Austria is a small country with a big past. Its Hapsburg rulers had considerable impact on European and world history. Even today, Austria exerts an influence far beyond its modest size, and is known for its magnificent scenery.
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Austria: Background and History
In 1996 Austrians celebrated a thousand years of their country’s recorded existence, although some scholars claim Austria may even be older. The nation known today as Austria (Österreich, ers-ter-rykh) had its modest beginnings as the “Eastern March,” a military colony established by the Frankish ruler Karl der Große (Charlemagne). In 976, Charlemagne’s successor, the Saxon Otto the Great, bestowed what was now known as the Ottonian Mark to the house of Babenberg, which ruled over it for the next 270 years.
Austria’s true national birth came in 1278 when Rudolf of Hapsburg acquired the territory that was to become the Austrian monarchy. Vienna became home to the Hapsburgs, and for centuries after that, the words Hapsburg and Austria would be closely intertwined. From 1867 to 1918, Austria was part of a dual monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That somewhat unstable entity lasted until the end of the First World War, a bloody conflict sparked by the assassination of the Austrian Duke Franz Ferdinand. After the war, the monarchy was dissolved and Austria became a republic with a new constitution in 1920.
In March 1938, Hitler proclaimed the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria by the Third Reich. German troops marched into Austria without facing any resistance. Hitler, born in Austria, was cheered by most Austrians when he visited as a conquering hero. At the end of World War II in 1945, Austria was occupied by the Allies. The British and Americans favored declaring Austria an independent nation, but the Soviets prevented the official recognition of the second Austrian republic until May 15, 1955. The new Austrian republic included a statement of its “permanent neutrality” in its constitution.
In 1986, the election of former UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim as the (ceremonial) president of Austria caused controversy because of his alleged connection to Nazi war crimes in Yugoslavia. Another political crisis arose in February 2000 when Jörg Haider, a member of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, made controversial pro-Nazi, anti-immigration remarks that he later recanted. But the EU condemned his remarks, and he chose not to be part of the government. (Haider was killed in an automobile accident in 2008.) Austria joined the European Union in 1995, but only under the condition that it could retain its neutrality and that no foreign troops would be stationed on Austrian soil.
Austria Today: Facts and Figures
- Official Name: Republic of Austria (Republik Österreich)
- International Abbreviation: A (Internet country ID: .at)
- Government: Federal republic; parliamentary democracy with two legislative bodies: the Nationalrat (National Council, 183 directly-elected members) and the Bundesrat (Federal Council, members appointed by each province). There are nine Austrian federal provinces or states (Bundesländer).
- President: Heinz Fischer (since July 2004)
- Chancellor: Werner Faymann (since Dec. 2008)
- Size: 32,382 sq mi (83,871 sq km), about the same area as the US state of South Carolina.
- Population: 8.4 million (2008 est.)
- Capital City: Vienna (Wien)
- National Holiday: October 26 - More: Other holidays in German-speaking Europe
- Largest Cities: Vienna (Wien) 1.5 million (over 2 million in metro area), Graz 219,500, Linz 185,300, Salzburg 145,500, Innsbruck 115,600
- Ethnicity: Austrian 91%, former Yugolslavs 4%, Turks 1.6%, other 3%
- Religions: Roman Catholic 74%, Protestant 5%, Muslim 4%, unaffiliated or other 12%
- Monetary Unit: Euro, since 2002. Formerly der Schilling.
- Economy/Industries: Austria is one of the 10 wealthiest countries in the world, measured by GDP per capita. Key industries include: agricultural products, banking, metals, chemicals, paper products, machinery, communications equipment, and tourism.
- Climate: Temperate; cool, cloudy, wet winters (snow in Alpine areas); mild summers with occasional heat waves. Cooler in Alpine areas.
- Highest Point: The Großglockner (12,457 ft, 3,797 m) in the Hohe Tauern range of the Alps. There are five more Austrian peaks higher than 3,500 meters (11,483 ft).
- Largest Lakes: Neusiedler Lake (Neusiedler See, partly in Hungary), the Attersee, the Traunsee, and a small portion of Lake Constance (Bodensee) in the eastern province of Vorarlberg.
- Waterways: The Danube (die Donau), the Mur
- Neighboring Countries (8): Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland.
- Famous Austrians: Marie Antoinette, Fred Astaire (dancer, film actor; Austrian father), Johannes Brahms (composer), Christian Doppler (physicist), Falco (Hans Hölzel), Sigmund Freud, Peter Handke (author), Josef Haydn (composer), Paul Henreid (dancer, film actor), Friedensreich Hundertwasser (artist), Franz Kafka (author), Gustav Klimt (painter), Hedy Lamarr (film actress), Niki Lauda (auto racing), Peter Lorre (film actor), Ernst Mach (scientist), Gustav Mahler (composer), Lise Meitner (nuclear physicist), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Josef Neutra (architect), Otto Preminger (film director), Egon Schiele (painter), Romy Schneider (film actress), Franz Schubert (composer), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Johann Strauss (composer, "Waltz King"), Kurt Waldheim (politician), Oskar Werner, Billy Wilder (film director), and more…
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