German Society Study Weekend 2018 - Event report

After the German Society of the CIOL had decided to hold its traditional September study weekend in Vienna, the Economist added its seal of approval by rating Vienna the most liveable city in the world. The theme was an all-embracing “Vienna Present and Past” and attendance at the various events ranged from 20 to 30 people.

The UN is not only in New York

To start off in the present, many took the opportunity of arriving a little early to visit the UN building on the “Donauinsel” for a guided tour. “Present” is a relative concept; the building cannot deny its late 70s architecture, but the work done here is definitely geared to the present, whether that be the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency or organizations dedicated to trade and labour law, drugs trafficking, refugees and the various impediments on the way to achieving the Millennial Goals. The actual Nobel Peace Prize medal and certificate (awarded in 2001 to the United Nations as an organization and Kofi Annan, as Secretary General) are displayed rather modestly in a hallway.

Vienna and the war, cold and otherwise

In the afternoon the group set out by coach for a Vienna tour with a difference. Our guide, Gerhard Strassgeschwandtner (no wonder he introduced himself by his first name only) took us on a “Cold War Vienna” tour, determined to set the record straight. Gerhard grew up in post-war Vienna and became convinced that the standard version of history as he heard it, namely that Austria was Hitler’s first victim, is not correct. Our first stop was at the Hofburg, the magnificent array of buildings demonstrating imperial greatness in the centre of the city. We stood on one side of the vast central courtyard to see the balcony from which, only a couple of days after annexing Austria, Hitler was acclaimed by a vast number of patently enthusiastic Viennese. Gerhard showed a number of photos to illustrate his point. Other relics of the war are not so easily hidden, such as the indestructible flak towers/bunkers no-one quite knows what to do with and the huge Soviet war memorial, allegedly to the “Unknown Soldier” but more caustically known in Vienna as the “Unknown Father” in bitter reference to the many hundreds of women raped by Red Army soldiers. Gerhard pointed out the Allies’ joint administrative headquarters just opposite the memorial, so that the Western powers were forced to see the pompous structure whenever they met – first point to the USSR in the Cold War tussle. Driving along the Danube Canal, the lack of buildings older than post-war bore testimony to the bitter final battle for Vienna fought out over the water. Although one wouldn’t know it today, much of central Vienna was severely damaged in 1944 after the US bombers were able to use Italian bases for their raids. The historic buildings, including the famous opera house, have all been rebuilt as they were pre-war. As the map shows, Vienna was the prize in the Cold War battle for influence in Eastern Europe, which explains why the Americans poured huge resources into making sure it did not fall into Soviet hands.

But all this was just the hors d’oeuvre.

Next stop was the 3rd Man Museum. Gerhard’s consuming passion is the British film noir “The Third Man” starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard and Alida Valli. Gerhard says that for him this film, first released in 1949 and shot in post-war Vienna, was the key to unlock his City’s recent history, as the search for memorabilia led him down many hitherto unknown avenues, unearthing pieces of recent history, including Jewish deportations, that paint a different picture of Vienna.



This impressive collection of artefacts includes original posters, film projectors and even THE zither. Having become famous after the film, Anton Karas bought himself new zithers, but Gerhard has the original one, complete with the burn marks that the chain-smoking musician left on the edge of the instrument. Interestingly, Karas could not write music, but improvised the entire sound track when shown the film sequences. Of course, everyone knows the Harry Lime theme from somewhere in their childhood, but to hear it played to the whirr of an ancient projector as the celluloid images flickered over the screen was to begin to understand where Gerhard is coming from – and his enthusiasm for the subject is very infectious. Fact checking is important in this day and age and Gerhard acquired a piece of grating from the Viennese water board. We were invited to see if we could put our fingers through from underneath to mimic a scene in the film where fingers poke eerily out of the ground. We could not. I’m sure Gerhard would not have run out of things to talk about if we had stayed much longer. However, the networking dinner was next on the agenda, at the Ubl Gasthaus just across the road. Fortunately, we were not required to go down into the sewers to get there.

Dinner at the Ubl

At this typical Vienna eatery we were joined by a couple of members who live in Vienna. As usual, the venue had been chosen as a setting for a convivial evening of savouring the local fare and chatting with colleagues.

