Food

Provisioning Vienna

By J. Alexander Killion

Until very recently in world history, farmers have comprised the majority of national populations, and this was no different for Austria-Hungary. Prior to WWII, however, this share was very high compared to states like Great Britain. In 1830, for instance, at least 71 percent of the population of the Habsburg Empire was involved in agricultural production, compared to 28 in Great Britain. By 1910, this had shrunk to 52 percent, as industrialization (which began in earnest after 1848 in Austria) expanded, but at this point Great Britain’s share of workforce in agriculture had shrunk to 8 percent. Britain was certainly the outlier in this instance as European industrialization began there, but there was nevertheless a clear decline in agricultural employment in most European countries (Gingrich 2011). This does not mean that food production was declining, however. In fact, with improved production and technology, Austria was able to continue provisioning Vienna, even as the number of farmers declined and the population of the capital exploded.

Assuming a daily average requirement of 2,000 calories per person, a city containing approximately 2 million inhabitants (which Vienna did by the advent of the First World War) would require approximately 4 billion calories to keep above starvation level.[1] To put it in more comprehensible terms, one pound of potatoes contains an average of 350 calories. If the population of Vienna on the eve of the First World War were to survive on a diet of only potatoes, the city would have to grow or import just under 11.5 million pounds of potatoes each day to keep the population fed at bare minimum sustenance levels (Manitoba Agricultural Farm Management 2018, 8; Heartstrong 2020).[2]

An important consideration of food politics in the Austro-Hungarian Empire is the nature of the dual monarchy. Following the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, the singular Austrian Empire had been divided into two separate administrative bodies, with the Austrian Emperor the head of both. Both the Austrian and Hungarian parts of the empire handled their own internal affairs, with only foreign and defense policy jointly administered. In addition, they shared a currency as well as a customs union, which allowed for frictionless trade between the two halves of the Empire (at least in relation to tariffs, as significant non-tariff barriers such as different language use remained) (Kann 1974, 333-334).

This customs union was important because the division of the empire also mirrored the economic and agricultural differences of the empire. The western portion (also known as the Austrian portion, or Cisleithania) was predominately mountainous, whereas the eastern, Hungarian portion (or Transleithania) contained much more flat land suitable for agricultural development. As a result, Hungary became the predominant supplier of foodstuffs for the empire, even allowing the monarchy to be largely self-sufficient in terms of major agricultural needs up to the First World War (Watson 2014, 342). Historian Alexander Watson provides a detailed look at the social, political, and agricultural background of Vienna and the Habsburg empire more broadly in his 2014 work Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I.

In terms of purchasing power for foodstuffs, the residents of Vienna were in a rather favorable position compared to many of the other provinces of the empire. The following table demonstrates the share of daily income (in grams of silver) that a resident of Vienna would need to pay for one unit of a certain good – generally kilograms or liters – compared to the average in the least and most expensive provinces of the Empire circa 1910 (Cvrcek, n.d.).[3] The data comes from economic historian Tomas Cvrcek, who put together a large datafile on wages and prices in the Habsburg Empire over time, and wrote directly on the subject in “Wages, Prices, and Living Standards in the Habsburg Empire, 1827-1910,” published in the Journal of Economic History (Cvrcek 2013).

It is difficult to explain the reason for these prices in Vienna, but some insights can be gleaned from statistical analysis. A simple statistical regression can show us that the level of wages in a province can account for between 4.5 percent and 38.1 percent of goods (peas and rye bread, respectively), with an upward sloping curve demonstrating that as wages increase, prices also increase. In the case of Vienna, wages likely rose quickly enough that residents were in a much better position to afford most of these goods.[4]

Although statistics for figures related to hunger and starvation are difficult to come by, imperfect proxy statistics can be utilized to craft a broad picture of the state of food security in Vienna before the First World War. In this case, the Statistical Yearbook of Vienna recorded the prevalence of deaths by disease, including those caused by nutrient deficiencies. Those in extreme poverty are much more likely to have a poor diet that misses key nutrients (as well as being unable to afford any treatments available for it). With this in mind, we find that there were no reported cases of deaths attributed to Beriberi (a deficiency of thiamine) or Pellagra (a deficiency of niacin) in Vienna in 1914 (Statistical Yearbook of the City of Vienna for the Year 1914, 90). This does not mean that hunger was not a problem for any residents of the city, but widespread and lingering problems related to malnutrition were not nearly as prevalent as they would become during the latter part of the First World War.

