Rupture and Continuity: The Fate of the Habsburg Inheritance after 1918

At CRAACE, we analyse the transformations and continuities in Central European art and architecture after 1918. Bearing a similar title, a current exhibition on the Habsburg inheritance at Vienna’s Imperial Furniture Collection makes a related effort. It focuses on imperial property and its history after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. Who owned which parts of Habsburg property? What happened to the imperial household after 1918? And what is its legacy? These are the big questions that Rupture and Continuity, an exhibition organised at the Imperial Furniture Collection in Vienna aims to answer.

The task is large, and one the exhibition tackles in twenty-four dense sections, split across two floors in the slightly cramped rooms of the museum’s annexe building. The narrative starts with Emperor Charles’ ascension to the throne after the death of Francis Joseph in 1916 and ends in 1955, when the Hofburg palace was reinstated as the seat of government in the Second Austrian Republic. The timeframe offers an alternative to traditionally set boundaries in Austrian history, such as 1918 to 1938, implying a sense of continuity across the cornerstones set by the two World Wars. In line with a quotation by the novelist Joseph Roth (1894-1939) printed on the wall, emphasis lies on the fluidity of change: “The monarchy dissolved like a sugar cube in a glass of water.”

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The Last Imperial Throne, installation view of the exhibition – photo ©  SKB/ Edgar Knaack

One of these is the disappearance of the Crown Jewels after they were smuggled out of the new Austrian state at the orders of Charles, who withdrew his abdication before passing the border to Swiss exile in 1919. The Crown Jewels, comprised of thirty-nine pieces including emerald and ruby garnitures worn by Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette and Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”), were first placed with Charles’ strand of the large Habsburg dynasty. Since the early 1920s, however, their whereabouts are unknown. The exhibition includes their disappearance by displaying the boxes in which the jewels were kept until 1919, still showing the imprint of what they once contained. Displaying this absence effectively shows that the issue of Habsburg inheritance has yet to be fully resolved, emphasising the “hangover of power” that the dynasty long continued to exert.

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Display case XIII (Crown Jewels), installation view of the exhibition – photo © SKB/ Edgar Knaack

In relation to the episode between his abdication, its withdrawal, the imperial family’s flight from the country, and the éclat around the lost Crown Jewels, Charles’s place as last emperor was clearly a thankless one. However, his impossible position – captain of a sinking ship – also led to the manifestation of his predecessor Francis Joseph as the Empire’s nostalgic father figure, the true Kaiser, whose Reich fell with his death. This Habsburg myth forms a core of the exhibition, not least because of its pertinence to the imperial collection.

With the First Austrian Republic in a state of turmoil, impending communist revolutions threatening to spread from Hungary in the East and Germany to the North in 1919, and with masses of penniless veterans returning from the front, promises of democracy alone were not enough for an ailing population. Schloss Schönbrunn, the imperial summer residence, was soon occupied by Allied aid committees and homeless returners from the war, showing just how quickly the old was adapted to the demands of the fledgling new country.

Yet the imperial government did not only leave property that could, at least initially, serve an ailing population. Habsburg employees had numbered at approximately 2 500 and the new republic could take less than half of them into service. This number not only makes evident the logistical scale and sheer decadence at which the court had operated, but also the profound rupture the collapse of the Empire caused to the lives of its many direct employees. The exhibition here particularly relies on caricatures from the satirical magazine Die Muskete to emphasise the discontent and desperation that so strongly marked the birth of the First Austrian Republic, supplemented by few photographs and everyday objects, like an embroidered tea towel, which sarcastically puts the ensuing hunger crisis into verse.

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Utilization – Pledging – Selling, installation view of the exhibition – photo © SKB/ Edgar Knaack

The Treaty of St Germain in 1919, which forbade annexation to Germany and committed Austria to war reparation payments, further exacerbated the young republic’s financial and economic situation. Habsburg assets that were bound directly to the crown and had gone into state property thus not only represented an imperial legacy in nostalgic, but also in monetary terms. The easiest and most lucrative things to be sold off were horses and wine. However, the touristic potential of the Spanish Riding School and the imperial art collections were also realised relatively quickly. Joseph Meder (1857-1934), who had been the director of the Albertina imperial drawing collection since 1905, succeeded in his efforts to preserve the collection as a public institution, the imperial apartments at Schönbrunn castle were soon hired out to film production companies, and a number of exhibitions were set up between 1919 and 1921 to manifest public perceptions of the imperial collection’s cultural value for the new nation.

Habsburg nostalgia thus soon turned into a marketing strategy for preservation and the acquisition of Habsburg cultural goods into state property manifested Austria’s self-perception as a Kulturnation. Yet in line with the efforts made by cultural figures such as Meder, Tietze and Josef Frank to put the Habsburg legacy to the best possible use, the exhibition dominantly focuses on Vienna. Only one of its twenty-four sections deals with the transition of Habsburg property to other follow-up states of the Empire, focusing predominantly on Miramar castle near Trieste, Italy. However, negotiations ensued with almost all of the follow-up states where Habsburg property was located. Czechoslovakia for example offered to trade in imperial furniture for its new presidential palace in return for food and coal, but negotiations broke off in 1921. Habsburg property in the former crownlands, meanwhile, was ceded to the new nation states unless a member of the dynasty could lay private claim to it. Compared to the detailed engagement with the Habsburg legacy in Vienna the exhibition only briefly touches upon the significance of this heritage in the building of relations with Austria’s new neighbouring states. The fate of the Habsburg inheritance, which is so closely tied to the collection of the museum, remains centred on the old imperial capital.

Another small and, at first sight, closed-off exhibition chapter is the case of Archduchess Elisabeth Marie, the only daughter of Crown Prince Rudolf and favourite grandchild of Francis Joseph. Called the “Red Countess” for her work with the Social Democrats in the early 1920s, Elisabeth Marie‘s story offers insight into the private inheritance of the dynasty with the example of Antonio Canova’s Polyhymnia (1809). Originally depicting Princess Élisa Bonaparte, the sculpture was passed down to the archduchess by her grandmother Empress Elisabeth, sold to the National Socialists and eventually bequeathed to the Imperial Furniture Collection in 1963.

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The Red Countess: A Habsburg Donation for the Republic, installation view of the exhibition – photo © SKB/ Edgar Knaack

Not least, the “Red Countess” and Polyhymnia also serve a narrative of transition from monarchy to socialism, which still dominates Viennese history. As contemporary Red Vienna increasingly finds itself under the threat of losing municipal elections for the first time in a century, this narrative is perhaps more important now than ever. However, it also irons out more complex and perhaps uncomfortable politics linked to the Habsburg inheritance. The position of the pro-Habsburg Christian Social party, for example, is only touched upon in passing in relation to the short-lived restitution policies of the 1930s.


Catalogue cover: “Rupture and Continuity” © SKB/ Hannes Eder (graphics)

Rupture and Continuity tells the story of the birth of Vienna, the tourist hub, and the reinvention of Vienna, the imperial capital, based on the adoption of a material and immaterial Habsburg legacy as national cultural property. The only real moment of rupture in this narrative seems to be set precisely with the fall of the monarchy in 1918, while the almost immediately established Habsburg myth, built around Francis Joseph as a cult figure, provided a sense of continuity across the past century. What the exhibition shows, therefore, is an untold yet pervasive and unchallenged truth: the failed monarchy has become Vienna’s most precious cultural asset.

Julia Secklehner

Rupture and Continuity. The Fate of the Habsburg Inheritance after 1918 (Imperial Furniture Collection, Vienna, 5 December 2018 to 30 June 2019)

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/V4ZGD

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