From the Beach to the Great War – Pula 1914

Pula 1914 © gemeinfrei
“Hey, Pula is crowded, hey, Pula is crowded
with young sailors
Hey, Pula is crowded, hey, Pula is crowded
with young sailors…”
Mate Balota

Baron Gautsch © gemeinfrei
The first civilian casualties of the First World War on the Adriatic

On August 13, 1914, the passenger ship Baron Gautsch, one of three ocean liners of the Austrian Lloyd shipping company, left the island town of Veli Lošinj and headed for Trieste, carrying 246 passengers and 64 crew members. The trip had started in Kotor (in today’s Montenegro) and was the ship’s first passenger voyage since the beginning of the war. The captain and his crew had been informed that a naval minefield had been laid near Pula to protect the Dual Monarchy’s main naval port on the Adriatic. Around 2 p.m., however, the Baron Gautsch came dangerously close to the mainland and hit a mine off the Brijuni Islands. A first major explosion on the port side was followed by several boiler explosions; the lifeboats were too few in number to save everyone on board. 147 passengers and crew members died.

They were the first civilian casualties of the First World War on the Adriatic. To this day, this tragedy serves as a powerful illustration of how carelessly and naively this part of the Habsburg Monarchy, which for many years had been Austria’s major holiday destination, stumbled into the Great War. The steamship, which stood for everything that had made this fashionable holiday region famous, sank once and for all, and still today lies 130 feet deep at the bottom of the ocean, now a popular spot for wreck divers.

From a provincial backwater to a city

This accident happened at the farthest tip of the “k. und k.” (Imperial and Royal) Monarchy, or “Kakania,” as Robert Musil called it in hindsight in his Man Without Qualities. There, not far from the scene of the Baron Gautsch’s sinking, a village had developed from a provincial backwater into a respectable little city complete with villas, holiday homes, trade offices, a big covered market, a theater and a naval academy, to eventually become the Habsburg Monarchy’s most important naval port (home to more than 16,000 soldiers and, among many other things, 26 fortifications connected by a tunnel system and 8 cannon towers): Pula or, in Italian, Pola.

A former Roman settlement – the arena that still stands in the city center dates from that time – Pula had been a mere fishing village for hundreds of years. In 1848, Pula’s population counted no more than 1,100; in 1910, this figure had risen to 58,000. No other place in Croatia and hardly any other place in Europe had experienced such an enormous growth in such short time. What was striking was the city’s multiethnic composition. In 1910, the population consisted of 45.8% Italians, 16.2% Croats, 15.5% Germans, 5.5% Slovenes, as well as other foreigners. The various groups coexisted, albeit in separate neighborhoods, generally got along well with each other, and forged a distinctly Istrian multicultural society. The “Austrian Riviera,” and with it the city of Pula, became the most popular travel destination for the Viennese. Many prominent artists and scholars, doctors and scientists, politicians and military figures visited the city, including Hermann Bahr, Robert Koch, Franz Lehar, Thomas Mann, and Karl Kraus. Dances, concerts, scientific lectures, and military parades defined the city’s social life. The many workers, craftsmen, and engineers also enjoyed a good living. During the final years of the Monarchy, Pula was a diverse and vibrant place that lived in tune with the coming and going of ships and cultivated a particular form of cosmopolitanism.

Pula 1914 © gemeinfrei
The war arrives

The year 1914, however, was an important turning point for the city. During the second half of the year, things went downhill fast. The war reached Istria. To protect the coastline and adjacent waters, 1.450 drift mines were laid around Pula. A steel net cordoned off the harbor’s entrance. Intended for the city’s safety, these measures also closed it off from the outside world and posed a risk also for non-hostile visitors. Again, it was shipping accidents that accompanied Pula’s decline. Only ten days after the sinking of the Baron Gautsch, the Austrian torpedo boat TB-26 hit a friendly mine: 11 casualties. In November, the Austrian steamship Josephine sank ten sea miles north of Pula: 1 person dead. Finally, in December, a French submarine got caught in the anti-submarine net in Pula harbor and sank.

Vienna ordered the evacuation of the civilian population, allowing only military personnel and the basic infrastructure (fire department, doctors, nurses, some workmen and builders) to stay in the city. Together with people from the surrounding villages, the evacuees were brought to refugee camps in Austria, Hungary, Moravia, and Czechia. For 15,000 Istrians, the trip ended in a camp in Gmünd in Lower Austria, which also took in refugees from Ukraine and Slovenia. Living conditions in the camp, which at one time or another held 50,000 people, were horrible, and by the time it was closed, 30,000 people, including 5,000 Istrians, had died there.

The civilians who had remained in Pula fared not much better: diseases, strikes, attacks, emergency states, hunger, and widespread apathy defined the war years. By the time the war was over, the city’s population had declined by half compared to 1914.

Austro-Hungarian dreadnought battleships (Tegetthoff class) at the roadstead in Pula, Croatia, which was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. © gemeinfrei
Pula 2014: A city looks back

In Pula, just like in the rest of Europe, the year 1914 changed everything. After having grown from a village into a city during the some six decades of Austro-Hungarian rule, epitomizing, as it were, the rise and fall of the monarchy in a small-scale Slavic and Mediterranean variety, Pula struggled to get back on its feet. More difficult times were to follow: fascism, political repression, the demise of multiculturalism, the Second World War II, more hunger and misery, bombings, new ethnic cleansing, socialism. Pula would never again attain the status it had had during the decades around the turn of the twentieth century.

And yet, and in contrast to many other vanished centers of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, a special spirit has survived among Pula’s residents, the “Puležani”: a sense of belonging not just to one but to many – or at least as many as possible – nationalities. To this day, Pula is characterized by a spirit of openness and tolerance, and, unlike the rural rest of Istria, has a very urban and urbane feel to it.

“Pula is crowded” (Puna je Pula) – this line from the folk song quoted by way of introduction is thus also the motto of a four-year program with which the city, starting in 2014, remembers the events that took place a century ago. The year 1914 is also the focus theme of the “Book Fair(y) in Istria” on December 4-14, 2014. Comics, including those that deal with the First World War, will feature prominently in the program. And while this year’s partner city of Sarajevo will send a large delegation of writers, the book festival that is part of the book fair naturally has a strong Austrian component to it. Books by Karl Kraus and Joseph Roth, recently translated into Croatian, are at the heart of two coffee house events. The Burgtheater in Vienna presents its “Kakania” series as part of a “Kakania Night,” while a poetry slam brings together slam poets from Graz and Rijeka. Last but not least, the book fair’s cultural and artistic program is also revolving around 1914: an installation of 145 helium balloons seeks to reenact the above-mentioned drift mines.

All these events, together with the commemorative, academic, and entertainment events that make up the “Pula is crowded, 2014-2018” program, first and foremost aim to foreground a message that cannot be written large enough on all posters and promotional materials, and that can be the only meaningful conclusion to be drawn from studying the beginning of the “Great War,” in Pula just like elsewhere: No more war!
Anne-Kathrin Godec
studied German and education in Cologne. She is the author of numerous features and radio plays, and the editor of several philosophical anthologies. Since 2008, she has lived and worked as a freelance writer and translator in Tribalj, Croatia, where she and her husband also run a small hotel specialized in literary and cultural events.

Translated by Manuela Thurner

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