GERMANIC TRIBES WERE not the first peoples to occupy the eastern Alpine-Danubian region, but the history and culture of these tribes, especially the Bavarians and Swabians, are the foundation of Austria's modern identity. Austria thus shares in the broader history and culture of the Germanic peoples of Europe. The territories that constitute modern Austria were, for most of their history, constituent parts of the German nation and were linked to one another only insofar as they were all feudal possessions of one of the leading dynasties in Europe, the Habsburgs.
Surrounded by German, Hungarian, Slavic, Italian, and Turkish nations, the German lands of the Habsburgs became the core of their empire, reaching across German national and cultural borders. This multicultural empire was held together by the Habsburgs' dynastic claims and by the cultural and religious values of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation that the Habsburgs cultivated to provide a unifying identity to the region. But this cultural-religious identity was ultimately unable to compete with the rising importance of nationalism in European politics, and the nineteenth century saw growing ethnic conflict within the Habsburg Empire. The German population of the Habsburg Empire directed its nationalist aspirations toward the German nation, over which the Habsburgs had long enjoyed titular leadership. Prussia's successful bid for power in Germany in the nineteenth century--culminating in the formation in 1871 of a German empire under Prussian leadership that excluded the Habsburgs' German lands--was thus a severe political shock to the German population of the Habsburg Empire.
When the Habsburg Empire collapsed in 1918 at the end of World War I, its territories that were dominated by non-German ethnic groups established their own independent nation-states. The German-speaking lands of the empire sought to become part of the new German republic, but European fears of an enlarged Germany forced them to form an independent Austrian state. The new country's economic weakness and lack of national consciousness contributed to political instability and polarization throughout the 1920s and 1930s and facilitated the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938.
As part of Germany, Austria came under Nazi totalitarian rule and suffered military defeat in World War II. To escape this Nazi German legacy, Austrians began to seek refuge in a national identity that emphasized their cultural and historical differences with Germans even before the end of the war. Thus, the population welcomed the 1945 decision of the victorious Allied powers to restore an independent Austria.
The bitter experience of the Anschluss and World War II enabled Austrians to overcome the extreme political polarization of the interwar years through a common commitment to parliamentary democracy and integration with the West. The close cooperation of the two major parties, the Socialist Party of Austria (Sozialistische Partei Österreichs--SPÖ) and the Austrian People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei--ÖVP), helped Austria frustrate Soviet efforts after World War II that might have seen the country's absorption into the Soviet bloc or division into communist and noncommunist halves. The signing of the State Treaty in 1955 ended Allied occupation of Austria and any immediate danger of communist dictatorship and/or partition. But the occupation era and the continuing Cold War shaped the country's identity and self-understanding as it positioned itself as a neutral country bridging East and West.
This new Austrian cultural, political, and international identity laid the foundation for a stable democracy, a strong economy tied to the West, and neutrality between communist and democratic Europe. At the same time, however, it discouraged close examination of the role played individually and collectively by Austrians in Nazi aggression and war crimes. Revelations about the wartime record of Kurt Waldheim during the presidential election in 1985 thus initiated a painful reassessment of Austria's Nazi past. Moreover, the end of the Cold War has undercut Austria's self-appointed mission as a bridge between East and West. A redefinition of Austrian nationalism and its international role thus seems likely in the 1990s.
SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress