Floods in Vienna – Emperor is stylized as a hero

 

 

 

by Rita Klement

Floods in Vienna – Emperor is stylized as a hero

 

 

 

by Rita Klement

160 years ago – in February 1862 – a devastating flood gave the final impetus to finally tackle the regulation of the Danube. Emperor Franz Joseph probably actually provided energetic help, which earned him much admiration.

The flood in February 1862 was deeply engraved in people’s memory. Even two folk songs about those dramatic days were written [1], in which people’s horror at the violence of nature is clearly felt. In one of the songs, for example, it is said:

“The people fled to the battlements of the roofs,
Powerless to save only their little belongings.
To escape only from certain death,
And below roars the river’s wild flood” [2].

Floods were by far nothing new for the Viennese. Again and again, floods posed a danger to Vienna and its suburbs. Already in Roman Vindobona, a flood of the Danube caused devastating damage. In the second half of the 3rd century, the floods raging onto the banks led to a massive landslide, and parts of the camp even collapsed. Even today the terrain near the Ruprechtsstiege and Maria am Gestade bears witness to this natural disaster. [3] In the Middle Ages, too, the city itself and especially the areas to the northeast, such as today’s Leopoldstadt, Brigittenau, Floridsdorf and Donaustadt, were repeatedly badly affected. [4]

Alexander Kaiser (Lithograf), Otto Körner (Zeichner), Ludwig Carl Zamarski (Drucker), Karl (Carl) Dittmarsch (Drucker), “DIE ÜBERSCHWEMMUNG WIEN’s / in den Februartagen 1862.”, 1862, Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 87198, CC0; Link: zum Bild

It was treacherous that, not least due to the flood events, both the small rivers in today’s urban area and the Danube itself repeatedly led to massive erosion of the terrain and even changed their course. Even whole villages disappeared in the floods, like the village Ringelsee, which was finally destroyed by a flood at the beginning of the 16th century and which today is only remembered by the Ringelseeplatz in the 21st district. [5] The destruction of this village by the floods was so complete that today not even the exact location can be determined with absolute certainty. [6] Time and again, therefore, attempts were made to master the forces of nature. As early as the 15th century, efforts were made to tame the Danube. At that time, the main focus was on keeping the entrance to the Danube arm closest to Vienna, the so-called “Vienna Arm”, which we know today as the Danube Canal, navigable. However, this was precisely what caused flooding time and again. From the 18th century onwards, flood protection was the central concern of the hydraulic engineering measures. [7] However, these projects were only crowned with limited success, and devastating floods occurred in the late 18th and 19th centuries as well.

Ultimately, it was two flood events that led to the establishment of the Danube Regulation Commission at the end of the 19th century and the taming of the river was finally undertaken: The floods of 1830 and 1862.”[8]

Ludwig Angerer (Fotograf), Kaiser Franz Joseph I., um 1860, Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 133182/2, CC0; Link: zum Bild

The catastrophe had already announced itself at the end of January 1862. The Ottakringer Bach overflowed its banks in its upper reaches and finally burst the canal in today’s Lerchenfelderstraße, into which it had been planned to drain it a good 20 years earlier, over a length of 15 kilometers – around 28.5 meters. The pavement and soil collapsed, creating a veritable crater. The trolley, which usually runs there, had passed the scene of the accident only seconds before. [9] The next day, the water in the area was already up to half the height of the ground-level dwellings and the mostly poorer population could only try to save at least a few of their belongings. Subsequently, efforts were made to shore up the houses that were in danger from the collapse and, most importantly, to make the canal that had been buried by the collapse functional again in order to divert some of the water, which was eventually accomplished. On the part of the Court, efforts were made to help as much as possible. Pioneer detachments of the army were sent and the emperor also came in person to get a picture of the situation and to encourage those affected. The imperial family, however, did not leave it at good words only, also considerable donations for the hundreds of affected people arrived. [10]

The dramatic events in the suburbs had attracted all the attention, so that little attention was paid to the Danube. It also looked as if the ice cover of the mighty stream was calm. But the appearance was deceptive. On February 1, reports arrived from Linz and Melk that the Danube was rising dramatically, and there was also talk of enormous water masses – caused by the melting snow and the persistent rain – in the Danube’s feeder rivers. But the warnings came too late to take any action. Moreover – as the contemporary report already notes – the dramatic news from the west was rather eagerly taken up by the onlookers hoping for sensations than by the responsible persons. The next day, February 2, the water level of the Danube had already risen dramatically, and the first flooding occurred in Rossau and Erdberg. The first floods were also reported from the surrounding area and from the Prater. After the Kaiserin-Elisabeth-Westbahn had already been interrupted by the water the day before, there were now also failures in the area of the telegraphs. It gradually became clear that the reassuring reports about an imminent easing of the situation that had been circulated up to that point had probably been considerably premature. [11]

