Military History Museum
A military museum in Vienna
which has a number of unique exhibits that are of special interest to the dark tourist too, especially those revolving around the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo
in 1914, but also sections about the Nazi
period. In 2014 an all new World War One
section was opened which has boosted the museum's calibre by quite some measure! The WWII section is currently also undergoing a substantial overhaul.
More background info:
The military history museum, or, in German, "Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (HGM)", in Vienna
is the oldest of the large museums in Austria
's capital, i.e. it even predates the better-known art and natural history museums on the Ring closer to Vienna
's touristic centre. That's an indication of the priorities at the time, of course. Back in those glory days of the Habsburg empire, all things military still had a more glamorous aura (World War One
changed that for good) – moreover, it was also a statement of power, of course.
The museum was planned as an integral part of the new army barracks of the "Arsenal", built from 1850 – in an architectural style that is both massive and intimidating as well as full of intriguing delicate ornamentation, with heavy stylistic borrowings from faraway "exotic" architectural styles such as Byzantine, Moorish, and Italianate.
The initial collections were not completed until closer to the end of the 19th century, and several extensions followed. Today the scope of the museum covers everything from the Thirty Years' War to the end of WWII
… and even beyond, if you count the outdoor exhibits of post-WWII tanks and planes.
One of the planes that can be seen (outside, for free) is one of Austria's long-serving fighter planes, a Swedish built Saab "Draken". These planes attracted a lot of ridicule (dated, second-hand, flying pieces of scrap …), but from a purely aesthetic point of view, they were actually more pleasing to the eye than many other military aircraft then or now. (Meanwhile they have been replaced by a set of Eurofighters – which caused even more scorn in Austria for the immense investment the replacement meant, which many saw as totally inappropriate for a neutral country and in the context of European integration.)
On 28 June 2014, to coincide with 100th anniversary of the event (the Franz Ferdinand assassination
) that led to the outbreak of the First World War
, the museum opened a completely redesigned and much enlarged special section on the Great War, which is now easily its best part overall.
What there is to see: Beginning to the right of the main entrance, the first hall in this wing has older exhibits that won't be of particular interest to most dark tourists (only to dedicated military history buffs, really). But some of the flamboyant uniforms and funny hats on display are worth a cursory glance and maybe a little snigger at how ludicrously the military used to dress up before the 20th century.
It's the next room that reveals this museum's most outstanding treasure. Here you can see original car in which the then Austrian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo
on 28 June 1914 – the event that triggered the outbreak of World War One
! You can clearly see a bullet hole in the outer body of the car.
(But just don't point at it – as I did when I was there with a friend and my pointing triggered an alarm … they must have overly sensitive motion sensors here. I wasn't anywhere close to touching the thing! It was kind of indicative that the museum attendant on duty simply shrugged his shoulders and laughed before the alarm turned itself off again – he probably gets this all the time. And indeed I later repeatedly heard the same alarm going off in the distance as I wandered on.)
Franz Ferdinand's car has now been given a new presentation compared to the starker style up to a couple of years back. Behind the vehicle is now a background of a blown-up photo of a city street scene (presumably in Sarajevo – even though it says Croatia
on a shop front), while a separate large photo to the left shows the imperial couple themselves. Furthermore the car has been placed on imitation cobblestones.
Opposite the car is a display cabinet with the other prime exhibit in this context: Franz Ferdinand's original uniform which he wore on that fateful day – complete with the original blood stains (by now faded to a kind of light brownish colour). This is truly a remarkable and (in true Viennese fashion) morbid exhibit. The presentation used to be even more morbid, with an arrow pointing out the hole just under the collar through which the bullet passed. But this arrow sign is no longer there. Also gone is the Archduke's hat. The uniform hovers on a glass plate above the original settee on which the Archduke passed away after the shooting …
The car-and-uniform display is now complemented by yet more items associated with the assassination. In a display box right next to Franz Ferdinand's uniform are a number of items that belonged to his wife Sophie who was also killed in the assassination (namely by the bullet that left the hole in the car). This includes a piece of lace with what looks like old blood stains too, a dried rose and part of a leather glove.
