Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna, Austria
By Felix A. Alejos Cutuli

Vienna's Museum of Military History is one of the most important military museums in the world. Located near Vienna's city centre, it's near to the famous Belvedere Palace and very well connected by public transport.

The location is part of the Arsenal, Vienna's former garrison. Its building was purposefully built as a museum between 1850 and 1856 by order of Emperor Franz Joseph I; thus being the oldest museum in Vienna and also claiming to be the oldest purposefully built museum in the world. The architecture of this building and the remainder of the original complex are very interesting, ascribing to Byzantine, Hispano-Moorish and Neo-Gothic styles. Most of the original complex is now a public park and also hosts the museum's outdoor exhibits.

The museum covers the historic period from 1618 to 1945 (although the outdoor exhibits includes many more modern pieces) and is a very lively organization, hosting several activities ranging from period swordsmanship to cannon firing, culminated by the Montur und Pulverdampf, a huge historical re-enactment event. For more information and videos, please, check on Google and YouTube.

Getting back to the museum proper and having admired the façade, one can dedicate time to visit the outside exhibits. Composed mainly from one of the best ancient artillery collections, this exhibit is partially covered under two roofed pavilions. There are also aircraft and military vehicles. Admittance to the external exhibits is free unless there's any activity in progress.

Inside the main building you will be greeted by the Commander's Hall - a pillared hall decorated with the statues of the main military commanders in Austria's history.

A chronologically organized visit starts in the first floor. Its left wing has two halls dedicated respectively to the 17th and 18th centuries. Opposite is the zone covering the historical period from 1789 to 1866. Back at the ground level, the left wing covers the period from 1867 to 1918, with a hall dedicated to Emperor Franz Joseph and the Sarajevo assassination and another to World War I. Opposite the Commander's Hall are the Republic and Dictatorship (1918-1945) and Austrian Naval Power Halls.

The 17th century was a troubled period for Europe, starting with the 30 Years' War, which convulsed the continent from 1618 to 1648. That's the historical period that saw the restoration of permanent armies in Europe. The museum hosts an impressive collection of body armour from this period as well as pole arms and a very informative audio visual display showing the actual operation of a musket. There's also a very well preserved carriage mounted volley gun.

The next section covers one of the most important episodes in Europe's and world history: the 1683 Ottoman's second, and last, siege of Vienna which was the last attempt of the Ottoman Empire to conquer Europe. The victory of the combined Imperial and Polish armies signalled the start of the Turkish retreat from the continent. The displays of Turkish weaponry are very interesting due to their exoticism, including the famous compound bows, which at that time still rivalled, and even surpassed, firearms in terms of range and rate of fire.

In the 18th century hall is a very well preserved small mortar, known as the Belgrade Mortar, credited with having fired the shot that blew the main magazine of the Belgrade fortress on August 14, 1717 causing more than 3,000 casualties and precipitating the fall of the city. Another very interesting display contains several hand grenades dated circa 1765.

Crossing the building to the opposite wing is an exhibit dedicated to the French Wars. The main piece from a technical point of view may very well be the oldest military aircraft still preserved, which is a French observation balloon. Another very interesting display is the presence of a couple over/under flintlock muskets, presented as soldier's weapons. There's also a single tube rocket launcher together with a selection of rockets and artillery shells from the first half of the 19th Century.

At ground level is the wing dedicated to the second half of the 19th century until 1918. There's a very interesting display showing the development of the breech loading rifle in Austria and also a representation of that country's sidearms.

There's an entire room dedicated to the Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, which was the spark that ignited the First World War. Preserved there is the car in which the crime took place, the pistol used by Gavrilo Princip to commit the crime and even the uniform worn by Archduke Ferdinand on that fateful day.

Following that room there's an extensive collection of objects covering World War I comprising even a specimen of the infamous French Chauchat light machine gun. The array of weapons from both sides is extensive that includes flamethrowers, machine guns, personal armor, chemical warfare equipment and even some medieval looking maces for hand to hand fighting. Artillery from the period ranges from a small hand portable cannon to a very imposing 38cm howitzer. There's even an original Albatross B1 airplane prototype, as well as several armoured domes taken from fortifications, some of them wearing impressive battle scars.

The presence of several specimens of the Vilar-Perosa machine gun was most interesting. It was the first pistol caliber machine gun, chambered for the 9mm Glisenti round, and fed from a top mounted, detachable magazine. It was twin conception (a double gun) intended to be used as a light machine gun/automatic rifle, complete with bipod and spade grips. On display is a specimen mounted on a special wooden structure designed to be suspended in front of a man's chest so he could fire the weapon while advancing. The basic gun was 21 inches (533 mm) long and weighed 14.34 lbs (6.52 kg) - quite a handful for such a feeble cartridge. After the war, almost all the surviving pieces where stripped from their twin mounts and given conventional stocks giving birth to the OPV and Beretta 1918 submachine guns.

The "Sea Power Austria" room is dedicated to Imperial times when Austria (now a landlocked country) operated a sizable naval force, a period spanning 200 years ending in 1918. On display is an impressive model of a battleship, several antique torpedoes, and even a conning tower salvaged from a sunken WWI submarine. The collection of small arms includes some Colt revolvers.

The exhibit dedicated to the World War II has an interesting array of small arms including a FG42 rifle. There is also a machine gun turret from an American bomber, accompanied by an electrically heated airman's suit, and several other aircraft.

There's also an instrument panel from a Me 109 fighter as well as a WWII jet engine and a Fiesler Storch short take off and landing light airplane. Artillery is represented by an 88 mm Flak 36 together with a searchlight and a German 75 mm antitank gun. Other anti-tank weapons are a Panzerfaust, a Panzerschreck rocket launcher and a British PIAT grenade launcher. Inside this same hall there are several German vehicles, both wheeled and tracked, and a most impressive Kettenkrafttrad half track motorcycle complete with cargo area tarpaulins and towed chariot.

There's also a specimen of the SdKfz 302 Goliath - the German unmanned ground vehicle. This was a miniature wire guided tank, complete with armour and tracks, used to place demolition charges.

If you are accompanied by persons who are not that interested in military history, they can visit the nearby Belvedere Palace, originally home of one of the foremost imperial generals and now an art museum, housing some of the most famous paintings by Gustav Klimt. If you need to recover energies after the visit, one of the most popular restaurants in Vienna, Salm Bräu, is next door to Belvedere Palace.

Museum of Military History, Militärhistorisches Institut, A-1030 Vienna, Arsenal, Objekt 1.
Phone number: +43-(0)1- 79561-0.
Website: www.hgm.or.at.

Public transport: underground line U1, Südbahnhof station and U3 Schlachthausgasse stations.
Bus lines 13A, 69A, streetcar lines 18, D.

Open daily (please, check before visit, as at least several museums in Vienna close one day per week) from 9am to 5pm. Closing days: 1 January, Easter Sunday, 1 May, 1 November, 24, 25 and 31 December.

Entry fee is 5.1 € (includes audio guide in several languages, including English), additional small fee for picture taking, no flash or tripod allowed. Informative sheets in several languages are available. English speaking staff. There are facilities for physically impaired persons. There's a small café in the premises and nearby hotels and restaurants.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V14N2 (November 2010)
and was posted online on February 24, 2012


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