1919-1945 - Post-Habsburg Austria
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. After repulsing challenges from the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, Austrian territory became increasingly consolidated in the central European part of the Danube basin.
In 1848 Franz Josef I ascended to the throne and remained in power until his death in 1916. Franz Josef saw many milestones in Austrian history. The Compromise of 1867 gave greater political rights to Hungary within the Empire, creating what became known as the Dual Monarchy. Political unity deteriorated further in the beginning of the 20th century, culminating, under the stress of World War I, in the collapse of the Empire and proclamation of an Austrian Republic on territory roughly identical to modern-day Austria. In 1919, the Treaty of St. Germain officially ended Habsburg rule and established the Republic of Austria.
From 1918 to 1934, Austria experienced sharpening political strife. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, paramilitary political organizations were engaged in strikes and violent conflicts. Unemployment rose to an estimated 25%. In 1934, a corporatist and authoritarian government came into power in Austria. Austrian National Socialists (NS) launched an unsuccessful coup d'etat in July 1934. Though the government sought to preserve Austrian independence, in February 1938, under renewed threats of military intervention from Germany, Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg was forced to accept Austrian National Socialists (Nazis) in his government. On March 12, Germany sent its military forces into Austria and annexed the country ("Anschluss"), an action that received enthusiastic support from many Austrians.
From March 1938 to April 1945, 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% of the total population. Most Jews lived in Vienna, where they comprised about 9% 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.
After liberation in April 1945, 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 were 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.
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 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. The controversial debate about the long-hidden wartime past of former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who was elected Austrian President in 1986, painfully forced Austrians to confront the country’s role before and during World War II.
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 $1 billion in total. Payments are made through the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism (established in 1995), which provides lump-sum payments to victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs, and the General Settlement Fund (established in 2001), which addresses gaps and deficiencies in postwar restitution programs. The Reconciliation Fund (established in 2000 and disbanded in 2005) provided one-time payments to Nazi-era forced and slave laborers. Its successor organization, the Future Fund (established 2006) supports projects with an emphasis on Holocaust and tolerance education.
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