Austria’s path from the heart of an empire to a resilient republic was a stony one. It’s the story of a country finding its identity.
The Great War had begun with banners flying, with proud young soldiers in crisp uniforms marching off to heroism and the promise that they would be back by Christmas. At home, families were mobilized in support, volunteering in hospitals, writing letters and buying war bonds and for a small donation, pounding a nail into the Wehrmann in Eisen (Soldier in Iron) that stood on Schwarzenbergplatz.
By late 1916, catastrophic food shortages were unraveling the society. Distribution systems, particularly from the “bread basket” Hungary had almost entirely broken down, and the promised rations of 830 calories allotted per day were rarely met. Many blamed the autocratic prime minister, Karl Stürgkh, so that when he was assassinated one day over lunch at a hotel restaurant, the only regrets were for his enviable menu of mushroom soup and Tafelspitz.
By the end of the war, writes historian Maureen Healy, over 90% of Viennese school children were clinically undernourished. “Completely altered conditions make for completely altered people,” wrote the daily Der Morgen, as interpersonal tensions and unspoken resentments often turned violent. The Wehrmann in Eisen was being plundered for scrap. For many, the “social contract” between civilians and the state had completely broken down.
Still, there were many what-ifs: U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points”assumed that the Monarchy would remain, “in some reconstituted form, part of the natural order of things,” according to diplomat-historian Gordon Brook-Shepherd. At the same time, British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Count Albert Mensdorff-Pouilly were maneuvering to “get Austria out of the war,” while Foreign Minister Czernin was, separately, negotiating with Lenin.
And Kaiser Karl made a clumsy play for peace with France, offering to sacrifice German territory and making enemies on all sides. At German headquarters in Spa, Belgium, Karl was pressed into signing a humiliating treaty. Lloyd George and Wilson gave up any hope of cutting Austria free. In these final months of 1918, the Spanish Flu swept through the weakened population. As the fate of Austria-Hungary was being decided at Versailles, some 20,900 Austrians died of the pandemic, most under 40. In Vienna, there was no one left to drive the trams or deliver the mail; schools and churches were closed, as public life came to a halt. After the crown lands had been stripped away, there might have been more than one way to understand French Premiere Georges Clemenceau’s wry comment: “L’Autriche, c’est ce que reste.” Austria is that which remains.
In Paris, acting Chancellor Karl Renner had done his best. The great powers, he complained to his wife, were simply walking all over Austria, “dwarf state that we are”. On September 6, 1919, the Austrian Parliament accepted, under protest, the terms of the Treaty of Saint Germain. On September 10, Renner signed.
A House Divided
In ways very similar to Europe today, the First Austrian Republic was deeply divided, with the socialists firmly in power in Vienna and the Catholic conservatives dominating the rest of the country. It turned into a Red-Black fight for the soul of the country, which ended with the Anschluss in 1938. Unable to work together, both sides lost.
Vienna in the 1920s was jumble of opposites: Elegance and poverty, beautiful manners and the black market, squalid flats and music from every window. The once-great imperial capital, the birthplace of modernism, science and ideas, was described derisively as a Gorgon’s head on a mangy hinterland. It was a “scenic little slum” to historian Frederic Morton, a place where according to journalist Dorothy Thompson, “an eerie atmosphere of grandeur and high culture still hovered everywhere in the starving city.” The ties to the Crown Lands still felt real: “The Viennese know what sort of hairpins, stockings and system of financing is well-received in Krakowitz and Belgrade,” she wrote, whatever the politicians said.
It is hard to grasp today the wrenching dislocation in post-war Austria: The Empire’s industrial center was now in Czechoslovakia; its coal in Ukraine; its grain in Hungary. What had been an Imperial Customs Union was now a patchwork of border and tariff regimes, and all still depended on the Viennese banks. War shortages persisted. Nearly half the workforce was unemployed.
Heartbreak and loss were everywhere, of husbands, sons and fathers dead or damaged, of jobs, businesses, property, and one’s place in the world. And the threat of a Bolshevik-style revolution – “a dictatorship of the proletariat” – hung heavy in the air.
