Reading

War Fever in Vienna

Explore this firsthand description of Austria's atmosphere of excitement and fraternity at the outbreak of World War I.  
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At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • The Holocaust

While some leaders were trying to avert fighting, excitement gripped Europe. Stefan Zweig, writing in 1941, here recalls the reaction in Vienna, the capital of Austria, immediately after that country declared war on Serbia on July 25, 1914:

In every station placards had been put up announcing general mobilization. The trains were filled with fresh recruits, banners were flying, music sounded, and in Vienna I found the entire city in a tumult. The first shock at the news of war—the war that no one people or government, had wanted—the war which had slipped, much against their will out of the clumsy hands of the diplomats who had been bluffing and toying with it, had suddenly been transformed into enthusiasm. There were parades in the street, flags, ribbons, and music burst forth everywhere, young recruits were marching triumphantly, their faces lighting up at the cheering—they, the John Does and Richard Roes who usually go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

And to be truthful, I must acknowledge that there was a majestic, rapturous, and even seductive something in this first outbreak of the people from which one could escape only with difficulty. And in spite of all my hatred and aversion for war, I should not like to have missed the memory of those first days. As never before, thousands and hundreds of thousands felt what they should have felt in peace time, that they belonged together. A city of two million, a country of nearly fifty million, in that hour felt that they were participating in world history, in a moment which would never recur, and that each one was called upon to cast his infinitesimal self into the glowing mass, there to be purified of all selfishness. All differences of class, rank, and language were flooded over at that moment by the rushing feeling of fraternity. Strangers spoke to one another in the streets, people who had avoided each other for years shook hands, everywhere one saw excited faces. Each individual experienced an exaltation of his ego, he was no longer the isolated person of former times, he had been incorporated into the mass, he was part of the people, and his person, his hitherto unnoticed person, had been given meaning. The petty mail clerk, who ordinarily sorted letters early and late, who sorted constantly, who sorted from Monday until Saturday without interruption; the clerk, the cobbler, had suddenly achieved a romantic possibility in life: he could become a hero, and everyone who wore a uniform was already being cheered by the women and greeted beforehand with this romantic appellation by those who had to remain behind. They acknowledged the unknown power which had lifted them out of their every day existence. Even mothers with their grief, and women with their fears, were ashamed to manifest their quite natural emotions in the face of this first transformation.  1

Connection Questions

  1. How does Stefan Zweig describe what he felt when war was declared? How does he describe how others seemed to feel?
  2. What impressed Zweig about the atmosphere in Vienna?
  3. How does war shape a nation’s sense of identity and belonging?
  4. What are the effects of feeling part of something bigger than yourself? When is that feeling a good thing? When might it be dangerous?
  • 1Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (New York: Viking Press, 1943), 222–24. Reproduced by permission from Viking Books.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "War Fever in Vienna," last updated November 14, 2017.

 

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