The area of Central Europe, today’s Austria, was inhabited by various Celtic tribes in pre-Roman times. The Celtic kingdom of Noricum was later claimed by the Roman Empire and turned into a province. Today’s Petronell-Carnuntum in eastern Austria was an important military camp that became the capital of today’s province of Upper Pannonia. Carnuntum was home to 50,000 people for almost 400 years.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the region was conquered by Bavarians, Slavs and Avars. Charlemagne, King of the Franks, conquered the region in 788, promoted colonisation and introduced Christianity. As part of Eastern Franconia, the central territories that today comprise Austria were inherited by the House of Babenberg. The area was known as Marchia Orientalis and was given to Leopold von Babenberg in 976.
The first mention of the name Austria dates from 996, where it is written as Ostarrîchi and refers to the territory of the Babenberg Mark. In 1156, Austria was elevated to the rank of a duchy by the Privilegium Minus. In 1192 the Babenbergs also acquired the Duchy of Styria. With the death of Frederick II in 1246, the line of the Babenbergs died out.
As a result, Ottokar II of Bohemia effectively took control of the duchies of Austria, Styria and Carinthia. His rule ended with his defeat at Dürnkrut by the German Rudolf I in 1278. Thereafter, until the First World War, much of Austria’s history was that of the ruling dynasty of the Habsburgs.
The Middle Ages
In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Habsburgs began to amass further provinces around the Duchy of Austria. In 1438, Duke Albert V of Austria was elected successor to his father-in-law, Emperor Sigismund. Although Albert himself reigned for only one year, from then on every emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was a Habsburg, with one exception.
The Habsburgs also began to accumulate land away from the hereditary lands. Archduke Maximilian, the only son of Emperor Frederick III, married the heiress Mary of Burgundy in 1477 and thus acquired most of the Netherlands for the family. His son Philip the Fauve married Joan the Mad, heiress of Castile and Aragon, and thus acquired Spain with its appendages of Italy, Africa and the New World for the Habsburgs.
In 1526, after the Battle of Mohács, Bohemia and the part of Hungary not occupied by the Ottomans came under Austrian rule. Ottoman expansion into Hungary led to frequent conflicts between the two empires, particularly evident in the long war of 1593-1606. The Turks made almost twenty incursions into Styria, some of which are cited as “pillaging, plundering and taking thousands of slaves”.
17th and 18th century
During the long reign of Leopold I. (1657-1705) and after the successful defence of Vienna in 1683 (under the command of the Polish King John III Sobieski), a series of campaigns led to the takeover of the whole of Hungary by Austria in the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699.
Emperor Charles VI renounced a large part of the gains the empire had made in the years before, mainly out of concern about the imminent extinction of the House of Habsburg. Charles was prepared to offer concrete territorial and sovereign advantages in return for the recognition of the Pragmatic Sanction, which made his daughter Maria Theresa his heir. The rise of Prussia marked the beginning of Austro-Prussian dualism in Germany. Austria, together with Prussia and Russia, participated in the first and third of the three partitions of Poland (1772 and 1795).
Austria then went to war with revolutionary France, initially without much success. The subsequent defeats by Napoleon meant the end of the former Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Two years earlier, in 1804, the Austrian Empire was founded. In 1814, Austria was part of the allied forces that invaded France and ended the Napoleonic Wars.
At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, it became one of the four dominant powers on the continent and a recognised great power. In the same year, the German Confederation was founded under the presidency of Austria. Due to unresolved social, political and national conflicts, the German states were shaken by the revolution of 1848 to create a united Germany.
A united Germany would have been possible either as Greater Germany, Greater Austria or simply as the German Confederation without Austria. Since Austria was not prepared to cede its German-speaking territories to the later German Empire of 1848, the crown of the new empire was offered to the Prussian King Frederick William IV. In 1864, Austria and Prussia fought together against Denmark and won independence for the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. However, as they could not agree on how the two duchies should be administered, the Austro-Prussian War broke out in 1866. Defeated by Prussia in the Battle of Königgrätz, Austria had to leave the German Confederation and thereafter no longer participated in German politics.
The Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, the Ausgleich, provided for a dual sovereignty, the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary, under Franz Joseph I. Austro-Hungarian rule over this diverse empire included various Slavic groups, including Croats, Czechs, Poles, Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes and Ukrainians, as well as large Italian and Romanian communities.
