Red Vienna (German: Rotes Wien) was the nickname of the capital of Austria between 1918 and 1934, when the Social Democrats had the majority and the city was democratically governed for the first time.
Social situation after World War I
After World War I had ended with the collapse and dismemberment of the Habsburg dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, Deutschösterreich (German Austria) was proclaimed a republic on November 12, 1918. At the Gemeinderat (city parliament) elections of May 4, 1919, for the first time ever all adult citizens of both sexes had voting rights. The Social Democratic Party gained an absolute majority; Jakob Reumann was elected first social democratic mayor, to be succeeded in 1923 by Karl Seitz.
The city underwent many changes in these times. During the war, refugees from Austrian Galicia (now West Ukraine), which was partly occupied by the Russian army, had settled in the capital city. At the end of the war, many former soldiers of the Imperial and Royal Army came to stay in Vienna, at least temporarily, while many former Imperial-Royal government ministry officials returned to their native lands. The middle classes, many of whom had bought War Bonds that were now worthless, were plunged into poverty by hyperinflation. New borders between Austria and the nearby regions that had fed Vienna for centuries made food supply difficult. Flats were overcrowded, and diseases such as tuberculosis, the Spanish flu and syphilis raged. In the new Austria, Vienna was considered a capital much too big for the small country, and often called Wasserkopf by people living in other parts of the country.
On the other hand, optimists saw wide fields of social and political action opening up. Pragmatic intellectuals like Hans Kelsen, who drafted the republican constitution, and Karl Bühler found a lot to do. For them it was a time of awakening, of new frontiers and of optimism.
The intellectual resources of Red Vienna were remarkable: Ilona Duczyńska and Karl Polanyi, as well as several other socialist intelligentsia gladly relocated to Vienna or went there in exile from elsewhere, in addition to Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Karl Bühler, Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Adolf Loos, Arnold Schoenberg and many other scientists, artists, publishers and architects, while not all socialists, did not participate in the principal opposition of the clerical conservatives but viewed the development and modernisation of Vienna with sympathy.
Karl Polanyi wrote: "Vienna achieved one of the most spectacular cultural triumphs of Western history … an unexampled moral and intellectual rise in the condition of a highly developed industrial working class which, protected by the Vienna system, withstood the degrading effects of grave economic dislocation and achieved a level never reached before by the masses of the people in any industrial society."
John Gunther characterised the overall setting of Vienna between the wars: "The disequilibrium between Marxist Vienna and the clerical countryside was the dominating Motiv of Austrian politics until the rise of Hitler. Vienna was socialist, anti-clerical, and, as a municipality, fairly rich. The hinterland was poor, backward, conservative, Roman Catholic, and jealous of Vienna's higher standard of living."
Initiatives of the red-black coalition in the first government of the new federation of Deutschösterreich (German Austria) resulted in the legal introduction of the eight-hour day only one week after the republic had been proclaimed in November 1918. Furthermore, an unemployment benefit system was implemented and the Chamber of Workers (Arbeiterkammer, formally Kammer für Arbeiter und Angestellte) founded by law as the workers' official lobby. The enthusiasm for such reforms became smaller and smaller within the Christian Social Party the more time elapsed since the end of the first World War.
In 1920, the coalition broke down, and from then until 1945 the Social Democrats were, at federal level, either in opposition or underground. But the "Reds" continued to govern the City of Vienna, where they reached a comfortable absolute majority in the 1919 elections. Their goal was to make Vienna a shining example of social democratic politics. Their measures at the time were considered outstanding or even spectacular and observed in the whole of Europe. Conservatives in Austria tended to hate this strain of politics but for the time being nothing could be done against the success of the Social Democrats in Vienna elections.
Vienna had been the capital of the state of Lower Austria for seven centuries. With their strong majority in Vienna and the workers' votes in the industrial region around Wiener Neustadt, the "Reds" even had the right to nominate the first democratic governor, the Landeshauptmann, literally "captain of the land" of Lower Austria in 1919: they chose Albert Sever. As the rural areas did not want to be governed by "Reds" while the Social Democratic Party did not like conservative interference in their modern city politics, the two big parties soon agreed to separate "red Vienna" from "black Lower Austria". The national parliament passed the constitutional laws to enable this in 1921; on January 1, 1922, Vienna was created the ninth Austrian Bundesland.
