Although Austria’s territorial heartland has always been modest in size, its monarchy ruled an empire that spanned continents and was once the last word in politics and high culture. Austria's history is a story of conflated empires and powerful monarchs, war and revolution, cultural explosion, Austro-Fascism, occupation by foreign powers and stable democracy.
Civilisations & Empires
The alpine regions of Austria were cold, inhospitable places during the last ice age 30,000 years ago and virtually impenetrable for human and beast. So it’s not surprising that while mammoths were lumbering across a frozen landscape, the more accessible plains and Danube Valley in Lower Austria developed into early centres of civilisation. Several archaeological finds can be traced back to this period, including ancient Venus figurines that are today housed inside Vienna's Naturhistorisches Museum. The starlet among the collection is the Venus of Willendorf, discovered in 1908 in the Wachau region of the Danube Valley. The diminutive and plump 11cm figurine is made of limestone and estimated to be around 25,000 years old.
A proto-Celtic civilisation known as the Hallstatt Culture – named after the town of Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut where there was a burial site – took root in the region around 800 BC. These proto-Celts mined salt in the Salzkammergut and maintained trade ties with the Mediterranean. When other Celts settled in the late Iron Age (around 450 BC) from Gaul (France) they chose the valley of the Danube River, but also the salt-rich regions around Salzburg, encountering Illyrians who had wandered there from the Balkan region as well as the Hallstatt proto-Celts. Gradually an Illyric-Celtic kingdom took shape, known as Noricum, that stretched from eastern Tyrol to the Danube and the eastern fringes of the Alps in Carinthia, also extending into parts of Bavaria (Germany) and Slovenia. Today the towns of Hallstatt and Hallein have exhibits and salt works focusing on the Hallstatt Culture and these Celtic civilisations.
The Romans, who crossed the Alps in force in 15 BC and settled south of the Danube River, carved up regions of Austria into administrative areas and built Limes (fortresses) and towns such as Carnuntum, Vindobona (the forerunner of Vienna), Brigantium (Bregenz), Juvavum (Salzburg), Flavia Solva (Leibnitz in Styria), Aguntum and Virunum (north of Klagenfurt). However, the Western Empire created by the Romans collapsed in the 5th century, leaving a vacuum that was filled by newly arriving tribes: the Germanic Alemanni in Vorarlberg, Slavs who pushed into Carinthia and Styria, and Bavarians who settled south of the Danube in Upper and Lower Austria, Tyrol and around Salzburg. The Bavarians proved to be the most successful, and by the 7th century they had most regions of Austria in their grip, creating a large German-speaking territory.
The Carolingian Empire
Once the Roman Empire had collapsed in the 5th century, it was difficult to talk about fully fledged empires. This changed in Europe and in Austria itself with the growth of the Carolingian Empire in the 6th century. This was Europe’s most powerful empire in its day. It originated in western France and Belgium, grew into a heavyweight under Charlemagne (747–814) and took its inspiration from the Romans. Significantly for future Austria, Charlemagne created a buffer region in the Danube Valley, later dubbed Ostmark (Eastern March), which shored up the eastern edge of his empire, and in 800 he was crowned kaiser by the pope.
The Babenburg Dynasty
Fate took a decisive turn in 976, when Ostmark landed in the hands of Leopold von Babenberg (940–94), a descendent of a noble Bavarian family. Leopold received territory as a gift from Otto II (955–83), a Holy Roman emperor whom Leopold had supported during an uprising in Bavaria. The Babenbergs were a skilful clan who in the 11th century expanded their small territory to include most of modern-day Lower Austria (with Vienna), and a century later Styria (1192) and much of Upper Austria. In 1156, under the Babenberg monarch Heinrich II ‘Jasmirogott’, the Ostmark (still a political fence until that time) was elevated to a duchy (ie with its own duke and special rights) and Vienna became its capital.
In 1246 Duke Friedrich II died (leaving no heirs) following a battle with the Hungarians over the border between Hungary and his lands in Austria. This allowed the ambitious Bohemian king Ottokar II to move in and assert his control. He bolstered his claim to the Babenberg lands by marrying Friedrich's widow, but he refused to swear allegiance to Rudolf von Habsburg, who had been elected ruler of the Holy Roman Empire in 1273. This caused one of the most celebrated clashes in Austrian history when in 1278 the House of Habsburg and its Bohemian arch-rival Ottokar II (who now controlled Styria and Carinthia) went to battle on the Marchfeld, 30km northeast of Vienna. Ottokar, held up while trying to penetrate Drosendorf’s fortress en route to the battle, was killed, allowing the Habsburg family to reign uncontested over Austria and marking the beginning of the Habsburg's grip over the nebulous Holy Roman Empire until it finally collapsed in 1806.