As a result, it became increasingly difficult to govern Austria-Hungary during the rise of nationalist movements, necessitating considerable recourse to an expanded secret police. Nevertheless, the Austrian government did its best to be conciliatory in some respects: The Reichsgesetzblatt, which publishes the laws and decrees of Cisleithania, is published in eight languages; and all national groups have the right to schools in their own language and to use their mother tongue in government offices, for example.
In 1908, Austria-Hungary found in the proclamation of the second constitutional era of the Ottoman Empire a pretext to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 by the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip was used by leading Austrian politicians and generals to persuade the Emperor to declare war on Serbia and thus risk the outbreak of the First World War, which eventually led to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. More than one million Austro-Hungarian soldiers died in the First World War.
On 21 October 1918, the elected German members of the Imperial Council met in Vienna as the Provisional National Assembly for German Austria. On 30 October, the Assembly established the state of German Austria by appointing a government, the Staatsrat. This new government was asked by the Emperor to participate in the decision on the draft armistice with Italy, but abstained.
Thus the responsibility for the end of the war on 3 November 1918 lay solely with the Emperor and his government. On 11 November, on the advice of the ministers of the old and new governments, the Emperor declared that he would no longer take part in the affairs of state; on 12 November, German Austria declared itself by law to be a democratic republic and an integral part of the new German republic. The constitution, which renamed the State Council the Federal Government and the National Assembly the National Council, was adopted on 10 November 1920.
The 1919 Treaty of St. Germain (for Hungary, the 1920 Treaty of Trianon) confirmed and consolidated the new order of Central Europe largely established in November 1918, creating new states and modifying others. More than 3 million German-speaking Austrians found themselves outside the young Republic of Austria as minorities in the newly created or expanded states of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Italy. These include the provinces of South Tyrol (now part of Italy) and Deutschböhmen (Czechoslovakia). The status of Deutschböhmen (Sudetenland) later played a role in the outbreak of the Second World War.
The status of South Tyrol was a persistent problem between Austria and Italy until it was officially settled in the 1980s, when the Italian national government granted the country a high degree of autonomy. Between 1918 and 1919, Austria bore the name “State of German Austria“. The Entente powers not only prohibited the unification of German Austria with Germany, but also rejected the name German Austria in the peace treaty to be concluded; it was therefore changed to the Republic of Austria at the end of 1919.
The border between Austria and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) was established by the Carinthian referendum in October 1920, giving Austria most of the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Crown of Carinthia. This established the border on the Karawanken, with many Slovenes remaining in Austria.
The interwar years and the World War II
After the war, inflation began to devalue the crown, which was still Austria’s currency. In autumn 1922, Austria received an international loan under the supervision of the League of Nations. The aim of the loan was to avoid bankruptcy, stabilise the currency and improve Austria’s general economic situation. Thanks to this loan, Austria went from being an independent state to being controlled by the League of Nations. In 1925, the schilling was introduced, replacing the krona at a ratio of 10,000:1. Later it was called the “Alpine dollar” because of its stability. From 1925 to 1929, the economy experienced a brief peak before collapsing shortly after Black Tuesday.
The first Austrian Republic lasted until 1933, when Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß established an autocratic regime with tendencies towards Italian fascism with the so-called “self-exclusion of parliament”. The two major parties of the time, the Social Democrats and the Conservatives, had paramilitary armies; the Schutzbund of the Social Democrats was declared illegal but was still operational when the civil war broke out.
In February 1934, several members of the Schutzbund were executed, the Social Democratic Party was declared illegal and many of its members were imprisoned or emigrated. On 1 May 1934, the Austrofascists imposed a new constitution (“May Constitution”) which cemented Dollfuß’s power, but on 25 July he was assassinated in a Nazi coup attempt.
His successor, Kurt Schuschnigg, fought to keep Austria independent as the “best German state”. He announced a referendum on Austria’s independence from Germany for 9 March 1938, to be voted on 13 March. On 12 March 1938, the Austrian Nazis took power while German troops occupied the country and prevented the Schuschnigg referendum from taking place. On 13 March 1938, the “Anschluss” of Austria was officially declared. Two days later, Hitler, who was born in Austria, announced the so-called “reunification” of his country with the “rest of the German Reich” on Vienna’s Heldenplatz. He scheduled a plebiscite that confirmed the annexation to Germany in April 1938.
On 10 April 1938, parliamentary elections were held in Germany (including Austria, which had been annexed shortly before). These were the last Reichstag elections under the Nazi regime and took the form of a referendum with only one question asking voters whether they supported a single Nazi party list for the 813 members of the Reichstag as well as the recent annexation of Austria (the “Anschluss”). The official turnout was 99.5%, of which 98.9% voted “yes”. In the case of Austria, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, 99.71% of an electorate of 4,484,475 officially went to the polls, with a positive result of 99.73%.
