World War I: Serbian Prisoners of War (detail) by Roland Strasser (1895 - 1974)

Serbian Prisoners of War (detail) by Roland Strasser (1895 – 1974)

This is the weekend when, 100 years ago, the major powers in Europe started declaring war on each other.  The First World War affected every country differently. In Britain, we hear a lot about Flanders, the Somme, poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke and, of course, the restrictive alcohol licensing laws introduced to stop pubs serving munitions workers that remained in effect for nearly 90 years. Yet the war also sparked a sense of nationhood in remote Australia stemming from the disaster at Gallipoli. It sowed the seeds of the problem of the Middle East with the Balfour Declaration’s promise of a Jewish homeland. In Germany it facilitated the rise of Hitler. I could go on for ages.

But what interests me here is its effect in Austria-Hungary. Did people know for instance that the resulting rump of today’s Austria was considered unviable? For this reason,  the Vorarlberg, Austria’s westernmost state bordering Switzerland, actually voted to join the Swiss Confederation on 11 May 1919 with a majority of 80%-plus. It was the Allies and the Swiss themselves who prevented it.

The War Museum in Vienna

The War Museum in Vienna

The War museum in Vienna (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum), one of the great war museums worldwide, has a current exhibition that I recommend to everyone who wants to see how the war affected the biggest European Empire of our times and to understand the war from a different point of view.

So here are some images, with captions, from the exhibition that I found impossible to keep to myself.

Firstly: Franz Josef, a symbol of 19C Austria as strong as Queen Victoria for Great Britain. Tired, old, he’d lost his son Rudolf in a suicide pact with his lover Marie Vetsera in Mayerling and his wife, the popular Empress Sissi to an anarchist assassin in Geneva. If anyone represented the past so achingly, it was him. [Click on image to enlarge]

Secondly: Sarajevo. No single assassination, except maybe that of John Kennedy, has fired people’s imagination so much.

Thirdly: Propaganda. It wasn’t just the British who thought of the other side as “Huns”.

And finally, the First World War itself.

We all know how it ended.