THE VIENNA TRAMWAY AND ITS WORKERS – A POCKET OF RESISTANCE 1889-1945

The Viennese public transport system is one of Europe’s most efficient and affordable public transport systems. It all started with the first horse-drawn tramway in 1865 that connected the former gate in the city wall “Schottentor” with the suburb of “Hernals” which was famous for its many entertainment venues where famous musicians, like the family Strauss, Josef Lanner, the “Schrammeln” and many others performed. So this tramway was built to offer the Viennese a quick and more comfortable possibility to get to their leisure activities. The fast developing network of tramways – first horse-drawn, then steam-powered, too, and finally electric – employed an increasing number of tramway workers who were an ever-present appearance in the Viennese city scape at the end of the 19th and the 20th century. Their protest against the excessive exploitation by the private tramway owners in 1889 resulted in the first wide-spread strike in Vienna and gave a boost to the newly founded socialist movement of Victor Adler. The workers of the tramways also later remained a pocket of resistance, most of all in the Austro-Fascist era 1934-1938 and then during the time of Nazi occupation 1938-1945. A monument in Vienna lists the names of 42 Fascist and Nazi victims of the Vienna transport system workers 1934-1945 (3rd district of Vienna, Kappgasse1). The tramway workers who were active Socialist party members were either dismissed in 1934 when the Austro-Fascist regime of Engelbert Dollfuß put an end to the democratic system of the 1st Austrian Republic or after March 1938 when Hitler made Austria a part of the “Third Reich”. Then all workers of the Viennese tramways who were Jews or had Jewish ancestors were not only sacked but had to flee the country, such as my great-uncle Karl Elzholz, who managed a last-minute escape to Bolivia with his wife, my great-aunt, Marianne (Mitzi), the sister of my grandmother. Those who were unable to find refuge abroad were sent to Nazi concentration camps where many of them were murdered.

Karl with Mitzi on the way to Bolivia 6 February 1939
On the back Mitzi wrote to her parents in Vienna: “We are well, getting fat meanwhile, Colombo Atlantic Ocean 06/02/1939”
The document that Karl Elzholz sent to his father-in-law in Vienna, Ignaz Sobotka, from his exile in Bolivia, authorised him to claim his redundancy package from the communal “Viennese Tramways”, which my great-grandfather, Ignaz Sobotka, never received because he was deported to the concentration camp “Theresienstadt” and which was not paid out anyway.
Sucre, Bolivia November 1946: Mitzi and her new husband Bill Stern in front and Käthe, the eldest sister of my grandmother, who had married Karl in a long-distance wedding and joined him in Bolivia, and Karl in the back.

“RED VIENNA” 1923-1933: HOUSING REFORMS

Vienna council house complex “Sandleiten” in the 16th district

For the Christian Socialists Catholicism remained the central value, whereas the focus of the Social Democrats was on a welfare system that cared for the individual from the “cradle to the grave”. By establishing numerous clubs, societies and associations they tried to build a “counter-culture” to the traditional conservative Catholic Austrian culture. The centre of this huge reform project was “Red Vienna”, which was an independent federal state since 1921 and ruled by Social Democrats. There they could realise all their ideas for a new society. The new council houses were not only symbols of a new and better life style for the working classes but also architectural landmarks. They represented the centres of this counter-culture and harboured also offices of the various clubs and party organisations. By the conservatives they were viewed as the fortresses of the left.…

“RED VIENNA” 1923-1933: SOCIAL WELFARE

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.…

FIN-DE-SIECLE VIENNA: LIVING CONDITIONS OF THE WORKING CLASS

Statistical data of the time just before the outbreak of the First World War still show a considerable amount of children below the age of 14 at work in Vienna. This seems proof of a very slow retreat of child labour in Vienna. The phasing out of child labour was more due to a change in work technology than social protest. Another important impetus for the end of child labour in Vienna was the introduction of the “Reichsvolksschulgesetz” of 1869. This law extended compulsory schooling from six to eight years. Although it has to be noted that the law stipulated several exceptions because especially working class families depended on the income of the children and a loss of this income would have jeopardised their existence. Many working class parents considered obligatory school attendance a nuisance and refused to have the state prescribe what they were supposed to do with their children. Most considered three years of schooling as sufficient. In the late 19th century compliance with obligatory school attendance was the exception rather than the rule in Vienna. Before the turn of the century the authorities executed more rigid supervision, so that by 1900 the start of work for Viennese working class children had been postponed to 12 – 14 years of age.…