By Chloë Fletcher
I glance at the newspapers by the entrance of Café Central without picking any up. In these dark days, ignorance is bliss. The waiter comes over and politely asks if I would like my usual Wiener Melange. He dislikes serving me because my uniform clearly identifies me as a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Labor Force. Perhaps he fears that I work at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, censoring letters and punishing those who speak against the government, the war or worst of all, the Emperor. I’m tempted to reassure him that our entire office is completely impotent in the face of two million Viennese, all distrustful, who spread rumors and write angrily to their loved ones that they are about to starve. At least I was not assigned to the police force, whose officers spend their days being heckled by women and children as they patrol the food lines, or chasing fruitless tips about food hoarders and hidden deserters.
I say none of this to the waiter who, after all, might then decide to denounce me. Anyhow, he might simply dislike me because I enlisted. The Force is controversial here, not just because it has freed more male workers from essential services to become soldiers, but because the work we do is unfeminine. The accusations come from all sides: I have ideas beyond my station, I am neglecting my duties at home, or I am just a state-sanctioned prostitute. In reality, I am simply in search of something to do with my time. The first few years of the war I remember with wistfulness, as a period when hunger and personal miseries could still be dulled by patriotic duty. I was a volunteer with the Frauenhilfsaktion, doling out soup in a war kitchen on Alserstraße and sewing bandages in the center nearby, but my branch closed last December because the kitchen could not buy food and the center had no cotton. I am lucky enough to have other family members and servants who wait for hours in food lines to bring bread to our household, so I may occupy myself with men’s work, waiting dully for the end of the war and a good meal.
The pay was an unexpected bonus, but money is no longer sufficient to ensure that your family will obtain necessities. I hear stories from Maggi, our cook, of unrest in the food lines when the bread runs out. I have never taken part in the food riots, but they are becoming part of the background noise of Vienna. Our brightly-colored ration cards guarantee us goods that are simply not there. Sometimes, if you can pay more, you will find a hoarder who hopes to avoid the price controls, but it is best to know important people. War has dramatically altered Vienna’s social hierarchy. The mayor and high-up civil servants are still, of course, eating as much as they want in the few restaurants that remain well stocked. Indeed, our Prime Minister, Karl Stürgkh, met a bloody end only last October while dining on a feast of mushroom soup, boiled beef with mashed turnips, pudding and wine spritzer. That was only five minutes away from here, on Neuer Markt. I smile malignantly at the memory of the headlines, read in a different café in the 9th. He was widely seen as the cause of the food shortages, so the papers had focused on his last, large meal. The most important members of society now, however, are the shopkeepers, or farmers outside of Vienna. They are the only ones who can help you to a steady supply of food and coal.
As I stir my coffee and look out the window at Herrengasse’s buildings, bright but dirty in the hot sunlight (sweeping and window-washing does not count as an essential service for which men may stay in Vienna), I remember a sadder death. Only a month after his Prime Minister, our Emperor Franz Joseph succumbed to pneumonia. The entire city had gone into mourning, becoming even more somber than it had felt in the earliest months of the war when cinemas and night-clubs had all been closed down out of respect for the soldiers. I can still see the funeral procession from my cramped position on the steps of the Stephansplatz post office. For once, the huge crowds were silent and respectful, not angry, and row upon row of foreign and Habsburg nobility trailed the funeral carriage, dressed in their finest clothes. Our new Emperor, Karl, seems so young in comparison, and rumors abound that his Italian-born wife is a spy. The cheers in the street when they pass seem forced; but perhaps that is simply because we are too hungry to be enthusiastic about anything except food nowadays. My sister told me yesterday that the Wehrmann in Schwarzenburgplatz, whose nails, driven in by thousands of Viennese, were a grand sign of Vienna’s dedication to the war effort, has been abandoned. Even the great Vienna War Exhibition is not as popular as it was when it opened last year. Apparently, the government has decided to close it permanently.
Before I leave, I glance briefly at the café’s other customers. We are all fairly well-dressed, but most people seem to be wearing clothes several sizes too large, and everyone sits quietly or speaks in muted voices. In the past, this was always one of the liveliest coffee houses, full of young men ranting and arguing about art, philosophy and politics. With a shrug, I turn to go. My local cinema – which could more accurately be described as a damp, unheated cellar – only opens once a week, and I never miss the film, which will begin in thirty minutes. Two years ago, a woman who lives across from me went to watch a war film and saw her husband on the screen, waving a flag and his gun. I know so many men who went to the front, some of them are still alive so I go to every screening. It would be nice, I think, to see some of them one last time.
Hoping for more now seems pointless. Although I work for the government, for the state, I am sick of the whole lot of them. Their war has destroyed Vienna, not the buildings, but the people within the city, many of whom are dying of starvation. Somebody, I think, with a sudden surge of anger, should be held accountable. Listening to the distant yells coming from beyond the Ring, I have a rapid, glorious rush of conviction that someone will. But today’s reality intrudes upon my daydream. With a sigh, I continue on my way, not knowing what will happen once this war is over, but certain that it has changed everything.