Städtisches Jörgerbad, Vienna, public bath opened in 1914, built by Friedrich Jäckel, Heinrich Goldemund and Franz Wejmola


Three areas of social reform dominate the impressive and internationally renowned social policy of “Red Vienna”: communal social welfare, social housing and the Viennese cultural and educational policy. Mayor Karl Seitz together with the city councillors Hugo Breitner for Finance, Julius Tandler for Social Welfare and Otto Glöckel for Education started a huge reform project from 1923 to 1933 that was admired elsewhere. Breitner introduced a new tax system for Vienna that taxed people progressively according to their expenditure. A high tax was levied on “consumption of luxury and pleasure”, such as champagne, night clubs, dancing halls, horse-race betting or theatres.  The proceeds from this new tax were used for building a new welfare and healthcare system and for constructing affordable and comfortable housing and schools. Several big community housing estates built during this time still exist, nowadays inhabited by tenants with a migration background as well as by indigenous Viennese. Many people, however, opposed this “housing construction tax” and Hugo Breitner was subject to very aggressive political attacks, partly with an anti-Semitic tendency.


Concerning social welfare, the ambitious aim of the Social Democrats was to prevent poverty in the first place and to introduce a welfare system that would supplement the federal state social insurance. Julius Tandler, university professor and dean and as city councillor responsible for welfare, put the emphasis of reform on the family. He introduced medical care at all schools, counselling and healthcare centres for mothers and babies, extended hospitals and built homes for invalids, neglected children and the old. His measures effectively reduced infant mortality. A large number of kindergartens, day care centres for school children, public baths and public swimming pools for children were constructed. Only figures can illustrate the huge achievement of “Red Vienna” in this area: Tandler doubled the number of children’s homes run by the city, some of which of excellent architectural quality. His celebrated quip “Who builds palaces for children, tears down the walls of prisons” is still quoted as an inscription on a famous youth welfare building.  He also encountered a lot of criticism because children were not only taken from their families in case of abuse but also because of homelessness, severe illness and long-term joblessness of the parents. Youth homes of that time were more or less like juvenile prisons. Together with some progressive educators, such as Aichhorn and Lazar, Tandler initiated a reform that aimed at providing a comprehensive programme of education and professional training. A primary intention was to abolish educational violence and to offer the young inmates the chance to work skilfully and creatively within an equal opportunity framework, enabling them to earn their livelihood honestly and independently later on. This was an early example of the application of a quite high but calculated risk-taking method. Some of the young people did of course misuse their new freedom and were not able to take advantage of the equal opportunities set-up. Lying, stealing, truancy and even cases of rape took place. These events triggered aggressive attacks against Tandler by the right-wing politicians of the opposition, who spoke out in favour of a punitive approach rather than of Tandler´s understanding approach. This social policy discussion is of current interest even today.


Tandler further increased the number of kindergartens run by the city from 20 in 1913 to 113 in 1931. Additionally, day-care centres were established to care for children of working mothers after school in the afternoon. The city of Vienna organised free lunches for school children and recreational holidays for urban children and youth in the country. A specially installed dental clinic checked the school children’s teeth and health and taught them hygiene. Since 1927 every mother received a “Baby Parcel” of baby clothes and linen, and the city’s counselling centres for mothers regularly checked the children’s health. Furthermore Tandler introduced counselling centres for couples advising them on family planning, for alcoholics – in the temperance movement he was rather dogmatic – and people with psychic problems. Vienna’s expenditure on welfare increased to around 15 per cent of annual expenditures due to these welfare measures and several emergency support programmes.


Only since 1920 one can speak of a coordinated welfare and health policy of the city of Vienna – contrary to former imperial repressions of the “poor police” and philanthropical attempts of individuals. This new welfare and health policy of the city of Vienna was carried out against political trends in the rest of the country. The systemic approach of Julius Tandler established a network of institutions in connection with an economic strategy that went against squandering of productivity either via luxury or unproductive capital or unemployment or asocial behaviour. Investment in welfare for the individual was geared towards one goal: cost reduction, efficiency and social productivity for the city as a whole.


The Viennese welfare system rested on four pillars: First, the society is obliged, even without legal regulations, to provide help to the needy; second, individual help can only be provided in connection with family welfare; third, a constructive welfare system is a preventive measure; and fourth, welfare has to be provided from the cradle to the grave.


