History of Austria


Foundation of the Second Republic

As the Soviet troops advanced on Vienna, they occupied the town where Socialist leader Karl Renner lived in retirement. Despite his anti-Soviet reputation, Renner was chosen by the Soviet leaders to form and head a provisional government, apparently believing the aging politician would be an easily manipulated figurehead. Renner, however, established authority based on his leadership role in the last freely elected parliament, not on the backing of the Soviet Union. Conditions did not permit the members of the old parliament to be summoned, as had been done in 1918, so Renner turned to the leaders of the three nonfascist parties that the Soviet leaders had already allowed to become active and established a provisional city administration in Vienna in early April. The three parties consisted of the Socialist Party of Austria (Sozialistische Partei Österreichs--SPÖ), a reorganization of the SDAP; the Austrian People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei--ÖVP), a reorganization of the CSP; and the Communist Party of Austria (Kommunistische Partei Österreichs--KPÖ).

Renner apportioned ministries in the provisional government's cabinet roughly based on the political balance of the pre-1934 era, but the nationalist bloc was excluded and Communist representation increased. The SPÖ held ten ministries; the ÖVP, nine; and the KPÖ, only three, but these included the important ministries of interior, which controlled the police, and of education. Three additional ministries were held by members without party affiliation. Because of widespread distrust of the Communists, Renner created undersecretary positions for the two other parties in the Communist-headed ministries.

On April 27, 1945, the provisional government issued a decree nullifying the Anschluss and reestablishing an independent, democratic Republic of Austria under the 1920 constitution as amended in 1929. Germany had yet to surrender, however, and the formation of a provisional government in Soviet-occupied Austria surprised the Western Allies, who had yet to enter Austria. The Western Allies feared that the provisional government was a puppet of the Soviet Union and declined to recognize it. This decision left the Renner government dependent on the Soviet Union but forced it to allow the provisional government the means to establish reasonable credibility so Western acceptance could be won. Thus, as pre-1938 political figures became active in the areas occupied by United States, British, and French troops, the Renner government was allowed to establish contact with them despite initial Soviet plans to seal off its occupation zone.

Four-Power Occupation and Recognition of the Provisional Government

The four Allied powers had not agreed to any firm plans for Austria prior to the war's end, and only in early July 1945 were the borders dividing the country into four occupation zones finally set. Vienna's city center was placed under Four Power control, while the rest of the city was divided into specific occupation zones. Supreme authority in Austria was wielded by the Allied Council, in which the Four Powers were represented by their zonal commanders. Each of the four Allies held veto power over the decisions of the council.

The Allied Council held its first meeting in early September, but the Western Allies still declined to recognize the Renner government. Soon thereafter the provisional government held a meeting in Vienna attended by representatives from parties from all the occupation zones. Unlike the situation after World War I, the provinces displayed no separatist tendencies--the experience of the Anschluss and World War II had forged an appreciation of a common Austrian identity. The provisional government was expanded to accommodate national representation, and the representatives agreed to national elections. Because of these developments, the Allied Council recognized the provisional government on October 20, 1945.

The 1945 Election and Consolidation of the Austrian Government

The first national election since 1930 was held on November 25, 1945. Nazi Party members were barred from participation. This exclusion sharply limited electoral participation by the nationalist camp, and no party was formed to represent its viewpoint. The ÖVP was thus able to monopolize the entire antileft vote. Voters gave overwhelming support to the two democratic parties: the ÖVP received nearly 50 percent of the vote and eighty-five seats in the Nationalrat, and the SPÖ received 45 percent of the vote and seventy-six seats. The KPÖ received only 5 percent--well below its anticipated 25 percent--and four seats.

Although the ÖVP thus held an absolute majority in parliament, the government, headed by Chancellor Leopold Figl of the ÖVP, preserved the three-party coalition. The distribution of cabinet seats was adjusted, however, with the KPÖ receiving only a specially created and unimportant Ministry for Electrification. In December parliament elected Renner to the largely ceremonial position of president of the republic. With the Austrian government clearly evolving along democratic lines, the Western Allies grew more supportive, and the Soviet Union grew increasingly hostile.

