WWI: the view from Vienna

WWI Propaganda

Europe has already kicked off the centenary events surrounding the start of the First World War. Living in Britain, one sees one side of the conflict, but working and living in Vienna, one is shown another. Indeed, the Biedermeier building in which I live is directly next door the former villa of Count Berchtold, Austro-Hungary’s prime instigator for the strike against Serbia following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Even before the assassination, he had already recommended moves to contain the Balkan hegemonies of Serbia and Romania. He even saw Serbia as a legitimate part of the ‘Danube Monarchy’. Readers of this blog who recall such things may refer back to the entry on the Moscow Declaration of 1943 where Churchill appealed for a post-1945 ‘Danube Federation’ with Vienna as its capital.

Such geographical closeness to history is everywhere in Vienna – only a block from my flat is the palace that was formerly the home of Sophie Chotek – the ‘mere’ countess, considered too lowly born by Franz Joseph to be the wife of his nephew or the mother of the Empire’s future rulers. He neither received her at court, nor would he meet their children until after the assassination of their parents. Indeed, he is reported to have greeted the news of their murder with the view that it was God’s pronouncement on the unsuitability of the union. Before their marriage, he forced Franz Ferdinand to remove his children as legitimate heirs to his title. There is no plaque on the Chotek palace – it’s as if Franz Joseph’s damning indictment of the inappropriateness of the marriage has been tacitly carried on by Viennese historians. The documents that started the war were signed by Count Berchtold next door to where I live, to ‘avenge’ the murder of a woman (but actually to avenge the murder of her husband), who came from a block down the road. Frankly, the story of Europe’s Apocalypse not only starts in Vienna, it starts in its IX District – only a few streets from where Sigmund Freud lived and worked. This whole area takes on a spooky symbolism of its own. Yet in most accounts of the First World War, Vienna makes its spectacular initial appearance before disappearing from the story altogether. Golo Mann in his history of Germany in 19th and 20th century offers perhaps the most coherent account of the start and progress of the war from the ‘other’ side’s point of view. Put simply, Austria wanted to tame Serbia’s ambitions in the Balkans and used the assassination of the Arch-Duke and his wife as an excuse. Faced the threat of an attack by Russia, Germany, as Austria’s ally tried to forestall a double-fronted war by knocking out France before facing off the greater threat of what was perceived as being a weakened Russia. Only after marching through Belgium did the thought of German expansion dawn on anyone in Prussian Berlin. The Austrians were too entangled in Serbia to notice what was going on and only came to realise the folly of events as the war progressed. Attempts were made at various points to strike a separate peace with the French – the Austrians had no fight with the French – the French, however, had a major fight with the Prussians: they wanted Alsace returned, taken in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 .

Vienna’s position in the war has now been rectified by an enormous 700-page book consisting of art and graphics: ‘Wohin der Krieg führt. Wien im Ersten Weltkrieg 1914-1918’ (Wherever the war takes us – Vienna in the First World War 1914-1918). It has been published to accompany an exhibition mounted at Vienna’s Rathaus – Town Hall and contains a number of items – including the photograph of the British flag as toilet paper pictured to accompany this article. It also contains the various posters posted elsewhere above and beneath this article as well as propaganda songs written by such beloved composers as Franz Lehár, Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz – inevitably ear-clinging melodies that brim with hate towards the British, the French or the Americans. Indeed, the book is the first examination on Vienna and the First World War – an extraordinary omission in all treatments given the fact that this is where the bomb exploded that brought Europe to its knees. As General Foch said at the end of the First World War – ‘it is not peace, but a twenty year armistice’.

Yet by chance – and only yesterday – while reading Joseph Roth’s ‘der Stumme Prophet’ (The Silent Prophet (1929)) I read what I consider to be the best take on the war in Vienna – it’s my own translation:

Austrian youth could not guess that it would soon be decimated by a world war. They carried on as if the approaching conflict consisted of nothing more than hopping across various barriers. Young functionaries spoke of the dangers that threatened the empire and the need either to establish an inclusive autonomy within its many nations, or conversely to increase centralisation, using the fist if necessary and getting rid of parliament. This would be followed by a careful selection of German-Austrian ministers while at the same time breaking with Germany and moving closer to France, or conversely moving closer to Germany and provoking Serbia. All of those who were busy conjuring up a war actually wished to avoid a major conflict and believed that any war that may result would at best be only an agreeable, enjoyable and tiny war. Young officers thought things were moving too slowly and placed the blame with the stupidity of Austria’s Generals. University lecturers with the callowness of youthful theologians hid a thirst for revenge and plunder behind the façade of learnedness. Artists put themselves forward as having a direct line to God and made fun of all authority. Their ‘Olympus’ was the coffee house and their ateliers. Everyone was bold, but in effect, everyone was simply in rebellion against their fathers.