Between the World Wars – A Three Part Series

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For Political Education Snippets

Red Vienna – Between the Wars Part I

The Political Education Committee is presenting three three-part series of Political Education Snippets over the next nine months. The first series is called Between the Wars, and will examine three manifestations of attempts at social change in different parts of Europe between 1919 and 1939. Part I is a view of Red Vienna. Part II is an examination of the political and cultural currents of Weimar Germany. Part III is a very brief look at the Spanish Civil War, looking not only at the battle between the Left and Fascism, but also at the internecine struggles within the international left, which went to Spain to fight. All three of these short pieces will include resources for further study, if you’re so inclined.

What was Red Vienna ?

At the end of World War I, with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the republic of Austria was proclaimed on November 12, 1918. At the City parliament elections of May 4, 1919, for the first time in Austrian history, all adult citizens of all genders had voting rights. The Social Democratic Party gained an absolute majority; Jakob Reumann was elected mayor, to be succeeded in 1923 by Karl Seitz. The period from the 1919 election, until 1934, when Vienna was essentially invaded by the rest of Austria, is called Red Vienna. 

The period between the Armistice ending the first World War (November, 1918) and through most of 1919, was one of immense suffering for Germany and all its European allies. In an attempt to pressure Germany to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which would strip it of huge amounts of land filled with German-speaking people, given to France, the Czech Republic, Poland, Moravia, and others, the British Navy shut down the German Merchant Navy and blockaded all the enemy nations. This included Germany, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria, and Turkey. 

These countries, including Austria, were cut off from food, coal, medical supplies, and many other basic necessities, and the poor began dying in huge numbers from famine, cold, and disease. In some cases, humanitarian aid from the US was turned back and given to Allied countries, and news of the blockade was censored by Allied media to hide this massive crime. 

The setting under which the elections happened in May of 1919 were dire. In addition to the blockade and famine, there was an influenza pandemic, and the beginnings of hyper-inflation. Parties of the center and right wished for unification with the newly formed Republic of Germany, but the treaties they were being pressured to sign, the Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of St. Germaine, both forbade a union between the two republics. 

The political divide between Vienna – cosmopolitan, religiously tolerant and inclusive, and left-leaning – and the rest of Austria – rural/agrarian, devoutly Catholic, deeply conservative, and right-leaning – was stark. Vienna was (and had historically been) the capital of the state of Lower Austria, and contained a large majority of the voters of that state, or bundesland. In 1919, they chose a Socialist, Albert Sever, as the governor. This led to a movement to sever Vienna from Lower Austria, so in 1922, it was created as a separate bundesland in its own right, bringing the total number of Austrian states to nine. 

So, Red Vienna had a very inauspicious start. The largest city of a defeated former monarchy, destitute, in disarray, experiencing a pandemic, a famine, and hyperinflation, with a worldwide depression coming on ten years into its existence, and surrounded by an increasingly politically hostile countryside, somehow the Democratic Socialist leaders of Vienna managed to build a worker’s paradise on many fronts. And then they were violently deposed in 1934. 

Here are some of the amazing achievements of Red Vienna. 

Housing, Architecture, and Co-operatives

Most accounts of Red Vienna either start with the architecture or focus on it almost exclusively. After all, it is the most visible piece that’s still around. 

The government under the Hapsburg monarchy had passed a Tenant Protection Act in 1917. Despite ongoing high inflation, the act ordered apartments rents frozen at the level of 1914. After the war, demand for affordable apartments was extremely high. The city was filled with refugees and returning soldiers, as well as the working poor and unemployed, widows and orphans, etc. already there before 1918. So, creating public housing projects became the main concern of the Social Democrats in Vienna.

In 1919, the federal parliament passed the Housing Requirement Act to enhance the efficiency of existing housing structures. Low private demand for building land and low building costs proved favorable for the city administration’s extensive public housing planning.

From 1925 (the year in which a strong Schilling currency replaced the devalued Krone) to 1934, more than 60,000 new apartments were built in the so-called Gemeindebau (“community construction”) buildings. 

Large blocks were situated around green courts, and the tenants were chosen on the basis of a ranking system in which persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups got extra points toward being chosen first. 