In 1946, however, the Soviet Union agreed to changes in the Four Power Control Agreement that governed the relationship between the Four Powers and the Austrian government, thus weakening their influence. Originally, Austrian legislation had to be unanimously approved by the Allied Council, effectively giving each of the Allies veto-power. In light of the Austrian government's democratic bent, the Western Allies favored allowing laws passed by the government to take effect unless the Allied Council unanimously rejected them. Although the Soviet Union was generally opposed to surrendering its veto power, it hoped to extract an agreement from the Austrians that would give the Soviet Union effective control over Austrian petroleum resources and thus did not want the other Allies to be able to veto any eventual agreement. In June 1946, the Allied powers agreed to a compromise. Agreements between one of the occupying powers and Austria would not be subject to a veto. "Constitutional laws" would require the approval of the Allied Council and thus remain subject to vetoes by the individual Allies, but all other laws would take effect in thirty-one days unless rejected by the council.

The Soviet Union only realized the implications of the new Control Agreement when a dispute arose over German assets in Austria. In early July 1946, the Soviet Union confiscated German assets in its occupation zone as war reparations--mines, industrial facilities, agricultural land, and the entire Austrian oil production industry. To protect the Austrian economy from such Soviet seizures, the Austrian government nationalized German assets. The Soviet Union attempted to veto the nationalization law but was rebuffed by the other Allies, who made it clear that the Austrian government had wide latitude in determining whether a particular law was a constitutional law or not. Although the Soviet Union was able to prevent implementation of the nationalization law in its occupation zone, the 1946 Control Agreement significantly enhanced the power of the Austrian government. By 1953 more than 550 laws had been implemented over the objection of the Soviet Union.

Consolidation of Democracy

The experience of the Anschluss and Nazi rule--which for many Austrian politicians had included imprisonment at Dachau-- deepened the commitment of the ÖVP and SPÖ to parliamentary democracy and Austrian statehood. The electorate remained divided into three political camps--socialist/Marxist, Catholic, and nationalist/liberal--but cooperation replaced extreme political polarization.

The SPÖ ratified the moderate social democratic and anticommunist outlook of Renner, while downplaying the legacy of Austro-Marxism associated with Otto Bauer, the party's leader after World War I. Over the objections of the left wing, the party rejected an alliance with the KPÖ, endorsed cooperation with the ÖVP, and sanctioned the rebuilding of a capitalist economy tied to the West. It also decided to seek broad support beyond its working-class base.

The ÖVP underwent a similar transformation. Many of its postwar leaders, drawn largely from people associated with the prewar CSP trade unions and peasant organizations, had developed personal relationships with socialist leaders during their time at Dachau. After the war, they advanced a program emphasizing freedom and social welfare. Although essentially a Christian democratic party, the ÖVP sought to broaden its constituency and downplayed its confessional identification. No formal organizational ties were established with the Roman Catholic Church, and clerics were barred from running for office on the party's ticket.

Denazification posed a special problem for the emerging democratic society, often referred to as the Second Republic. Favorable Allied treatment of Austria was based in part on the premise that it was a liberated victim of Nazi aggression and not a Nazi ally. Thus, the government wanted to avoid any suggestion of collective guilt while at the same time prosecuting individual Nazis. The party and its affiliates were banned, and ex-members were required to register. Approximately 536,000 did so by September 1946. The government attempted to draw a distinction between committed Nazis and those who had joined because of economic, social, or personal coercion. Thus, the presumably more committed pre-1938 Nazis were dismissed from the civil service and a variety of other professions. Special tribunals were created to try war crimes.

Following the 1945 parliamentary election, the Allies sought more extensive denazification. In February 1947, the Figl government enacted the National Socialist Act. The law distinguished between "more implicated" persons, such as high party officials, and "less implicated" persons, such as simple party members. Individuals in both categories were subject to fines and employment restrictions, but with different levels of severity. By 1948, however, political and popular support for what was perceived as indiscriminate denazification was waning. Ex-Nazis and their families accounted for nearly one-third of the population, and both major parties feared that the stability of Austrian political and civil society would be undermined if they were not eventually reintegrated. In June 1948, the government promulgated the Amnesty Act, which restored full citizenship rights to the less implicated ex-Nazis before the 1949 election. Some 42,000 people, however, those categorized as more implicated, remained excluded from full participation in the nation's life.