The system of food production and consumption was not perfect, however, and the outbreak of the First World War laid these weaknesses bare for all the residents of the Empire to see. The inhabitants of major cities (particularly Vienna) were hit hardest, especially as the war dragged on. The Austro-Hungarian army lost control of the fertile soil of Galicia early in the war, contributing to overall reductions in agricultural output of up to seventy-five percent in some crops (Watson 2014, 342). Compounding this was a massive shortage of farm labor, as millions of men and horses were requisitioned or conscripted for the army. Perhaps the greatest blow to Viennese food security, however, came in the form of Hungarian reluctance to deliver food to Austria. Because of the political division of the dual monarchy in Austrian and Hungarian halves, there was no mechanism in place to force the Magyars to share the large amount of food they grew with their starving neighbors, particularly after 1916, when they took full control over wartime provisioning. The table below shows the relative decline in Hungarian exports to Austria during the war (Watson 2014, 343).

This is borne out further by statistics on trade between the two portions of the empire. Because of the political divisions between the Austrian and Hungarian parts of the empire, barriers were erected to the free flow of goods. As a result, accurate records of internal trade survive. From these statistics we can see that large amounts of foodstuffs were sent to Austria from Hungary before the war. Between 1910 and 1913, for instance, nearly 1.4 billion kilograms of cereals were imported from Hungary each year, reflecting the fact that most pre-industrial and early industrial European populations derived large portions of their daily calories from bread. This importation figure is larger than the imports of legumes, vegetables, cattle, milk, butter, bacon, and fat combined. The only category of food that even approaches the level of cereals import is flour, at 731 million kilograms per year.

The effects of the disparity in production between Austria and Hungary were stark during the war. In the capital, hunger was widespread and struck almost everyone. Each day, a quarter of a million people lined up in front of shops for the chance to buy some scarce good, and fully one-fifth of them walked away empty-handed. The availability of milk was reduced by half, and the number of free meals distributed by soup kitchens exploded from 15.5 million in 1914-1915 to 41 million in 1918. Desperate Austrians even sent their children to the countryside to avoid the hunger of the city (Watson 2014, 332; 353-358). Another common response, according to Watson, was “hamstering,” wherein city residents would flee into the countryside with their paychecks and purchase food directly from farmers (the term was meant to evoke the common behavior of hamsters storing excess food in their cheeks). The practice became so widespread that the authorities were unable to effectively stop it (Watson 2014, 336-337). Even this was not enough to secure suitable provisions for the entire urban population, however, and doctors implicated hunger in between 20 and 30 percent of the wartime deaths in the capital, with ten percent being attributed to outright starvation (Watson 2014, 341).

This hardship resulted in social unrest, as well as calls for individuals to reduce the amount of food they used. A column in the Wiener Zeitung in 1916 stated: “If nobody stashes fine supplies, but rather fulfills the task incumbent on him in patriotic duty, much less barley and corn will be used… which exists but is hidden from general consumption” (Wiener Zeitung, September 30, 1916). In the end, hunger contributed greatly to the popular discontent among the general population that eventually resulted in the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsing from within. Vienna, once the capital of a multi-national empire, would be reduced to the primate city of a much smaller and relatively homogenous state.[5]

The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire forced the successor state of Austria, and its primate city of Vienna, in particular, to contend with a radically reshaped foodshed. As mentioned previously, Hungary was the breadbasket of the Empire during the antebellum period, and the territory of Polish Galicia also provided a significant amount of food for the empire. As Vienna constituted the largest city by far, much of this food went there. As of 1919, however, these formerly fertile lands were now in foreign countries. Over time this has necessitated a large reliance on importations of food, which has also gone hand-in-hand with increasing integration into larger economic and trading networks: first through the European Economic Community and the European Union, and second through larger international networks of trade.

