‘The Republic of Austria is the proprietor of the entire movable and immovable property on its territory of the Court treasury as well as properties tied to the previously reigning House or a branch thereof.’ Section 5 of the Habsburg Act of 3 April 1919
With this brief statement the young Republic laid claim to the ownership of the material legacy of the Habsburg Monarchy in the spring of 1919. However, the actual appropriation of the former imperial court offices, art collections, palaces and estates proved to be considerably more complicated. The whole process took three years to complete, and until November 1921 the ‘court without an emperor’ continued to exist under republican auspices.
The exhibition uses concrete objects to outline the fascinating background behind this change of ownership, illuminating the breaks and continuities in the post-1918 period. The young Republic faced huge challenges as it struggled with the consequences of the world war, widespread poverty and the crisis in supplies.
The established political powers feared revolution. The successor states and the victorious powers demanded their share of the Monarchy’s inheritance – the ‘robbery’ of 66 valuable paintings from the Kunsthistorisches Museum by the Italian Military Commission is only the most spectacular case to feature here.
What belongs to the emperor? What belongs to the state?
The grey areas in the legal position concerning former imperial property led to conflicts, some of which were milked for what they were worth in the media, such as the affair of the crown jewels, which Emperor Karl had had sent out of the country during the final days of the Monarchy.
The exhibition shows how the Republic went about taking possession of their new property: by exchanging symbols but also active appropriation. Disabled war veterans, for example, regarded themselves as the victims of Habsburg injustice, and as such justified in occupying parts of the palace at Schönbrunn. In this ‘democratization’ of the imperial holdings, palaces and art collections were opened up to the general public, and a number of public education initiatives were put in place.
The exhibition takes the two examples of Schönbrunn and the Hofburg, the symbolic centres of power, to showcase the many plans for use that sought to profitably exploit this imperial legacy. Many of these schemes were swiftly rejected, while others live on to this day.
A whole section of the exhibition is devoted to the ‘Red Archduchess’, the daughter of Crown Prince Rudolf. A professed Social Democrat, she bequeathed her inheritance – works of art from the private ownership of Empress Elisabeth and her father – to the Republic.
‘The Austrians are a people who look forward with confidence into the past.’ Alfred Polgar
The key texts have been translated into English and compiled in this booklet to guide you through the exhibition.