Alice Schalek was born on 21 August 1874 in Vienna into an upper-class liberal Jewish family. After publishing her first works under the pseudonym Paul Michaely, she worked for over 30 years from 1903 for the famous Viennese daily newspaper Neue Freie Presse. From 1905 onwards Schalek travelled further afield visiting amongst other places North Africa, the Near East and South East Asia, elaborating her experiences in her columns, books and lectures.
Initially the outbreak of the First World War posed restrictions on Alice Schalek’s work as travelling overseas, especially to “enemy states“, became almost impossible; besides, media interest was focussed almost completely on political and military developments. After doing charity work in the autumn of 1914 in order to help the war effort (Kriegsfürsorge), an appropriate role for women to play at the time, in the spring of 1915 Schalek worked hard to gain accreditation as a war correspondent. Not least, with the support of high-profile mentors such as Maximilian von Hoen, who was in charge of the Austro-Hungarian Kriegspressequartier (KPQ; War Press Office), she was admitted to the KPQ as the only female war correspondent besides the Hungarian journalist Margit Vészi. From 1915 to 1917 she visited the Tyrolean mountain front, Serbia, the Isonzo area and Galicia. Schalek received several decorations including the “Golden Cross of Merit with Crown on the Ribbon of Medal for Bravery “which she was awarded in February 1917 for her articles, photos, books and lectures.
Alice Schalek skilfully juggled her professional career with the needs of the times. Unlike many other female authors, her writings very rarely featured hateful attacks on the enemy; on the contrary she drew completely noncritical, rose-tinted, glorifying images of the war and the army. In her portrayal of the Tyrolean mountain front she for instance expressed regret, “that the country cannot be displayed as a world fair in this state. […] The whole thing is so superbly structured, […] that the observer […] experiences nothing but a sort of diabolical enjoyment.“ Instead of more sober descriptions of operational processes, she depicted folkloristic scenes and vivid evocative images of the front reminiscent of her travel writings. In her feuilleton-style articles Schalek played an active role as observer, setting the scene and playing a special role as an inquisitive woman who got men to explain the war to her. Though her reports also dealt with the technical aspects, they focussed primarily on the emotional sphere, which in Schalek’s view male reporters paid too little attention to. She therefore saw herself as an essential mediator between the military players at the front and the civil spectators in the hinterland, whose sympathy for the war she wanted to keep alive.
Schaleks special, self-styled role as a war correspondent was responsible for her “career“ coming to an untimely end after just two years. For a woman to invade the men’s domain of the war front and claim to authentically report directly on the events of the war represented in the minds of conservatives right from the beginning an outright provocation. After just a few months, the poison pen comments by the antimilitarist Karl Kraus on the aberrations of the war culture had singled Alice Schalek out as a special target – primarily because she was a woman. In the May 1916 edition of the journal Die Fackel ("The Torch") he wrote for instance, that it was a “spectacle of degeneracy“, that this “woman […] knew of no other field that could excite her womanhood than the field of honour – Of all things! Ugh, disgusting!“ Similar criticism grew and a year later Christian-Social Parliamentarians urged the Austro-Hungarian Minister for Defence to declare that ”female sensationalism and lust for adventure“ had no place at the front “where men willingly accept their duty to suffer and even die for their home country“. It is highly likely that Schalek lost her accreditation as war correspondent for the KPQ at the end of 1917 as a result of these attacks.
After the First World War Schalek resumed her career as a photojournalist and travel writer and also became involved in the women’s movement. After being arrested by the Gestapo in 1939, she fled to Switzerland and emigrated to New York, where she lived a secluded life and died on 6 November 1956. Through his literary portrayal of “Die Schalek“, Karl Kraus raised a less than flattering monument to Schalek the war correspondent, while Alice Schalek the person and pioneer of (photo)journalism was almost forgotten until the 1990s. (JB)
Alice Schalek, Tirol in Waffen: Kriegsberichte von der Tiroler Front, Munich 1915. online: http://sophie.byu.edu/print/node/3572
Elke Krasny et al. (ed.), Von Samoa zum Isonzo. Die Fotografin und Reisejournalistin Alice Schalek, Vienna 1999.
Elisabeth Klaus, „Rhetorics of War. Karl Kraus versus Alice Schalek“, in: Feministische Studien 26/1 (2008), S. 65-82.
Italian editions of Schalek’s works: Alice Schalek, Tirolo in armi: corrispondenze di guerra dal fronte tirolese, edited by Paolo Pozzato and Augusto Bernardini, Bassano del Grappa, Itinera progetti, 2002; Alice Schalek, Isonzofront, Gorizia, Libreria Editrice Goriziana, 2003; Alice Schalek, Isonzofront: marzo-luglio 1916, translated by Renato Ferrari, plates and illustrations by Ferdinand Pamberger, introduction by Mario Silvestri Gorizia, Libreria Editrice Goriziana, 2014