During the night of February 3, the level of the Danube and its tributaries had risen so high that Brigittenau was completely flooded. In the morning hours, the flooding still measured two shoes – about 60 centimeters – but by the evening, houses and streets were six shoes – 1.8 meters – high under water! The situation in Brigittenau was now dramatic. For the water had risen so quickly that it had been impossible for people to get to safety in time. The only escape route was onto the roofs of the houses, where the residents had to wait for rescue in the February cold and still pouring rain. It borders on a miracle that all those affected in Brigittenau could actually be brought to safety. In the meantime, the flooding spread to more and more areas in and around Vienna. [12]

Although one could still read in the Viennese newspapers on February 3 that all necessary precautions had been taken, it soon became apparent that these were not sufficient. After the railroads, streetcars and telegraphs, the water supply was now also affected. In Spittelau, water penetrated the machine house of the Kaiser-Ferdinands-Wasserleitung and subsequently the suction channels, rendering the drinking water unusable. [13]

Despite the dramatic nature of the situation, scenes of the kind we are familiar with today from similar events occurred again and again. For when the water masses washed up large quantities of wood from upstream wood piles, life-threatening fishing for the flotsam began among the many onlookers.

While at first a few poorer people fished a few logs of wood for their stoves, there was gradually a veritable boom in the trade in whole piles of fished-out wood until the authorities put an end to the hustle and bustle. However, not only harmless firewood was floating in the torrent, but also uprooted trees, parts of houses, fences and the like. In view of the worsening situation, Emperor Franz Joseph once again set out to personally assess the situation and to order military units to the flooded areas to support the rescue operations. [14]

Ludwig Seidle (Lithograf), Karl (Carl) Lanzedelli (Lancedelli) (Lanzedelly) (Verleger), “Naturgetreue Übersicht / der Überschwemmung der Brigittenau und der niedrig gelegenen Vorstädte Wiens / vom 2. bis zum 8. Februar 1862.”, 1862, Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 57799, CC0; Link: zum Bild

Emperor Franz Joseph was also on his way to the disaster areas the next day. Although the weather conditions were dramatic, freezing rain and storm had set in, he spent almost the whole day – actually standing upright – in the rescue boats and helped to rescue those trapped by the flooding. [15] This heroic attitude of the then 32-year-old monarch was admired everywhere and captured in pictures. The two folk songs quoted at the beginning also praised the emperor:

“He comforts all the poor, distributes mild gifts,
At the barge as a dear father, before many a ruined house.”  [16]

Meanwhile, the water continued to rise. Through the canals it now also penetrated into the city center. In the afternoon of February 4, the Adlergasse (then between Rotenturmstraße and Laurenzerberg) was flooded. Flooding also occurred at Salzgrieß and Franz-Josephs-Kai. In the Rossau, meanwhile, there was also one fatality; when a zille capsized, a girl could not be rescued from the icy waters and drowned. [17] The next day, February 5, the situation was still dramatic. The water rose even further, and in the meantime Leopoldstadt was also completely flooded. The Carltheater had to be closed because the water had penetrated the sinkholes and also damaged the gas lighting. Even on the fifth day of flooding, the emperor, like Mayor Zelinka, was undauntedly on the move in the flooded areas. Franz Joseph seems to have actually also lent a hand himself – for even the contemporary witnesses were struck by the stark contrast of the monarch to the gawking onlookers, who at most tried to enrich themselves with the flotsam. [18]

Martin Gerlach jun. (Fotograf), August Xaver Karl Pettenkofen (Ritter von) (Künstler), Franz Joseph I. (Habsburg-Lothringen), Erzherzog von Österreich, Kaiser von Österreich (Portrait von), Franz Joseph auf der durch Hochwasser zerstörten großen Taborbrücke, 1862 (Inv.-Nr. 29035), um 1935, Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 210116, CC0; Link: zum Bild

