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Collecting for the war effort – and its victims

Children at a collecting point.

Children at a collecting point.

At the start of the war, the welfare state had just started to take shape. There was no insurance for the unemployed, no support for the disabled, and the care for the old and poor mostly rested in the hands of public charities, endowments and volunteer groups.  Under Lord Mayor Karl Lueger (1897 to 1910), the city administration started to increase the number of social benefits.

It erected homes for the elderly („Greisenasyle“) and children hospitals („Kinderheilstätten“).  The city also increased its budget for social expenditures up to a total of seven percent. For the first time, social workers took care of the homeless. At the beginning of the war, the city administration established a „central department of welfare for soldiers and their relatives in need“. Never before and never afterwards in Viennese history was there such a broad and well-organized fundraising campaign as during the First World War. Many assistance leagues and associations supporting the poor and and needy were founded, led by members of the Imperial family or other prominent figures of public life.

It was a sign of good citizenship to organize and produce charity gifts („Liebesgaben“). In front of the hospitals, hundreds of women waited to visit wounded soldiers and to deliver small parcels with presents. Committees of one kind or another were at work without rest. The aid programs of the War Relief Office, the city administration and the Red Cross collected needed goods and money for welfare efforts and war relief. New programs were constantly created in order to encourage donations from the population.

Fundraising in restaurants and theatres

The collection wagon („Sammelwagen“) proved to be a particularly popular instrument. Accompanied by boy scouts, a horse driven wagon passed through the city requesting household goods that were no longer needed. Fundraising events took place in public halls and theatres. Nearly all institutions and organizations had to justify their activities in the context of sponsoring war relief efforts. No organization could escape this trend. Male choral groups which traditionally had performed at carnival balls now served patriotic purposes. Waiters in restaurants replaced the traditional white note paper with yellow ones of the Red Cross – each sheet raising two Heller („pennies“) for the war relief. Men and women wore badges and pins to demonstrate that they had already given their share to war relief programs. The zealousness also infiltrated the media: illustrated newspapers ran pictures of donors and listed names and donation amounts.

Rubber tires were collected in the city hall.

Rubber tires were collected in the city hall.

Another example for this fundraising phenomenon was the so-called „Iron Knight“ („Wehrmann im Eisen“), a wooden statue of a knight, which was first exhibited on March 3, 1915 at the Schwarzenbergplatz. Everyone who donated a „Krone“ (coin) could hammer a nail into the statue of limewood which ended up being covered by nails. Donor names and donation amounts were recorded in a book of honors. Specialized collection campaigns focused on raw materials urgently needed by the munitions industry (gold, tin, zinc, lead, brass, rubber tires).

The most noted program for donating to the endangered fatherland ran under the motto „I gave gold for iron“ („Gold gab ich für Eisen“). This particular campaign had as its goal that couples exchanged their precious wedding rings to simple iron rings. In the final phase of the war, the donation programs acquired a more and more compulsory character which resulted in some resistance. To give an example, the Lord Mayor of Vienna refused the governmental order to remove brass latches in the city hall.

Eight war bonds

How to finance the war? The war bonds issued by the German Empire were the model for Austria-Hungary. All classes of society were supposed to contribute their share in the most desirable form: money. Even though middle-class households had hardly any assets left, the official propaganda conveyed the idea that it was one’s duty to subscribe to the (in total) eight war bonds and to give even one’s last savings to the state. School children were indoctrinated to convince their parents to invest in the future of the coming generation. High and attractive interest rates were promised. One’s private fortune was now connected with the fortunes of war.

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