Vienna’s Social Housing

By the 1930s, the Gemeindebau was the Socialist’s hallmark, establishing self-government among the working class

The trams have been stopped. The electricity, gas and water supplies have been cut off.  Government troops march into the public housing complexes in Ottakring, Heiligenstadt and Simmering with artillery, while the resistance fighters inside desperately try to hold out.

In 1934, Vienna was in the grip of what became known as the Austrian Civil War, the result of long-standing antagonisms between Christian-conservative and social-democratic forces. The public housing complexes – Vienna’s famed ‘Gemeindebau’ – had become the most important symbol of the SDAP’s (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei, today’s SPÖ) influence in Vienna and their efforts to establish a new, self-governing, socialist culture among the Viennese working classes.

Their intention was, as architectural historian Walter Zednicek explained in January, “to strengthen the position and confidence of the Proletariat.” This was to be done by giving them imposing, palace-like super-blocks, known as “Palaces of the Proletariat,” to live in.

This experiment, the only one of its kind in Europe, gave the period the name “Red Vienna”.

Thus, the tenement blocks, as the most potent symbol of working class control and culture in Vienna, were the obvious choice to stage a last stand against the forces of fascism.

It led to urban warfare of the worst kind as the socialist groups fought against the conservative government’s army and paramilitary forces. Julius Deutsch, an Austrian politician, reported on the fighting:

“The first soldiers forced their way into the wrecked building at six o’clock… the bloodstains on the corridors and stairwells of the building attested to the man-to-man combat which had taken place.”

The socialists held out for a long time, but, with few supplies and against the artillery and tanks of the government, they eventually had to surrender. Although the socialists lost the Civil War, the tenement blocks remain as a reminder of this brave and innovative experiment.

The story of this bold initiative began in the aftermath of World War I. In 1919, Vienna was crumbling, a city full of refugees and the unemployed, with an infrastructure in a state of collapse. It was the vastly swollen capital of a country that was now only 8 million people – those in the provinces took to claiming Vienna was a head too big for its body.

There was, however, a silver lining. Vienna had its first democratically elected city government in its history, with a majority from the SDAP and, thanks to reforms enacted in 1922, it was able to control its own tax revenues. This control meant that the SDAP finally had the chance to implement their wide-ranging reform program.

They were known as Austro-Marxists, who were not planning a revolution to overthrow the ruling classes, notes historian Inge Podbrecky in Red Vienna, but aimed at effecting change in the here and now. Their plans for ‘Red Vienna’ were a kind of ‘work in progress’ towards social revolution.

The reforms enacted by the Viennese government touched upon all areas of life/health, childcare, schools, culture and education – but the most important were the housing reforms. With the post-war migrations in from the countryside, the city simply had too few apartments for too many people. So the first and most important task for the new city government in 1919 was to create housing units for those without.

In the beginning, emergency measures were enacted to allow vacant flats and hotels to be appropriated by the government. But this was only a stop-gap. The real work began when the 1922 reforms allowed the municipality to control its own tax revenues. A number of taxes were introduced targeting luxuries and entertainment; like cars, horse-racing and the opera. Anything which was not essential was taxed by the municipal government, with the intention of redistributing the wealth.

These taxes were then ploughed into building the public housing complexes around Vienna such as the Karl-Marx-Hof, Reumannhof and George-Washington-Hof. They also built libraries, swimming pools and sports facilities. The reforms were intended to benefit the working-classes in all areas of their life.

These housing complexes were never designed to be commercial, for-profit facilities. From the beginning, it was never intended that the municipality would recover the money put into building the housing. The intention was to provide affordable housing to those who needed it, supported through the shared commitment of the society as a whole.  Provision of a flat was based on a points system, which gave priority to those with large families currently in small apartments, the disabled or homeless. Although the system was not always fair and transparent (membership in the Social-Democratic party certainly would not hurt your chances of getting a nice flat), it was intended to create a “social balance”, where those on a lower income could afford decent housing for the first time.

The crowning glory of Red Vienna was, and is, the Karl-Marx-Hof, in Heiligenstadt. When visiting it today, you appreciate just what a ground-breaking reform it was. The building is 1.2 km long, which, standing in front of it, you see an unending, fortress-like presence. It’s not hard to imagine the army besieging the fighters in this complex. But, enter the building, and your impression changes altogether. You come onto the wide open, lawned courtyards, which make up 80% of the 15,000 square metres of the estate. This was one of the SDAP’s expressed intentions, to make sure that every building had at least 40% green space, and often more.

The residents today appreciate this. Nino, a 26-year-old self-employed man, has been living in the Karl-Marx-Hof for nine years and appreciates the quiet, pleasant atmosphere and the open spaces, which make it different from other tenement blocks.

However others, especially older people, had some complaints. The prices had increased drastically, complained Magda, a 65-year-old pensioner. This is hard to deny: Forty years ago, a four bedroom flat cost €9 per month. This now costs €400 per month.

Another problem which she noted was the increase of immigrants into the tenement blocks. This is a much-noted problem and relates to a malaise described by Dr. W. Bauer, author of several books on Vienna. The SDAP’s original intention was to care for their voters in all works of life. An SDAP official would regularly check on their voters and maintain regular contact. Thus, the working classes felt a real connection to the party and were willing to defend the reforms when the Civil War broke out.

Today much of this has changed. Although the Viennese still believe that everyone has a basic right to an affordable flat, people do not connect this to the SPÖ, but to the city of  Vienna. Political parties are seen more as being responsible for rendering services, not for being involved in people’s lives. Thus, if people are dissatisfied with the SPÖ, they will vote for another party as a protest.

In Red Vienna, the SDAP was your life, making protest close to impossible, or so at least some historians believe. This reduction in the feeling of community has affected life in the Gemeindebau too. The people who live there used to feel connected through the SPÖ and the common culture. So today, whether the complaint about the influx of immigrants is true or not, the old community feeling is not what it was and this upsets and disturbs many older residents.


For more info on the Gemeindebau and their history, visit:, and

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