It is difficult to imagine the situation of destitution the reformers had to tackle: e.g. only 50 per cent of the workers lived in a flat of their own, a quarter of married women had no flats of their own; they had to live with their parents or rent a bed. 50 per cent of the workers lived in a room that was bedroom, living room and kitchen in one together with two to three other people. Only 86 per cent had their own bed and only 18 per cent had water, gas and electricity in their flats. So the aim of social welfare and health policy was first of all to improve the living conditions of the workers so that they could survive and go to work. The family stood at the centre of the new policy, and above all the child. First steps were taken to decrease child mortality and tuberculosis. Tandler could boast a decline of the death rate by 25 per cent and of infant mortality by half from pre-war levels. Tuberculosis was only somewhat reduced and constituted the highest health risk among school children. A comprehensive system of aid to children was put in force. Municipal bathing facilities including swimming pools, with some 9 million visitors in 1927 were important attainments in public hygiene. Prophylactic medical examinations for children and adults in municipal clinics reached the number of 123,000 in 1932, and welfare workers carried out 91,000 home visits in the same year.


Under Tandler the welfare department pursued an overall policy of population politics. Its aim was the improvement of the quality and the quantity of the Viennese population. This involved the duty and power of the public authority to intervene in the life of the family. Under the auspices of the Public Welfare Office, a number of institutions were created to assist the family, which was considered the foundation of a healthy population. Where the family failed to provide optimal conditions for the children, the Public Welfare Office was to provide temporary or alternative care. The municipality was by that empowered to remove children from their parents, if it judged them deficient in their capability and responsibility to raise their children. Tandler maintained that the family was sacred for him, but only as long as it fulfilled its vital function of nurturing children properly. While claiming to raise the moral standards of the family, the Public Welfare Office acted in a supervisory capacity with the argument of preventive welfare. The methods employed combined persuasion with compulsion and voluntary cooperation with judicial force.


The municipal family supervision was organised virtually from conception to reaching adulthood, when the cycle started once more, when the former child became a parent. The most controversial institution was the marriage consultation clinic, established in 1922. Its function was to advise couples about to marry on their sexual health, genetic deficits, hereditary illnesses and the prospects of producing healthy children. The clinic even offered to issue certificates to prospective partners that they were free of disabilities, syphilis and tuberculosis. By that the administration hoped to improve the health and “quality” of the population. Few Viennese took up this offer because they saw it as an improper intrusion into their private lives, so the clinic had to close after 10 years. Tandler’s intention of using the clinic for population selection purposes met with a lot of opposition, especially the possible legal abuse of the case records. The clinic refused to have anything to do with sex counselling and birth control advice, which would have made it really attractive for the young Viennese population. In this respect it was a rather conservative institution. By this time Wilhelm Reich had already established free of charge sex counselling agencies in Berlin, influenced by his concept of sexual release and orgasm as criteria of health functions. Yet, the marriage consultation clinic was the only institution of the Public Welfare Office that failed; all the other agencies concerned with the life cycle of the Viennese family were successful in achieving their aims.


A medical aspect purveyed the whole welfare policy of the city of Vienna, as Julius Tandler was a medical doctor and a professor of anatomy. The measures were centrally organised by the Public Welfare Office and ranged from family welfare, support in cash and kind, child support, educational counselling to the building of public kindergartens and day care centres, youth welfare institutions and children’s homes. Some of the measures were rather harsh, seen from today’s point of view, yet on the other end of the scale of child care there were public kindergartens which were all organised along the lines of Maria Montessori’s pedagogical methods. A tightly-knit structure of welfare and control was developed. Health policy measures started with marriage counselling centres, continued with pregnancy counselling centres and training courses for mothers. With the birth of the child the young mothers’ welfare set in. Midwives were obliged to register every birth at the city’s welfare office. In the hospitals social workers of the city were employed to register any mother and/or child that might be in need of welfare. Then the welfare system continued its support with mother counselling centres. At the start of the cycle of public control of the family there were the municipal hospitals, in which 83 per cent of all births took place. Social workers in the maternity wards registered the new-born child, arranged for a subsequent home visit and recommended regular attendance at the mother’s consultation clinics for further assistance in infant care. By 1927 there were already 34 such clinics established in Vienna. There doctors advised mothers on breast feeding, child care, hygiene, and resident social workers followed up these instructions with home visits to see how the mother was coping. This was just one way in which the Public Welfare Office found entry into the homes of Viennese families in order to observe and judge the adequacy of child care. By this authoritative measure risk was supposed to be minimised. The right to regular inspections of families receiving any kind of municipal aid was statutory, and by that gave the office a great deal of power, not only in dealing with individual cases, but in setting standards of family health and behaviour. The distribution of the above mentioned “Baby Parcel” from the city of Vienna to all new-born children by social workers offered another route to the Public Welfare Office to look into homes, which were otherwise outside its reach because they did not receive municipal assistance.


