Austria’s past is not all palaces and polkas. The last 100 years, for example, saw the birth, death and rebirth of democracy and one of the darkest chapters in world history.
As one of Vienna’s newest museums, Das Haus der Geschichte Österreich (The House of Austrian History) takes a critical, balanced look at the country’s recent heritage and what it means to be Austrian.
- Covers contemporary Austrian history
- Current exhibition presents the entirety of the country’s post-WWI development
- Modern, detailed displays that touch you emotionally
- All information available in English, too
- Entrance ticket also lets you visit the Ephesos Museum
- See also: Vienna museums
Opened in 2018, the House of Austrian History is still finding its feet. Conceived as a museum, web platform, discussion forum and more, it’s yet to settle into its final form.
(“Long live the Republic” film display. Photo © Hertha Hurnaus / Haus der Geschichte Österreich)
For now, the main exhibition Into the unknown – Austria since 1918 takes you on an intense journey through the last 100 years of the country’s history. The highs were very high. The lows unimaginably low.
Democracy, Nazi terror, occupation, independence, equality, migration, and the meaning of nationality are just some of the themes tackled. (Told you it was intense).
The modern displays offer insights into the key moments of all that history, supported by multimedia and interactive elements, as well as personal stories from those involved in the events covered.
The museum celebrates the positive developments, but does not shy away from highlighting darker times. And for non-Austrians, the most interesting parts are, inevitably, those covering the immediate aftermath of WWI and the period of Nazi rule.
What few of us realise is that within the space of about 24 hours at the end of 1918, Austria went from a powerful empire led by a centuries-old imperial dynasty to a defeated tiny democracy low on cash and self-esteem.
Original footage from Vienna on the day after the war’s end brings home the sense of chaos and uncertainty.
The exhibition gives the lie to the idea of the Austrians as the warmongering bad guys by documenting the strikes, peace movements, mutinies, and protests that characterised the latter part of the war in Vienna and elsewhere. Then there is the chaos and harsh reality of the aftermath, particularly the hardships brought by economic devastation.
Beginning in 1918, the country undertook a radical transformation across all spheres of life – from politics to street names – as democracy replaced authoritarian rule.
Fascism and Nazi rule
I actually cried at the displays on the growth of home-bred Austro-fascism in the 1930s and the impact of Anschluss with Nazi Germany in 1938.
Tears at the utter insanity of that short period where reason and humanity seemed to desert so many people (but not all).
Tears at the banality of the forms taken by such extremism. At a board game, where the winner was the first to evict six Jews from their businesses and bring them to a collection point. At the Nazi symbols in an exercise book belonging to a primary school pupil. At the initial political reluctance to accept Austrian complicity in Nazi terror.
Tears at the stories of those who resisted and gave their lives as a result.
And tears at the 1945 poster from Vienna, urging women and children to leave the city before the Russians arrived and the “last battle” commenced. Someone had written across the bottom: “where to?”
Tickets & visitor information
At the time of writing, adults pay €8 for an entrance ticket and opening hours are 10am to 6pm each day (closed on Mondays), with late-night opening on Thursdays (until 9pm).
An entrance ticket also gets you into the Ephesos Museum, a small collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. Both museums occupy part of the Neue Burg tract of the Hofburg Palace complex, so you might like to visit just to see inside this rather magnificent building.
(The two museums are strange bedfellows. One a gentle walk among marbled columns and the remains of an ancient civilisation, the other a roller coaster ride through the trials and triumphs of a young democracy. Vienna – a city of contrast and paradox!)
Vending machines offer drinks and snacks in a seated area just inside the museum proper. Lockers are downstairs at the entrance to the Neue Burg.
How to get to the museum
The Neue Burg is quite central and a wing of the Hofburg palace complex that dominates the main tourist routes in Vienna’s old town.
The entrance to the Ephesos Museum and House of Austrian History is at the centre of the building on the side facing Heldenplatz square. You can’t miss it, since it screams “Imperial entrance” at you, with its steps and ornate gates.
Subway: Your best bet is Volkstheater (on the U2 and U3 lines) or Museumsquartier (on the U2)
Tram/bus: Take any of the ring trams – 1, 2, D, 71 – to Burgring
Address: Heldenplatz, 1010 Vienna | Website