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The History of the Museum 

The Museum of Military History - A house of the central-european history! 

The Heeresgeschichtliches Museum and its exhibits not only convey roughly 400 years of Central European military history; the development
of the museum itself reflects the turbulent history of Austria from the mid-19th century onwards. The beginnings of the museum go back to the Revolution of 1848. On 7 October that year, Austria’s Imperial Armoury, located in the Renngasse in Vienna’s 1st district, was stormed and plundered, after which the imperial troops were forced out of the capital. To ensure that the Viennese population would never
again stage another uprising like this, the following year construction began on so-called ‘defence barracks’, and the idea, first aired in the 1820s, of creating a ‘concentrated artillery establishment’ was revived. In 1849 the construction of an impressive complex of barracks that would become the Vienna Arsenal began at an easily accessible location within cannon-shot range of the centre of Vienna. It would eventually take up an area of
688 × 480 m and require 117 million bricks for its construction. The 31 buildings included – besides eight barracks for 5,000 to 6,000 men and depots – a church and workshops for the production of small firearms, ammunition and guns. The realisation of this project was entrusted to architects who would later, during the era of the construction of Vienna’s Ringstraße, take on a significant architectonic role: Eduard van der
Nüll (1812 – 1868) and August Sicard von Sicardsburg (1813 – 1868) were responsible for the command headquarters and most of the barracks and warehouses; Ludwig Förster (1797 – 1863) for the rifle factory and foundry; and Carl Roesner (1804 – 1869) for the arsenal’s church and the surrounding barracks.

However, the focal point of the complex was always intended to be a new armoury, which was to hold not only the contemporary small arms in use at the time but also the imperial house’s collection of historic weapons and trophies. Construction on this building, the most extravagant to be built within the arsenal, with a façade of 235 meters, began in 1850 under the direction of the Danish architect Theophil Hansen. Hansen based his
designs on Byzantine and Moorish stylistic features but also included Gothic elements, such as the great, round windows at the front of the central risalit. After the final stone was laid by Emperor Franz Joseph I on 8 May 1856, construction of the arsenal was officially completed but
it was not until a year later that the exterior façade of the museum was actually finished. The façade has elaborate ornamentation, most notably the terracotta sculptures on the roof representing trophies; the griffon statuettes on the balcony railings; and the eight allegoric statues on the main portal designed by Hanns Gasser (1817 – 1868). These represent the virtues ‘Strength’, ‘Vigilance’, ‘Piety’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘Bravery’, ‘Loyalty to the Flag’, ‘Self-sacrifice’ and ‘Intelligence’. 

However, the completion of the façade was only the end of the first phase of construction on the museum
building. The interior, in which the emperor himself was involved with very clear and unprecedented concepts, would take another 16 years to complete. The building was not just to be an armoury and not merely an aesthetically pleasing framework for exhibiting historic
weapons. Rather, the interior was to be characterized by the “notion of an Austrian hall of glory”. These demands also had to be met by Theophil Hansen and by the painter Carl Blaas (1815 – 1894), commissioned to replace Carl Rahl (1812 – 1865) in executing the frescoes in the representative central Hall of Glory of the museum. In his paintings, Blaas was to capture “the development to greatness and glory of Imperial Austria, with particular attention to the part played by its army”, though confining his work to the period after the 17th century, since this was the time when “the reality of a true Austrian army” would have emerged.

This same intention is reflected in the emperor’s instructions to have marble statues of “Austria’s most valiant princely leaders and field commanders worthy of eternal remembrance and emulation” placed in the entrance hall. These 56 sculptures of rulers and military leaders, which range from Margrave Leopold I (c. 940 – 994) to Charles Philip, Prince of Schwarzenberg (1771 – 1820) and thus span a historical arc of around eight and a half centuries, are placed directly beneath the Hall of Glory, suggesting in structural terms that the glory of the Habsburg Empire was built upon their achievements. This symbolism would have been additionally accentuated by an unrealised plan to place a larger-than-life statue of the emperor amid the sculptures of his contemporary commanders. The stairwell holds just four statues of military leaders. They represent Feldmarschälle Radetzky (1766 – 1858) and Windisch-Grätz (1787 – 1862) and Feldzeugmeister Haynau (1786 – 1853) and Jelačić (1801 – 1859), those generals who, with their troops, secured the continued existence of Habsburg rule in 1848/49. 

In 1869, before the interior decoration of the building was fully completed, the k. k. Hof-Waffenmuseum opened its gates as the first Viennese museum. In only a small area of the building, weapons, armour and trophies from the old Imperial Armoury and other imperial collections were exhibited. These items ranged from swords from the 12th century to the very ‘Kyller’, i. e. the buff coat, worn by the Swedish King Gustav II Adolf (1594 – 1632) when he fell at the Battle of Lützen in 1632. In 1881 all the imperially owned weapons were assembled at the k. k. Hof Waffenmuseum but at the same time, the collection was put under the umbrella of the k. k. Hof-Museum of Fine Arts. It was moved into that museum’s new building on Vienna’s Ringstraße in 1888.