Early Habsburg Monarchy
The rise of the Habsburgs to rule was shaky at first. The period directly leading up to the election of Rudolf I was known as the Interregnum, a time when the Holy Roman Empire failed to produce an unchallenged and enduring monarch. After Rudolf died in 1291, the crown slipped out of Habsburg hands for a few years until the non-Habsburgian successor was slain by the Hungarians and Rudolf's eldest son, Albert I, was elected to head the empire in 1298.
The Habsburgs initially suffered some humiliating setbacks, including at the hands of the Swiss, who had begun forming political unions to help maintain peace following the death of Rudolf I. These unions subsequently fought the Habsburgs on numerous occasions and created the basis for greater autonomy and, much later, Swiss independence from the Habsburgs.
In Austria itself, however, the Habsburgs managed to consolidate their position: Carinthia (as well as Carniola in Slovenia) lost its independence and was annexed in 1335, followed by Tyrol in 1363. These foundations allowed Duke of Austria Rudolf IV (1339–65) to forge ahead with developing his lands: he founded the University of Vienna in in 1365 and he created Vienna's most visible landmark today by ordering the building of Gothic Stephansdom in 1359, justifiably earning himself the moniker 'Rudolf the Founder'.
Keeping it Hapsburg
Marriage, not muscle, was the historic key to Habsburg land gains. The Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus (1443–90) once adapted lines from Ovid when he wrote: ‘Let others wage war but you, lucky Austria, marry! For the empires given to others by Mars are given to you by Venus.’
The age of the convenient wedding began in earnest with Maximilian I (1459–1519), whose moniker was the Last Knight because of his outdated predilection for medieval tournaments. His other loves were Renaissance art, his own grave (which he commissioned during his life time) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), whom Maximilian commissioned to work on the very same grave before he stepped into it. It is now in Innsbruck’s Hofkirche.
But it was Maximilian’s affection for Maria of Burgundy (1457–82) that had the greatest influence on the fortunes of the Habsburgs. The two married, and when Maria fell from a horse and died as a result of a miscarriage in 1482, Burgundy, Lorraine and the Low Countries fell into Habsburg hands. In their day, these regions were the last word in culture, economic prosperity and the arts. However, this began a difficult relationship with France that stuck to the Habsburg shoe for centuries.
The ‘Spanish Marriage’ in 1496 was another clever piece of royal bedding. When Maximilian’s son Philipp der Schöne (Philip the Handsome) married Juana la Loca (Johanna the Mad; 1479–55), Spain and its resource-rich overseas territories in Central and South America became Habsburgian. When their son Ferdinand I (1503–64) married Anna of Hungary and Bohemia (1503–47), fulfilling a deal his grandfather Maximilian I had negotiated with King Vladislav II (1456–1516), Bohemia was also in the Habsburg fold. In the same deal, Maria von Habsburg (1505–58) married into this Polish-Lithuanian Jagiellonen dynasty, which traditionally purveyed kings to Poland, Bohemia and Hungary at that time. By 1526, when her husband Ludwig II (1506–26) drowned in a tributary of the Danube during the Battle of Mohács against the Turks, Silesia (in Poland), Bohemia (in the Czech Republic) and Hungary were all thoroughly Habsburg.
Under Karl V (1500–58), the era of the universal monarch arrived, and the Habsburgs had added the kingdom of Naples (southern Italy, including Sicily). That was about as good as it got.
Feature: Austria & the Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empire was Europe’s oddest ‘state’. Its foundations were laid when the Carolingian king, Pippin, rescued a beleaguered pope and became Patricius Romanorum (Protector of Rome), making him Caesar’s successor. The title ‘kaiser’ is derived from ‘Caesar’. Pippin, with Italian spoils on his hands (one being the present-day Vatican), gave these to the pope. Pippin's son, Charlemagne, continued this tradition as protector (which meant he had the title kaiser), and in 962, with the crowning of Otto I (912–73) as Holy Roman Emperor, the empire was officially born.
Kings in the empire were elected in political horse-trading by a handful of prince electors, but for a king to take the next step and become kaiser (and protector of the pope), he had to be crowned by the pope. Depending on how feisty the pope happened to be, this brought other troubles. In 1338 enough was enough and the electors threw the pope overboard, deciding they could elect their own kaiser.
In 972, just before Otto I died, borders of the empire included present-day Austria, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Germany, Holland, Belgium and much of the Italian peninsula. These borders ebbed and flowed with the times. When Rudolf I arrived in 1273, all – or what remained of it – belonged to the Habsburgs.
The empire was formally buried in 1806 when Napoleon Bonaparte tore through Europe, and by the time the Austro-Hungarian Empire (a dual monarchy of Austria and Hungary) took shape in 1867, it was little more than a dim and distant reminder of medieval times.
