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Heeresgeschichtliches Museum

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The oldest, and some say largest, military history museum in the world, the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum sits inside Vienna's labyrinthine Arsenal. Styled like a Moorish or Byzantine citadel, the building dates to 1856, when it opened as part of the new city garrison, replacing the previous one that was completely destroyed in the 1848 revolution. Architect Theophil Hansen was behind the striking, red-brick design, while the allegorical figurines and motifs dotting the facade were sculpted by Hans Gasser, one of the most important sculptors of the era.

The museum was intended to glorify the Austrian Empire's military successes and leaders, and to document glorious battles and advances in military technology. The Museum currently records Austria's military history from as early as the 16th century, all the way through to 1945, displaying artifacts that highlight the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of Austria's past.

The huge complex boasts some startling items, including the world's largest collection of bronze cannons, more than 1,200 guns and barrels and Europe's oldest preserved aircraft, the French hydrogen balloon L'Intrepide. There is significant space devoted to wars with the Ottomans, who laid Vienna to siege in the years 1529 and 1683. Visitors here will find extant weapons and armour employed by the Ottoman forces during these battles, as well as a red silk flag carried into battle by Ottoman troops.

The great Napoleonic wars also feature heavily here, with French and Austrian military uniforms from the battle of Austerlitz and an officer coat worn by Napoleon himself on the day he was exiled to the Island of Elba.

One of the more gruesome exhibits at the Heeresgeschichtliches is on display inside the World War I hall, relating to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that sparked off the start of the cataclysmic conflict. Visitors can see the car Ferdinand was travelling in when shot, the gun used, the uniform he was wearing when he died and the chaise longue upon which he finally expired. Getting so close to these haunting items is bound to be a particularly visceral experience.

Elsewhere one finds incredible frescoes and murals depicting battle scenes, hallways lined with marble statues of victorious commanders and generals, as well as a giant medieval artillery bombard, the Pumhart von Steyr, dating back to the 15th century. Naval warfare buffs should look out for the original shipmaker's model for the SMS Viribus Unitis, the Austrian military's flagship during the First World War, as well the salvaged hull and tower of a 1916 coastal submarine from Trieste.

Of course, the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum also covers the difficult Anschluss period of Austrian history, when the country united with Nazi Germany from 1938 to 1945. Poignant reminders of this dark chapter in Europe's history include posters depicting anti-Jewish propaganda, Nazi regalia and vehicles used by German troops during the war. Though most of the information about the exhibits here is written in German, even those who speak other languages will not fail to be moved by the artifacts at this powerful museum.


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