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Thursday, 3 February, 2000, 19:33 GMT
Analysis: Austria's troubled history

By 1900 Vienna was an ethnic and cultural melting-pot
By Central Europe analyst Jan Repa

The entry into government of Austria's far right Freedom Party has set off alarm bells around Europe and prompted international criticism.

St. Stephen's cathedral
St. Stephen's cathedral in Vienna - once at the heart of an empire
Some commentators have suggested Austria is a country that has yet to come to terms with its past. Others say references to the Nazi era are misplaced or exaggerated.

There are many, often contradictory Austrias. A century ago, Austria, with its junior partner Hungary, was a great power with territory covering much of Central and Eastern Europe. At its centre was Vienna - a sophisticated, cosmopolitan capital, renowned for its architecture, painting, music and science.

Changing faces

Today Austria is a small country of eight million people, perched at the eastern extremity of the European Union and surrounded on three sides by former Communist countries all clamouring to join the EU.

In the 19th century, the newly-named Austrian Empire was shaken to its foundations by the rising forces of nationalism.

The first recorded mention of Austria - "Ostarrichi" (modern German "Oesterreich") - was in the year 996. The Latin form, "Austria", first appeared in a document dating from the 12th century. At the time, it was an eastern outpost of the Holy Roman Empire, guarding Germany against repeated attacks from the neighbouring Hungarians. This idea of Austria as an eastern "bulwark" of the West has recurred in various guises throughout its history.

In 1273 the territory around Vienna was acquired by the Habsburg family, who vied for the throne of the declining Holy Roman Empire with a succession of rivals. The destinies of Austria and the Habsburgs were to remain bound together for the next six and half centuries.

Trying to weld these disparate territories together presented insurmountable problems.

Slowly, the Habsburgs consolidated their family holdings. But it was a series of judicious dynastic marriages around the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries that really propelled them to great-power status, with the acquisition of the Spanish, Czech and Hungarian crowns.

As a subsequent saying put it, "Alii bella gerant; tu felix Austria nube" (Let others wage wars; thou, fortunate Austria, will wed").

Trying to weld these disparate territories together presented insurmountable problems.

It was a dilemma they - and Austria - never resolved. Hanging on grimly to their increasingly meaningless title of Holy Roman Emperor, the Habsburgs found themselves locked in a long struggle in the East with the Turkish Empire, whose armies twice laid siege to Vienna.

The Protestant Reformation quickly took hold throughout the Habsburg lands. Placing themselves at the head of the Catholic counter-offensive, the Habsburgs mercilessly suppressed the Protestant faith, re-imposing a ceremonial and heavily bureaucratised form of Roman Catholicism.

Gradually edged out of Germany by rival powers, the Habsburgs concentrated on consolidating their non-German possessions, forcing back the Turks and joining Prussia and Russia in the carve-up of Poland.

Rising nationalism

In 1806 when Napoleon abolished the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburgs re-styled themselves Emperors of Austria.

In the 19th century, the newly-named Austrian Empire was shaken to its foundations by the rising forces of nationalism. As the various subject peoples, including the German-speakers around Vienna, asserted themselves, the Habsburgs balanced one group off against another without ever finding a real solution. They relied increasingly on a cosmopolitan bureaucracy - in which Czechs played an important role - backed by loyal elements, including a large part of the German, Hungarian, Polish and Croat aristocracy.

By 1900, Vienna was an ethnic and cultural melting-pot, where non-German-speakers accounted for half the population. A new feature was the increasing prominence of assimilated Jews, who produced a galaxy of talent, including the composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg; the playwright Arthur Schnitzler; and the psychologist Siegmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud was part of a wealth of talent in Austria
But this multi-national Vienna also produced a backlash, particularly with the German-speaking lower middle classes, among whom anti-Jewish and anti-foreigner sentiment became deeply entrenched. One of their number was a bored young misfit, Adolf Hitler.

In 1918, as the World War I drew to a close, the empire of Habsburgs fell apart, as each constituent nation rushed off to establish its own state. The German-speaking rump was no exception, proclaiming a "Republic of German-Austria" and voting for union with Germany. This was vetoed by the victorious powers, Britain and France. Thus, almost by default, modern Austria was born.

The Austria of the 1920s and 1930s was an impoverished, unstable place. Internationally, it was a satellite of Mussolini's Italy. Domestic politics were bitterly polarised between the Social Democrats and the Christian Socialists - each with their own paramilitary organisations. A small Nazi movement openly agitated for incorporation into Germany. Among its early members were Joerg Haider's parents. From 1933 onwards, Austria was a right-wing dictatorship.

Pre-war Austria was dominated by Italy's Mussolini
Austria's survival as an independent state ultimately depended on Italy. But when Mussolini, stung by Anglo-French disapproval of his colonial adventures, began to draw closer to Nazi Germany, Nazi pressure increased. In 1938, German forces marched in unopposed - to an ecstatic welcome from a part, at least, of the Austrian population.

A year later, Austria - now the German province of Ostmark - was at war again. As World War II, in its turn, dragged on to a conclusion, many Austrians began to look for a way out of Germany's impending catastrophe.

The war wrought great destruction and suffering. In 1945, Austria - like Germany - was divided into American, British, French and Soviet zones of occupation.

A new government was established, under Soviet auspices, later recognised by the other powers. In 1955, an international treaty established an independent but neutral Austria - a convenient buffer between the West and the Soviet bloc.

The years following 1955 saw a stunning economic recovery, under a mixture of free-market enterprise and state planning. But there was a political price.

The legacy of the war years - including the persecution and mass-murder of Jews and the suppression of minority cultures like the Slovenes - was swept under the carpet. The comfortable myth of Austria as the "first victim of German aggression" took hold.

National politics became a stifling "duopoly", under which the Social Democrats and the Christian Socialists - renamed the People's Party - shared power and presided over an all-embracing system of patronage and jobbery. In 1995, Austria joined the European Union.

Austria today faces new challenges. Its ability to cope with them is an open question. Part of former Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider's appeal lies in his breaking apart of the post-war political establishment; part in his success in playing on popular fears of what awaits Austria as the European Union enlarges to embrace the remaining territories of the old Habsburg empire.

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