Reformation & the Thirty Years' War
The 16th century was a crucial period in Austria during which the country came to terms with religious reformation brought about by Martin Luther, Counter-Reformation aimed at turning back the clock on Luther's Church reforms, and a disastrous Thirty Years' War that saw the Habsburgs' German territories splinter and slip further from their grasp.
In the German town of Wittenberg in 1517, theology professor Martin Luther (1483–1546) made public his 95 theses that questioned the papal practice of selling indulgences to exonerate sins. Threatened with excommunication, Luther refused to recant, broke from the Catholic Church, was banned by the Reich, and whilst in hiding translated the New Testament into German. Except in Tyrol, almost the entire population of Austria had become Protestant. In 1555 Karl V signed the Peace of Augsburg, which gave the Catholic and Protestant churches equal standing and allowed each local prince to decide the religion of their principality. The more secular northern principalities of the German lands adopted Lutheran teachings, while the clerical lords in the south, southwest and Austria remained Catholic or adopted Catholicism. Not only does this explain the patchwork of Protestant and Catholic religions today in many regions that used to be part of the Holy Roman Empire, but it also made a mess of one Habsburg vision: Emperor Karl V had dedicated his life to creating a so-called universal Catholic monarchy. Seeing the writing clearly on the wall, he abdicated in 1556 and withdrew to a monastery in Spain to lick his wounds and die.
The spoils were divided up among the Habsburgs. The brother of Karl V, Ferdinand I, inherited Austria as well as Hungary and Bohemia, and Karl V’s only legitimate son, Philip II (1527–98), got Spain, Naples and Sicily, the Low Countries, and the overseas colonies. To bolster Catholicism in Austria, Ferdinand I invited the Jesuits to Vienna in 1556; in contrast, his successor Maximilian II was extremely tolerant of Protestantism and the ideas of the Reformation. When the fanatically Catholic Ferdinand II took the throne in 1619 and put his weight behind a Counter-Reformation movement, the Protestant nobles in Bohemia finally rebelled in an armed conflict that quickly spread and developed into the pan-European Thirty Years' War; Sweden and France had joined this by 1635. In 1645 a Protestant Swedish army marched to within sight of Vienna but did not attack.
Calm was restored with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) but it left the Habsburgs' Reich – embracing more than 300 states and about 1000 smaller territories – a nominal, impotent state. Switzerland and the Netherlands gained formal independence, and the Habsburgs lost territory to France.
Feature: Whatever Happened to the Habsburgs?
They’re still around – about 500 of them, some 280 of whom still live in Austria. The current family head is Karl Habsburg-Lothringen (b 1961). He recently took on the job of heading Europe's most famous family after the death of his father Otto von Habsburg (1912–2011). Famous for his bon mots, Otto von Habsburg renounced his claims to the Habsburg lands in 1961, a step that allowed him to re-enter Austria and launch a career in European politics.
Once asked why his name never surfaced in the tabloids, the aged ‘monarch’ replied: ‘I’ve not once attended a ball. I prefer to sleep at night. And if you don’t go to nightclubs, you don’t run into the gossip columnists'. He was something of a sporting man, too: when quizzed about whom he thought would win an Austria–Hungary football match, Otto reportedly replied, ‘Who are we playing?’
Most poignant is perhaps a comment by German president Paul von Hindenburg to Otto von Habsburg in 1933 (the year Hitler seized power in Germany): ‘You know, your majesty, there’s only one person with hostile feelings towards the Habsburgs, but he’s an Austrian'.
Turks & the Siege of Vienna
The Ottoman Empire viewed Vienna as ‘the city of the golden apple’, but it wasn’t Apfelstrüdel they were after in their great sieges. The first, in 1529 during the reign of Karl V, was begun by Süleyman the Magnificent, who advanced into Hungary and took Budapest before beginning an 18-day siege to capture Vienna. This was the meeting of two powers almost at their peaks, but – for reasons that are unclear today – the Ottomans suddenly withdrew back to Hungary. The Turkish sultan died at the siege of Szigetvár, yet his death was kept secret for several days in an attempt to preserve the morale of his army. The subterfuge worked for a while. Messengers were led into the presence of the embalmed body, which was placed in a seated position on the throne. They then relayed their news to the corpse.
At the head of the second Turkish siege in 1683 was the general and grand vizier Kara Mustapha. Amid the 25,000 tents of the Ottoman army that surrounded Vienna's medieval centre, he installed 1500 concubines, guarded by 700 black eunuchs. Their luxurious quarters contained gushing fountains and regal baths, all set up in haste but with great effect.
Again, it was all to no avail, even though Vienna was only lightly defended by 10,000 men. Mustapha’s overconfidence was his downfall; failing to put garrisons on Kahlenberg, he and his army were surprised by a swift attack from this famous hill. Mustapha was pursued from the battlefield and defeated once again, at Gran. At Belgrade he was met by the emissary of Sultan Mehmed IV. The price of failure was death, and Mustapha meekly accepted his fate. When the Austrian imperial army conquered Belgrade in 1718 the grand vizier’s head was dug up and brought back to Vienna in triumph.
