Regina Austrian Edelweiss Club

Austrian History

Pre 20th Century History

In its early years, the land that became Austria was invaded by a succession of tribes and armies using the Danube Valley as a conduit - Celts, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Huns, Avars, Slavs all came and went. Charlemagne established a territory in the Danube Valley known as the Ostmark in 803, and the area became Christianised and predominantly Germanic.

By 1278 the Habsburgs had gained control and this mighty dynasty managed to rule Austria right up until WWI. Although the Habsburgs were not averse to using a bit of muscle, they preferred less barbaric ways of extending their territory and so Austria gradually expanded thanks to judicious real estate purchases and some politically-motivated marriages. One such marriage produced two sons: the eldest became Charles I of Spain, who mutated three years later into Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire; the younger son, Ferdinand, became the first Habsburg to live in Vienna and was anointed ruler of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia. In 1556, Charles abdicated as emperor and Ferdinand I was crowned in his place. Charles' remaining territory was inherited by his son, Phillip II, splitting the Habsburg dynasty into two distinct lines - the Spanish and the Austrian.

In 1571, when the emperor granted religious freedom, the vast majority of Austrians turned to Protestantism. In 1576, the new emperor, Rudolf II, embraced the Counter-Reformation and much of the country reverted, with a little coercion, to Catholicism. The attempt to impose Catholicism on Protestant areas of Europe led to the Thirty Years' War, which started in 1618 and devastated much of Central Europe. Peace was finally achieved in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia. For much of the rest of the century, Austria was preoccupied with halting the advance of the Turks into Europe. Vienna nearly capitulated to a Turkish siege in 1683 but was rescued by a Christian force of German and Polish soldiers. Combined forces subsequently swept the Turks to the southeastern edge of Europe. The removal of the Turkish threat saw a frenzy of Baroque building in many cities, and under the musical emperor Leopold I, Vienna became a magnet for musicians and composers.

In 1740, Maria Theresa ascended the throne and ruled for 40 years. This period is generally acknowledged as the era in which Austria developed as a modern state. During her reign, control was centralised, a civil service was established, the army and economy were reformed and a public education system was introduced. But progress was halted when Napoleon defeated Austria at Austerlitz in 1805. European conflict dragged on until the settlement at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. Austria was left with control of the German Confederation but suffered upheaval during the 1848 revolutions and eventual defeat in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War. This led to the formation of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867 under emperor Franz Josef and exclusion from the new German empire unified by Bismarck.

Modern History

Austria began the 20th century in prosperity but its expansionist tendencies in the Balkans and its annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 led to the assassination of the emperor's nephew in Sarajevo in June 1914. A month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, the Russians came to the Serbians' aid and the slaughter of WWI began in earnest.

At the conclusion of the war, the shrunken Republic of Austria was created and forced to recognise the independent states of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia which, along with Romania and Bulgaria, had previously been under the control of the Habsburgs. The new republic suffered economic strife, which led to an upsurge in Nazi-style politics. Austria's embrace of fascism meant that German troops met little opposition when they invaded in 1938 and incorporated Austria into the Third Reich. A national referendum in Austria that year supported the annexation. For its troubles, Austria was bombed heavily in WWII and by 1945 it had been restored to its 1937 frontiers by the victorious Allies. It was divided into four zones by occupying American, British, French and Russian troops who remained entrenched for a decade before withdrawing and allowing Austria to proclaim its neutrality.

In the post-war years Austria worked hard to overcome economic difficulties and established a free trade treaty with the European Union (EU, then known as the EEC) in 1972. Apart from the election of former German army officer and UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim to the Austrian Presidency in 1986, Austrian politics became a rational zone of consensus rather than conflict. Increases in Eastern European immigration following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc resulted in the rise of the right-wing anti-immigration Freedom Party in the late 1980s. Concern among moderates has been exacerbated by the recent influx of refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

The Austrian people heartily endorsed their country's entry into the EU in a referendum in 1994 and formally joined the Union on 1 January 1995. Since then most Austrians have been rather ambivalent about the advantages of EU membership.

Recent History

In elections in 2000, the right-wing Freedom Party came in just behind the Social Democrats, forming a ruling coalition with the moderate right People's Party. Freedom Party leader and alledged Nazi sympathiser Jörg Haider handed the leadership to Susanne Riess-Passer, seen as less extreme, but the EU imposed sanctions on Austria despite the move. The Danube flooded in August 2003, sanctions were lifted in September because they were seen as counterproductive, and in November the People's Party made sweeping electoral gains at the Freedom Party's expense, but was nevertheless obliged to form a governing coalition with the latter despite divisions. Pension reforms, restitution for Holocaust crimes and strict asylum laws are some of the other issues that have dominated public debate.

In late 2003 the country mourned president Thomas Klestil, who died two days before the end of his term in office and in 2004 Austrian Elfriede Jelinek was awarded a Nobel Laureate in Literature, recognising her powerful poetic voice. In the first half of 2006 Austria held the temporary, six-month EU presidency and attempted to reinvigorate the establishment of the European Constitution. Domestically the nation was confronted by two controversial criminal matters. In March, historian David Irving was imprisoned for three years for denying the Holocaust (he was released and deported in December). In August year 18-year-old Natascha Kampusch, who had disappeared in 1998, escaped from the underground cell where she had been imprisoned. Her captor, Wolfgang Priklopil, subsequently committed suicide. Austria went to the polls later in the year and a coalition government of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPO) and the conservative People's Party was formed in January 2007, with the SPO's Alfred Gusenbauer as chancellor.