The Red and the Black
In Vienna, Social Democrats Friedrich Adler, Otto Bauer, and Karl Renner took power. They enacted new laws, giving the unrestricted vote to adult men and women, unemployment and health insurance, restrictions on female and child labor, and an eight-hour day.
The Catholic-conservatives had quite different concerns. The Versailles Treaty had radicalized them, writes historian Janek Wasserman. They saw themselves as defenders of the Austrian Idea – a sense of identity more enduring than matters of working conditions and self improvement, a sense of social cohesion that, as under the monarchy, comes from assumptions about continuity, place and role.
So while Bauer’s Social Democrats levied luxury taxes to build the Gemeindebauten social housing, the Christian Socialists under priest-Chancellor Ignaz Seipel launched programs in food and unemployment relief, financed largely with treasury notes – in effect, printing money. The value of the Krone on the New York markets dropped from six to 17 to the dollar in 1919 on to 77,000 or more in 1922. As in Germany, money paid in the morning had often lost its value by lunchtime.
As inflation spiraled out of control, Chancellor Seipel turned to the new League of Nations for a loan of 650 million crowns, with the promise to end deficit spending. The austerity meant massive cuts to the civil service, with 100,000 Beamte laid off immediately, and hours cut back. So while Red Vienna was launching the working class into a better life, civil servants, lawyers and teachers felt the bottom fall out of theirs. Society became increasingly polarized, as political tensions grew.
In 1929, the pressure cooker exploded: As Social Democratic protesters marched through the village streets of Schattendorf, near the Hungarian border, shots were fired out of a tavern window, killing an old man and a small child. With good legal defense, the gunmen were acquitted, outraging the workers and setting off street riots in Vienna that ended with the burning of the Palace of Justice. The Vienna police fired on the crowd, resulting in 89 dead and more than 600 injured.
When the dust had settled, Parliament granted emergency powers to the conservative coalition; in 1932, the new Austro-fascist chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß dissolved Parliament altogether. Following “civil war” in 1934, he declared the Social Democratic Party illegal, imprisoning its leaders, and tragically smoothing the way to the Nazi Anschluss.
As with so many things in politics, this conflict was about dignity and self-respect, about who got to define what it meant to be Austrian.
The Lost Years
In the story of the Austrian Republic, the four troubled years of Austro-fascism and the seven catastrophic ones of National Socialism pass in a parenthesis of incomprehension. Even with all we know, the tragedy of the Holocaust remains, even today, nearly impossible to fathom.
Hitler’s troops entered Austria exactly 80 years ago, March 12, 1938, forestalling a planned referendum on Austria’s independence the following day. Despite previous attempts to preserve the country’s independence, it is indeed true that Hitler was greeted by cheering crowds, in an apparently euphoric welcome. Little Austria surely felt vulnerable, her Republic failing. It could be seen as “the climax, and the resolution,” of an old family quarrel, wrote Brook-Shepherd. “Austria’s darkest hour was not her finest.”
The honeymoon was indeed brief, as some 20,000 prominent Austrian anti-Nazis were rounded up and imprisoned. Many, like post-war chancellor Bruno Kreisky, were later released, but the warning was clear. Most of Austria’s 170,000 Jews realized in despair that they would be next.
Even among the regular population, conditions were increasingly problematic. In January of 1940, police reported an anti-Nazi demonstration of outraged housewives at Vienna’s Meiselmarkt blaming Hitler for the empty shelves. Acts of sabotage became more frequent. An ammunition factory in Enzesfeld had to be closed when a woman worker poured canteen tea into the cases of hand grenades. Her defense: The wretched stuff wasn’t fit for anything else.
The direction of Austria’s postwar future, however, was decided on November 1, 1943 in the Moscow Declaration by the Grand Alliance (U.S., U.K. and the USSR), describing Austria as “the first free country to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression,” and documenting their wish to see it reestablished as an independent state. The U.S. generally supported Churchill’s hopes for a Danubian Federation with Austria at the center. Stalin favored Austria standing alone – thus all the easier to knock down later.