Maria Theresia (1717–80), whose plump figure in stone fills a regal stool on Maria-Theresian-Platz in Vienna today, was something of the mother of the nation. Thrust into the limelight when her father died with no male heirs, she ruled for 40 years while also managing to give birth to 16 children – among them Marie Antoinette, future wife of Louis XVI. Maria Theresia’s fourth child, Joseph II, weighed a daunting 7kg at birth.
Although Maria Theresia is famous for her many enlightened reforms, she was remarkably prudish for a family that had married and bred its way to power. One of her less popular measures was the introduction of the short-lived Commission Against Immoral Conduct in 1752, which raided private homes, trying to catch men entertaining loose women – the commission even tried to snare Casanova during his visit to Vienna, throwing him out of the city in 1767.
Maria Theresia’s low take on fornication (and Casanova's womanising and proclivity for urinating in public) was no doubt coloured by the conduct of her husband, Francis I, who was apparently very adept and enthusiastic when it came to fornication. Yet despite her husband’s philandering, Maria Theresia felt she should remain loyal to her spouse, and when he died suddenly in 1765 she stayed in mourning for the rest of her life. She retreated to Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna, left the running of the state in the hands of Joseph II (of 7kg fame) as co-regent, and adopted a low profile and chaste existence.
The period of the Enlightenment began under Maria Theresia and continued during the co-reign of Joseph II in the late 18th century. Vienna was transformed from being a place in which the Habsburgs lived and ruled into an administrative capital. A functioning bureaucracy was established for the first time and this was directly responsible to the monarchy. Joseph was mostly of the same mettle as his mother. He ushered in a period of greater religious tolerance and in 1781 an edict ensured Protestants would enjoy equal rights with Catholics. While decrees gave Jews much more freedom, paving the way for a more active role in trade and education, paradoxically he promoted assimilation of Jews into the Austrian mainstream, banning whatever customs he thought hindered this.
Napoleon, Revolution & Empire
The French Revolution of 1789–99 was a political explosion that ushered in a new age of republicanism in Europe and challenged surviving feudalistic undertakings like the Holy Roman Empire. It also led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), Europe's diminutive moderniser. His code of law, the Napoleonic Code, was the backbone of modern laws and was anathema to precisely those privileges of rank and birth that had allowed the Habsburgs to rule and govern for so long.
Austria played a role in virtually all the Napoleonic wars from 1803 to 1815, the year Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo. He occupied Vienna twice (in 1805 and 1809) and in April 1809, during occupation of Austrian regions, Tyrol – which had fallen into the hands of Bavaria – was the scene of a discontent when innkeeper Andreas Hofer (1767–1810) led a rebellion for independence. For his troubles, Hofer was put on trial and executed at Napoleon’s behest. His body is entombed in Innsbruck’s Hofkirche.
Despite ultimately being defeated, Napoleon's ventures triggered the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. Its ruler Franz II reinvented himself as Franz I of Austria, and the man he appointed to help draw up a post-Napoleon Europe, the chief minister Klemenz von Metternich, rose to dominate Europe's biggest diplomatic party, the Congress of Vienna, held in 1814–15 to reshape the continent. The Habsburgs survived all this and in the post-Napoleon Vormärz (Pre-March) years, they dominated a loose Deutscher Bund (German Alliance) comprising hundreds of small ‘states’ cobbled together in an oppressive period of modest cultural flourish and reactionary politics called the Biedermeier period.
Revolutions of 1848
With citizens being kept on a short leash by their political masters in the first half of the 19th century, it’s not surprising that they began to seek new freedoms. Klemenz von Metternich, who had become court and state chancellor, believed in absolute monarchy and his police took a ferocious approach to liberals and Austrian nationalists who demanded their freedom. Meanwhile, nationalism – one of the best chances of liberalising Austrian society at that time – was threatening to chip away the delicate edges of the Habsburg empire. On top of this, atrocious industrial conditions added fuel to fires of discontent.
The sparks of the Paris revolution in February 1848 ignited Vienna in March 1848. Reflecting the city–country divide, however, the uprising failed to take hold elsewhere in Austria except in Styria. A similar revolution in Germany meant that some Austrian revolutionaries were now in favour of becoming part of a greater, unified and liberal Germany. This was the difficult Grossdeutsch-Kleindeutsch (Greater Germany–Lesser Germany) question – Germany with or without Austria – and reflects the unsettled relationship between the Austrian and German nations.
The rebels demanded a parliament, and in May and June 1848 Kaiser Ferdinand I issued manifestos which paved the way for a parliamentary assembly a month later. He packed his bags and his family and fled to Innsbruck. This should have been the end of the Habsburgs. It wasn’t. Parliament passed a bill improving the lot of the peasants, and Ferdinand cleverly sanctioned this, overnight winning the support of rural folk in the regions. Meanwhile, the Habsburgs received a popular boost when General Radetzky (1766–1858) won back Lombardy (Italy) in successful military campaigns.
In October 1848, however, the revolution escalated and reached fever pitch in Vienna. Although this uprising could be quashed, the Habsburgs decided to dispense with Ferdinand I, replacing him with his nephew Franz Josef I, who introduced his own monarchical constitution and dissolved parliament in early 1849. It would only be revived properly in 1867.
By September 1849 it was time to weigh up the damage, count the dead and, most importantly, look at what had been won. Austria was not a democracy, because the kaiser retained absolute powers that allowed him to veto legislation and govern by decree if he wished. The revolutions, however, had swept away the last vestiges of feudalism and, by giving them a taste of parliamentary rule, made state citizens out of royal subjects.
In 1867 a dual monarchy was created in Austria and Hungary. This was an attempt by the Habsburgs to hold onto support for the monarchy among Hungarians by giving them a large degree of autonomy. The Austro-Hungarian Empire would grow to include core regions of Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as regions like the Voivodina in Serbia, and small chunks in northern Italy, Romania, Poland and Ukraine.
Generally it is known as the ‘KuK’ (König und Kaiser; king and kaiser) monarchy – the kaiser of Austria was also king of Hungary. In practice, the two countries increasingly went separate ways, united only by the dual monarch and a couple of high-level ministries like ‘war’ and ‘foreign affairs’. This so-called Danube Monarchy or Austro-Hungarian Empire was the last stage of development in the Habsburg empire and would endure until 1918, when it collapsed completely.
Austria in the late 19th century followed a similar pattern of industrialisation and growth of political parties based around workers' movements that occurred in other continental European countries. The country's oldest political party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ; Social Democratic Party of Austria), was founded as the Social Democratic Workers' Party in 1889, based on German models. By the turn of the 20th century, Austria – and Vienna in particular – was experiencing one of its most culturally exciting periods. The capital's population had almost doubled between 1860 and 1890, growing to more than two million inhabitants.
This was the political and cultural hub of an empire that spanned Austria and Hungary, but also included 15 other countries, proving a magnet for artists, architects, the persecuted and plain hangers-on who wanted to try their luck in the capital of an empire. In this empire, however, Austrians and Hungarians enjoyed a higher status than Slavs, leading to exploitation and often tensions in the capital.
Architecturally, Austria's capital was transformed by a spate of building and infrastructure projects that, among other large projects, saw it receive a metro system. The Secession movement, the Austrian equivalent of art nouveau, sprang up and rejected historicism. Villas sprouted out of the ground in Vienna and across the country, and the coffee houses, especially in the capital, became the centre of literary activity and music. In 1913 Arnold Schöneberg began developing his 'atonal' style of musical composition when he conducted his famous Watschenkonzert ('clip-over-the-ear concert') in Vienna's Musikverein. For a public used to the primrose tones of Romanticism, it must have felt like an unmitigated aural assault.
Meanwhile, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) had set up his practice in Vienna's Bergstrasse and was challenging the sexual and psycho-social mores of the previous century. He used the term psychoanalysis and explained the role of sexuality in human life. This was, in fact, a highly sexualised period, with writers such as Arthur Schnitzler and Expressionist artists like Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka taking sexuality as a major theme in their works. WWI brought all this to an end.
World War I
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the nephew of Franz Josef, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 triggered the first of Europe's two cataclysmic wars in the 20th century. Overnight, the cultural explosion of fin-de-siècle Austria was replaced by the explosion of shells in the trenches. Austria responded to the assassination by declaring war on Serbia one month later, in what it believed would be a short, punitive campaign. Austria-Hungary was poorly equipped, however, and the war rapidly escalated into a pan-European affair in which Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey found themselves pitted against a European power coalition made up of Russia, Britain, France and Italy. Halfway through the war Franz Josef died and was replaced by Karl I. Ultimately, military revolt by troops in Italy spread and caused the rest of the army to lay down its arms, bringing defeat and collapse of the empire. WWI resulted in about 1.4 million military casualties for Austria-Hungary, and another 3.5 million Austro-Hungarians were wounded. In the rest of Europe, it was perceived as unprecedented in the scale of destruction and suffering it caused, and so horrific that it was dubbed 'the war to end all wars'.
The First Republic
With defeat and the abdication of Karl I, Austria declared itself a republic on 12 November 1918, having been reduced to a small country of about 6.5 million inhabitants, most of whom spoke German. South Tyrol was carved off from the rest of Austria and given to Italy, and the perception at the time was that a country of Austria's size would have little chance of surviving. Austria was therefore caught between contrasting movements that either wanted to unite with Germany, return to a monarchical system, or simply break away and join another country, as was the case with Vorarlberg (which sought union with Switzerland). The loss of land caused severe economic difficulties. Whole industries collapsed and unemployment soared, fuelled by the return of ex-soldiers and the influx of refugees, but also by a huge number of bureaucrats who, with the collapse of the monarchy, now had no job to return to.
One of the most serious problems facing the new republic was the divide between the socialist-governed cities, especially 'Red Vienna', and the extremely conservative rural regions. The 30,000-strong army created to ensure the country's existence was an additional conservative force in the country. The weakness of this army was matched by a police force that was helpless in thwarting the creation of left- and right-wing paramilitary forces.
The Social Democratic Workers' Party created its Republican Defence League (Schutzbund), whereas on the other side of the political fence the Christlichsoziale Partei (Christian Social Party), a Catholic nationalist party that had emerged in the late 19th century and survived until 1934, fostered close ties with a number of ultra-conservative paramilitary groups.
By the mid-1920s armed paramilitary groups from both sides were roaming the streets of Vienna and elsewhere engaging in bloody clashes. When in 1927 a court in Vienna acquitted members of the right-wing paramilitary Frontkämpfer (Front Fighters) on charges of killing two people during demonstrations, left-wing groups rose up and stormed the city's Justizpalast (Palace of Justice). The police moved in and regained control of the building, but about 90 people died in the revolt and over 1000 were injured. Troubled times had come.
Jewish History in Austria
As Austria entered the 1930s, the threat to its Jewish population intensified and would culminate in cultural, intellectual and above all human tragedy.
Austrian Jewry enjoys a long and rich history. The first mention of Jews in Vienna was in 1194, when a minter by the name of Schlom was appointed by the crown. The very same man was subsequently murdered along with 16 other Viennese Jews by zealous crusaders on their way to the Holy Land. Gradually, a ghetto grew around today’s Judenplatz in Vienna, where a large synagogue stood in the 13th century.
Historically, Jews could only work in some professions. They were seldom allowed into tradesmen’s guilds or to engage in agriculture, and therefore earned a living through trading goods and selling, or through money lending, which explains many of the clichés of the past and present. Two ‘libels’ in the Middle Ages made life difficult for Jews. One of these was the ‘host desecration libel’, which accused Jews of desecrating Christ by acts such as sticking pins into communion wafers and making them weep or bleed. The second was the ‘blood libel’, which accused Jews of drinking the blood of Christians during rituals. In 1420 these libels culminated in one of Vienna’s worst pogroms, during which many Jews committed collective suicide. The synagogue on Vienna’s Judenplatz was destroyed and the stones of the synagogue were used to build the old university.
Jews were officially banned from settling in Vienna until 1624, but this law was regularly relaxed. It did mean, however, that Vienna’s Jews had a particularly rough time of it, and in 1670 when Leopold I (1640–1705) drove them out of Unterer Werd, the quarter was re-christened Leopoldstadt, the name it bears today. They returned, however, and this district remained Vienna’s largest Jewish quarter until WWII.
When money was tight following the 1683 Turkish siege, Jews were encouraged to settle in town as money lenders. Interestingly, once the threat subsided from 1718, Sephardic Jews from Spain arrived and were allowed to establish their own religious community. An edict from Kaiser Joseph II (1741–90) improved conditions for Jews, and after Kaiser Franz I remodelled himself into Austria’s kaiser and allowed Jews to establish schools, some of Vienna’s Jewry rose into bourgeois and literary circles.
The revolution of 1848 brought the biggest changes, however. Vienna’s Jews were at the forefront of the uprising, and it brought them freedom of religion, press and schooling. Indirectly, it also led to the founding of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (Jewish Religious Community), more than a century after the Sephardic Jews had founded their own. Today this is the largest body that represents religious Jews in Austria.
In 1878 Jewry in Austria was shaken up again by the arrival from Budapest of Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), who founded political Zionism, a concept that brought together the ideas of the workers movement with support for a Jewish state. His book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State; 1896) would later be crucial to the creation of Israel.
Beginning with Adolf Fischhof (1816–93), whose political speech on press freedom in 1848 helped trigger revolution, and continuing with Herzl and with the founding father of Austrian social democracy, Viktor Adler (1852–1918), Jews drove reforms in Austria and played a key role during the 'Red Vienna' period of the 1920s and early 1930s.
Anschluss & WWII
Austria's role in WWII is one of the most controversial aspects of its modern history. Hitler was popular inside Austria, and Austria itself supplied a disproportionately large number of officers for the SS and the German army. What Hitler and the Nazis couldn’t achieve through pressure, large numbers of Austrians themselves helped achieve through their active and passive support for Nazism and Hitler’s war.
Austro-Marxism & Austro-Fascism
The worldwide economic depression triggered by the crash of stock exchanges in 1929 further fuelled the flames of discontent and division. About 25% of the working population was now unemployed. Austro-Marxism, which sought a third way between Russian Leninism and the revisionism cropping up in some European social democratic movements, enjoyed a strong following in the cities. Key figures behind it – today reading like a who's who of street names in Vienna – were Karl Renner (1870–1950), Otto Bauer (1881–1938), Friedrich Adler (1879–1960), Max Adler (1873–1937) and Rudolf Hilferding (1877–1941). In contrast to revolutionary Marxism, leaders were committed to 'winning over minds, not smashing in heads' as Otto Bauer so aptly put it.
The first government of the Austrian Republic was a coalition of left- and right-wing parties under Chancellor Karl Renner. A key figure of the right was Ignaz Seipl (1876–1932), who was chancellor twice during the 1920s and saw his calling in opposing the Marxists.
In 1930 right-wing conservatives forced through a constitutional change that gave more power to the president and weakened parliament. In a radicalisation of politics, paramilitary groups close to the right formally backed homegrown Austrian fascism, and when Engelbert Dollfuss (1892–1934) became chancellor in 1932, Austria moved a step closer to becoming a fascist state.
During the chaos, in a parliamentary session in 1933 following strikes by workers and a harsh response by the government, Dollfuss declared his intention to rule without parliament. This marked the beginning of a period when socialists and social democrats were gradually being outlawed and the workers' movements weakened. In 1933, police forced their way into the headquarters of the (left-wing) paramilitary Schutzbund, triggering an uprising in Linz, Vienna and other industrial centres that virtually led to civil war. The army quashed the uprising. Leading social democrats were executed and the social democratic movement declared illegal, turning the fight against fascism into an underground movement.
In 1934 Dollfuss – a deeply religious man who was backed by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini – was murdered in a failed putsch staged by Austrian Nazis, who he had also banned.
While Hitler was seizing power in Germany in 1933 and subsequently closing down all opposition, across the border in Austria, an Austro-Fascist government lifted the ban on local chapters of Hitler's Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist Democratic Workers' Party; NSDAP), which was neither democratic, sympathetic to workers nor socialist. This was done under pressure from Hitler, allowing Austrian Nazis to make a power grab at home. On 12 March 1938, Hitler's troops crossed the border and occupied Austria, in the so-called Anschluss (annexation), according to which Austria became part of a greater Germany. This ended a period of contradiction in which Austria's leaders had virtually set themselves up as dictators, but did not like the idea of becoming part of Hitler's Nazi Germany. A few days later, Hitler held his famous speech to a cheering crowd of tens of thousands on Vienna's Heldenplatz, declaring Austria part of the German nation.
The events of the Nazi era, culminating in the Holocaust, are etched in the collective memory of Jews everywhere: the prohibitive Nuremberg Laws, the forced sale and theft of Jewish property, and Reichspogromnacht (also known as Kristallnacht, ‘The Night of Broken Glass’) on 9 and 10 November 1939 when synagogues and Jewish businesses were burnt and Jews were attacked openly on the streets.
The arrival of Hitler in Vienna in March 1938 raised the stakes among those Jews who had not yet managed to flee the country. Vienna’s ‘father’ of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, had not wanted to read the signs for a long time; in June that year, however, he fled to England. The 20th century’s most innovative classical composer, Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951), lost his job as a lecturer in Berlin in 1933 and went to the US. They were just two of many prominent Austrian Jews forced into exile.
Others were not as fortunate. The Holocaust (or Schoa), Hitler’s attempt to wipe out European Jewry, was a brutal and systematic act that saw some 65,000 Austrian Jews perish in concentration camps throughout Europe. It ruptured Jewish history in Austria dating back to the early Middle Ages, and even today it’s not really possible to talk about a ‘recovery’ of Jewish culture in the country.
Because of atrocities perpetrated on the Jewish population by the Nazis, today the Jewish community is only a fraction of its former size. About 8000 religiously affiliated Jews live in Austria, and there are about another 3000 to 5000 who are not affiliated with a community. The number was boosted by the arrival of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, and increasingly Jews from Hungary, where anti-Semitism is on the rise, are moving to Vienna.
Resistance & Liberation
With the annexation of Austria in 1938, opposition turned to resistance. As elsewhere, whenever Hitler’s troops crossed a border, resistance from within was extremely difficult. Interestingly, Tyrolean resistance leaders often rallied opposition to Nazism by recalling the revolt of Andreas Hofer in 1809 when Tyrol's innkeeper led his rebellion for independence. An Österreichisches Freiheitsbataillon (Austrian Freedom Battalion) fought alongside the Yugoslav People’s Liberation Army, and partisan groups in Styria and Carinthia maintained links with other partisans across the Yugoslavian border. Unlike other countries, Austria had no government in exile.