Austria was incorporated into the Third Reich and ceased to exist as an independent state. The Aryanisation of the assets of Jewish Austrians began immediately in mid-March with a so-called “wild phase” (i.e. extra-legal), but was quickly structured legally and bureaucratically to deprive Jewish citizens of all their assets. The Nazis called Austria “Ostmark” until 1942, when it was renamed again and became “Alpen-Donau-Reichsgaue”.
Some of the most important Nazis were ethnic Austrians, including Adolf Hitler, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Franz Stangl and Odilo Globocnik, as well as 40% of the staff of the Nazi death camps. Vienna fell on 13 April 1945, during the Soviet offensive in Vienna, shortly before the total collapse of the Third Reich. The invading Allied powers, especially the Americans, had planned the so-called “Alpine Fortress Operation” of a national redoubt, which was to take place largely on Austrian soil in the mountains of the Eastern Alps. However, it never came about because of the rapid collapse of the Reich.
Karl Renner and Adolf Schärf (Austrian Socialist Party [Social Democrats and Revolutionary Socialists]), Leopold Kunschak (Austrian People’s Party [formerly Christian Social People’s Party]) and Johann Koplenig (Austrian Communist Party) declared Austria’s secession from the Third Reich on 27 April 1945 with the Declaration of Independence and established a provisional government under Chancellor Renner in Vienna on the same day, with the approval of the victorious Red Army and the support of Josef Stalin. (This date is officially known as the anniversary of the Second Republic). At the end of April, most of western and southern Austria was still under National Socialist rule. On 1 May 1945, the Federal Constitution of 1929, which had been suspended by the dictator Dollfuß on 1 May 1934, was declared valid again.
The total number of military deaths from 1939 to 1945 is estimated at 260,000. The number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust was 65,000. About 140,000 Austrian Jews fled the country in 1938-39. Thousands of Austrians had participated in serious Nazi crimes (hundreds of thousands died in the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp alone), which Federal Chancellor Franz Vranitzky officially admitted in 1992.
After World War II
Like Germany, Austria was divided into the American, British, French and Soviet zones and administered by the Allied Commission for Austria. As provided for in the Moscow Declaration of 1943, there was a subtle difference in the treatment of Austria by the Allies. The Austrian government, composed of Social Democrats, Conservatives and Communists (until 1947) and residing in Vienna, which was surrounded by the Soviet zone, was recognised by the Western Allies in October 1945 after some doubted that Renner could be a puppet of Stalin. This avoided the creation of a separate West Austrian government and the partition of the country. Austria was generally treated as if it had been invaded by Germany and liberated by the Allies.
On 15 May 1955, after years of Cold War talks, Austria regained its full independence by concluding the Austrian State Treaty with the four occupying powers. On 26 October 1955, after the withdrawal of all occupying troops, Austria declared its “permanent neutrality” through a parliamentary act.
The political system of the Second Republic was based on the constitution of 1920 and 1929, which was reintroduced in 1945. The system was characterised by proportional representation, which meant that the most important political posts were distributed equally between members of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). The “chambers” of interest groups with compulsory membership (e.g. for workers, entrepreneurs, farmers) assumed considerable importance and were usually consulted in the legislative process, so that there were hardly any laws that did not reflect a broad consensus.
Since 1945, there has been a one-party government between 1966-1970 (ÖVP) and 1970-1983 (SPÖ). In all other legislative periods, the country was governed either by a grand coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP or by a “small coalition” (one of these two formations and a smaller party).
Kurt Waldheim, an SS intelligence officer during the Second World War who was charged with war crimes, was elected Federal President of Austria from 1986 to 1992.
After a referendum in 1994, which was approved by a two-thirds majority, the country became a member of the European Union on 1 January 1995.
The major parties SPÖ and ÖVP have opposing views on the future status of Austria’s military non-alignment: while the SPÖ publicly advocates a neutral role, the ÖVP pleads for greater involvement in EU security policy; even future NATO membership is not ruled out by some ÖVP politicians (e.g. by Dr. Werner Fasslabend (OVP) in 1997). In fact, Austria participates in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, takes part in peacekeeping and peacebuilding tasks and has become a member of NATO’s “Partnership for Peace”; the constitution has been amended accordingly. Since Liechtenstein’s accession to the Schengen area in 2011, none of Austria’s neighbouring countries carry out border controls against Austria any more.