Modern hinterlands of food production are truly global in nature, owing to far-flung trade linkages, standardization of international trade practices, the development of more advanced refrigeration and transportation technology, and changing consumer tastes. Whereas Vienna once gained nearly all of its staple foodstuffs from within Austrian borders or those of its partner, Hungary, residents of Vienna can now cheaply and easily encounter goods from all over the world. Indeed, an average Viennese resident strolling through a supermarket could pick up some pastries from Germany (which accounts for 11% of all Austria’s food imports), pasta from Italy (which accounts for 2.2% of all Austria’s food imports), French wine (which accounts for 4.1% of all Austria’s food imports), Swiss flavored water (which accounts for 3.7% of all Austria’s food imports), and American hard liquor (which accounts for 2.8% of all Austria’s food imports) (Observatory of Economic Complexity 2020a).[6] These countries are the top five trading partners for Austria, accounting for over half of the $162 billion of imports in 2017 (Observatory of Economic Complexity 2020b).

Despite the ease and convenience of global food linkages, many cities are embracing urban agriculture for a number of reasons. First, growing food within or near the city itself can supplement the market’s food supply, increasing the stability of the food system. Second, urban agricultural can increase food security for lower-income citizens by increasing access and lowering prices. Finally, urban agriculture can also provide recreation for residents and educate children (and adults) about nature and farming (Crawford 2015, 267).

The City of Vienna itself owns and operates an urban farm in Karlsplatz, which grows various types of fruits, vegetables, and grain on the half acre of land near Vienna’s inner city (Vienna: Now and Forever, 2020). A half-acre of land can produce between 17,080 and 22,120 pounds of potatoes annually, on average, with a pound of potatoes providing about 350 calories (Manitoba Agricultural Farm Management 2018; Heartstrong 2020).[7] This means that assuming a maximum yield of 22,120 pounds, the half-acre urban farm in Karlsplatz can grow 7,742,000 calories of food in a year. Given a daily caloric intake requirement of 2,000 for the average person, this means the farm yield can feed one person for 3,871 days, or 3,871 people for one day. For a city the size of Vienna (1.8 million people), it is not feasible to become internally self-sufficient in regard to food production, but the positive effects of urban agriculture are numerous nonetheless, and the importance of increasing agricultural self-sufficiency was demonstrated very convincingly by the events of the First World War.[8]


[1] Figures are based on modern dietary guidelines and are not likely to be entirely accurate. Children would have required far fewer calories, but the large population of soldiers and laboring workers would likely require much more.

[2] Note: the calculation of cwt refers to a hundredweight, which in this instance, is 112 pounds. The figures are arrived at by converting square meters to acres, then multiplying that figure by the estimated hundredweight yield of potatoes

[3] Note: Although Vienna was not a province in and of itself until after World War I, the data available allowed me to treat Vienna as a separate province for the purposes of analysis

[4] Note: Data gleaned from Cvrcek was organized and run through Minitab statistical software to give the statistics listed

[5] A longer discussion of the role of hunger in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian state is impossible at present due to the inaccessibility of sources in light of the current pandemic.

[6] Note: The percentages represent each category of food, not the specific country of origin – 11% of food imports are pastries, of which the largest country of origin is Germany

[7]  [Note: the calculation of cwt refers to a hundredweight, which in this instance, is 112 pounds. The figures are arrived at by converting square meters to acres, then multiplying that figure by the estimated hundredweight yield of potatoes.

[8] This is to say nothing of the desirability or likelihood of growing only potatoes.

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