After 1934, Gunther commented: "In Vienna the socialists produced a remarkable administration, making it probably the most successful municipality in the world. [...] The achievements of the Vienna socialists were the most exhilarating social movement of the post-war period in any European country. Result: the clericals bombed them out of existence."
The Imperial-Royal Government had passed a Tenant Protection Act (Mieterschutzgesetz) in 1917 which had been declared applicable in Vienna immediately. Despite the high inflation, the act ordered the rents for flats to be frozen at the level of 1914. This made new private housing projects unprofitable. After the war, demand for affordable flats therefore grew extremely high. Creating public housing projects became the main concern of the Social Democrats in Vienna.
In 1919, the federal parliament passed the Housing Requirement Act (Wohnanforderungsgesetz) to enhance the efficiency of existing housing structures. Low private demand for building land and low building costs proved favourable 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 flats were built in so-called Gemeindebau ("community construction") buildings. Large blocks were situated around green courts, for instance at the Karl-Marx-Hof (one of the hot spots in the civil war of 1934) and the George-Washington-Hof. The tenants of the new flats were chosen on the basis of a ranking system in which e.g. persons with handicaps got extra points to be chosen earlier. Forty percent of building costs were taken from the proceeds of the Vienna Housing Tax, the rest from the proceeds of the Vienna Luxury Tax and from federal funds. Using public money to cover building costs allowed the rents for these flats to be kept very low: for a worker's household, rent took 4 percent of household income; in private buildings it had been 30 percent. If tenants became ill or unemployed, rent payments could be postponed.
Social and health services
Parents got a "clothes package" for each baby so that "no child in Vienna has to be wrapped in a newspaper." Kindergartens, afternoon homes and children's spas were opened to enable mothers to return to their jobs and get children off the streets. Medical services were provided free of charge. Vacation grounds, recreational holidays, public baths and spas and sports facilities were offered to enhance fitness. As Julius Tandler, city councillor for 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 babies we will save in hospitals for mental illnesses.” Municipal expenditure for social services was tripled in comparison to pre-war efforts. Infant mortality dropped below the Austrian average, while cases of tuberculosis dropped by 50%. Affordable tariffs for gas and electricity and for refuse collection, all run by the municipality, helped to improve health standards.
The Social Democrats introduced new taxes by state law, which were collected in addition to federal taxes (critics called them "Breitner Taxes" after Hugo Breitner, city councillor for finance). These taxes were imposed on luxury: on riding-horses, large private cars, servants in private households, and hotel rooms. (To demonstrate the practical effect of these new taxes, the municipality published a list of social institutions that could be financed by the servants tax the Vienna branch of the Rothschild family had to pay.)
Another new tax, the Wohnbausteuer (Housing Construction Tax), was also structured as a progressive tax, i.e. levied in rising percentages. The income from this tax was used to finance the municipality's extensive housing programme. Therefore, many Gemeindebauten today still bear the inscription: Erbaut aus den Mitteln der Wohnbausteuer (built from the proceeds of the Housing Construction Tax).
As a result of the municipality's investment activity, the rate of unemployment in Vienna dropped in relation to the rest of Austria and to Germany. All investments were financed directly by taxes, not by credits. Thus the city administration stayed independent of creditors and did not have to pay interest on bonds.
Hugo Breitner, in contrast to the Austrian Social Democrats after 1945, consistently refused to take up credits to finance social services. These services consequently had to be cut down when, in the early thirties.
Red Vienna mainly is associated with the following political leaders:
- Jakob Reumann, first social democratic mayor
- Karl Seitz, mayor until his ousting from city hall by police in 1934
- Hugo Breitner, successful finance councillor, hated by part of the bourgeoisie
- Julius Tandler, renowned reformer of the city's social and health services
- Otto Glöckel, reformer of the educational system
Main parts of this text have been translated from the Rotes Wien entry in the German edition of Wikipedia.
- Allan Janik, Stephen Toulmin: Wittgenstein's Vienna. Simon & Schuster, New York 1973
- Polanyi, Karl (2001) . The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 298.
- Gunther, John (1933). Inside Europe (7th, 1940 ed.). New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 379.
- Reichsgesetzblatt für die im Reichsrat vertretenen Königreiche und Länder No. 34 and 36/1917, see Austrian National Library, historical laws online
- City of Vienna: From "Red Vienna" to the "Ständestaat" (1918 to 1938)
- Virtual Vienna: Red Vienna: A Workers' Paradise.
- Encyclopedia of Vienna's Social Democratic Party, in German
- 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