History of Austria

Austria and the Ostmark

In 1996 Austrians celebrated a thousand years of their country’s recorded existence. Some scholars claim Austria may be even older. The nation known today as Austria (Österreich, ers-ter-rykh) had its modest beginnings as the “Eastern March” (Ostmark), 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.

Graz - Uhrturm

The first mention of the Clock Tower (Uhrturm) in Graz, Austria dates back to 1265, when it was still part of a fortress. The tower didn’t take its current form until almost 200 years later. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Twenty years later, in 996, a parchment document written in Latin mentions the name “ostarrichi” (Austria) for the very first time. A written transfer of property refers to “the area commonly known as Austria (Oesterreich).” But at that time the term referred only to a region, not a nation or a people. That would come later.

The Habsburgs
Austria’s true national birth came in 1278 when Rudolf of Habsburg acquired the territory that was to become the Austrian monarchy. Vienna became home to the Habsburgs, and for centuries after that, the words Habsburg 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.

Anschluss and the Nazi Era
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.

The Nazi Past
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 Today
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. (To be continued…)

Also see: City Guides: Austria

Next | Austria: Facts and Figures

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