Resistance increased once the war looked lost for Hitler. The Austrian Robert Bernardis (1908–44) was involved in the assassination attempt on Hitler by high-ranking officers on 20 July 1944 and was then executed by the Nazis. Another involved in that plot, Carl Szokoll (1915–2004), survived undetected. The most famous resistance group, however, was called 05, whose members included Austria’s president from 1957 to 1965, Adolf Schärf (1890–1965).
With the Red Army approaching Vienna in 1945, the resistance group 05 worked closely with Carl Szokoll and other military figures in Operation Radetzky to liberate Vienna in the last days of the war. Although they were able to establish contact with the Red Army as it rolled towards the city, they were betrayed at the last moment and several members were strung up from street lanterns. The Red Army, not Austrians, would liberate the capital.
Austria after 1945
Soon after liberation Austria declared its independence from Germany. A provisional federal government was established under socialist Karl Renner, and the country was occupied by the Allies – the Americans, Russians, British and French. Vienna was itself divided into four zones; this was a time of 'four men in a jeep', so aptly depicted in Graham Greene's book and film The Third Man.
Delays caused by frosting relations between the superpowers ensured that the Allied occupation dragged on for 10 years. On 15 May 1955 the Austrian State Treaty was ratified, with Austria proclaiming its permanent neutrality. The Soviet Union insisted that Austria declare its neutrality as a condition for ending Soviet occupation in 1955. At the last minute, recognition of Austria’s guilt for WWII was struck out of the state treaty.
The Allied forces withdrew, and in December 1955 Austria joined the UN. The economy took a turn for the better through the assistance granted under the Marshall Plan, and the cessation of the removal of industrial property by the Soviets. As the capital of a neutral country on the edge of the Cold War front line, Vienna attracted spies and diplomats: Kennedy and Khrushchev met here in 1961, Carter and Brezhnev in 1979; the UN set up shop in 1979.
Kurt Waldheim Affair
Austria's international image suffered following the election in 1986 of President Kurt Waldheim who, it was revealed, had served in a German Wehrmacht (armed forces) unit implicated in WWII war crimes. Austria was forced to seriously confront its Nazi past. Accusations that Waldheim had committed these crimes while a lieutenant serving with the German army in the Balkans could never be proved, but Austria’s elected president was unwilling to fully explain himself or express misgivings about his wartime role.
In 1993 Chancellor Franz Vranitzky finally admitted that Austrians were 'willing servants of Nazism'. Since then, however, Austria has attempted to make amends for its part in atrocities against the Jews. In 1998 the Austrian Historical Commission, set up to investigate and report on expropriations during the Nazi era, came into being, and in 2001 Vienna's mayor Dr Michael Häupl poignantly noted that after having portrayed itself as the first victim of National Socialism for many years, Austria now had to admit to its own active participation in the regime's crimes. This marked a more critical approach to Austria's role during the Nazi dictatorship.
'Westernisation' of Austria
According to the Hungarian political historian Anton Pelinka, Austria spent the first few decades of the Second Republic defining and asserting its own homegrown political and social path, but since the mid-1980s has followed a course of 'Westernisation'. Two features of this are its membership in the European Union since 1995 and adoption of the euro currency when it was introduced in 1999.
The political consensus that saw the two larger parties, the SPÖ and Österreichisches Volkspartei (ÖVP), completely dominate politics has given way to a polarisation. In 1986 Die Grünen (The Greens) party was founded, with close links to a similar ecologically focused party in Germany. On the other side of the political spectrum is the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ; Freedom Party of Austria), which was founded in 1955 and had a high proportion of former Nazis in its ranks. In 1986, however, its charismatic leader Jörg Haider reinvented the party as a populist right-wing party with a focus on immigration issues, asylum laws and integration – issues that today figure strongly in its policies.
In 2000 the FPÖ formed a federal coalition for the first time with the ÖVP, resulting in regular 'Thursday demonstrations' against the FPÖ within Austria to protest its participation in government, and in sanctions imposed on Austria by other EU members. Splintering has continued in recent years, best exemplified by the formation in 2012 of Team Stronach, founded by Austria's most powerful industrialist, Frank Stronach, with a political platform bearing many of the hallmarks of right-wing populism.
Feature: Cuckoo Clock Stability
In 1948 the British author Graham Greene flew to Vienna and roamed the bomb-damaged streets looking for inspiration for a film he had been commissioned to write about the occupation of post-WWII Vienna. As chance would have it, Greene penned the script for one of Europe’s finest films about the era – The Third Man, starring Orson Wells as the penicillin racketeer Harry Lime. At one point in Vienna's Prater, Orson Wells as Lime waxes lyrical about how under the bloody reign of the Borgias Italy produced some of its finest art. ‘In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.' Never mind that the cuckoo clock comes from Germany's Black Forest – not exactly a model of stability over the centuries. But that's another matter.