Red Vienna, 1919–1934: Ideas, Debates, Praxes.
An Introduction to the Wien Museum’s Centennial Exhibition and Roundtable Discussion “What is Red Vienna?”: Conflicting Perspectives, Enduring Legacies

by curators Werner Michael Schwarz, Georg Spitaler, Elke Wikidal
translated from the German by Lauren K. Wolfe
[view as .pdf]

translator’s note:
Chiaroscuro: A way of looking at the world
Right now a world health crisis is showing us in devastating light just how damaging—to bodies, well-beings, livelihoods, communities, ecologies—are the effects of the cynical organization of the global economy. Chiaroscuro describes the technique of using the contrast between light and dark to put into relief formal patterns over and above the narrative or figurative elements in a work of visual art. Likewise the moment of pandemic permits a unique view onto the basic interrelatedness of progressive demands that are often administered as distinct issues: the right to clean and affordable housing, universal healthcare and basic income, prison abolition, the disentanglement of employment from so-called entitlements, radical wealth redistribution, immigration reform, direct democracy, free education, investment in and equal access to public and social infrastructure, and so on. The separate treatment of issues obscures the structural bases of social and economic inequality and maintains instead the dominant narrative in the foreground—a disingenuous narrative of individualism and identitarianism, economies of scarcity, the “global village.” In order to answer justly to the exigencies of the present, not only are political instruments needed, but also alternative concepts, a formally integrated way of looking at the world. 

“Red Vienna” emerged from a similarly afflicted historical moment. War-induced mass migration and displacement, a tuberculosis epidemic, pervasive malnutrition, a severe housing shortage, widespread unemployment, extreme wealth disparity: This was the petri dish in 1919 that generated a municipal politics and culture predicated on the Social Democratic principles of economic justice and self-determination. What exactly the city accomplished, how it was able to do so, and what lessons that brief experiment—which lasted from 1919 to 1934, when the conservative forces of the federal government ultimately dismantled it—may hold for the present are questions posed by the Wien Museum’s recent centennial exhibition Red Vienna, 1919–1934: Ideas, Debates, Praxes.1 The following introductory essay and roundtable discussion have been excerpted from the catalog to this exhibition.  

Gemeindebauten: A theory put to work
Maybe the most paradigmatic expression of the theoretical practice or practical theory of Red Vienna are the municipal housing projects that the city built in answer to a series of interrelated concerns: public health and sanitation, unemployment and housing insecurity, gender equality in the home and on the labor market, and the cultivation of self-actualized political subjects. The Social Democratic–controlled city strove to meet the material needs of the working-class population in a manner congruent with its own political and cultural values: Each housing complex featured communal laundries and kitchens, kindergartens and playgrounds, public bathing facilities, and libraries and doctors’ offices, in order to promote sanitary living, adult education, a feeling of solidarity, and to communalize domestic labor and care work. Their construction itself helped alleviate unemployment. These complexes were also designed to facilitate political organizing in that each had assigned Party offices and officers who were available for those seeking council on any number of issues, from employment to domestic life. A central tenet of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) was not to win votes but to create the voters who would comprehend and support Party values as a result of directly benefitting from these values put into practice. Public education initiatives and access to educational resources for the working classes realized the Social Democratic aim of transforming the worker from an object of administration into a political subject with agency of its own. 

Austromarxism: A “third way” of radical reform
If there is a whiff of paternalism in this agenda to create a voter with a particular profile, that certainly was not lost on the interwar Viennese themselves, nor was the Party by any means free of internal conflict. The “Austromarxism” which provided the intellectual undergirding of the SDAP evolved over time from its origins in the late nineteenth century, though what remained characteristic throughout was its self-conception as a “third way” between socialist revolution and liberal-democratic reform: a radical reinvestment in and reshaping of public democratic institutions. How “radical” a position this “third way” was is up for debate, since the achievements of the SDAP in the interwar years did involve the Party in a number of political trade-offs with the bourgeois classes, who were haunted by the specter of Bolshevism. This sort of entanglement is thought to be part of the reason why more fundamental reforms in, for instance, the relations of production were not risked. Then again, creative strategies emerged where other avenues of reform were foreclosed: If the means of production remained to a large extent the property of the bourgeoisie, the SDAP-controlled administration simply purchased the assets it wished to place outside the reach of the market. 

It should be noted that Red Vienna existed to some extent as a city apart. There was also another Vienna in the interwar years—a wealthy, bourgeois, landed, formerly imperial Vienna that provided much of the tax revenue which funded Social Democratic, worker-oriented Red Vienna. The First Austrian Republic (1919–1938) was a widely unloved rump state that resulted from the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Treaty of Saint-Germain in the wake of World War I. This new Austria was deeply ideologically divided between the “Red” Social Democrats, who comprised the political majority in the capital, and the conservative “Black” Christian Socialists, who dominated politics in the remainder of the country. This division, exacerbated by the global economic crisis of 1929, would in the end prove calamitous for this radical experiment in social democracy.2

Subjects and objects: Between emancipation and control
The Social Democratic Workers’ Party grew out of the workers’ movement that it then sought both to further cultivate and to institutionalize. The SDAP project to make political subjects out of the mass administrative object that the working class had been under imperial management yielded occasionally ambivalent results, somewhere between emancipation and control. For instance, public health initiatives, including family planning, were administered under the direction of openly eugenicist city councilmen. Moreover, in the longer term, the institutionalization of the workers’ movement ultimately wound up individualizing the relationship between the new political subject and the municipal government; the new political subject became not only a disciplined subject, but, as its needs were increasingly reliably met through its individual appeal to administrative offices, its attachment to the collectivity of the originating movement weakened. On the other hand, innovative sociological projects were enabled by this changed view of the working classes as comprised of individuals with their own agency. Feminist sociologist Käthe Leichter, for instance, surveyed 1,320 women industrial workers in Vienna in the early 1930s; their narrative testimonials pointed to significant gaps between the actual lived conditions of Social Democratic women and the gender-equity rhetoric and policies of the Party. Even if what the study revealed was the failure of rhetoric and policy to affect the lives of the target population, the new research methods made the gap identifiable and thus remediable.

Austrofascism: A darker yield
Red Vienna did not end as a result of its own internal contradictions, nor can its end stand unequivocally as judgment on its viability. Social Democratic Vienna was dismantled by Christian Socialist coup. In March 1933, railway workers went on strike. Parliament convened to vote on disciplinary action; however, a series of voting irregularities resulted in all three presidents of the lower house voluntarily resigning their non-voting positions in order to cast decisive votes in a second round. Conservative chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß seized on the circumstance to declare a procedural “crisis”—the constitution gave no clear instruction on what to do when the house was left without a speaker—and refused to reinstate parliament, which he insisted had “eliminated itself.” Absent parliament, all political channels for Social Democratic action were effectively foreclosed. The Dollfuß administration then began suspending civil liberties; it banned the paramilitary wing of the SDAP and imprisoned many of its members. In February 1934, “Black” forces loyal to the federal government trespassed on SDAP property, provoking a four-day civil war the “Red” contingent was bound to lose, having been dispossessed of its weapons. After this, the Party was banned, along with all trade unions. A corporatist, one-party government evolved, with power centralized in the office of the chancellor. These events were of course unfolding against the backdrop of an unprecedented global economic crisis.

Another petri dish, this one containing a volatile mix of reactionary nationalist politics and international market meltdown, yielded the five-year rule of Austrofascism.3 Compounding crises may have set the stage for a radical reinvention of just forms of living in 1919, but compounding crises also conditioned the arrest and dismantling of the same only fifteen years later. Both of these bookends seem equally instructive for the present.    

—Lauren K. Wolfe, April 2020

Recommended further reading on Red Vienna:
The Red Vienna Sourcebook, edited by Ingo Zechner, Georg Spitaler & Rob McFarland, Camden House 2020.
The Crisis of Austrian Socialism: From Red Vienna to Civil War. 1927–1934, by Anson Rabinbach, University of Chicago Press 1983.
Red Vienna: Experiment in Working-Class Culture, 1919–1934, by Helmut Gruber, Oxford University Press 1991.

Introduction: Red Vienna in the Museum 
Red Vienna as an exhibition theme is rather like a great drama, reimagined and restaged for each new occasion. After close to forty years of intensive research and debate, many key elements of script and score have been more or less fixed: the magnificent architecture, the striking photographic documentation, the intensive debates that played out within its literary and educational circles. These had to do with housing, schooling, welfare, feminist politics, adult education, working-class culture, art; they were carried out in electoral campaigns and fierce disputes among political rivals that leveraged every available means of (visual) media. Each new staging of Red Vienna emphasizes, omits, rediscovers different things and positions itself differently with respect to what has come before. Any interpretation of this brief moment—this “routinization of utopia” (Wolfgang Maderthaner) which is lastingly inscribed in the city, even though it lasted barely more than a decade (1919–1934)—is reflective of its context and the interests of those who give it shape. 

The major exhibition Traum und Wirklichkeit. Wien 1870–1930, which showed at the Vienna Künstlerhaus in 1985, expressed fascination with the reverberating effects of the intellectual and aesthetic ideas of fin-de-siècle Vienna, circa 1900.4 In this retelling, history came to a programmatic close in the year 1930, with the opening of Karl Marx Hof5—prior, in other words, to the actual end of Red Vienna—which, for the curators, marked the end of the Golden Age of Viennese culture. One of the key figures of the epoch, according to this interpretation, was the architect Otto Wagner.6 The exhibition’s interest lay in the continuation of Wagner’s ideas through his students in Red Vienna—which is to say, in an apparent paradox, in that socialist ideals were being implemented predominantly by bourgeois architects. 

Even in the years prior to 1985, a number of exhibitions had already put Red Vienna on display on in some cases rather prominent stages. The first of these was an exhibition with the almost diffident title Zwischenkriegszeit—Wiener Kommunalpolitik 1918–1938, which opened in the context of the Wiener Festwochen, then moved to the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts in the Schweizergarten, before finally showing at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum.7 The sepia-tinted black-and-white photos featured in the just over one-hundred-page exhibition catalog are shrouded in a thin veneer suggestive of a posture somewhere between melancholy and a cautious repoliticization. Quite different, then, from the following year’s show Mit uns zieht die neue Zeit. Arbeiterkultur in Österreich 1918–1934, which was interested above all in the collective as an acting subject.8 The curators of this 1981 exhibition chose the Koppreiter tram depot in Meidling as their exhibition space, certainly a theatrical if not exactly a museal one. In a show titled Die Kälte des Februar. Österreich 1933–1938, which focused on the suppression of the Social Democratic uprising,9  the emphases and perspective of the 1981 exhibition were carried forward to the start of 1984.10 In the spirit of the 1970s New Left, this exhibition juxtaposed the indecision of Party leadership against those Social Democrats who were prepared to fight in 1934. Both exhibitions had recourse to “texts” that are no longer immediately available to curators today: the recollections of those who had participated. 

Throughout the 1980s, Red Vienna remained an object of fervent debate, and the culture that it had generated itself remained largely intact. At this time, Social Democracy in Vienna appeared well-secured, though these exhibitions and young activists strove to remind audiences that nothing guaranteed it would always remain this way. By then, the Party had come under increased pressure, in the context of new environmental, feminist, and cultural initiatives, especially from its younger contingent, who took a lesson from the combative engagement of the “working masses” of the past and criticized Red Vienna on the same grounds that it now found fault with the Social Democratic Party in its present form: paternalism, complacency, and indecisiveness. This was the direction taken by the exhibition einfach bauen that showed in 1985 at the Wiener Künstlerhaus and that for the first time on a grand scale commemorated the settlers movement from the years immediately following the end of World War I as a “movement from below.”11 The exhibition, conceived in Germany, began touring through the Viennese settlements in 1983 as an “expanding exhibition,” collecting materials and narratives of former activists as it traveled.12 Its maxim—“Against the Myth of No Alternatives”—was addressed to both the present and the past of Red Vienna. The exhibitions of the 1980s were still operating within an environment that regarded the dominance of the Left as both a theoretical and a practical possibility. 

It’s not surprising that the exhibitions of the 1990s tended to historicize Red Vienna and to transform a living, fiercely contested history into a canon of knowledge that then found its way back into the museum.13 The fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of Realsozialismus initially relegated Red Vienna to an ostensibly distant past. Its welfare-state pretensions, its view of housing and social security as public undertakings, and its commitment to disentangling education from class privilege had already been gradually undermined by the growing dominance of neoliberal thought—which, at least at first, could be credited with introducing a measure of liberation from the narrow constraints of social conformity. Interest at this point was concentrated on architecture and the legacy of urban planning that Red Vienna left behind. Even into the 1980s, many buildings were for the most part in a fairly bleak state of disrepair, despite their being part of an active working-class and Party culture. Since the late 1990s, these buildings have seen gradual renovation, and, to an extent, structures like Karl Marx Hof have been discovered and capitalized on for their value as tourist attractions.14

Otherwise, talk of Red Vienna appears to have quieted down. It came to be seen rather as a single episode within a grand narrative, as was the case with the 2009 Wien Museum exhibition kampf um die stadt. politik kunst und alltag um 193015 at the Wiener Künstlerhaus, which depicted Red Vienna as merely one among an array of perspectives elaborated throughout the 1920s and 1930s, when the city and urban space were highly contested objects of discussion and debate. Accordingly, Red Vienna could legitimately be consigned to the margins, not least because it had itself worked so intensively to keep non-Red, metropolitan Vienna at a remove from its own constituency, thus opening deep fault lines in its own historical moment. This is exemplified, for instance, in its rejection of professional soccer, which would have had working-class appeal, and in its stance on cinema, fashion, consumption, and art. 

At the same time, this phase of historicization precipitated an intensification of research, and a higher quality of it. The move away from directly political questions opened a first avenue for “cooler,” more in-depth analysis and contextualization of the memories and legacies of Red Vienna. Its rich visual inheritance—placards, films, photographs, and not least its architecture—began to be studied, each in its own aesthetic, intellectual, and technical context, using academic museological methods. And this set the stage for a rediscovery of the built environment of Red Vienna. Participatory cultural festivals like Soho in Ottakring collectivized the effort to locate traces of Red Vienna and drove it outside the museum—as was the case in 2014, with the pop-up exhibition at the housing complex Sandleitenhof.16