By today’s standards, rents were unbelievably low. For example: for a worker’s household, rent took 4 percent of household income; in private buildings it had been previously as high as 30 percent. If tenants became ill or unemployed, rent payments could be postponed.

The largest, most important at the time, and most iconic today, of the scores of apartment blocks and housing complexes built in Red Vienna is the Karl-Marx-Hof. According to Wikipedia

the number of Viennese without homes living in shelters tripled to 80,000 between 1924 and 1934, but the city’s building program successfully housed as many as 200,000 people, a tenth of the population.

Most of these housing complexes were built in areas where workers already lived, or wanted to, to be close to their factories or offices. Imperial Vienna had built a beautiful boulevard of stately homes and fabulous public buildings around an arc of the inner city, called the Ringstrasse. The new construction zone came to be known as the Ringstrasse of the Proletariat. 

These areas had previously been little more than slums, but the new housing projects included services built in or adjacent to them. Social clubs, day care centers, youth clubs, communal laundries, communal kitchens, food markets, and health care centers were within the fortress-like walls of the housing complex or nearby. Many of these new services were collectively owned or managed by the proletarian families.  

Health and Welfare

Medical services were provided free of charge and new parents received a “clothes package” for each baby. Kindergartens, afternoon homes and children’s spas were opened to enable mothers to return to their jobs as soon as possible after birth, and also to get children off the streets. Vacation grounds, recreational holidays, public baths and spas and sports facilities were offered to enhance fitness. 

As Julius Tandler, city councilor of social and health services, put it: “What we spend for youth homes, we will save on prisons. What we spend for the care of pregnant women and the young, we will save in hospitals for mental illnesses.” Infant mortality dropped below the Austrian average, while cases of tuberculosis dropped by 50%. Affordable rates for gas, electricity, and garbage collection, all run by the city, helped to improve health standards.

The first crematorium in Austria was opened in 1921. Workers, through voluntary associations, had been campaigning for this for decades, but the Catholic majority outside the city opposed cremation. Mayor Jakob Reumann had to defend his override of the Christian Social Party federal minister’s order denying permission in the Constitutional Court; the case was finally decided in 1924 in favor of the crematorium.

Cultural Life in Red Vienna

Red Vienna was a cultural capital in the world of the 1920s and 30s, rivaling Paris, London, and New York for creative intellectuals, a vital arts culture, and a liberal scientific community. It was in pre-WWI Vienna that psychoanalysis was born, and Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, each with their own “school,” lived and worked in Vienna until forced to flee in the late 1930s. 

Music was another thing Vienna was known for. Arnold Schoenberg was in Vienna until 1933, and is widely considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He was associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art, and leader of the Second Viennese School. Ilona Duczyńska and Karl Polanyi were the power couple of Marxist intellectuals living in Red Vienna, along with Karl Bühler, Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Adolf Loos.

The End of Red Vienna and Its Aftermath

According to this piece on Red Vienna in Jacobin, in February 1934, the Austrofascist government removed Vienna’s administration in the course of its military evisceration of the labor movement as a whole, and appointed commissioners to rule the city. One of the caretaker government’s first measures dismantled the progressive tax system. Redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom reversed, public housing projects were largely abandoned, rents rose, and social insurance and infrastructure were dismantled.

Four years later, Nazi Germany annexed all of Austria in the Anschluss, a move  affirmed by the majority of Austrians (but not Viennese) in a plebiscite shortly following it. Austria emerged from World War II once again an independent republic, and has been led mainly by Social Democrats since then until recently. The Karl-Marx-Hof and many other tangible wonders of Red Vienna still stand, and Vienna is frequently voted one of the world’s most livable cities. 

For further reference or study

Eve Blau: The Architecture of Red Vienna. 1919-1934., The MIT Press, 1999

Helmut Gruber: Red Vienna. Experiment in Working Class Culture, 1919-1934., Oxford University Press, 1991

Sheldon Gardner: Red Vienna and the Golden Age of Psychology, 1918-1938 , Praeger Publishers, 1992

City Monitor piece on Red Vienna

Jacobin piece on Red Vienna 

“Letter from Vienna” (Medium) 

Virtual Vienna (website)

– Deb R.

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