Book Review: Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire

Rich with detail and ­powerful anecdotes, Maureen Healy shows a society coming apart, helping to explain the aftermath

TVR Books | Rennie Sweeney | May 2013

The complexity and details of history, no matter what our interest in the subject, can often be hard work to sift through.

Thus Maureen Healy’s Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire, first published in 2004, stands out, and remains a brilliant exception. Compellingly written and chock full of revealing anecdotes, Healy reveals a troubled society in all the details of daily life. Facts and figures are seamlessly interwoven with narrative, delivering an academic examination of Vienna as the home front in World War I with the familiarity of fiction and no turgid textbook aftertaste.

Read in parallel with the current installation Women at War – k.u.k Pictures 1914-1918 at Vienna’s Museum of Military History [see related article, p.17], the importance of the home front, and the central role of women, becomes clearer. At a time of a re-examination of Austria’s Nazi past on the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss, the intense interest in the exhibition suggests a public eager for a deeper understanding of the social unravelling two decades earlier as an aid to explain the tragedies that followed.

The narrative is supported with letters from citizens to wartime authorities, illuminating complaints, denunciations and perceptions of the Austrian capital during The Great War – and the whys and hows behind the history. These, along with songs, poems, and period newspapers and propaganda bring a rare immediacy to the every day trials of wartime Vienna.

While the army fought on distant fronts for the defence of the monarchy, the experiences at home permeated battle lines, and tensions came to a head over the realities on Vienna’s streets.

Morale unravelled over food

The biggest conflict quickly became the scarcity of food. The inability to get ahold of even the most basic staples led to endless squabbling, aggression and eventually paranoia, giving way to rumour and denunciation. Healy’s thoughtful and well-researched insights on the nature of rumour are particularly fascinating, revealing a society coping with total war, torn between exhaustion and lingering national pride.

As the war progressed, food remained a central theme, causing many rifts – between Austria and Hungary, urbanites and farmers, and home front and battle lines. The politics of food led to the question of internal enemies, and a neighbour appearing to have more to eat automatically fell under suspicion. There were deeper suspicions of citizens who put personal interests over those of the Empire that brave men were suffering and sacrificing to save. If someone living in the relative comfort of the capital wasn’t willing to sacrifice food, maybe they weren’t really "Austrian".

This thinking launched frenzied investigations into births, marriages, and affiliations, a near-witch-hunt mentality toward internal threats to the Heimat – here defined as a "geographic space different from the space of war". It was a carefully maintained perception, the dangling carrot of a safe haven to return to intended for soldiers’ morale. Nationalist fervour exploded, with the resulting paranoia foreshadowing impulses that would be roused to action, and setting the stage for even more terrible consequences two decades later. What constitutes community and a sense of belonging, whether to a street, neighbourhood, ethnicity or country within the monarchy, were issues that crossed from matters of pride to "sentiment" – carrying negative connotations.


All work and no play

Fascinating sections of the book describe the roles of women and children, who were expected to maintain key tenets of the home front philosophy: "holding out" and willingness to sacrifice. Sacrifice applied to anything deemed inessential, beginning with entertainment, and extending to smaller pleasures. Women were shooed out of cafés and nightspots, although healthy social interaction was crucial amidst war-time stresses, arduous work and reduced rations. Soldiers shouldn’t think women were "frolicking", while they bore the trials of total war alone. Healy points out that the German word Opfer defines both "sacrifice" and "victim", and women bore the burden of both.

Schoolchildren were encouraged to make "war art", and propaganda films like War in the Nursery celebrated the creativity children developed playing war at home – using household appliances as submarines, bunches of balloons as zeppelins. The Ministry of the Interior published a children’s book titled, Let’s Play World War! Even school curriculums were restructured to include "lessons of war". It might explain how this generation, faced with world war again as adults, found it familiar and all too easy to envision.

A recurrent theme is the effect of severely compromised nutrition coupled with social friction in culturally diverse Vienna. This led to a rise in delinquency among children, probably in no small part influenced by adults behaving just as badly. The grown-up version of tattletale – denunciation – was rampant and condoned by authorities, regardless of basis in truth.

The book references a prediction made in 1916 by a bourgeoisie member of the women’s movement: A "new Austria" would emerge from the horrors of war, bearing a child’s face. "The war did produce a ‘new Austria’ and it did have a child’s face, but this new state was weak and the child was sick," Healy adds.

Austria became a "fatherless society", devoid of the paternalistic protection of a Habsburg Emperor, that left civilians and soldiers alike shaken and uncertain. Amidst remnants of an imperial capital violently separated from its former territories, Austrians were like a dysfunctional family, faced with governing themselves without guidance or tradition to show the way.

In such a compromised state, political turmoil was nearly unavoidable. Orphaned Austria was in effect forced to grow up again all too quickly, only to find itself marching back to the battlefield with its wounds still raw.


Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire

by Maureen Healy

Cambridge University Press (2004)

pp. 352          


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