Guide to Vienna: Part 3 – Brief History of Vienna

An old-style confectionery shop in Vienna

An old-style confectionery shop in Vienna

Welcome to Vienna!

My in-laws recently travelled to Vienna, Austria, and asked me to give them some advice and a few tips for their visit.  My short list of points of interest quickly grew to several pages and included a brief, opinionated, somewhat political, description of Vienna in its Austrian context. Here is a slightly edited version of what I sent them off to Vienna with.

I’ve divided this guide into three parts, each part containing several sections.  I recently posted Part 1 and Part 2.  Below is Part 3.

Part 1:

I.            Introduction

II.            Why/How I love Vienna

Part 2:

III.            Vienna Fun Facts

IV.            General Information about Austria and Vienna

V.            Class and Jews in Vienna

Part 3:

VI.            A quick political history of Vienna for people with a political interest


VI. A quick political history of Vienna for people with a political interest

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, to 1919

Vienna and Budapest were ‘co-capitals’ of the Austro-Hungarian empire and there is still a strong lingering affinity between Austria and Hungary, as well as the Czech and Slovak republics which were provinces of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  You can’t escape the legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – it is visible in architecture, culture, thinking and politics.  Emperor Franz-Joseph – he ruled for an eternity from 1848 to 1916 – is synonymous with the empire and his likeness can be seen everywhere.

Until the industrial revolution, Vienna was a small capital of a large empire, contained within its fortification walls and small towns just outside.  After the industrial revolution, Vienna grew to an industrial center.  Vienna’s working class districts developed during that time, characterized by their rectangular street grids and concentrations of dense tenements that survive until today.

In 1857 Vienna razed its inner fortification wall and converted it into a large boulevard – the Ring – along which major public buildings were sited (e.g. Parliament, the state opera, theater and City Hall).  The outer fortification circle was also turned into a wide street called the “Gürtel” “Belt” but only a few public buildings were built along it (e.g. the “Volksoper” “People’s opera”).  Later, the social democrats would try to turn the Gürtel into the “Ring of the Proletariat” with large public housing developments.

Insurrection by the Viennese was always a threat (the last one had been in 1848) and so the Ring was also designed to allow army units to quickly protect the emperor and the inner city.  This is not dissimilar to Haussmann’s plan for Paris’s boulevards.

Later, metro train lines were built along the river “Wien”, along the “Gürtel” and along an outer loop around the city.  Similar to the Ring and Gürtel, they not only served as public transportation but were also to be used by the army to deploy troops around town.

Vienna's "Ring" boulevard 'ringing' the old inner city

Vienna’s “Ring” boulevard ‘ringing’ the old inner city

In the later part of the 19th century, the Viennese were allowed to elect their own mayor (the social-democrats were prohibited from participating).  Karl Lueger was a visionary, and anti-Semitic, mayor who concentrated on municipal services for Vienna like water (it comes from the mountains and is of excellent quality), public transportation, ‘regulating’ the Danube to prevent flooding and municipalizing funeral services.  The social-democrats could not have concentrated on their housing program without the infrastructure ground work laid by Lueger.

Post WWI, the “First Republic”, 1919 to 1934

Austria was a democracy from the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919 to 1934.  The socialist (really ‘social-democratic’) party won the first true democratic elections in Vienna in 1919 and has governed the city ever since (when there have been free elections).  This is a fact that the rest of Austria dislikes about Vienna and the reason Austrian conservatives started to dramatically reduce federal support for the city by the end of the First Republic.

The social-democratic administration of Vienna commenced on a massive public housing program – my Master’s thesis is on this topic and the reason for the following paragraphs.

One of Vienna's public housing projects from between 1919 to 1934

One of Vienna’s public housing projects from between 1919 to 1934

Vienna’s public housing program sought not only to provide cheap, good quality housing, but also to provide jobs for architects, workers, artists and to meet urban planning goals.  Public housing developments featured common open spaces, laundries and bath facilities, day care centers and schools.  They were often named after revolutionaries such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and George Washington (no joke).  The Karl Marx Hof (“Karl Marx Court”) was the largest structure of its kind in the world at the time.  The George Washington Hof was almost as large, by the way.

The public housing program was financed by a special, progressive “housing tax” that everyone paid and every development from that time features the words “erected with funds from the housing tax” just so everyone could see.  The housing projects were criticized by the conservatives in and outside of Vienna as socialist “fortresses” because they tended to face inward with private courts and, of course, housed working class people who tended to vote for the social-democrats who had built the housing. See a few paragraphs later in 1934…

A sign on a 1927 public housing project taking pride that it was erected through a dedicated housing tax

A sign on a 1927 public housing project taking pride that it was erected through a dedicated housing tax

1934, Austro-Fascism

In 1934 the Austrian government adopted ‘Austro-fascism’, basically to appease fascist Germany which had wanted to take over Austria since Hitler had taken power in 1933.  There was actual armed resistance to the fascist changeover of the government with firefights between armed units of the socialist party battling it out with the regular Austrian army in a few large Austrian cities – but mainly in Vienna, and there mainly around the public housing projects.  My grandfather was in the Austrian army at that time and saw action in those fights.  Some (mostly social-democratic) Austrians point to the armed resistance with pride that, unlike the Germans, they tried to fight for their democracy against fascism.  Others, like my grandfather, saw it as an insurrection against the government.  My views are with the social democrats.

Austro-Fascism was a unique form of government that gave representation to different interest groups, including Jews (i.e. unlike Germany, Austro-Fascism was not anti-Semitic).  The Austrian government tried to keep its independence from Germany during that time – the one country that guaranteed its independence was fascist Italy which was wary of having fascist Germany at its borders.  France, England seemed to concede Austria to Germany.

