The Most Liveable City: The Legacy of the Rotes Wien

Text: Žikica Milošević

For many years now, Vienna has been ranked high on the list of “most liveable cities in the world”, and it is very often ranked first. Vienna is not so far from us geographically, but it is light years ahead regarding the living standard. No wonder it is a magnet for the former Yugoslavs.


In 2019, Vienna was voted the best city to live in for the second consecutive time by scoring the highest in all categories of the new liveability index collected by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Vienna got 99.1 points out of 100, the same result the city achieved a year before. Three years before that, Vienna ranked second, right after Melbourne. It is interesting to note that there are eight cities from Europe in the Top 20, and three Australian and Canadian and two Japanese cities in the Top 10. Surprisingly, London ranks 48th, followed by New York (in the 58th place), while Paris is perhaps the best-ranked among European megacities, occupying the 25th place. So, how did this come about? Wasn’t the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a noisy and crazy city in 1918 that was in disarray despite having the infrastructure of the empire?


Yes, it was, but then the Empire disintegrated and the moment came to bring things in order amidst the chaos caused by the lost war. In the next 16 years, the city will be nicknamed „The Red Vienna“ („Rotes Wien“), not because it went through a revolution, as St Petersburg did, but for entirely different reasons. Namely, the Red Vienna was the nickname of the capital of Austria between 1918 and 1934, when the Social Democrats had the majority and the city was democratically governed for the first time in its history. After 1918, ties with the regions that provided food for Vienna were severed, people starved, and refugees filled up the city. In other parts of German Austria, which establishment was declared (Deutschösterreich), people gossiped about Vienna as being a too big of a capital city for such a small country, similar to what happened to the cities in the former Yugoslav republics and the USSR. A Spanish flu pandemic, syphilis and tuberculosis broke out, and the apartments became overcrowded. It was time for a big, red-black coalition, without which a civil war would have broken out.

John Gunther characterised the overall setting of Vienna between the wars as following: “The disequilibrium between Marxist Vienna and the clerical countryside was the dominating Motiv of Austrian politics until the rise of Hitler. Vienna was socialist, anti-clerical, and, as a municipality, fairly rich. The hinterland was poor, backward, conservative, Roman Catholic, and jealous of Vienna’s higher standard of living.” 

A 5-day working week and an 8-hour working day were immediately introduced. The coalition broke up in 1920, but the Reds continued to lead Vienna until 1934. After 1934, Gunther commented: “In Vienna the socialists produced a remarkable administration, making it probably the most successful municipality in the world. The achievements of the Vienna socialists were the most exhilarating social movement of the post-war period in any European country. “


The first thing that was passed was the Tenant Protection Act (in German: Mieterschutzgesetz). Apartment rents reverted to the ones from 1917, which effectively killed private housing and enabled state housing. General-purpose buildings and blocks were built inside parks and had modern infrastructure. 60,000 new apartments were available in Gemeindebau (“community construction”) buildings, such as those in Karl-Marx-Hof and George-Washington-Hof. Rent was low so renting an apartment in one of these buildings was equivalent to 4% of a worker’s salary, while in private buildings, the rent was 30% of a salary. If someone reported that they lost their job, they did not pay the rent until they were employed again. Parents received packages with clothes for their children, because “no newborn in Vienna will be wrapped in a newspaper anymore.” Nurseries and after-school care facilities were built. Health care was free and numerous sports grounds were built too. The money for all these endeavours came from the funds that the state saved by having fewer young people in prison, fewer teenage pregnancies and fewer people that were ill. Once everything was put in place, Vienna did not forget its true identity. In 1978, a subway was added to the very efficient public transport network that consisted of trams and buses. Tickets are purchased on a daily, monthly, weekly basis and are quite affordable. No station is too far and it takes 15 to 30 minutes to travel from one end of the city to the other.

This is how you build a city that people actually want to live in; a city that has been built with its residents in mind. Austria should be viewed as a role model for all other countries.

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