Saturday, October 26, 2013

Vienna: Austrian Military Museum

The Austrian Military Museum is so beautiful and full of splendour that it was like visiting another palace.  The main hallway is lined with two rows of life-sized sculptures depicting military figures through the centuries.  The second floor is magnificent with its mosaics, murals, stained glass windows, high arches and columns.  Considering that Belvedere Palace was also owned by a military commander, it seems that back in the day, there was money to be made from battles and war!

The highlight of the museum is the room dedicated to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—the act that triggered the start of the First World War.  It was like stepping back in time and being a witness to one of the most significant events in recent history.  We saw the vehicle in which Ferdinand and his wife Sofie were sitting when they were mortally shot, with the bullet hole in the car still fully visible.  The blood-stained uniform that the Archduke was wearing is on display, with a tear where the bullet presumably penetrated.  There were photos of the suspected assassins, including Gavrilo Princip who did the actual deed.  A set of photos seemed to document the Archduke's activities leading up to the assassination,  the subsequent arrest of the perpetrator, and the funeral for Ferdinand and Sophie.

We saw an example of an Enigma machine which was used to encode German communications during the war.  The Allies were able to break these codes with the help of captured Enigma machines and early computers.

It was very interesting to see the impacts of the Second World War from Austria's perspective. A ballot for the Austrian people to "vote" for or against their annexation to Germany was on display.  To say that the vote was rigged was an understatement since it was held after the annexation already happened, and was an open ballot that was monitored by the Nazis.  On the ballot, the choice for "yes" was twice as large as the one for "no".   However to say the Austrians were totally against the Nazis is also misleading.  There is a propaganda poster showing people doing the "Heil" salute with the slogan that translates to "All the people say Yes!".  A flowery throw pillow, with the Nazi symbol and the words "Heil Hitler" embroidered on it, shows how Hitler and the Nazis were initially accepted and even supported in by the Austrians and even became part of the popular culture.  One interesting display contained a photo of a woman wearing a gas mask, carrying her baby in a portable "gas bag or crib".  Both these items were available for closer inspection.

In the 18th Century, the French used observation balloons to gain intelligence on the troop movements of the Austrian army.  One of these balloons was captured by the Austrians and is now on display in the Military Museum.  This was one of the first military uses of aviation.

This elaborate tent, belonging to a Turkish general, was captured in battle while the Turkish army was laying siege to Vienna in 1683.  It was later used by Prinz Eugen as his own tent for entertaining guests.  Some of his guests would snip off a piece of the tent for a souvenir.

Although Austria is now an entirely land-locked country, prior to the First World War, it had holdings that extended to the sea.  As a result, the Austrian Military Museum has an impressive collection of Naval artifacts and paintings.  There is the conning tower of Austrian submarine U-20 that was sunk by an Italian submarine during the First World War.  The U-20 was found in the Adriatic Sea in 1962. 

The museum had a very interesting audio guide which gave insightful information about many of the exhibits.  I particularly liked the detailed descriptions of two paintings within the Naval section.  The subject of one large painting was the Austro-Hungarian  Polar Expedition of 1872-74, which resulted in the ship Tegetthoff  being grounded in packed ice.  The painting depicts the state of the crew after they abandoned ship and hiked through the snow for over 30 days.    Another painting called "Battle of the Lissa" described a battle in 1866 where the Austrian fleet defeated the larger Italian fleet by ramming their ships into the enemy ships. This seemed to be the extent of Austrian naval victories.

The museum also had an interesting collection of arms and armor dating back to the 16th century. One very old canon looked more like a turned over bucket.  Of particular note was the early multi-shot canon, which can be viewed as an early attempt at a machine gun, although each and every barrel (there seemed to be at least 70 but I lost count) had to be loaded individually by hand after firing. This would seem like a time-consuming process.

There were also more than a dozen tanks parked outside the museum, including this Soviet SU-100 from the Second World War.

There was so much to see at the Austrian Military Museum that we ran out of time and had to rush through some sections.  A fabulous virtual tour of the exhibits can be found on the museum's website.

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