WoMen at War: Austria at Home From 1914–1918
The Heeresgeschichtliches Museum looks at how conflict affected those left behind
Military museums are tricky things: It’s important to honour the heroism and sacrifice in national defence, and important also to respect the strategies of victory or tragedies of loss. But war itself? To a modern sensibility, the answer is unclear – as the Austrian Museum of Military History, the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, apparently understands, and has captured in their clever motto:
"Wars belong in museums!"
More than morbidity, or glorification of military might, it preserves the past – gruesome mistakes and all – while excavating the details that draw a fuller picture of war, as a contribution to a society moving forward.
The current exhibition WoMen at War – k.u.k. Pictures 1914-1918 underscores this contribution. It examines in depth the roles adopted by women during World War I as they adjusted, served and sacrificed for the war effort. Working as everything from prostitutes to doctors, or jumping gender lines by enlisting in military service disguised as men – even if that ruse rarely lasted long – we see the extent to which they wholeheartedly tried.
Visually arresting are home front propaganda posters, created to stoke feelings of "war enthusiasm", breathing life into the initially invigorating "Spirit of 1914". Patriotic fires needed fuel as living conditions deteriorated and basic necessities receded out of reach. Women were thrust into the role of sole breadwinner amidst economic deprivation, scrambling to find two Heller to rub together. Other posters advertise war bonds – Kriegsanleihe – in Art Nouveau-style, highlighting strong feminine subjects. "Help the guardians of your fortune," they implore, emphasising women’s contribution as supporters of their men. They did what was asked, but with the men gone, they stepped outside prescribed roles, filling jobs previously reserved for men as tram drivers, mail carriers and street cleaners.
Exhibit texts, all translated into English, tell of women who met wartime challenges with grace and bravery. Information-heavy but not intimidating, the stories are inspiring and enlightening, showing that women who had first been allowed to study medicine just over a decade earlier in 1900, were working as doctors in military and civilian hospitals.
There’s the heroism of Rosa Zenoch, a 12-year-old from Rawa Ruska in Ukraine, on the Habsburg periphery. She brought water to trench troops amidst machine gun fire and exploding shells, earning the Austrian Red Cross Merit Award. She faces the camera, calm and clear-eyed, from a bedside photo taken while she awaited a prosthetic leg gifted by Franz Joseph himself.
Alice Schalek was the only woman war correspondent in World War I and co-founder of the Black-Yellow Cross charity, which funded soup kitchens. Sisterhood was a backbone of home front survival, with help often coming from other women when government failed.
On posters, women shown are often blonde with round, cherubic faces, laden with blonde children clutching dependently or clinging to skirts, sometimes shyly offering flowers to returning fathers. One depicts the soon-to-be Aryan ideal: a burly blonde man, cleft chin angled as he gazes confidently into the distance, one huge hand laid protectively on the shoulder of a fair, delicate lady. Her own blonde hair is styled in a crowning braid, the rest falling abundantly past her waist. A blonde baby hugs her neck. The man’s other hand brandishes a sword. The woman’s role is clear – support as wife and mother for the man who struggled to save the empire from collapse.
The reality, laid bare by these photos from the Vienna home front, is that women laboured intensely in dangerous industries like armaments and munitions. On restricted rations that weren’t always available, those faces weren’t quite so round, or hair so healthy. But perception, not truth, is what mattered for morale.
Within the military, women could only volunteer near front lines – but not always voluntarily. They were commonly "employed" as porters, as women were less expensive than pack animals. Not that home was necessarily safer; an explosion at a munitions factory in Wöllersdorf killed 277 women workers. Home front female employees received only 40 per cent of the salary of men in the same jobs, adding insult to (literal) injury.
War’s influence on sexuality is also covered, with the number of prostitutes increasing proportionately as the struggle to survive heightened, and brothels became part of the military structure.
"Within the pain of saying farewell, swearing the ‘oath of loyalty’ " is splashed across posters of romanticised images of soldiers cuddling docile women. Perhaps meant to discourage the brothels the military actually condoned. The military’s attention to rampant disease is also addressed.
"Wherever misery, need and distress could be found, also humanity would show itself," asserts one panel. That’s what makes this exhibit ultimately uplifting – the feats of everyday heroism that ordinary women found themselves capable of. Under the barrage of enemy fire, staring down poverty, disease, inequalities, broken families and disintegrating empire, the courage and strength that emerged are worth remembering.
WoMen at War: k.u.k. Pictures 1914-1918
Daily, 9:00 – 17:00
Through 29 Sept.
3., Arsenal Objekt 1