In August 1914, when the prices for potatoes and vegetables rose, women at the Yppen-Market in Vienna’s 15th district destroyed market stalls. One year later, the situation escalated at the markets and in front of several shops. There were obvious shortages of a number of basic food items, and traditional and popular ways of cooking and eating were prohibited by the authorities. Bread rolls disappeared from the market, wheat flour was substituted by corn meal. Police reports noted that people were standing in line for certain products. Price regulations were followed by the disappearance of products which reemerged later on the Black market.
In May 1916, there were, for the first time, hunger riots in several districts. The drama of standing in line worsened month by month. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people in the city (in police reports the numbers vary between 300,000 – 500,000) queued up under miserable conditions to get their small ration of bread or a piece of meat or to get a hold of some eggs. Those who did not join these queues risked receiving nothing or only goods of very low quality. The authorities tried to forbid the queues, the Lord Mayor and other city politicians railed against it – but to no avail. Queuing up became a sign of the war.
The ration card system made the distribution system more just but had the disadvantage that only a few basic staples could be regulated in this way. All other goods were subject to the laws of supply and demand and increased in price. The key point was that despite the ration card system there was no guarantee that one would be able to acquire certain goods. This also had to do with the difference in the quality of goods available in the various shops: As the quality of potatoes, bread and flour differed greatly from store to store, consumers frequented some shops more than others. Everyone wanted to have the „better bread“, the „better flour“, the „better potatoes“. The police reported that sometimes a quarter of those who had queued up did not succeed in getting the desired goods. As a consequence, the potential for turmoil and violence increased.
Hunger – undernourishment, illness, aggressiveness
Statistics show that the majority of the population was undernourished already in 1916. The lack of calories led to illnesses and an increased mortality rate. The state and the city were not capable to guarantee a sufficient supply of food. The patriotic mood collapsed, including within the middle class. Communication between people became increasingly rude and aggressive, giving way to a so-called „war rudeness“ („Kriegsgrobheit“). The city of Vienna was caught in the grips of hunger, politicians received death threats, any form of compassion with one’s fellow citizens came to an end. Despair about poverty brought to an end the population’s willingness for sacrifices, in short, people had arrived at „Total War.“
Surely, the death of the old Emperor also played a role. It was in the late fall of 1916 that the scarcity of food acquired a new political dimension. The staff members of certain firms mobilized to force the delivery of goods such as, for instance, bread. They began to strike, and directed their protest to the inner city or the district authorities. Adolescents played cat and mouse with police forces and raided shops. Month after month, food rations diminished. Reports of the Russian revolution in February and later in October encouraged a spirit of rebellion. The slogan „Bread and Peace“ also took hold in Vienna.
The mass strikes of January 1918 were closely related to the halving of the bread and flour rations. 113,000 workers went on strike in Vienna. The Emperor and the government were increasingly worried that „Russian conditions“ had arrived Vienna. They reacted with plans to introduce martial law. Higher wages in the metal industries were supposed to temper the revolutionary movement. The government was forced to cooperate closely with the Social Democrats who agreed to calm down the masses provided they received a guarantee for political concessions after the war (general suffrage for men and women, a constitutional government).