Yet another glass display box has guns and a square hand grenade of the type used by the assassins as well as a shattered part of a windscreen from another car in the Archduke's convoy that got damaged in the preceding first assassination attempt that day. Also new in this sections are some info panels which are now also in contemporary bilingual form with good English translations! These also include a map of Sarajevo and the various stages of the events pointed out. For all those details see also the entry for the Franz Ferdinand assassination site
The Sarajevo assassination room serves as a kind of prelude to the next larger section – that on World War One
. As in so many places around the world (see esp. Imperial War Museum
), the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War was taken as an ideal opportunity to grant this museum section a major overhaul and expansion. I find it a great success:
Whereas previously this section had little more than just big pieces of hardware (guns and parts of fortifications) with hardly any commodification
, the new exhibition is an altogether more elaborate affair that now also comes with plenty of intriguing smaller original artefacts, bilingual explanatory texts throughout and even a few multimedia elements. Content-wise it's organized in a very good mix of chronology (from mobilization and the various stages of the war to the post-war consequences) and thematic clustering. Since the new exhibition is so much richer than the old one, it also requires a lot more space. Thus parts of the exhibition are a bit crammed in places (and when there are a lot of visitors, bottlenecks can cause congestion). It's now partly been arranged on two levels, which takes away some of the cavernous space the old exhibition sat in. But those larger exhibits that still require considerable space are still given it in a sufficient manner. Overall the compromise achieved is commendable.
Highlights of the exhibition include the following: collections of some stunning war propaganda, a field hospital section, a recreation of a trench that you can (comfortably) walk through, as well as displays of various uniforms, gas masks, early encryption and decoding machines, a section on animals at war, and also displays of all manner of small items, from medals to personal belongings.
And then there are the big things. The first such item is the top of a fortified position, some 10 inches thick of solid steel dome .. with a big hole in it, where a shell nearly penetrated this massive protection. You can stand under it for good effect too. Next to this some shells are displayed as well as steel plates that actually have shot-through holes in them. It's a powerful display of what force the products of the new armaments industry of the time was able to deliver.
In the main hall, some of the big guns are still on display as well. The very biggest of them all has now even been put on display to significantly more impressive effect than before. This is one of only ten 38 cm (15 inch) siege howitzers built by Austria-Hungary in 1916 (in what is now the Czech
town of Pilzen, at the Skoda works). This monster weighs over 80 tonnes. A single shell was 740 kg (1630 Lbs). The gun's range was a whopping 15 km (10 miles). Yet, despite its enormous bulk this gun installation was mobile and could be assembled within a few hours. From the upstairs level you can stare down the massive barrel of this giant and see the tip of one of its massive shells ready to be loaded into it. That view is also pretty unique in my experience.
The size of this brute is impressive enough on its own. But there are also intriguing stories attached to it. When I was last there I overheard a guide telling his German-speaking group of visitors that this gun is the sole survivor of its type – but that it nearly did not make it. That's because at the time when the Nazis
took over Austria
in 1938 (see Anschluss
) and all through WWII
, they also went through the military museums of the country and tried to seize what they still deemed usable in the war. This massive super gun stirred particular desires, as its mobility, range and destructive potential would still have suited the Third Reich
's expansionist ambitions very well. The story, however, went that the museum staff managed to save the gun from being taken away by making up an alleged flaw in the barrel, which would only mean that the gunners operating it would be at risk of being blown apart while the gun itself would be useless. In actual fact it could even be returned to proper working order to this day.
Other big items in the exhibition include an early war plane hanging from the ceiling. Next to it a display shows the way in which aerial bombing was still done “manually” in those days, i.e. the pilot or co-pilot simply dropped the small bombs by hand from the side of the open cockpit. Also in this section are listening devices and an aircraft engine with the name “Austro-Daimler” on it (a former daughter company of the German Daimler works – now Mercedes Benz – later merged with the Skoda works, which also produced the big gun mentioned earlier).