1938, “Anschluss” and WWII

Austro-Fascism lasted until 1938 by which time the Austrian government could not resist any longer. The Germans marched into Austria unimpeded and cheered on by most Austrians.  This was called the “Anschluss” – the “connection/annexation”.  (Note: when my grandmother voted for Austria joining the European Union in the 1990’s, she told me she had voted for the “Anschluss”.  Oy vey.)

My father left Austria after the Anschluss with his part-Jewish girlfriend, probably through family in France, and finally wound up in the US during WWII.  His family remained in Vienna.  My (maternal) grandfather in the Austrian army became a soldier in the German army (he fought in France, the Balkans and the Soviet Union and managed to survive the war).

With the “Anschluss” came mass evictions of Jews from their homes in Vienna and transport to Concentration camps (there were a few camps in Austria – most infamous, Mauthausen) where most were murdered.  Some, like Freud, managed to escape abroad.

Vienna was severely damaged by Allied bombing during WWII.  To protect the city against bomber attacks several “Flakbunker” were built – massive, hulking, dark concrete towers that still dominate the landscape of their neighborhoods.  They served as both protection for the population as well as platforms for anti-aircraft guns.  My mother and grandmother lived near one of these bunkers and after she had a harrowing experience there, they would seek protection in the basement of their apartment building.

Vienna was liberated – or occupied, depending on whom you ask (liberated, if you ask me) – by the Soviet army.  Like Berlin, it was divided into sectors by the Allies, although the city center changed hands monthly (unlike Berlin).  To this day there is still a monument to the Soviet army in the 3rd District, built after the war.

A anti-aircraft bunker "Flakturm" dominating one of Vienna's neighborhoods

A anti-aircraft bunker “Flakturm” dominating one of Vienna’s neighborhoods

Post WWII, the “Second Republic”

After WWII, Vienna once again elected a social-democratic government and this time Vienna was made its own federal state (to avoid politically overpowering the state it had been part of, and to give it autonomy).  The Social Democrats resumed their public housing program but this time the program was expanded to cover the middle class through federal subsidies.

In 1955 the Soviets agreed to leave Austria (as did the other allies, too) in return for a guarantee that Austria would remain neutral (i.e. not join NATO).

In 1970 the Austrians elected the social-democrat Bruno Kreisky chancellor, an agnostic from a family of Viennese Jews.  He served until 1983.  I have heard that he was to have said “the Austrians are basically anti-Semites but they have a good heart”.  That would describe my grandmother perfectly.

For the longest time after WWII, the official ‘story’ was that Austria was Hitler’s “first victim”.  In 1986, Kurt Waldheim was elected federal president of Austria – a position with no real power – in a heated campaign where he was accused of not fully disclosing his service in the German army during WWII and atrocities in the Balkans committed by the German army.  He claimed he didn’t know and he had the Austrian government set up a commission of historians investigate the matter.   The commission concluded that there was no way he could not have known.  Waldheim was livid but could not rebut.

I was in Vienna at the time, living with my grandparents, and had robust debates with them on the subject of Waldheim and memory.  My grandparent’s conservative doctor at one point actually asked my grandfather whether he had seen concentration camp prisoners during the war, a question I somehow had not felt comfortable asking myself.  My grandfather acknowledged that he had seen them as a soldier and that he and his fellow soldiers had felt sorry for them.  The debate over Waldheim’s service in WWII finally debunked the fiction of Austria as the “first victim” of German fascism.

Austria is well off today.  Their tax rate is relatively high compared to us but comparable to other countries in Europe.  Austria has services that its citizens insist on:  universal health care, free education, a decent pension system.  When I was a university student in Vienna in the 1980’s, I paid less than $10 a month for full health care coverage.  You’ve got to work pretty hard to fall in the cracks of the social net here.

Vienna continued to invest in itself, its housing, streetscape and transportation infrastructure even as its population ebbed and stabilized.  Today, Vienna is reaping the reward of its investment and has reversed a decades-long decline in the population with families growing in the city and young people flocking here.  They are drawn by good, free education, jobs, affordable housing and a progressive, tolerant political environment.  Vienna’s population is becoming as cosmopolitan again as the Austro-Hungarian empire once was and which it served as the capital.  Vienna is entering another renaissance and visitors will feel the benefits of a safe, world city with a great quality of life and old-world ambience.  Welcome to Vienna!

Vienna, inner city, Kaerntnerstrasse, Cafe-Konditorei "Heiner"

Vienna, inner city, Kaerntnerstrasse, Cafe-Konditorei “Heiner”

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3 Comments on “Guide to Vienna: Part 3 – Brief History of Vienna”

  1. Syed S. Ahmed August 10, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    I love the pictures in this post.


  2. Irmi November 5, 2013 at 8:01 am #

    Hi Winston, I am Austrian and have been living in Vienna for nearly 12 years, I also deal with the history and development of this city for my job. I really liked your short series of Vienna with your sharp observations and understanding, both from an insider’s as well as an outsider’s perspective (and written in such an effortless, honest and humorous way). It would be great to see more of this here, if you’re ever planning to do so 🙂 You might also like this FB group (if you don’t know it yet..):


  3. flrpwll May 21, 2014 at 8:15 pm #

    I love Vienna. 🙂

    I stumbled on this while looking for ideas to tweak goulash flavors into a stuffing for lamb.

    It’s been over 5 years since I was last there, and I think another trip is due in the next 5.

    I can taste the Almdudler and wurst.


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