When in the autumn of 1914, the Russian armies conquered Austria’s northeastern Crown lands (Kronländer), one million people fled their homes. When 250,000 of them ended up in Vienna, the authorities tried to lock the city. Hastily built refugee camps in the countryside were, for all intents and purposes, internment camps for refugees from which they could not leave. Only the wealthier refugees were able to continue their journey to Vienna. The refugees had left a devastated country behind them, parts of the Galician cities had become landscapes of ruins, the marginally developed industry, especially the oil industry had been destroyed. Cossack units carried out pogroms.
After the successful German-Austrian spring offensive in 1915, wide swaths of Galicia were regained. New Russian areas with large Jewish populations came under the control of Germany and Austria. After the city of Lemberg was regained in June 1915, Vienna’s Lord Mayor Richard Weiskirchner called on the Eastern refugees in Vienna to return to their country. But many remained in order to wait and see how things developed. The Christian Social Party, which had lost support among the population, increased its anti-Semitic agitation so as to have a scapegoat for the aggravated problems caused by war.
The forceful Brusilov offensive of the summer of 1916 demonstrated that the situation was very unstable and that the Russian army was not to be beaten. The Jewish population with its sympathetic leanings towards the Habsburgs was in particular danger. Furthermore, plans to create a separate kingdom of Poland irritated the Jew population who had had a relationship to the Habsburg monarch before the war. As revolution gripped Russia in 1917, tendencies increased towards the dissolution of the great empires and the creation of new nation states. The Russian example was the role model for the fate of the Habsburg monarchy. Due to the revolution and border wars (e.g. between Russia and Poland), Jewish settlement areas from Riga to Odessa continued to experience violence. In those years, Vienna seemed to be a safe place, always attracting people fleeing from their homelands.
In Vienna, authorities tried to assist refugees through numerous measures and volunteer organizations tried to support the official efforts. War kitchens were intended to help guarantee at least a minimum level of food supply; a young woman named Anita Müller succeeded in establishing schools and kindergartens for young refugees. At the same time, anti-Semitism increased in other parts of society. The daily struggle for survival heightened aggression against the perceived Jewish competitors. The presence of orthodox Jews unleashed confusion and irritation among the population of assimilated Jews in Vienna.