However, the end of the k. k. Hof-Waffenmuseum in the Arsenal gave rise to the opportunity to establish a museum of a different kind there, which, as Emperor Franz Joseph I had intended with his fresco plan for the Hall of Glory, was to be dedicated to the standing army of the Habsburg Monarchy, whose oldest regiments had been in existence since the Thirty Years’ War. It was thanks to the initiative of a number of individuals
that it was possible to create a museum of this kind. The first of these were the director of the artillery arsenal, Feldzeugmeister Carl Baron von Tiller (1816 – 1896) and Artillery Inspector General Archduke Wilhelm (1827 – 1894). The latter intended to make the focus of the museum “to preserve the glory of the army and thus promote a national sensibility” – a basic principle that can also be found in the statutes of the new institution, which were passed in 1885 when a board of trustees was first set up. This body had several significant members, among them the former chairman of
the k. k. Hof-Waffenmuseum, Quirin Ritter von Leitner (1834 – 1893); the director of the archives of the house, court and state, Alfred Ritter von Arneth (1819 – 1897); and the diversely active patron of the arts, Johann Nepomuk Count Wilczek (1837 – 1922); but most notably: Crown Prince Rudolf (1858 – 1889) at the head as patron of the museum. When the k. u. k. Heeresmuseum finally opened on 25 May 1891, the press was
able to report that the collection had been increased by more than 3,500 objects and now comprised 8,000 items. 

However, this had only been possible with the help of private donations and endowments. The two patrons of the board of trustees, Crown Prince Rudolf and Archduke Albrecht (1817 – 1895), alone put up almost 40 per cent of the museum’s budget until 1895 – more than the responsible ministry itself!

It had been established that the exhibition at the Heeresmuseum would have “the function of maintaining the memory of the glorious past of the k. k. Army and promoting an understanding of the same”. Apart from victory trophies, no items were to be exhibited that were not of Austro-Hungarian provenance. Neither were models and projects permitted. Works of art and writings were only occasionally shown and “the decorative effect” was not to be a relevant factor for selection.

Accordingly, figures with “face masks” and “painted hands” were dismissed as “antiquarian gimmickry, damaging to the distinction and gravity of the collection”. The exhibits could still only be displayed in parts of the museum premises, since the transept of the building was still being used by the artillery arsenal and parts of the ground floor housed depots and administrative offices.

Up until the First World War the Heeresmuseum was in a phase of organization and development, during which the number of visitors rose considerably from 5,037 in 1891 to 53,843 in 1913. In 1909 the ‘Archduke Charles Exhibition’, was shown in today’s Museum for Applied Arts in Vienna, drawing 265,043 visitors. In 1914 the museum unexpectedly closed its doors the day before the First World War officially began. The staff had to report to their military units or take up duties at the artillery arsenal. Even the dir ector of the museum, Wilhelm John (1877 – 1934), was withdrawn and appointed head of the artist group at the ‘Kriegspressequartier’ (KPQ, Wartime Press Headquarters). After it became possible for at least the senior employees to return to their positions at the museum in 1915 and 1916, an extensive programme was formulated for establishing a ‘World War Collection’ with goals that went well beyond the traditional areas of collecting and with an all-embracing approach that still seems visionary today. In addition, the museum became the central collection point for war materials that were of historical significance or of interest to the museum. By the end of the war, up to 150,000 items had made their way into the museum as a result of these activities.

However, it was not until many years after the Great War that all of this material could be processed. This was because the future of the museum, which had been built as a ‘hall of glory for the Imperial Army’, became extremely uncertain when the Habsburg Empire ended and its army was disbanded. The idea of selling the most valuable items in the collection to buyers in the USA had even been considered and several of the successor
states and victorious countries laid claim to items in the museum. In the end though, the museum was integrated into the public administration and, despite losing some pieces to Hungary, the museum’s collection remained largely intact. However, the museum did have to part with one of its most valuable pieces – the ‘Kyller’ coat worn by King Gustav II Adolf on his death at the Battle of Lützen in 1632. The Austrian Government had
decided to give it to Sweden to thank the Swedes for their generous help after the First World War.