Back towards the narrower parts of the exhibitions the more sobering subjects of the plight of POW
s as well as war invalids are picked up. This is contrasted with some more war propaganda and rather cynical-looking war games for kids (e.g. “Wir spielen Weltkrieg” – 'Let's play World War'). Lastly the immediate post-war memorialization is a fitting topical finale to this new exhibition.
Overall, this new WWI section alone makes a visit to this museum worth any (dark) tourist's while, but there is of course even more. Probably of least interest from a dark-tourism perspective are the older sections on the Thirty Years' War, the Turkish Sieges of Vienna, various halls dedicated to particular figures of the monarchy and such like. Mostly it's big oil paintings and uniforms that are to be seen here. I never even bothered with any of this.
However, the section to the left of the main entrance and the ticket office, just beyond the museum shop and cafe, is another true highlight of this institution. Here the years between the wars, Austria
's own version of fascism and the take-over by Nazi Germany
are the main topics, as are certain aspects of WWII
and its immediate aftermath.
UPDATE May 2023: The WWII section is currently closed for a substantial overhaul. There is no official date for the reopening, but it's estimated that the work may take about two years, so until 2025. So what is written below will now be outdated. Of course I will visit again as soon as it is possible and will then amend the text below accordingly. I can see the reasoning, as some critics have complained that this section was bit too "harmless"; but I hope they don't sanitize it too much of some of the extraordinarily dubious elements involving Nazi symbolism. I hope the revamp follows a path of better contextualization rather than total iconoclasm.
The somewhat morbid elements of the Sarajevo assassination section that led into the WWI section is echoed here by a similarly macabre section on Engelbert Dollfuss and his assassination. Dollfuss was chancellor in the First Republic of Austria from 1932 to 1934 during a period of great chaos and upheavals that at times bordered on or constituted civil war (esp. in February 1934). Dollfuss was a key representative of what's called Austrofascism, which was a development of and influenced by plain old national and authoritarian conservatism as well as Italian fascism (see Mussolini
). Although you could say that Dollfuss was thus himself pretty much to the right of the political spectrum. Yet he was assassinated by full-blown Nazis on 25 July 1934. (The event brought significant friction between Hitler
and Mussolini, but the German Nazis
denied responsibility. The Austrian assassins were later captured, tried and executed.)
The museum displays a number of objects linked to the Dollfuss assassination: first and foremost there's the original couch on which he breathed his last (complete with what, again, looks like blood stains) accompanied by a photo of the dying man as he was lying on this very piece of furniture (albeit with different upholstering then and now). Also on display is a Dollfuss bust, his death mask and a piece of the shirt he was wearing that day.
Next to some further Austrofascism-related items comes the section on Hitler and the Anschluss
. This section includes some unusually frank displays of Nazi propaganda and symbols that are quite impressive (if disturbing). A perspex-protected gilded bust of Adolf Hitler
himself is rather chilling to behold, but it's in particular the “cheerful” paper lanterns and swastika-adorned cushions that are perhaps even eerier than the more explicitly dark elements that follow.
The latter includes a small section on the persecution of the Austrian Jews, concentration camps
, forced labour and the Holocaust
, including the inevitable display of one of those striped camp uniforms and a yellow star.
as such is primarily represented through various pieces of weaponry and other military gear, including a Fieseler Storch reconnaissance plane in Luftwaffe insignia hanging from the ceiling, a large anti-aircraft gun (cf. Flaktürme
), some rusty armoured vehicles, and a bizarre one-person spherical “bunker”. Also to be seen here are various propaganda posters of the time.
At the end of this section, an American Jeep is on display with the flags of all four occupying powers in post-war Austria on it (USA
and the USSR
). Such vehicles were used for the joint Military Police "four-men-in-a-jeep" patrols that the victors of WWII had to share for a number of years in occupied Vienna
, which was, like Berlin
, subdivided into four sectors, but unlike Berlin had at its heart one shared district, the Inner City or 1st District. You can see such patrols depicted in the seminal movie classic “The Third Man” (cf. Third Man Tours
!). The fact that the Western Allies had to share these patrols with the Soviets at a time of unfolding Cold War
confrontation, was a unique oddity of the period (Austria was only released into independence again with the Austrian State Treaty of 1955). Somewhat fitting, then, that the Soviet Union
is also represented here in this museum exhibition through some almost comically crude Soviet hammer-and-sickle flags.
Beyond the fascism and WWII sections is one more two-hall part of the Military Museum that may come as a bit of a surprise to some (foreign) visitors, as it is about “Austria as a Naval Power”. Hang on, isn't Austria a land-locked
country? It is indeed today, but in its older glory days up to World War One it did at times have access to the seven seas, in particular through its territory bordering the Adriatic part of the Mediterranean Sea (especially Trieste
, in what is today Italy
). As such the Austro-Hungarian empire also had a navy. This even included submarines. And the highlight in this section has to be the superbly rusty and pockmarked part of a submarine salvaged from the sea and put on display here. The rest of this section is somewhat less spectacular unless you are into ship models of all sizes and other such maritime memorabilia.
The museum has an open-air part in the back yard (called “Panzergarten”; and now also with an indoor part called "Panzerhalle") where a number of tanks and other armoured vehicles are on display that were used by the Austrian army from 1956.
In the colonnaded side wings adjacent to the museum is a large collection of older gun barrels, some really ancient, but of very limited interest for a dark tourist. And outside the front of the museum, finally, there are a couple of further outdoor exhibits, including one of the Austrian Air Force's legendary, Swedish
-built Saab Draken fighter jets.
The museum shop, which shares a room with the museum café, has the usual array of plastic model kits, military history books and films, postcards, and other souvenirs. The items of most interest to the dark tourist are probably the books, in particular the ones added to the range about World War One
, including material about the current new exhibition at this museum.
On balance, it is this new WWI section which more than anything else makes this museum a very worthwhile addition to any dark-tourism itinerary in Vienna
, although parts of the Nazi and WWII sections are also good (but this is currently closed for refurbishment!). Naturally, military history buffs will get the most out of such a place, but not only people with such pronounced special interest. There's also plenty of interest beyond the purely military.
within the huge Arsenal complex (part of "Objekt 1") south of the Inner City centre of Vienna
, in the southernmost corner of the 3rd district, near the new Hauptbahnhof (main train station) and the area around it that is currently still undergoing a regeneration scheme (so expect plenty of building sites!).
Access and costs: a bit out of the city centre, but fairly easily reachable; not too expensive.
: From the Inner City district of Vienna
, take the D tram from the Ring or from Schwarzenbergplatz to the terminus at Hauptbahnhof Ost, or take tram 18 or O to either Quartier Belvedere (formerly Südbahnhof), Fasangasse or Heinrich Drimmel Platz. From there it's a couple of hundred yards' walk … you'll already see the massive buildings of the Arsenal looming in the distance. The nearest metro (U-Bahn U1) station is Hauptbahnhof, but it's more of a walk from there and as long as all the construction work around the new central station is still ongoing, it may be tricky to find your way past (or through) the building sites.
The signposting to the museum isn't necessarily the clearest, and the exact location of the museum within the Arsenal complex isn't too self-evident either. So follow whatever signs you find for "HGM" or go straight to the central building ("Objekt 1") of the Arsenal. It's the most impressive block in the centre of the front facade. Walk through its main gate. The museum is straight ahead across the courtyard.
Opening times: daily between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. (closed on the usual main holidays).The tank collection is only open at weekends, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m – also note that the WWII section is currently closed for a revamp.
Admission: 7 EUR (concessions for students, senior citizens and disabled persons), free every first Sunday of each month.
An additional fee for a photography permit is levied at 2 EUR. Audio guides can be hired for 2 EUR. Live guided tours cost 4 EUR.
