WWI photographs from Austria-Hungary

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Propaganda was an integral part of the First World War. It appeared in various forms and some elements had such impact, that they are still incorporated in today’s understanding of the era. A well-known example is the iconic U.S. propaganda poster depicting Uncle Sam and the phrase “I want you for the US army”.

However, posters were but one medium employed for propaganda. Newspaper articles, posters or books were produced in ample numbers to support efforts in the field. And also large amounts of photographs were taken. It is the latter item which concerns the collection described here.

The Imperial and Royal War Press Bureau (Kaiserlich und königliches Kriegspressequartier) was the central propaganda department of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Founded on 28 July 1914, it employed writers such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Robert Musil and about 350 war painters. And it had its own photography department, the so-called Lichtbildstelle.

The digitised collection features 37.273 photographs from this department. The vast majority is Public Domain marked (37.070), while the remaining photographs are licenced as “Rights Reserved – Free Access”. The photographs represent the total stock of war albums (109 volumes plus nine annex volumes), which were completely digitized as part of the “Europeana Collections 1914 – 1918” project.

The photographic material is thematically and chronologically ordered: Fortifications; Women at war; Isonzo; War prisoners and refugees; War surveying; Propaganda; Medical services; Trenches and positions; Military cemeteries; Animals in war; Weapons and guns; Navy; Civilians; Balkan war; Russian theatres of war etc.

In einer russischen Kirche etablierte Feldkanzlei, Austrian National Library, Public Domain

The collection is interesting from at least two aspects: Firstly, its geographic coverage and secondly its thematic scope.

It contains pictures of the war at the southern, eastern and south-eastern front, the back country and further areas of the former monarchy. Modern day Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine are all covered in some form.

Auf der Straße von Pristina (Kosovo), Austrian National Library, Public Domain

From a thematic point of view the collection’s contents follow a wide span. Not only military matters were of interest for the war photographers, but also the everyday life of soldiers is covered. Each item is tagged with the keywords used in the original work, which means that the collection is easily searchable.

Material from this collection yields also insights which might be rather surprising. For example, soldiers of the Ottoman Empire who fought in Galicia together with Austro-Hungarian troops. Although the vast majority is related to military matters, there are also quite a number of photographs displaying local populations.

Lagernde Türken, Austrian National Library, Public Domain

The photo collection of the Imperial war press bureau of the Austro-Hungarian propaganda department provides a unique source for the history of the First World War from the perspective of Austria-Hungary. To be more precise, it allows the war to be seen through ‘official’ eyes. A vast geographic span that reach deep into the Balkans also assists the collection.

However, it needs to be noted that there is hardly any material included taken in the first year of the war. 1914. Although the greater part of the Great War is covered, the first months are thus lacking in the collection.