Outbreak of the war
End of the war

What the films didn’t show 1: Social contrasts

The imperial structure was characterized by a rigid class system and social contrasts. Aristocrats and some of the bourgeoisie saw Habsburg rule as ‘good times’. For the majority of the underprivileged in the country and cities, however, life was fraught.

Traditional village life in the territory of the future Austrian republic was characterized by peasant hierarchies and patriarchal structures. In the cities there were lots of job seekers, but the employment situation there was just as bad. Traditional crafts dominated many economic sectors in the early twentieth century. Apprentices and journeymen often had limited prospects and had to deal with disease and poor working and living conditions. Welfare legislation and self-help groups were only able to bring about gradual improvements. These settings and the abject living conditions were omitted by the documentary film makers. There was no shortage of contrasts. The unequal income and wealth distribution was evident not only from the palaces and patrician houses of the Gründerzeit but also from the slums, the migration from the country to the cities and the numbers of people emigrating.

The pictorial canon was peopled by ‘audiovisually presentable’ sectors of the population. This included the middle classes, although only 7 per cent of the inhabitants of the Austrian half of the empire belonged to this group. Among them was an extremely small class of wealthy bank directors and industrialists, who were the largest beneficiaries of the increasing industrialization. There was also a growing army of civil servants and salaried workers, shopkeepers, restaurant and tavern owners. The film Vienna Towards the End of the First World War (A c. 1918) shows these citizens and their children in the Volksgarten and Stadtpark in Vienna.

Evidence of the oppressive living conditions of the working class is provided by the film Types and Scenes from Viennese Popular Life (A 1911), which takes a sardonic look at other aspects of the city. An elderly woman has to sell flowers to earn a living. Derelict men look for alcohol – a reflection of the times. Desolate working conditions and poverty at home drove many men to alcoholism. The crowded living conditions also caused an increase in tuberculosis until the eve of the First World War. In 1911 there were even riots because of the rising cost of living.

Translation: Nick Somers


Hanisch, Ernst: Der lange Schatten des Staates. Österreichische Gesellschaftspolitik im 20. Jahrhundert, Wien 1994

Sandgruber, Roman: Ökonomie und Politik. Österreichische Wirtschaftsgeschichte vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart, Wien 1995

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    On the eve of war

    The last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth were a time of modernisation, mechanisation and speed. In 1910, Vienna, capital of the Habsburg empire, had 2.1 million inhabitants and had grown to become an international metropolis. New technologies changed working life and leisure. Railways increased mobility, as did the bicycle, motor vehicle and aeroplane. How did this development manifest itself and what other trends emerged in the last years before the outbreak of the First World War?

  • Aspect

    The Habsburg empire

    Austria-Hungary had an extremely diverse state structure. At the start of the First World War it was a major power in decline. Social and political problems and the dominant nationality conflicts shook the empire to its foundations. At the same time, the Monarchy represented an enormous cultural region in which the Habsburg empire flourished in spite of the political stagnation.

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object


    All Quiet on the Western Front was released in 1930. It was the film of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name about the experiences of a soldier during the First World War. Remarque’s book and the film adaptation are classic anti-war statements. Alongside the patriotic, glorified heroic epics and “authentic” documentation of service for the fatherland, this was just one way in which the First World War was portrayed in literature and films – a medium that had come into being only twenty years before the outbreak of war.