Reflecting on the war’s incalculable physical and mental devastation, intellectuals adopted for the first time a critical position to the war. Vienna became a busy “laboratory of ideas”. As early as the fall of 1914, some intellectuals could see that war – thought of as a project of reconstruction, as national redemption and awakening, as liberation from decadence and feminization – did not work as planned. A counter movement of enlightened thinking left its mark on the city.
Karl Kraus‘ first lecture („In this great time“) held in the Konzerthaus on November 19, 1914 was a significant and clear statement against war propaganda and war enthusiasm in literary circles. At the beginning of 1915, Sigmund Freud staked out his own position in a lecture at the Jewish Lodge B’nai B’rith when he spoke of „the disappointment of war“. Under the influence of war-time violence, Freud changed this psychoanalytical theory of instincts and added an instinct of aggression. For the first time, the psychoanalytic movement became officially acknowledged as it was needed to explain the meaning and causes of physical trauma caused by war, called “war tremors” (“Kriegszitterer”). After the war, Freud actively got involved in a trial against Wagner-Jauregg who applied brutal electroshocks to soldiers with tremors.
Josef Popper-Lynkeus’ antimilitaristic social philosophy, developed in his book „The right to live and the duty to die“ („Das Recht zu leben und die Pflicht zu sterben“), experienced an intellectual renaissance. Left-wing, Austromarxist economists (Karl Renner, Joseph Schumpeter, Rudolf Hilferding) tried to find out how war-time socialism with its regulations and state interventions could prepare the ground for a socialist society. In addition to the Free Masons, libertarians and monistic groups, many associations laid the groundwork for the coming new society. For example, the children’s aid society „Die Bereitschaft“ invited intellectuals such as the following to their lecture series: Hans Kelsen, Alfred Adler, Rudolf Goldscheid, Paul Kammerer, and many others. The vulnerable situation of the children encouraged many intellectuals, medical doctors and pedagogical theorists to get involved not only in practical projects but also in theories of emancipatory education (Karl Bühler and his school, Alfred Adler, Clemens Pirquet). Social reform and a more rational way of life were main goals of the late-Enlightenment Viennese Modernism. Many of the intellectuals who were involved with societal change were in close contact with the Social Democratic movement. The intellectual groundwork for the large-scale societal reform program of “Red Vienna” was being prepared.