Guided tours are also offered.
very much depends on how deep and into how many of the different chapters of Austrian military history you want to delve. For most dark tourists the main focus is probably to see the room about the Sarajevo assassination and the new World War One
exhibition. Together these should take between one and two hours. The wing with the sections about WWII
under the Nazis
may warrant another 40 to 60 minutes or so.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
One of Vienna
's particularly charming, if somewhat lower-key dark sites is close by: the enchantingly overgrown little St Marx cemetery
to the east (about a mile's walk away).
Linked to the post-WWII phase of Austrian history is the grand Soviet war memorial at the southern end of Schwarzenbergplatz, which can be reached on foot from the Military Museum by walking through Schweizergarten Park and then all the way through the historic Belvedere Park, where you should turn left and continue to the northern end of Rennweg where the monument and the landmark fountain in front of it will appear on your left. This big and decidedly Soviet
relic right in the heart of Vienna is certainly worth a look!
Otherwise see under Vienna
Far away, outside Austria, is the counterpart, as it were, to the Franz Ferdinand exhibits: the actual site of the assassination itself, which is by the Latin Bridge
in today's Bosnia-Herzegovina
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The museum itself extends far beyond the dark … unless you count everything military as dark. So those interested in imperial Austria
's old glories, reflected in uniforms, medals and the like, can find plenty more here.
Furthermore, the building complex the museum is housed in, called the "Arsenal", is quite remarkable from an architectural point of view. It's a mainly neo-Byzantine style of the grandest proportions. And even though only a part of the whole complex is publicly accessible it feels huge. It's well worth a good look from the outside too.
The area immediately around the Arsenal/the museum is otherwise one of the less attractive parts of Vienna
– except for the Belvedere Park a few hundred yards to the north with its two art museums. It's also a historical place – especially for modern Austria
. It was here that the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 was signed.
- HGM 01 - former arsenal building
- HGM 02 - old part
- HGM 03 - Turkish relic
- HGM 04 - pre-WW1 funny hats and tash fashion
- HGM 05 - foyer and poster advertising new WW1 section
- HGM 06 - new presentation of the car of Franz Ferdinand
- HGM 07 - Franz Ferdinand car in the old exhibition
- HGM 08 - spot the bullet hole
- HGM 09 - bloodied uniform of Franz Ferdinand
- HGM 10 - follow the arrow
- HGM 11 - spot the hole and the blood stains
- HGM 12 - Sophie relics too
- HGM 13 - gun, hand grenade and shot-through windscreen
- HGM 14 - new WW1 section
- HGM 15 - now on two levels
- HGM 16 -big gun
- HGM 17 - staring down a real big barrel of a gun
- HGM 18 - fortress warfare
- HGM 19 - grim
- HGM 20 - trench warfare
- HGM 21 - gas
- HGM 22 - shells and shadows
- HGM 23 - new air war
- HGM 24 - bombs were still dropped by hand
- HGM 25 - listening device
- HGM 26 - stretcher
- HGM 27 - field hospital
- HGM 28 - POWs
- HGM 29 - early decoding device
- HGM 30 - WW1 kitsch
- HGM 31 - war games
- HGM 32 - war propaganda
- HGM 33 - the post-war hangover
- HGM 34 - post-war memorialization
- HGM 35 - post-WW1 debris
- HGM 36 - Austro-Fascism section
- HGM 37 - Dollfuß bust and death bed
- HGM 38 - Adolf is coming home
- HGM 39 - perspex-protected Adolf bust
- HGM 40 - the cushy side of Nazism
- HGM 41 - the dark side
- HGM 42 - faceless watching and imbibing
- HGM 43 - WWII section
- HGM 44 - crude Soviet flag
- HGM 45 - occupation-era jeep
- HGM 46 - salvaged Austrian submarine relic
- HGM 47 - tank garden outside
- HGM 48 - shop and cafe
- HGM 49 - Saab Draken outside
- HGM 50 - outer gate building
- HGM 51 - wars belong in a museum