The Heeresmuseum was reopened to visitors in 1921 and the interwar years that followed were dedicated to processing and presenting the World War collection. At the same time the museum became more open to the media and also gradually in terms of the content of its exhibits. More works of art and photographs were now shown, and the new exhibition areas were not only to focus on weapons, military equipment and the achievements of military leaders but were also to attempt to convey a more overall view of the realities of war. In 1923, a gallery displaying First World War paintings was added. Apart from the new artillery exhibition, the most important change was the opening in 1934 of two halls dedicated to the Isonzo front. But the Heeresmuseum’s drive to embrace the First World War finally culminated in the setting up of a ‘World War Museum’ in the Neue Burg on Vienna’s Heldenplatz. However, when the National Socialists seized power in 1938 the project, which was close to realization, came to an abrupt end.

In the same year the Heeresmuseum in Vienna was put under the offices of the German Wehrmacht’s ‘Chief of Military Museums’. This also meant considerable restrictions to the autonomy of the museum’s director, who could now only make purchases at his own discretion up to a limited value. Like other large museums, the Heeresmuseum was not spared the consequences of National Socialist anti-Semitic policies: it profited – if only to a relatively small degree – from the ‘Aryanisation of collections’ but at the same time suffered due to the interruption of traditional trade relations, anti-Semitic suspicions directed at a leading employee and demands that no works by Jewish artists be exhibited. In addition, the Heeresmuseum was particularly useful as an instrument for propaganda purposes. Thus the museum’s budget was almost doubled between 1938 and 1944, there were more special exhibitions than ever before and for the first time in the history of the museum current topics – the battles of the Wehrmacht – werethe focal point. While the Heeresmuseum was hardly even noticed by the daily press prior to 1938, it was frequently mentioned in the media after the beginning of the Second World War and only in a favourable light. It is therefore hardly surprising that new visitors’ records were set. In 1938 the number of visitors totalled 24,869; in 1944 by September alone 144,302 people had come to the museum, but the price paid for this was high: by 1943 the realities of war were having a negative impact on the museum. For reasons of military security at the arsenal, the museum was only open to public visitors on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the efforts of Gau propaganda offices to influence exhibitions at the
Heeresmuseum were so great that the Chief of Military Museums finally ordered that special exhibitions were no longer to be described as such so that they would be protected from external influences.

However, when the order came in September 1944 to close all public museums it was no longer of any significance to the Heeresmuseum. There had been a heavy air strike on 10 September 1944, in which the northeast wing of the building had been largely destroyed. On 11 December 1944 and on 15 January and 23 March 1945 more bombs hit buildings belonging to the Heeresmuseum. Apart from destroying the last exhibition, the so-called ‘Special Display on the Southeast Combat Area’, workshops, depots, almost the entire model collection, archive documents and inventory books were destroyed – the latter being a particularly heavy loss.

The museum started to move the collection out later than other museums, i.e. in the autumn of 1942, and two years later this move had not yet been completed. Due to this late start, it was necessary to divide the rescued objects among 28 different locations. This made it very difficult to supervise and keep track of them. For this reason, numerous items of the collection were lost immediately after the war, stolen from their temporary
locations both by local residents and soldiers. In addition, in June 1945, a Soviet trophy-hunting battalion removed thousands of small arms and hand guns from the premises of the arsenal itself. A few years after the war, the losses resulting from military action and the subsequent looting were estimated at 40 per cent of the entire collection.

On the other hand, the consequences of the war also gave the museum the opportunity to bring about a change of direction during reconstruction. In 1946 the Heeresmuseum was put under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and renamed the ‘Heeresgeschichtliches Museum’ or Museum of Military History. This would also shift the contextual focus more towards the cultural- historical study of war and the military, and to documenting historical context and developments. The new permanent exhibitions were more loosely designed and works of art became more important. To make this possible, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Austrian Gallery at the Belvedere had allowed the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum the use of numerous paintings. The Technical Museum also provided important objects, such as model ships that made it possible to mount a special
exhibition of naval history for the first time. This was not ready until 24 June 1955 however, two years after the museum was officially reopened.

In the decades after the reopening of the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum new areas were created within the permanent exhibition, dealing with the First World War but more importantly, for the first time, with the interwar years and the NS period. 

Apart from the temporal expansion of the permanent exhibition, it has been newly assembled and revised a number of times since it was first established. Clearly, a museum is required to carefully monitor the way its content is presented. To this end the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum endeavours to maintain an environment in which history is conveyed and new activities are developed to bring this history to life. These include
special events that make history easily accessible; special programmes for children; and a variety of dedicated lectures, book presentations and art projects staged at the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum. In addition, the museum is responsible for four external sites (the Zeltweg Military Aviation Museum, the Ungerberg Bunker Installation, the historic military patrol boats of the Austrian Army in Korneuburg and the Telecommunication Collection at the Starhemberg-Kaserne in Vienna). 

In the 125 years since its creation, the number of objects in the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum’s collections has not only grown from 8,000 to around 1.2 million and the number of visitors from 5,307 to 220,000 annually, but the focus of the establishment has also changed completely, whilst still managing to maintain the character of a military history museum.