Vienna between the Great Wars

Although it is billed as “the longest block of flats in the world”, few of us really knew what to expect of the “Karl-Marx-Hof” and were even more intrigued by the title of the tour, “Red Vienna in the Washroom”. But our enthusiastic young guide, a geography student with a love of urban planning, told us all about it. “Red” refers to Vienna’s socialist past in the 1920s, when the proletariat in what was then the 3rd-largest city in the world became very disgruntled by poor housing, low pay, poor working conditions and a generally miserable existence in the aftermath of a war fought by the Kaiser and his generals in which they had had no say. In 1919 the Social Democrats won an absolute majority in parliament and the “Reds” continued to govern Vienna long after the rest of the country had reverted to more conservative politics. Not only is the Karl-Max-Hof the built embodiment of socialist ideals – affordable housing, healthy environment, child care on the doorstep and the right to a decent education – it is also surprisingly attractive and, some 60 years on, there is still a waiting list of people wanting to move into a flat here. Our young guide was keen for us to appreciate all the architectural details and high-class fittings in the complex – compared with the average council block in the UK, the Karl-Marx-Hof is an extravaganza of open space, light and airy rooms and well-proportioned lines. The complex has no street doors, all entrances being, rather like in old Oxbridge colleges, via staircases accessed from the courtyard.
















At Karl-Marx-Hof

The second part of the title, “in the Washroom” still needs some explanation. Although the poster child for municipal housing, Karl-Marx-Hof’s amenities were no different from those at the many other similar but smaller complexes built between the wars and even in the late 40s/early 50s. Karl-Marx-Hof had two washrooms, where the residents could go to take a bath and wash their clothes. The flats were too small for such facilities, but each had its own toilet, at the time a revolutionary idea in rented housing. The upper storey of one washhouse has now been turned into a museum, with a fully equipped laundry on the ground floor still serving the modern tenants. We were also shown a short silent movie that would have been a propaganda snippet before the main film. An archetypal fat cat of a landlord barges into the tenement demanding rent. The mother protests she has no money and can’t even afford clothes or nappies for the baby. Advised to use newspaper instead, one sees the mother making a forlorn attempt to swaddle the child as recommended. Cut to later and Red Vienna, when the knock on the door announces a cheery social worker with a layette for the new baby. The message is clear. However, the practice has survived and to this day the parents of every baby born in Vienna are entitled to a rucksack with useful items for the infant – we were assured that lots of young parents can be seen wearing the rucksack. The kindergarten at Karl-Marx-Hof is also still in use.


After this fascinating look at recent Viennese history from the perspective of ordinary folk, the group set off further north to Grinzing for a lunch of what may perhaps best be described as Austrian pub grub. Sitting at outside tables in the sunshine, trying the “heurigen” or young wine (less than a year old) for which the district is famous or sampling the fresh harvest that looks and tastes suspiciously innocuous, we joined a multi-culti throng at this “must-do” event.

The great coffee house tradition

Obviously, another “must” when in Vienna is coffee – and of course scrumptious cake – in one of the venerable Vienna coffee houses. We split into small groups and tried a variety of these establishments – dark wood interiors, wide expanses of carpet and an aura of time-honoured exclusivity. For those with any energy left, it just had to be Mozart in the evening – some went to the Karlskirche, a baroque riot of gold and stucco for Mozart’s requiem in which a slightly understaffed choir slogged it out with an enthusiastic orchestra; others succumbed to the blandishments of the ubiquitous purveryors of tickets and Mozart’s “greatest hits” played by musicians wearing historical dress. Despite not being by Mozart, the Radetzky march featured as a clap along item – incidentially this march also concludes the rather ecletic dispay of horsemanship at the Spanish Riding School.

Military history

By Sunday morning, the ranks had thinned somewhat but the indefatigable rest trooped off to the enormous 19th century building that houses the military museum, or Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, where the group was split into two, each looking at a different period of Austrian military history. An iconic exhibit, which stays in the mind like the image of Jackie Kennedy cradling her dying husband’s head in her lap, is the grisly, fascinating sight of the bloodstained uniform worn by Franz Ferdinand on the day he was assassinated in Sarajevo, which provided the final pretext for the madness of World War I. This was also the first time planes were used in warfare – and the aircraft were made of balsa wood. These fragile craft were meant to come back from a mission in one piece, so parachutes were frowned upon.

Looking ahead

As the group dispersed on their various ways back home, everyone agreed it had been a really good weekend. So what’s next? Our next study weekend promises to be completely different but equally fascinating. We shall gather King’s Lynn to explore the past and present of the Hanseatic League in the UK. For those of you who enjoyed the 2017 Lübeck meeting, especially the talk given by Dr Paul Richards, this is a not-to-be missed event!