Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches Museum includes exhibits from some of the most important moments in world history. Including one that drew a very bad swearword from me when I saw it.
- Numerous items illustrating, witnessing (or even causing) major moments of world history
- Weapons, clothes, and medals from historical personalities like Napoleon
- Very poignant WWI display
- See also: Visitor and ticket information | Vienna Museums
A car and a coat
Various display items represent iconic moments in Austrian, European and even world history.
In particular, everyone knows that the 1914 assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo led to the first World War. He was in a car at the time, wearing his uniform.
The museum has the car. (This is where I swore.)
And the uniform, still bloodstained. (Cue further swearing.)
In terms of world history, that’s a tough act to follow, but there’s at least one other exhibit that comes close: the Russian officer’s coat worn by Napoleon in 1814 on his way to exile on the Island of Elba.
And the rest…
I’m going to follow the layout of the museum galleries and mention my highlights in each. Beginning with…
The 30 years war & Ottoman squabbles
(The 1683 siege of Vienna by Justus van den Nijpoort. Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
The early galleries reflect times when war was largely hand-to-hand combat driven by visceral fear of the moment. Which is always the feeling you get when confronted by rows of sharp pikes.
But this first gallery has two high points:
- A cabinet of Ottoman weapons brings home the clash of cultures through the very different designs when compared to their Habsburg equivalents.
The reverse side of the cabinet features a giant painting of the relief of the siege of Vienna in 1683, a pivotal moment in European history.
In the painting, the besieging Ottomans are all wild-eyed, while the “liberators” almost look like they’re clearing leaves before a picnic. No guesses as to which side the painter was on.
- Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663 – 1736) was perhaps the greatest Habsburg military commander and here we confront our first iconic items that connect us to such historical personalities.
We see Eugene’s breastplate, for example, and the seal of Sultan Mustafa II, captured by Eugene at the 1697 battle of Zenta that effectively ended Ottoman hegemony in central Europe.
18th century: Balkan wars and wars with Prussia
The so-called Mortar of Belgrade is a 10lb mortar used by Prince Eugene at Belgrade in 1717.
Things seemed set for a tiresome siege of the Ottoman stronghold when a shell from this very exhibit hit the powder supplies. The explosion ripped its way across the city killing around 3000 men.
Another display case carries the spoils of war: hats, swords, flags, pikes and more taken from Prussian foes and similar. You can imagine each has a story to tell.
One side’s glory is another’s failure. You can’t help but wonder what happened to the soldiers who lost their helmets to the Austrians?
The Napoleonic wars and 1848 revolution
(An Episode at the Battle of Waterloo. Image courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art)
This gallery is full of exhibits bringing Austrian history to life. Visit the typical tourist sights in Vienna and you soon learn of the importance of Napoleon to the city’s past.
In among the French paraphernalia and memorabilia of the time (including that coat) are, for example, the medals worn by the Habsburg Emperor of the time (Franz II/I), the Russian Emperor (Alexander I), and the Prussian Emperor (Friedrich Wilhelm III).
On one wall hangs a famous portrait of Franz II/I in his coronation robes, painted by Leopold Kupelwieser. The cabinet alongside has a medallion you see in the painting.
Oh, and the innocent-looking hot air balloon hanging from one wall is actually a French war balloon and possibly the first aerial military vehicle in history.
Radetzky and the mid 19th-century
Field Marshal Radetzky (1766 – 1858) was almost up there with Prince Eugene as the most iconic Habsburg general. You can tell from the dozens of medals he had. The poor fellow was so revered, they didn’t let him retire until he was 90.
But it’s in this gallery that we start to see the shift from veneration of personalities and glorification of war to a more realistic perspective of the travails of the simple soldier.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the end wall painting by Václav Sochor of the 1866 Battle of Königgrätz, when the Prussians scored the decisive victory of the Austro-Prussian war.
The Battery of the Dead pictures the bloody, desperate (and brave) final moments of the horse-drawn artillery battery that covered the Austrian retreat.
Franz Joseph through to Sarajevo
(Emperor Franz Joseph in his gala uniform. Image courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art)
This is perhaps the last of the galleries to focus on any individuals, with, for example, various memorabilia from the life of Emperor Franz Joseph. This includes his sword and the same gala uniform famous from pictures and paintings of the Emperor.
I also enjoyed the books containing the soldier’s oath – the same book in 11 versions, one for each of the major languages spoken in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
And then there’s the car. It sits at the end of the gallery, right at the entrance to the WWI gallery.
The whole of this gallery is brilliant. It takes you through the chronology of the conflict, illustrating the impacts of scale, mechanisation and dehumanisation on the outcome of war. No glorification and veneration here.
The split-level displays, hundreds of original items, a simulated trench, and more leave a lasting impression.
Those of us who grew up in one of the victor countries tend to associate WWI with trench warfare in France. For Austria, it was much more than that – mountain warfare against the Italians, for example, or pushing for a land bridge to their Ottoman allies. It’s quite an eye-opener.
The gallery has everything from an Albatros biplane to a 38cm howitzer. Highlights for me were the set of medals given for increasing numbers of injuries: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5(!).
And then there is another moving painting: the war painter Albin Egger Lienz’s The Nameless 1914, a dark, depressing expressionist illustration of the subsuming of individual identity in a killing corps.
From WWI to the end of WWII
(British troops at Schönbrunn in the early 1950s. Image courtesy of the National Archives UK)
Nothing really compares to the horrors of WWI, but the cruel banality of the various Nazi memorabilia comes close, reminding me of the similar exhibit in the House of Austrian History.
Perhaps the most iconic exhibit here is the US military jeep, famous for carrying four military police in central Vienna (one each from the UK, the US, Russia and France) after allied forces occupied the city.
Naval power Austria
And, finally, the gallery for the Austrian navy.
That’s not an oxymoron – the Habsburg empire extended down to the coast at Triest, for example. The gallery is full of model ships, often very large, particularly the incredibly-detailed cutaway model of one of the last dreadnoughts. And there’s the conning tower of a submarine here, too.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the hundreds of exhibits at the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, not to mention the artillery halls or outside tank displays (that I missed). Anyone with an interest in history or military history will find the galleries a joy.