatfront im Ersten Weltkrieg, Bozen 2004, 7

„The movement of people...“: Ottokar Hanzel to Mathilde Hanzel, 03.08.1914, Sammlung Frauennachlässe, Nachlass 1, Institut für Geschichte der Universität Wien (Translation: Sophie Kidd)

„the strenght and power of Austria’s ally“: Ottokar Hanzel to Mathilde Hanzel, 16.08.1914, Sammlung Frauennachlässe, Nachlass 1, Institut für Geschichte der Universität Wien

„We are all pleased at Germany’s ...“: Ottokar Hanzel to Mathilde Hanzel, 03.08.1914, Sammlung Frauennachlässe, Nachlass 1, Institut für Geschichte der Universität Wien (Translation: Sophie Kidd)

„I deeply lament every drop of blood  ...“: Mathilde Hanzel to Ottokar Hanzel, 12.08.1914, Sammlung Frauennachlässe, Nachlass 1, Institut für Geschichte der Universität Wien (Translation: Sophie Kidd)

„Modern warfare is dreadful ...“: Ottokar Hanzel to Mathilde Hanzel, 04.12.1914, 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.

  • Object

    Relationships during the war

    The subject of this propaganda postcard of a soldier setting off for war and swearing to be faithful to his loved ones recalls the separation brought about by war. Millions of men were sent to the front and separated from their families and wives. The war marked an important break in many partnerships, families and friendships. The soldiers serving far from home found themselves in a completely new social environment with new superiors and comrades. They made new friendships and entered into new relationships.

  • 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.


  • Development

    Daily life on the (home) front

    How was daily life at home and on the front between 1914 and 1918? Was the life of a middle-class woman similar to that of a worker? Did officers experience warfare in the same way as other ranks? Or were the experiences of the population at home and the soldiers at the front too individual and diverse for generalisations?