Far From Flanders Fields

International preparations are well under way for the upcoming centenary of the First World War (1914 - 1918), but some experts feel the Austrian federal government isn’t doing enough

Top Stories | Alice Miller | December 2013 / January 2014

On 28 June 1914, the shots were fired that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, triggering a war in which over 16 million people died. As winter comes to Vienna, we approach the centennial of a war that shaped today’s western world, and defined the modern Austrian Republic.

Over the next four years, as that famous poem is recited again and again across the Allied countries – "In Flanders fields, the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row" – just what will be recited, discussed or debated here?


Commemorations commence

In Austria, museums, universities, and libraries have an ongoing series of events planned to commemorate the centenary.

There will be exhibitions, conferences and publications, including at the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, the Jewish Museum, and the Nationalbibliothek – as well as countless events outside Vienna.

The Institutes for Contemporary History at the Universities of Vienna and Salzburg are jointly presenting a weekly lecture series on the First World War, and on the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Vienna Philharmonic will play in Sarajevo’s town hall.

It’s a lot. "Honestly, it’s almost too much," Professor Oliver Rathkolb of the University of Vienna’s Institute for Contemporary History wrote in an email.

But former director of the Museum of Military History Professor Manfried Rauchensteiner (who has an upcoming exhibition in the Nationalbibliotek based on his new book on the First World War) says the level of interest is high – in history in general, and the history of the war in particular.


The government’s role

But Rauchensteiner thinks the federal government should be doing more.

As the war was unleashed from Austria, "we – the present Austria – have a responsibility," he told The Vienna Review, and we should be able to expect "more than average words" from President Fischer and Chancellor Faymann at Austria’s centenary events.

In Australia, activities began four years ago, when then Prime Minister Rudd appointed a national commission to plan the Australian commemorations.

In the U.K., Prime Minister Cameron came under considerable criticism for failing to announce Britain’s centenary plans before October 2012. In the U.S., the World War I Centennial Commission – while not federally funded – was established by legislation signed by President Obama in January of this year.

In 2011, France’s then President Sarkozy inaugurated a Museum of the Great War to the tune of €28 million in Meaux, outside of Paris, and subsequently, President Hollande has been formulating further extensive commemorative activities, as well as planning a leading role for France in international commemorations, as two of the war’s decisive battles – at Verdun and the Somme – were on French soil.

While France’s initial meetings to arrange the ceremony excluded Austria, its ceremony on Bastille Day 2015 will include all the powers - now 72 countries - involved in the war.


Vigils and battlefields

Many of the Allied governments are pouring huge sums into the centenary: In the U.K., funds from the government and the national lottery will provide over £50 million (c.€60 million) towards commemoration projects spanning from 2014 to 2018.

Jenny Waldman, creative producer for the 2012 London Olympics, is responsible for the programme, to be launched with a candle-lit vigil at Westminster Abbey next August.

Paving stones will be laid in the home towns of the soldiers who received the Victoria Cross, and from each state secondary school in England, two students and a teacher will travel to battlefields in France and Belgium.

And the Australian government, which lost over 60,000 lives fighting mainly in the former Ottoman Empire and on the western front, has provided £72 million (c.€86 million) towards their centenary plans.

However, in the case of the Austrian federal government, Rauchensteiner says it’s likely that "not a single euro is prepared for an official commemoration."

There is no separate governmental budget for the centenary, according to Mag. Jürgen Schwartz of the Federal Chancellery (B.K.A.). The ministries and the Staatsarchiv have to use their own budgets.

Despite the lack of additional funds, the Staatsarchiv have planned a book – Ende eine Welt – which Dr. Wolfgang Maderthaner describes as an anti-war text. There will also be an extensive virtual exhibition, as well as a physical exhibition on the media and the war.

Austria’s most significant international contribution to the centenary – the Vienna Philharmonic concert in Sarajevo – is not sponsored by the government, but rather by EBU Members BHRT (Bosnia & Herzegovina), ZDF (Germany) and France Télévisions.


