The First World War: A view from the other side

Austrian Uniforms
A painting of Austrian First World War soldiers by Fritz Schwarz-Waldegg, on display in Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches (Military History) Museum

In late 2014 I took a trip to Vienna, and as I do wherever I travel, I sought out interesting historic sites and museums to visit.  Now anyone who has been to Vienna will know that it is steeped in history. However, as it was the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War I sought out two locations with relevant exhibitions.

The first was the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum or Military Museum. Located in the centre of the old Arsenal complex, according to the museum’s website it:

‘…was built according to plans of Ludwig Foerster and Theophil Hansen from 1850 to 1856 and was thus the first Viennese museum. The styles of this town’s oldest historic building range from Byzantine, Hispano-Moorish to Neo-Gothic building…’

This description does not really do the building justice. It is a huge and ornate temple to Austrian military achievement, as can be seen in the picture below.

Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches (Military History) Museum

The museum tells the history of Austria’s Armed Forces. From the heady days of the Wars of the Spanish Succession, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the Napoleonic Wars, through the decline of Austrian military power with the rise of Prussia and a unified Germany, the First World War and ultimately to the end of the Second World War.

I first visited this museum in the early 1990s when, it is fair to say, the whole place was looking very tired and in need of a major make-over.  But arriving at the First World War exhibition in 2014 it was very clear that, at least in this area, there had been a major refurbishment, presumably to tie in with the centenary.

The opening elements of the First World War exhibition have been in the museum for a long time and, as twenty years previously, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I pondered the importance of the artefacts. On one side a bullet marked car, on the other, neatly laid out in a case, a blood stained blue tunic (see picture below) worn by one of the car’s passenger on 28 June 1914. These of course belonged to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria whose assassination on streets of Sarajevo on that summer’s day led to the chain of events that started the First World War. Since my last visit these have been displayed better, with improved interpretation, and set the scene well for the new First World War gallery.

Franz Ferdinand Jacket
Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s bloodstained tunic on display in Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches (Military History) Museum

The new gallery is impressive. One enters at ground level and descends to a lower level following a chronological route around the exhibition. The content is well displayed and interpreted, with both German and English text. The artefacts range from uniforms and weapons, to aircraft and artillery pieces. The larger artefacts are first glimpsed from below as one transits the lower gallery, then climbing up a level are seen again from a different angle (see picture below), all adding to the quality of the experience. Reflecting on my visit it was a very engaging, educational and entertaining exhibition, but also had something that made it seem very familiar.  But more of that later…

The First World War Gallery in Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches (Military History) Museum

The second museum I visited was the Vienna Museum, situated next to the beautiful and famous Karlskirche.  It tells the story of the city of Vienna and, clearly timed to coincide with the centenary of the First World War, was hosting a small exhibition called World War I in Vienna: City Life in Photography and Graphic Art.  As the title suggests the exhibition showed images of Vienna during the War.  As I explored the exhibition, the images, whilst new and previously unseen by my eyes, also had a welcoming familiarity to them. The euphoria of the early days of the war with captured in photographs showing columns of soldiers heading to the front flags waving and faces smiling, as wives and sweethearts cheered them off.  These were then replaced with images showing the reality of war.  Wounded soldiers returning home, the ‘home front’ with women replacing men on essential work (as seen in the image below) and fund raising schemes to fuel the war. This exhibition was simple in execution but powerful in impact, and left a strong impression.

Di Frau im Kriege
‘Die Frau im Kriege’, an image of an Austrian woman doing war work.

Reflecting on both museums, I have used the word familiar to describe their content.  I know that I should not have been surprised, but what I saw made me think.  The stories in these museums, especially the people stories, are no different to those being told in museums and heritage sites all over the United Kingdom, only in this case they had a different (Austrian) perspective. These two museums approached the First World War from the Austrian point of view, in the very same way as British museums have largely taken a very British slant on the War.

In the last couple of years many World War One exhibitions have been developed within British museums, most undoubtedly driven by the centenary.  The overarching theme in these has been the commemoration of this monumental punctuation mark in modern history, but almost all portray a predominantly British view of the war. Whether it is the Imperial War Museum’s truly stunning new galleries, or one of a range of regimental museums or city and town museums hosting special exhibitions, the overwhelming impression is the experience and fate of the British Tommy in the trenches, and/or the ‘Home Front’ in Britain.

On the surface a British museum taking a distinctly British perspective is perhaps unsurprising, but I think there is a little more to this.  After all we live in a world where globalisation is the watchword.  So why are these exhibitions taking such a United Kingdom centric view?  I do not think it is because of any form of ‘we won the war’ jingoism.  I think is much more to do with how museums and heritage sites engage with their audiences, particularly now as the First World War becomes a more and more distant memory.

The commemoration of the centenary has reawakened an interest in the First World War.  With no veterans now alive, and therefore no living reference points, museum exhibition designers are having to find new hooks to engage audiences.  One of the most accessible, and commonly used, hooks is the ‘..what did your ancestors/the locals from this area do in the war…’ approach.  Exhibitions of this type are therefore anchored on the stories of those who marched away, many not to return, and the impact of this on the local area. This approach helps visitors engage with, and learn from, the subject matter from a familiar point of entry.  The museums in Vienna do exactly the same from an Austrian perspective.

However, it is incumbent upon historians, museums, battlefield guides, teachers and anyone else involved in passing on these stories, to remember and remind visitors, that in war there are always at least two sides.  We must not lose sight of this, but also that the issues, experiences, and impact of war are often very similar regardless of which side you are on.  Thus to look at, and engage with these subjects, from the perspective of ‘the other side’ can only add to our understanding. Visiting other nations museums, like the ones I have highlighted here, helps to ensure that we don’t forget to reflect on the other side’s stories which, when we look at them in detail, may well be very similar to our own.