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  1. The Wien Museum is a municipal, not an imperial institution; all the more astonishing that, within Europe, its holdings are second in size only to the British Museum in London. The Wien Museum’s mission—an interdisciplinary exploration of the long history and diverse cultures of Vienna—is realized across its twenty-one sites located throughout the city.
  2. Many thanks to Alys X. George for providing critical historical insight to this introduction.
  3. Canonical postwar Austrian historiography categorizes this period from February 1933 to March 1938 (ending with the so-called “annexation” of Austria to Nazi Germany) as corporatist and authoritarian rather than fascist, which aligns with the dominant postwar narrative of Austria as the Nazis’ “first victim.” More recent studies in fascism and Austrian history have been reexamining this narrative and have begun to think “Austrofascism” alongside other European twentieth-century fascisms.
  4. Traum und Wirklichkeit. Wien 1870–1930. [Dream and Reality: Vienna 1870–1930] Exhibition catalog, Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, Vienna 1985.
  5. [Built between 1927 and 1930, Karl Marx Hof is one of the largest and most iconic of Vienna’s Gemeindebauten, spanning over twelve city blocks and including more than 1,300 apartments, many of which remain occupied by contemporary Viennese. In February 1934, Karl Marx Hof was a hotspot of the urban Social Democratic uprising against the Christian conservative federal government, which had ordered the building shelled. A permanent Red Vienna exhibition is on display at the Waschsalon Karl-Marx-Hof, a former communal laundry since converted to a museum.—Trans.]
  6. [Otto Wagner (1841–1918) was a foundational figure in fin-de-siècle architecture and urban planning, a paragon for a generation of architects that would undertake iconic Red Vienna construction and design projects. The irony: Wagner was an eminently bourgeois liberal-democratic Viennese; his successors, trained in the Secession style Wagner helped develop, would be the ones to construct the city of radical social democracy.—Trans.]
  7. Gottfried Pirhofer (ed.): Zwischenkriegszeit—Wiener Kommunalpolitik 1918–1938. [The Interwar Years—Viennese Communal Politics, 1918–1938] Exhibition catalog, Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, Vienna 1980. [Wiener Festwochen is an annual Viennese arts and culture festival; Museum of the Twentieth Century; Museum of Economics and Society.—Trans.]
  8. Helene Maimann (ed.): Mit uns zieht die neue Zeit. Arbeiterkultur in Österreich 1918–1934. [The New Era Moves with Us: Working-Class Culture in Austria, 1918–1934] Exhibition catalog of the Austrian Society for Cultural Politics and the Meidlinger Kulturkreis, at the Meidling Koppreitergasse tram depot, Vienna 1981.
  9. [See translator’s note for details on the suppression of the Social Democratic uprising.—Trans.]
  10. Helene Maimann, Siegfried Mattl (eds.): Die Kälte des Februar. Österreich 1933–1938. [The February Cold: Austria, 1933–1938] Exhibition catalog of the Austrian Society for Cultural Politics and the Meidlinger Kulturkreis, at the Meidling Koppreiter tram depot, Vienna 1984.
  11. [einfach bauen can mean either “just build” or “build simply.” The settlers movement (Siedlerbewegung) grew out of pervasive homelessness and hunger in the immediate aftermath of World War I; the settlements were autarkic communal living situations, with collectively tended gardens, built on the city’s perimeter, at first essentially squats and later financially supported by the city.—Trans.]
  12. Klaus Novy, Wolfgang Förster (eds.): einfach bauen. Catalog for an expanding exhibition. A project of the Association for Modern Communal Politics, Vienna 1985, p. 9.
  13. Cf. Walter Öhlinger (ed.): Das rote Wien. 1918–1934. [Red Vienna: 1918–1934] Exhibition catalog, Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, Vienna 1993.
  14. One of Karl Marx Hof’s former communal laundries, Waschsalon Karl-Marx-Hof, now houses permanent and temporary exhibitions on the history of Red Vienna. (April 1, 2019).
  15. Wolfgang Kos (ed.): kampf um die stadt. politik, kunst und alltag um 1930. [fight for the city: politics, art and the everyday circa 1930] Exhibition catalog, Wien Museum, Vienna 2009.
  16. Geschichte Willkommen! [History Welcome!] A project by: Christiane Rainer, Kazuo Kandutsch, Katrin Sippel, (April 1, 2019). [Sandleitenhof is a municipal housing complex in the Ottakring district of Vienna, a neighborhood that, since 2014, has become a center for alternative culture in the city. Every year it hosts a two-week arts and culture festival, Soho in Ottakring. In 2015, the Wiener Kunstschule (an art school) acquired the former communal laundry in Sandleitenhof, which has since been converted to an exhibition space.—Trans.]