Only slowly did the water begin to recede in some suburbs on February 6. In Brigittenau, however, there was still no sign of the floods receding. Here the devastation was particularly catastrophic. Some houses and all the gardens were completely destroyed. The livestock, which had still been kept by many residents at the time, had all died in agony. A day later, the water continued to sink, but there were still 4,000 homeless people to care for. [19] The extent of the catastrophe had hardly left anyone cold. Therefore, tens of thousands of guilders in donations arrived to alleviate the plight of the flood victims. [20]

After the water finally dropped significantly on February 7 and 8, 1862, the weather changed. Now an extreme cold with -12 degrees set in, which caused additional problems for the victims of the water masses. This was because some of the houses were still under water, which was now freezing, and the waterlogged walls took further damage from the massive frost. In addition, there were more and more cases of illness. Scarlet fever and measles were rampant among the children of the people crammed into emergency quarters. The first cases of typhoid fever appeared. [21]

Only slowly did the water begin to recede in some suburbs on February 6. In Brigittenau, however, there was still no sign of the floods receding. Here the devastation was particularly catastrophic. Some houses and all the gardens were completely destroyed. The cattle, which were then After the dramatic days of February 1862, it was clear that action had to be taken. However, long discussions and planning work followed until the groundbreaking ceremony for the Danube regulation was held in May 1870. Within five years, the 13 kilometer long culvert was built [22] – but that is already another story…

The fish, which had been held by many inhabitants, had all died in agony. A day later, the water continued to sink, but there were still 4,000 homeless people to care for. [19] The extent of the catastrophe had hardly left anyone cold. Therefore, tens of thousands of guilders in donations arrived to alleviate the plight of the flood victims. [20]

After the water finally dropped significantly on February 7 and 8, 1862, the weather changed. Now an extreme cold with -12 degrees set in, which caused additional problems for the victims of the water masses. This was because some of the houses were still under water, which was now freezing, and the waterlogged walls took further damage from the massive frost. In addition, there were more and more cases of illness. Scarlet fever and measles were rampant among the children of the people crammed into emergency quarters. The first cases of typhoid fever appeared. [21]

References and literature used

Used literatur

Felix Czeike, Historisches Lexikon Wien, Bd. IV. Le bis Ro, Wien 1995.

Johann Ernst, „Die Überschwemmung von Wien“, Wien: Verlag Carl Barth 1862. Zitiert nach: https://www.wienervolksliedwerk.at/VMAW/VMAW/Anmerkungen/hochwasser1862.htm

  1. Hofmann, Die Überschwemmung von Wien und Umgebung im Februar 1862, Wien 1862.

Helmut Kretschmer/Herbert Tschulk, Brände und Naturkatastrophen in Wien. Wiener Geschichtsblätter, Beiheft 1/1995, Wien 1995

Franz Michelmayr, Gegen den Strom. Die Regulierung der Donau. In: Karl Brunner/Petra Schneider (Hrsg.) Umwelt Stadt. Geschichte des Natur- und Lebensraums Wien, Wien/Köln/Weimar2005, S. 307-317.

Johannes Sachslehner, Wien. Eine Geschichte der Stadt, Wien 2012.

Carl Munganast, „Das Hochwasser im Jahre 1862“, Wien: Verlag Mathias Moßbeck 1862. Zitiert nach: https://www.wienervolksliedwerk.at/VMAW/VMAW/Anmerkungen/hochwasser1862.htm

Wiener Volksliedwerk, https://www.wienervolksliedwerk.at/VMAW/VMAW/Anmerkungen/hochwasser1862.htm

 

Quellenangabe:

1 ….. Wiener Volksliedwerk

2 ….. Johann Ernst, „Die Überschwemmung von Wien“, nach der Melodie „Die Kindesliebe“.

3 ….. Sachslehner, S. 41.

4 ….. Kretschmer/Tschulk S. 16.

5 ….. Hohensinner, S. 16ff.

6 ….. Czeike, S. 677.

7 ….. Michlmayr, S. 308f.

8 ….. Michlmayr, S. 310.

9 ….. Hofmann, S. 3.

10 ….. Hofmann, S. 4ff.

11 ….. Hofmann, S. 6ff.

12 ….. Hofmann, S. 8ff.

13 ….. Hofmann, S. 9.

14 ….. Hofmann, S. 10ff.

15 ….. Hofmann, S. 13f.

16 ….. Munganast.

17 ….. Hofmann, S. 14f.

18 ….. Hofmann, S. 16ff.

19 ….. Hofmann, S. 21ff.

20 ….. Hofmann, S. 28.

21 ….. Hofmann, S. 30.

22 ….. Michlmayr, S. 310f.

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