But the Allies needed proof of Austrian resistance. This came, at last, from a group called the O5 (standing for Oe, Österreich, “e” being the fifth letter of the alphabet), principally led by Alfons Stillfried and Fritz Molden. They had arranged parachute drops, bringing in liaison officers and radio equipment. And while their success was modest, according to Brook-Shepherd, they proved there was a groundswell of energy for independence that influenced Allied commitment.
The 2nd Republic
Although May 8 is officially recognized as Victory Day in Europe, in Austria, the war was effectively over on April 15, with the arrival of the Russian troops. In Vienna, there was literally dancing in the streets, as newsreels show jubilant crowds waltzing in front of the Parliament. It had been a long ugly war, worst in the final months, as Allied bombers destroyed factories and oil refineries, bridges and railroad lines, but also, intentionally or otherwise, whole sections of the old city, hitting St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Burgtheater and the Vienna State Opera.
Now began the daunting work of clearing away the rubble. Much of this fell to the women, and photographs show them bent over shovels, moving impossible mounds of stone and construction debris from the streets.
What now? Karl Renner, the Socialist chancellor and architect of the 1st Republic, suddenly appeared and marched into the local Russian command to protest the behavior of the Russian soldiers, who were stealing food and valuables, and raping any women they could get their hands on. Deemed “reliable” by Stalin, Renner was promptly installed as provisional Chancellor, while doing his best to appoint moderates where possible and trusting undersecretaries to keep him informed.
On the right, the pre-Anschluss Christian Socialist party of the Austro-fascists was permanently discredited after the war, and reformed in a sadder-but-wiser world, renamed as the Austrian People’s Party, the ÖVP. Its ranks were very thin: its leaders being Julius Raab, whose history as a leader in the provincial Heimwehr was not ideal. And Leopold Figl.
Figl was one of those miracles of history whom fate might easily have removed from the decisive role he was to play; a leader of the Bauernbund (Farmers’ Federation), he became economic policy advisor under the Fascist government of Engelbert Dollfuß.
The Nazis had him on their short list. Within hours of the Anschluss, he was arrested and sent to Dachau, where he spent five wretched years. Released in 1943, Figl was arrested again for working with the underground and sent to Mauthausen and then to death row in Vienna’s Grey House. Only the arrival of the Russians saved him from execution.
So, with the defeat of the Nazis, Figl had perfect political credentials. He was also a charmer, with a farmer’s natural dignity and a sparkling sense of humor. Even the Russians trusted him. He was put in charge of food distribution, re-launched the Bauernbund and joined the new ÖVP, where he was elected vice-chair and interim governor of Lower Austria.
In the parliamentary elections in December 1945 – the first free elections since 1930 – the ÖVP won an astonishing 49.8% of the vote, and the SPÖ 44.6%. The KPÖ, the Austrian communists, polled a paltry 5.5%, and only four seats in Parliament. It was, in part, revenge for the orgy of rape and pillage, as in the wake of war, women made up 64% of the electorate.
With an absolute majority in Parliament, Figl (over the grumbling of the Russians) was made Federal Chancellor. Remembering thebitter antagonisms of the 1920s, he formed a Grand Coalition of the ÖVP and the SPÖ, instituting a system of Proporz, or proportional power sharing, that continues in modified form to this day.
A number of the new leaders had, like Figl, spent time in Mauthausen or Dachau, and it is often said that this Lagergeist, the spirit of the camps, helped put the old rivalries to rest. After 1947, the ÖVP and the SPÖ governed together for another 20 years, and with the help of the Marshall Plan, rebuilt the economy and began repairing a social fabric shredded by 30 years of factionalism and war.
For a decade after 1945, Austria was divided into four occupation zones: Salzburg and Upper Austria by the Americans, Tirol and Vorarlberg by the French, Carinthia and Styria by the British and Burgenland and Lower Austria, surrounding Vienna, by the Russians. Vienna itself was also divided, except for the joint occupation of the city center, the iconic “Four Men in a Jeep.”
