Austrian history dates back nearly 2,000 years, when Vindobona (Vienna) was an important Roman military garrison along the Danube. The city grew through the Middle Ages and in 788, the territory that is present-day Austria was conquered by Charlemagne, who encouraged the adoption of Christianity. In 976, Leopold von Babenberg became the first in his family to rule the territory; the Babenberg line of succession lasted until the death of Frederick II in 1246. There was a brief interregnum when the territory was ruled by Otakar II of Bohemia, but in 1276 Rudolf I defeated Otakar II at Durnkrut and became the first Habsburg to ascend to the throne.
The Habsburg Empire
Although never unchallenged, the Habsburgs ruled Austria for nearly 750 years. Through political marriages, the Habsburgs were able to accumulate vast land wealth encompassing most of Central Europe and stretching even as far as the Iberian Peninsula. During the 16th Century, the Ottoman Empire gained strength and in 1529, the Ottoman army surrounded Vienna. The Habsburgs held their ground and the Ottomans retreated, to return again in 1683. This time, Vienna was successfully defended by Polish King Jan Sobieski III. To this day Austrians are still proud of defending their territory from the invading Ottomans.
|Battle of Wiena 1683 - source|
Habsburg rule in Europe was particularly unsettled in the 18th and 19th Centuries, when various wars were fought over their landholdings. Emperor Charles VI (1711-1740) and his daughter Maria Theresa (1740-1780) ruled the Empire during these tumultuous times. Maria Theresa was only able to take the throne as a result of the Pragmatic Sanction, which allowed a female to ascend when there was no male heir. She became a great reformer within the Empire, advocating many changes, most notably in the educational system. Maria Theresa’s son Josef II (1780-1790) continued many of her reforms and he himself has been described as an enlightened absolutist.
In 1848 Franz Josef I ascended to the throne and remained in power until his death in 1916. With a reign spanning from the Revolutions of 1848 to World War I, Franz Josef saw many milestones in Austrian history. The Compromise of 1867 allowed some minor sovereignty to the territory of Hungary and created what became known as the Dual Monarchy. Under the new system, Franz Josef remained the head of state (Emperor of Austria/King of Hungary), but the Hungarians were now permitted to have a parliament and legislate on their own.
Franz Josef I. - source
The old Habsburg Empire slowly began to deteriorate in the beginning of the 20th Century. This deterioration culminated in the June 28, 1914, assassination of Archduke (and heir to the throne) Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia. This incident sparked the beginning of World War I and assured the end to the Habsburg domination of Central Europe. In 1919, the Treaty of St. Germain officially ended Habsburg rule and established the Republic of Austria.
Political Turmoil During the Inter War Years Leads to Anschluss
In the years leading up to the Nazi period, Austria experienced sharpening political strife among the traditional parties, which since 1918 had created their own paramilitary organizations. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, these organizations were engaged in strikes and violent conflicts. Unemployment rose to an estimated 25 %. In line with similar trends among other Central European countries, a corporatist and authoritarian government came into power in Austria under Engelbert Dollfuss, who abolished existing political parties and Austria’s Constitutional Court. The Social Democrats, now excluded from the political process, took up arms, and a brief civil war ensued in February 1934. Austrian National Socialists (NS) launched an unsuccessful coup d’etat in July 1934 and murdered Dollfuss. The Nazi leaders were, however, arrested, tried, and received death sentences. Following this unsuccessful coup, the Austrian President asked an ultra-conservative Christian Social leader, Kurt Schuschnigg, to form a government. Like Dollfuss, Schuschnigg sought to appease his neighbors and, at the same time, obtain support from Britain and France against pressures from Hitler’s Germany, but without success due to the authoritarian trends in Austria and Austria’s poor image in the West. In February 1938, under renewed threats of military intervention from Germany, Schuschnigg was forced to accept Austrian National Socialists (Nazis) in his government. On March 12, Germany sent its military forces into Austria, an action that received enthusiastic support among most Austrians, and Schuschnigg was forced to resign. He and many other political leaders were arrested and imprisoned until 1945.
The Holocaust in Austria
The dissolution of the Austrian Empire and consequent loss of territory following World War I, as well as the political strife of the 1930s, set the stage on March 13, 1938, for Germany’s Anschluss ("Annexation") of Austria and the beginning of the Nazi period, the darkest chapter in Austria’s history, during which most of the Jewish population of the country was murdered or forced into exile. Other minorities, including the Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, and many political opponents of the Nazis also received similar treatment. Prior to 1938, Austria’s Jewish population constituted 200,000 persons, or about 3 to 4 percent of the total population. Most Jews lived in Vienna, where they comprised about 9 percent of the population. Following Anschluss, the Germans rapidly applied their anti-Jewish laws in Austria. Jews were forced out of many professions and lost access to their assets. In November 1938, the Nazis launched the Kristallnacht pogrom in Austria as well as in Germany. Jewish businesses were vandalized and ransacked. Thousands of Jews were arrested and deported to concentration camps. Jewish emigration increased dramatically. Between 1938 and 1940, over half of Austria’s Jewish population fled the country. Some 35,000 Jews were deported to the Ghettos in Eastern Europe. Some 67,000 Austrian Jews (or one-third of the total 200,000 Jews residing in Austria) were sent to concentration camps. Those in such camps were murdered or forced into dangerous or severe hard labor that accelerated their death. Only 2,000 of those in the death camps survived until the end of the war.
|Austrian Jews - source|
Austria Post World War II
At the Moscow conference in 1943, the Allies declared their intention to liberate and reconstitute Austria. In April 1945, both Eastern and Western-front Allied forces liberated the country. Subsequently, the victorious allies divided Austria into zones of occupation similar to those in Germany with a four-power administration of Vienna. Under the 1945 Potsdam agreements, the Soviets took control of German assets in their zone of occupation. These included 7 % of Austria’s manufacturing plants, 95 % of its oil resources, and about 80 % of its refinery capacity. The properties returned to Austria under the Austrian State Treaty. This treaty, signed in Vienna on May 15, 1955, came into effect on July 27, and, under its provisions, all occupation forces departed by October 25, 1955. Austria became free and independent for the first time since 1938.
Austrian Compensation Programs and Acknowledgment of its Nazi Role
During the immediate postwar period, Austrian authorities introduced certain restitution and compensation measures for Nazi victims, but many of these initial measures were later seen as inadequate and containing flaws and injustices. There is no official estimate of the amount of compensation made under these programs. More disturbing for many was the continuation of the view that prevailed since 1943 that Austria was the "first free country to fall a victim" to Nazi aggression. This "first victim" view was in fact fostered by the Allied Powers themselves in the Moscow Declaration of 1943, in which the Allies declared as null and void the Anschluss and called for the restoration of the country’s independence. The Allied Powers did not ignore Austria’s responsibility for the war, but nothing was said explicitly about Austria’s responsibility for Nazi crimes on its territory. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, greater attention was given in many countries to unresolved issues from World War II, including Austria. On November 15, 1994, Austrian President Thomas Klestil addressed the Israeli Knesset, noting that Austrian leaders "... spoke far too rarely of the fact that some of the worst henchmen of the NS dictatorship were in fact Austrians. .... In the name of the Republic of Austria, I bow my head before the victims of that time." Since 1994, Austria has committed to providing victims and heirs some one billion dollars in total compensation.