A Franco-German agenda

In Germany, while there are many regional activities planned, the federal government’s role also appears to be hands off. But there has been some intervention; the German special envoy for the centenary recently made headlines by requesting that the U.K. mark the centenary with commemorations rather than celebrations.

As one German official told the Spiegel Online, "We must not forget the incredible suffering this cataclysm meant for a whole generation. We wish to stress the great achievement of reconciliation in Europe."

The French agree: in the international commemorations, France is stressing its close ties with Germany. The website for the French government-sponsored First World War Centenary Partnership Program emphasises that it "will present a cultural Franco-German agenda for the centenary".

So where does that leave Austria?


A responsibility

In August, several government ministries commissioned a paper from ten historians, including Rauchensteiner, which covered, in the paper’s words, "key issues explored in recent research on World War I." The 45-page paper is available to read on the web (bmukk.gv.at).

There is, according to Rauchensteiner "no pressure" on the government to do anything for the centenary. Since the election, the freshly minted leadership in key ministries might consider the commemorations to be low priority.

Furthermore, it’s not easy commemorating a war that Austria-Hungary lost – that was sparked by the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian crown prince and set in motion by the Habsburgs’ declaration of war on Serbia – and which ended with the loss of the entire Austro-Hungarian empire.


The issue of empire

One question is how to define "Austria". In his autobiography, Viennese writer Stefan Zweig considered the time before World War I as a "Golden Age of Security". He described his surroundings as "an ordered world with definite classes and calm transitions".

After the war, the new state of Austria was a "vague, gray and inert shadow of the former Imperial monarchy. The Czechs, Poles, Italians, and Slovenes had snatched away their countries; what remained was a mutilated trunk that bled from every vein."

Austria’s First Republic suffered through hyperinflation in the interwar years, followed by Austro-Fascism, the 1938 Anschluss, and the horrors of National Socialism – until the Second Republic kicked off in 1945.

Today, the "mutilated trunk" has come a long way, to become a sturdy European economy, proud of its history of empire. But despite the appreciation for history, Rauchensteiner is well aware of another common Austrian preference: to fast-forward from Sissi to the present, skipping all the bloody episodes in between.

A natural question is whether Austria should mark the centenary of the so-called Great War with the former states of empire, or on its own.

Politicians are mostly concerned with the Austria of the present, according to Rauchensteiner, but he suggested that the centenary is an opportunity to address questions about the relationship between today’s Austria and the Austria of 1914.

"Is Austria one of the successor states or is it still the core of the former empire – in the sense that it has a responsibility for all the former parts of the empire?" he asked.

So far, the main focus for the international centennial events is the western front, while the eastern front is neglected.

German troops had to be brought to Galicia to assist the Austrians against the Russians; otherwise, the Austro-Hungarian empire would have collapsed in 1914. But because of France’s leading role in the preparations, Germany has turned its attention to the western front.

And the Austrian government "is doing nothing to alter this situation," Rauchensteiner said.


Beyond the national perspective

"Old empire" aside, the centenary of World War I could also be an opportunity to demonstrate the strengths of the European community – particularly given the current crisis in the eurozone.

"It seems appropriate to go beyond the national perspective of the period 1914 to 1918," wrote historian Dr. Heidemarie Uhl in the paper commissioned by the Austrian government, "and to launch pioneering initiatives that will strengthen European integration."

This would surely please the German official who emphasised "reconciliation in Europe" in the Spiegel Online interview: "Closer cooperation and integration in Europe proved to be the right way out of the dark shadows of the first half of the 20th century."

German chancellor Merkel said at a Berlin rally in September, "Most of us here have never had to live through war. Almost 70 years of peace – we haven’t had that in Europe for centuries."

However, many of the commemorations will occur on a national level, particularly for the Allied nations – and it is possible that the U.K. could use the centenary to emphasise its national identity and distance itself from the problems of the EU.

But this sentiment finds little resonance on the continent. "There is common feeling in Europe with regard to the events of 1914," says Rauchensteiner, and Austria must not be excluded.

"We will start late – as Austrians often do – but I hope not too late."

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