The First World War was the first European war that affected the entire population. Every single person was expected to make sacrifices. All areas of life were subordinated to the goals of optimizing warfare and to mobilizing all reserves. The „home front“ was not just the hinterland, it was a significant site where the war was decided. This affected children as well.
Even before the beginning of the war, the state had adopted plans to militarize schools. Not only was patriotism to be taught, but also physical education which was introduced in 1908 to prepare children for military service. For pupils in the Gymnasium (grammar schools), shooting instruction was part of their class schedule. With the beginning of the war, nearly half of the Viennese schools, a total of 150 buildings, served as auxiliary barracks for the training of recruited soldiers, later on as auxiliary hospitals for the medical treatment of the wounded. In the rest of the schools children were taught in morning and afternoon shifts with reduced hours. Patriotism was the dominant school subject. Children and adolescents were called to provide auxiliary services: volunteering with the Red Cross, accompanying the collection wagon, shoveling snow in the streets of Vienna, helping with the harvest in the countryside, mobilizing for war bonds or cultivating war gardens. When the coal supply broke down in the harsh winter of 1917, schools simply closed down.
Streets kids begged for meals
There was, however, another kind of „war education“ as well. Children and adolescents had to queue up during day- and nighttime; older siblings had to be in charge of the family’s food supply. Newspapers published during the war years described the state of health of adolescents as very critical. In many cases, fathers were at the front, while mothers were busy earning some money, and other family members were sick in bed. Even pregnant women found themselves forced to accept harsh working conditions in order to receive social security benefits. In many cases, children took over the roles of their parents. They could not be looked after any more, and strayed around the city. Many lost their relationship to their parents or lived alone, begged for bread and meals, and sold newspapers in the streets to earn some money.
The longer the war continued, the more Vienna was characterized by notorious malnutrition of children. Also lacking during summer time was recreation outside the city for city children because the rural communities had taken measures against the influx of Viennese “tourists”. Children’s aid programs tried to help but reached only a small part of the population. Due to the deficiencies in food supply, children disproportionately fell victim to tuberculosis. The mortality rate for children rose to 60 percent. 80 percent suffered from malnutrition, the average child experienced dramatic weight loss, and also fell remarkably below the normal physical height measurements. The city of Vienna could no longer guarantee neither the food supply for the half million children living in the city nor their medical treatment. Doctors raised alarm because of the long lasting consequences of the war for a whole generation.
Soon, certain child aid associations („Kinderfreunde“, „Die Bereitschaft“) focused on alleviating children’s misery and founded nursery schools or children’s asylums. The institutionalized welfare for children (founded during the war: ministry of social welfare, youth department of the city, advisory service for young mothers, welfare for young babies, adoption and so on) became the forerunners of the welfare policy of so-called „Red Vienna.“
It was after the war that pictures of the misery experienced by Viennese children shocked the whole continent, and aid organizations arrived in the city. The worry about Vienna’s children became a big international issue. In order to cope with the misery, the city administration established a youth welfare office already during the war. Countless groups tried to help and collected money; they helped to gather children in specifically designated homes, to feed them and to provide meaning to their lives. Youth delinquency became a real threat to everyday life in the city. Gangs strayed around the city, ready to commit illegal activities and raid shops, parents instructed children how to beg and to steal.