In 1921 the city council claimed guardianship over children born out of wedlock, foster children and those in institutional care. Following this group, which was subject to the most intense form of control, came the group of all those who received public assistance in any form. Such families were subject to regular visits by social workers who kept close watch on the standards of housekeeping, cleanliness, food preparation and family relations. Adolescents with problems of any kind were referred to youth consultation clinics. Families were also subject to home visits when the school doctor reported some health problems or because of court proceedings, such as eviction. In this case the family was considered in “troubled circumstances”. Kindergartens and after-school youth centres worked hand in hand with the Public Welfare Office. Special attention was paid to the professional training of social workers. They were exclusively women, because Tandler believed that female empathy was necessary for the emotional demands of the job. This tradition might partly explain the prevalence of women in Vienna’s Youth Welfare Office even today. However Tandler considered female social workers more as assistants of medical doctors than as specially qualified professionals, which caused conflicts between him and the social workers’ professional association already in those days. Nowadays Tandler´s concept is still recognised as a remarkable progress in social welfare history, though from today`s point of view his biologistic approach and some of his eugenic tendencies have to be viewed critically. Of course, he could not have foreseen to what extent such ideas were abused only a few years later. He died in 1936, so he did not live to see the “Third Reich’s” policies.


As soon as a social worker making a home visit concluded that the family did not meet the municipality’s standard of a well-working family environment, a report was made to the children’s diagnostic service, an observation centre under the direction of the child psychologist Charlotte Bühler. It was to decide on the fate of children from risky environments. A court order was issued requiring the parents to surrender the child to the diagnostic service, which had to make a recommendation within four weeks, which then had the force of law. The child was either put into the care of foster parents, sent to a children’s home or correctional institution, admitted to a hospital, or was returned to the parents. Among the reasons for remanding a child to the diagnostic centre, hospital stay of the carer, poverty and eviction and homelessness ranked first, followed by neglect and delinquency. Moral hazards and parental conflict were rarely mentioned as a risk. From oral histories of working class families and newsletters of the time it is known that the low-income families in Vienna viewed public welfare as a rather coercive system, which made social workers appear as hostile government agents. They tended to look down upon the poor, the unemployed and the addicts and seemed to be convinced that they were in need of the full measure of social control to bring them back to normal standards. The judgement of what was respectable, orderly and decent on the part of the social worker was seen as rather arbitrary. Very often the fact of being poor, which was very widespread in Vienna at the time of the Great Depression, was sufficient cause to put a family on the at-risk register and to refer the children to the diagnostic service. Sometimes the transfer of the child to the centre resembled a police raid, with social worker and bailiff arriving unexpectedly to reduce the amount of parental resistance. The municipality’s system of social control included child welfare, health care, the police and judiciary, as well as pedagogical institutions, such as kindergartens and after-school centres. The most intense application of the forces of social control took place in the largest municipal housing projects, where branches of many of the welfare agencies were located, such as mothers’ and youth consultation clinics, kindergartens, health clinics, etc. But the large municipal housing projects can also be seen as the most convenient location for the provision of these social services.


The astonishing result of this enormous reform effort was the creation of a social metropolis with rather simple measures in just a few years, in a time of need and economic crisis. The quality of the result, the brevity of the experiment, the pressure under which it was carried out and the destruction from outside after 1934 make any later criticism look unfair. The social policy of Red Vienna was basically positive and aimed at opening up chances for everyone. Julius Tandler saw the social worker as someone who fulfilled a task in the name of the society and had to administer public funds. The receiver of welfare had a right to welfare and his/her relationship to the social worker was one of rights and duties. The general public had the obligation to provide welfare, and especially welfare to the young. Because the more you invested in the young, the healthier they were, the better prepared for life, the better educated they were, the more money could later be saved on prisons and lunatic asylums, Tandler said.


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