With the reconvening of the Vienna City Council, reconstruction began. Over 87,000 apartments had been damaged or destroyed and tens of thousands were homeless. Repairs came first. But there were many highlights: Christmas again in Stephansdom in 1948; Vienna’ first post-war Gemeindebau opened in 1951; the return of the Pummerin in 1952, recast from the metal of the old bell; the reopening of the Staatsoper in 1955.
In those last years of occupation, Austria had both the blessing and the curse of being the playing field for the rivalries of the post war superpowers. Between 1947 and 1955, the former Allies met some 260 times to discuss its fate. Austria was indeed, as German poet Frederick Hebbel had said, “the small world in which the great world holds its rehearsal.” But neither side wanted to lose advantage.
What finally broke the logjam was the death of Stalin on March, 1953. His successor Nikita Khrushchev, was an entirely different kind of person, energetic and eager to join a wider world. In addition, Tito wanted the Red Army off his western border; and the Russians realized West Germany was on the verge of joining NATO. The response was the Warsaw Pact – a stronger framework for their interests in Eastern Europe – signed the day before the Austrian State Treaty. The Soviet’s price for Austria’s independence was a tighter hold on its former compatriots in Central and Eastern Europe.
None of this dampened Austrians’ euphoria at the news. Final haggling over wording – between “neutrality” and the less restrictive “pact-free” – and the deed was done. Figl would have stayed “to slog it out”, he told Brook-Shepherd on his return. “When you’ve been through Dachau and Mauthausen, there is nothing in the atmosphere of the Kremlin that can scare you.” Thus, on the eve of the signing, Figl asked for one more concession: that §3, confirming Austria’s share of responsibility in Hitler’s war, be stricken from the text. A coup de theatre? Perhaps. But as one of the Gestapo’s first arrests after the Anschluss, Figl was difficult to refuse. Thus the question was left for Austrians to address in their own way.
On May 15, 1955, the four foreign ministers – Leopold Figl, John Foster Dulles (U.S.), Harold Macmillan (U.K.) and Vyacheslav Molotov (USSR) – met in the Red Marble Hall of Prince Eugen’s Belvedere Palace and signed the Austrian State Treaty, as Figl pronounced the words so many remember, “Österreich ist frei!” (Austria is free!) From the balcony, they waved to the cheering crowds, when Figl, ever master of the moment, suddenly grabbed the Treaty and brandished it high over his head, setting off a roar of approval that lasted until the very last man had returned inside.
Seven Decades of Peace
Over the decades that followed, Austria has been, in many ways, the “island of the blessed,” granted peace and prosperity and its share of able leadership. It has welcomed its neighbors in times of trouble, and beginning in the “golden” era of Bruno Kreisky (chancellor from 1970-83), has launched social reforms – from gender equality and single-payer health care, to (nearly) free universities and generous social benefits – that have defined the society.
Austria in 1918 and again in 1945 was a country in shock, with no clear sense of who, or what, it was. In 1990, it ranked number two in Europe, after Poland, in national pride; by 1998, number one, even ahead of the United States. The details of how this happened, is a story for another time. But it has certainly had to do with a sense of having played a special role in the second half of the century in resolving the fatal divisions of the first.
This is what happened in 1956, when Austrians hosted 180,000 refugees from the crushed Hungarian Uprising; in 1958, when Vienna became headquarters of the new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); in 1968, when it welcomed dissidents from the Prague Spring; in 1989, when the Iron Curtain was finally opened, helped by Otto von Habsburg’s Pan- European Picnic on the plains of Hungary. Again in 1995, when 90,000 refugees arrived in Austria from the war zones of former Yugoslavia, and Austria at last joined the European Union and supported its expansion to the east. And in 2004, as Austria’s neighbors joined the EU, borders to Austria were the first to open and Austrians rediscovered their ties to the region.
When asked some years later what he thought of these developments, the 95-year-old Otto Habsburg smiled at the crowd at the Association of Industries. “To tell the truth,” he said. “This is what we had in mind all along.”
Originally published on March 12, 2018, online and in print.