Detergent, Knackwurst and Socialism
The Waschsalon in the historic Karl Marx-hof shows how the Social Democrats shaped Vienna
The museum Das Rote Wien im Waschsalon lionizes Vienna's left-wing legacy in a fittingly proletarian setting.
The museum Das Rote Wien im Waschsalon (Red Vienna at the Laundry Room) is certainly unusual: True to its name, the first thing you notice is the distinctive smell of laundry detergent. And indeed, there is a row of washing machines on the ground floor, which two elderly ladies are quietly feeding with linens as a group of flabbergasted visitors make their way past them to the upper floor and the exhibition proper. Located inside the former public shower room of Laundry Room No. 2 of the Karlmarx-hof – the largest connected residential building in the world, stretching over four tram stops – these no-nonsense working-class premises are a perfect fit to chronicle Vienna’s Socialist legacy. As much as the iconic art deco building hosting it, the exhibition is a dream come true for every labor leader or student activist. Heroes like founding father Viktor Adler are honored, display cases are filled with political newspapers and satirical magazines. Pamphlets and books from revolutionary thinkers are interspersed with videos of the construction of Viennese landmarks such as the Ernst-happel Stadium or the Amalienbad. Providing booklets and guided tours in English upon request, brace yourself for a lot of reading – countless signs take visitors through the decades, from the abysmal living conditions in Vienna around 1850 that gave rise to the party in 1874 to the present day.
But Red Vienna’s heyday was the 1920s, when the city became the first metropolis in the world under a social democratic mayor
– backed by female voters who got the vote for the first time in 1918. The new administration quickly proceeded with massive public projects to counter post-wwi hardships, most notably Gemeindebauten like the Karlmarx-hof – municipal housing that made an unprecedented standard of living affordable to the masses for the very first time. Hope filled the air, as illustrated by little anecdotes the curators use to lighten the mood: When workers learned in 1919 that they would get paid vacation, they celebrated by purchasing a collar of knackwurst and hanging it over the neck of the new (female) district councilwoman. Of course, things didn’t stay bright for long – by 1934, all leftist organizations were banned after losing the Austrian civil war to the Austro-fascist Vaterländische Front (Fatherland Front), and then Anschluss to Hitler’s Germany following in 1938. It wasn’t until after WWII that the Social Democrats returned to Vienna, starting an uninterrupted streak running city hall that continues to this day. Some say that today’s Social Democrats are having such a hard time winning hearts because their predecessors already finished the job decades ago. Falling victim to their own success, after granting affordable housing and education, 40-hour workweeks, social security, universal health care, paid vacations and decent public transport, there isn’t much left to rally the faithful. We’ll settle this question Viennese style by letting others worry about it and dwelling in the glory of the past.