Silent Anticipation and Idolized Soldiers: Life in Vienna in August 1914

Awaiting the news in front of the War Ministry in Vienna, July 1914

Many times throughout history the artists often depicted very lively battles, conflicts, and wars. There are numerous paintings full of strong, vivid colors that depict emotion like anger, strength, power and rage. But, apart from monumental paintings and statues, there are also words skillfully used by these artists to depict the particular atmosphere in which they were surrounded.

Violinist on the Eastern Front

One of these people was Friedrich “Fritz” Kreisler, Austrian-born American violinist and composer. His music is specific for the sweet tone and expressive phrasing that reminds so much of Vienna before WWI. But how was it to live in Vienna when the war broke out? Fritz Kreisler, in his talk with an anonymous writer, described this in detail and recounted the atmosphere that crawled into every corner of the city.

Fritz Kreisler (1865 – 1962)

Before he was wounded, Kreisler spent four weeks on the Eastern Front. His war path started in Switzerland.

“The outbreak of the war found my wife and me in Switzerland, where we were taking a cure. On the 31st of July, on opening the paper, I read that the Third Army Corps, to which my regiment (which is stationed in Graz) belonged, had received an order for mobilization.

Although I had resigned my commission as an officer two years before, I immediately left Switzerland, accompanied by my wife, in order to report for duty. As it happened, a wire reached me a day later calling me to the colors.”

The changes were visible already when Kreisler and his wife arrived in Munich. Everything was subdued to military purposes.

“We went by way of Munich. It was the first day of the declaration of the state of war in Germany. Intense excitement prevailed. In Munich all traffic was stopped; no trains were running except for military purposes. It was only due to the fact that I revealed my intention of rejoining my regiment in Austria that I was able to pass through at all, but by both the civil and military authorities in Bavaria I was shown the greatest possible consideration and passed through as soon as possible.”

New Vienna

The assassination of the Habsburg heir changed Vienna completely. According to Kreisler, in  August of 1914, that was the city filled with a sort of anticipation about the news that was impatiently expected. Vienna, in 1914, as with many other cities in Europe was full of anticipation, and it was completely possible to encounter the things that couldn’t be encountered in  old Vienna before the war.

“We reached Vienna on August first. A startling change had come over the city since I had left it only a few weeks before. Feverish activity everywhere prevailed. Reservists streamed in by thousands from all parts of the country to report at headquarters. Autos filled with officers whizzed past. Dense crowds surged up and down the streets. Bulletins and extra editions of newspapers passed from hand to hand. Immediately it was evident what a great leveler war is. Differences in rank and social distinctions had practically ceased. All barriers seemed to have fallen; everybody addressed everybody else.”

Therefore, everything and everyone was in the mix. Kreisler says the crowd could be seen frequently  asking for information from high ranking officers and aristocrats. And members of the aristocracy could often be  seen among the commoners in the cafés. Kreisler gives an impression that no one really expected the disaster that would start to happen very soon. In other words, the war was popular, the army was idolized and every uniform was  the center of attention.

“I saw the crowds stop officers of high rank and well-known members of the aristocracy and clergy, also state officials and court functionaries of high rank, inquest of information, which was imparted cheerfully and patiently. The imperial princes could frequently be seen on the Ring Strasse surrounded by cheering crowds or mingling with the public unceremoniously at the cafés, talking to everybody. Of course, the army was idolized. Wherever the troops marched the public broke into cheers and every uniform was the center of an ovation.”

Vienna in 1914 was also a city full of emotions, everything related to the incoming WWI.

“While coming from the station I saw two young reservists, to all appearances brothers, as they hurried to the barracks, carrying their small belongings in a valise. Along with them walked a little old lady crying, presumably their mother. They passed a general in full uniform. Up went their hands to their caps in military salute, whereupon the old general threw his arms wide open and embraced them both, saying: “Go on, my boys, do your duty bravely and stand firm for your emperor and your country. God willing, you will come back to your old mother.” The old lady smiled through her tears, A shout went up, and the crowds surrounding the general cheered him. Long after I had left I could hear them shouting.”

People were filled with motivation, bravery, and strength. Like the upcoming war was one of the numerous battles the Habsburg Empire led before.

Vienna, 3rd district: the passage way through Traungasse (today Herlitschka tavern). Artwork by Stefan Simony, 1914

A visitor or someone passing through the city like Kreisler could also encounter romantic scenes like the one with the reservists and his sweetheart.

“A few streets farther on I saw in an open café a young couple, a reservist in field uniform and a young girl, his bride or sweetheart. They sat there, hands linked, utterly oblivious of their surroundings and of the world at large. When somebody in the crowd espied them, a great shout went up, the public rushing to the table and surrounding them, then breaking into applause and waving hats and handkerchiefs. At first the young couple seemed to be utterly taken aback and only slowly did they realize that the ovation was meant for them. They seemed confused, the young girl blushing and hiding her face in her hands, the young man rising to his feet, saluting and bowing. More cheers and applause. He opened his mouth as if wanting to speak. There was a sudden silence. He was vainly struggling for expression, but then his face lit up as if by inspiration. Standing erect, hand at his cap, in a pose of military salute, he intoned the Austrian national hymn. In a second every head in that throng was bared. All traffic suddenly stopped, everybody, passengers as well as conductors of the cars, joining in the anthem. The neighboring windows soon filled with people, and soon it was a chorus of thousands of voices. The volume of tone and the intensity of feeling seemed to raise the inspiring anthem to the uttermost heights of sublime majesty. We were then on our way to the station, and long afterwards we could hear the singing, swelling like a human organ.”

Quiet Dignity

Although the feelings of patriotism, love and some sort of anticipation mixed in the Austrian capital, public order was still kept. There was no chaos or disorder, but rather some quiet dignity in the people expecting the serious events.

“What impressed me particularly in Vienna was the strict order everywhere. No mob disturbances of any kind, in spite of the greatly increased liberty and relaxation of police regulations. Nor was there any runaway chauvinism noticeable, aside from the occasional singing of patriotic songs and demonstrations like the one I just described. The keynote of popular feeling was quiet dignity, joined to determination, with an undercurrent of solemn gravity and responsibility.”

Austro-Hungarian trench in the Ortler Alps, one of the most challenging fronts of the war, 1917.

After the Vienna episode Fritz Kreisler left for Graz where he was headquartered. He took command of the first platoon in the sixteenth company stationed in Leoben near Graz where he would really see how horrible was WWI.

Kreisler, F. Four Weeks in the Trenches. The War Story of a Violinist. New York, 1915.

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