Both the SPÖ and the ÖVP actively solicited the electoral support of ex-Nazis, but this new bloc of voters also enabled the formation of a successor party to the prewar parties in the nationalist-liberal camp. The SPÖ encouraged the formation of the new party, known as the League of Independents (Verband der Unabhängigen--VdU), expecting that it would split the antisocialist vote and thus weaken the ÖVP. In the October 1949 parliamentary election, however, the SPÖ lost nine seats, compared with the eight lost by the ÖVP. The VdU, with nearly 12 percent of the vote, won sixteen of these seventeen seats. The KPÖ, with 5 percent of the vote, increased its representation from four to five seats. Although the ÖVP thus lost its absolute majority in the Nationalrat, it was still the largest party, with seventy-seven seats and 44 percent of the vote. The SPÖ held sixty-seven seats, having won nearly 39 percent of the vote. The ÖVP and the SPÖ formed another coalition government with Figl as chancellor, continuing what was to become known as the "grand coalition."

To limit conflict between themselves, the coalition partners devised a system to divide not only cabinet ministries but also the entire range of political patronage jobs in the government and nationalized industries based upon each party's electoral strength. This proportional division of jobs, called the "Proporz" system, became an enduring feature of coalition governments.

Austria's Integration with the West

Early Soviet expectations for domination of Austria were pinned on a serious misreading of the KPÖ's electoral strength, and reality forced the Austrian Communists and their Soviet backers to turn to extraparliamentary means. With the Soviet Union occupying Austria's industrial heartland, the KPÖ hoped first to gain control of the labor movement and then to exploit popular discontent with the difficult postwar economic situation to bring mass pressure to bear on the government. As part of its overall strategy, the KPÖ sought to weaken the SPÖ by encouraging party factionalism and to undermine the cooperation between the two major parties. Similar tactics successfully brought Communists to power in neighboring East European countries in the late 1940s. But in Austria, Socialists united around Renner's social democratic approach and managed to outflank the Communists for worker support, as they had done after World War I.

In 1947 and 1948, the Soviet Union attempted to block Austria's participation in United States-sponsored aid programs, including the European Recovery Program (known as the Marshall Plan), and in the fall of 1947 the KPÖ pulled out of the coalition government over this issue. Ironically, the provisions that the Soviet Union itself had sought in the 1946 Control Agreement enabled Austria to freely sign the aid agreements and join the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), the body charged with planning how to use the Marshall Plan. Membership in the OEEC facilitated Austria's economic integration with the West and provided the economic basis for a stable parliamentary democracy in the postwar period.

The 1955 State Treaty and Austrian Neutrality

A key objective of post-1945 Austrian governments was ending the Four Power occupation and preventing the permanent division of Austria. The Allies' greater preoccupation with Germany delayed formal treaty negotiations with Austria until January 1947. By then, however, the larger strategic issues of the Cold War overshadowed the negotiations. The Soviet Union dropped its support for Yugoslav territorial claims against Austria in 1948 when Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet Union, but new issues arose to block progress toward ending the occupation: the Berlin blockade of 1948; the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the division of Germany into two rival states in 1949; and the start of the Korean War in 1950.

Following Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's death in March 1953, the Austrian government, headed by the newly elected chancellor, Julius Raab, sought to break the stalemate by proposing that Austria promise not to join any military bloc. The Indian ambassador to Moscow, acting as intermediary for the Austrians, went further and suggested permanent neutrality as the basis for a treaty. The Western Allies did not favor this proposal, and the Soviet Union continued to insist on the priority of a settlement in Germany.

In late 1954 and early 1955, however, the Western Allies and the Soviet Union feared that the other side was preparing to incorporate its respective occupation zones into its military bloc. In February the Soviet Union unexpectedly signaled its willingness to settle the Austrian question. In April a delegation composed of Raab, Figl, Adolf Schärf, and Bruno Kreisky went to Moscow. Four days of intense negotiations produced a draft treaty premised on permanent Austrian neutrality. The Western Allies only grudgingly accepted the draft for fear that it would be a model for German neutrality. They particularly objected to a proposed four-power guarantee of Austrian neutrality, believing that it would provide an opportunity for Soviet intervention in Austria. Under strong Western opposition, the Soviet Union dropped the proposal.

On May 15, 1955, the State Treaty was signed. The treaty forbade unification with Germany or restoration of the Habsburgs and provided safeguards for Austria's Croat and Slovene minorities. Austrian neutrality and a ban on foreign military bases in Austria were later incorporated into the Austrian constitution by the Law of October 26, 1955. The 40,000 Soviet troops in Austria were withdrawn by late September. The small number of Western troops that remained were withdrawn by late October.

Austria History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress