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In a state of emergency – chaos and polarization

The longer the war lasted, the stronger the level of polarization became. Emperor Karl who came into power after the death of Franz Joseph in November 1916, wanted a new beginning and a political spring with popular measures: reinstatement of the parliament, peace initiatives, legislation for social causes, amnesty for political prisoners — but the implementation of these measures did not work. The consequences were enlargement of the war economy, high inflation rates, smaller rations of bread, chaos, irritation, subordination under German military regime and ethnic conflicts.  In 1917, first signs of the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire became visible. Any alternatives to the logic of the total war had ceased to exist. Too many human and material losses had already been made to accept a peace without annexations and reparations. The Peoples’ Manifesto („Vielvölkermanifest“) of October 16, 1918, the proclamation that the monarchy should be transformed into a federation of largely autonomous states („Bundesstaaten“) came too late; only a few could take this plan promulgated by the Emperor seriously. The delegates of the House of Representatives had left the parliament quite a while ago.

cartoon depicting a starving

cartoon depicting a starving „Cisleithania“ (Austria) and a feasting Transleithania (Hungary).

In addition, conflicts heightened in Vienna. The scarcity of food created a climate that steadily produced new enemy images. One of the main targets were the Hungarians who had erected border blockades to prevent food deliveries to Vienna. From the beginning of the war, the Viennese Czechs were suspected of fraternizing with the enemy; many of them were denounced with police authorities and brought to trial. The Jewish refugees from Galicia fueled an already wide-spread anti-Semitism, including the suggestion to expel all Jews.  Jews were held responsible for all the unpleasant effects of war: they were identified as the profiteers of the war and declared responsible for the increase in consumer prices or even the outbreak of the Spanish flu. Anti-Semitism was officially forbidden and was subsequently suppressed by the authorities, but the Christian Social city administration used a range of tools to make the life of Jewish refugees uncomfortable.

From 1916 onwards, a highly emotional confrontation between Vienna and the countryside surrounding the metropolis took place: the so-called „potato war.“ The times when the Viennese were welcomed to spend summer weeks in the countryside or were offered potatoes and vegetables for purchase was over. The city population arrived in the countryside in such masses that the rural communities wanted to prevent them from marching around with their rucksacks and stealing potatoes and vegetables in the fields. The government forbade the foraging and stockpiling of food („Hamstern“), however the city administration found it necessary that people were able to purchase food directly at the source. No authority wanted to be responsible for the lack of food.

The Czech – mobbed and insulted

In May 1918, an incident in the cellar restaurant of the City Hall highlighted national conflicts in Vienna: because Czech deputies and other high representatives from Brno had spoken Czech, they were mobbed out of the venue. The insult was followed by counter measures: The Czech deputies announced to block potato deliveries from Moravia to Vienna. On „German People’s Day“ („Deutscher Volkstag“), Lord Mayor Weiskirchner demanded vociferously that „anti-Slavic measures“ be adopted and that a policy that explicitly stated the dominant role of Germans in the Habsburg Empire be enacted. With the end of war, a large part of Viennese Czechs drew the consequence of the anti-Czech agitation in Vienna: 150,000 of them turned their back on their former home town und settled in newly-founded Czechoslovakia.

antisemitic cartoon.

antisemitic cartoon.

The defeat in November 1918, made people forget that only some months ago the Habsburg elites had foreseen the Empire’s victory. The Peace of Brest-Litwosk in February 1918 had raised expectations of a German-dominated Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe including the Ukraine and the Caucasus region. Additionally, within the monarchy the German national elites had worked on a political solution (the founding of the kingdom of Poland, the division of Bohemia and Moravia into separate districts) that would provide the German population with the desired majority in Parliament. This was the first step towards a stronger link to the German Empire. The German nationalists within the Habsburg Empire countered all attempts to foster supranational Austrian patriotism and to create a multiethnic identity as a distinctive feature of the Austrian monarchy. Accordingly, German nationalists protested that the Vienna state opera performed works by Bedřich Smetana or Leoš Janáček’s „Jenůfa.“

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