History of Austria & Vienna

Austria in ancient and Roman times

In the wider Austrian region settlements were found since the Paleolithic Age (8,000 BC). We are talking about the area that encompasses the today′s Austrian section of the Danube and the Central and Western Alps. This area provided all the resources for permanent settlements, i.e., soil fertility, water provision, and mild temperatures.

The fertile Alpine regions and the Danube Valley attracted populations since the Prehistory. In the 7th century BC, Celtic tribes from Western Europe started settling in the eastern Alps. Those tribes also started building small industries, i.e., working the iron, pottery, etc. Their villages formed later on a Celtic state. Trade was vital, and the settlements either followed the important trading routes or built close to resources which in turn required creating a path.

One important resource was the mining of salt. Salt helped preserve the meat for weeks or months and gave taste to the food produced. Hallstatt became crucial between 750-450 BC because of its salt-mining industry. Another resource for their defense and every day works was the iron, also mined in the area. Those two valuable products led to the permanent settlements of the Celts.

Gradually, those Celts started trading with the Romans who arrived at the River Danube at 200 BC and dominated the area till 15 BC. In 45 AD they founded the province of Noricum in the north. Later they annexed the Noricum province with Rhaetia (western Austria) and Pannonia (eastern Lower Austria and Burgenland).

The Romans knew well the importance of the biggest European river and built a significant settlement on its shore called Vindobona (today Vienna). Vindobona (Vienna) required the construction of paved roads for easy provision of goods, trade, and defense protection. In Vindobona one could enjoy all the benefits of the Roman way of life. But Vindobona was not up to the scale and grandeur we know today Vienna, as Carnuntum was back then the most important Roman settlement in Austria. Carnuntum was the capital of the Roman province of Pannonia; Carnuntum was a fortified stronghold destined to control the flows and routes around the Danube.

Carnuntum is nowadays an archaeological park. The Romans rule over the Austrian Danube region lasted for 500 years. Gradually the Austrian area was converted to Christianism by Irish and Scottish monks. With the raids from the hordes of German and Avars tribes starting from the 4th Century AD, the Romans withdrew from the Austrian Danube region.

The devastating incursions into the Roman Danube area went on for the next 3-4 centuries. Waves of invaders scoured the area where modern Austria is now lying. Many Germanic tribes extended their control over the area, and the Huns raided the area while moving to the borders of France. More tribes descended, i.e., Avars eastern Austria, Baiuvarii (Bavarians, a German tribe), Slavic tribes settled in Lower Austria, Carinthia and Styria. Rather dark ages.

The raids and settlements in Austria stopped when Charlemagne, King of the Franks (768-814) conquered the Austrian region and annexed it to his Empire, the Carolingian Eastern March (Ostmark). Here we find the origins of Austria′s current local name. In 996 we find Ostmark mentioned as 'Ostarrichi,' now changed to the modern German 'Österreich.'

Charlemagne wanted to pose an obstacle to the further advance of the Avars, and he granted peace to the western area. Charlemagne was just the head of the most prominent invaders, the Franks (West Germanic tribes) who ruled over the territory of Western Europe. He then became the Holy Roman Emperor and got the name 'Pater Europae' because he united most of the Western European invader tribes and local populations under a single rule. Following Charlemagne′s death, the empire split into three parts. The east of the empire (including Austria) was taken by Louis the German.


Middle Ages

Austria suffered from more raids in the tenth century this time from Magyar tribes (later called Hungarians). The Magyars lost the battle in 955 from the German king Otto I who brought back the peace to the region. From 976 to 1246 in Austria ruled the dynasty of the Babenbergs. Leopold von Babenberg started the dynasty when he became the Margrave of the Ostmark in 976 and resided in Pöchlarn. The Badenbergs then moved to Melk in the Wachau region, and finally, in the twentieth century, the Duke Henry II moved his headquarters to Vienna which became the capital of the area from that date.

The Babenbergs were a Bavarian family of nobles. The Babenbergs expanded their sovereignty in the region and became one of the empire′s leading families through wisely marital moves. Their influence was so high that in 1156 the Holy Roman Emperor made Austria a Duchy with significant privileges and its Babenberg lord became a Duke.

Vienna became the capital of the region in the 12th century, decorated with a splendid architecture monument, the Cathedral of Saint Stephan that shows the power of its ruler, Henry II the Babenberg, and the Schottenstift monastery where we can find his statue.

The last Duke of Austria from the Babenberg dynasty died in 1246. The King Ottokar of Bohemia (today Czech Republic) was elected Duke, and he married the last Duke′s widow. When Rudolf von Habsburg became Holy Roman Emperor in 1273 he defeated the Duke (King Ottokar of Bohemia), and he replaced him with his son Albert in 1282, then Duke of Austria. A new dynasty started one of the Hapsburgs that ruled Austria for six centuries.

The Hapsburgs were from Swabia. They acquired a few territories, namely the duchies of Styria, Carinthia, and Tyrol through contracts of succession. They also put Gorizia and Istria under their control. The Hapsburg Rudolph IV, known as The Founder became Duke of Austria in 1358. His side-name came from him founding the University in Vienna. Duke Albert V, married the daughter of Emperor Sigismund and he became the King of Hungary and Bohemia. Following the death of Emperor Sigismund, he became in 1438 the first Habsburg with the title of Holy Roman Emperor. Austria rose to the role of the dominant power in Central Europe. The Habsburgs used the marriages as a strategic alliance tool to expand their influence and enhance their power.


Modern Age: Austria in the years 1500-1800

In the contemporary age, Austria puts Albert’s successors in the shoes of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Habsburgs added Burgundy, the Netherlands, and Spain to their territories. The annexation was due to premature deaths or childless marriages within the Burgundian and Spanish dynasties.

The major threat of the period was the expansion of the Ottoman Empire (Turks) who besieged Vienna twice in 1529 and 1683 but hit their face against this strong Christian wall. An alliance of Poland, Venice, Russia and the Habsburgs repelled the Turks. Vienna was the last stronghold to keep the Turks from conquering large parts of Central and Western Europe and throwing another dark veil on the western civilization as they did with the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine).

In 1522, the Habsburg dynasty decided to divide their control into a Spanish and an Austrian line, so the two lines followed different paths. With the eastern threat eliminated, Austria acquired more territories and became one of the leaders in European matters. They added Bohemia and Hungary following the last Jagiellonian king′s death in 1526. These were the years of another threat for the status-quo, the Reformation.

The Reformation hit the whole Europe, and a significant percentage of people in in the Austrian Empire converted to Protestantism. The status-quo responded with the Catholic Counter-reformation. Rudolf II (1576-1612) persecuted the Protestants.

Now Europe starts to shake up for good. Austria took part in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), leaving its lands devastated. The end of the Thirty Years War found the Ottomans again besieging Vienna in 1683. This time they were defeated by the Germans and Polish who came down to help. The Ottomans never returned to these lands. The end of the Ottoman threat signals the start of the baroque period with many grand edifices rose, arts and culture promoted. Now the imperial and religious art can show its splendor as in the palace of (Schloss) Schönbrunn, the Salzburger Dom, etc. Maria Theresa commissioned great architects and after her death, her son Joseph II, the so-called enlightened monarch to create exquisite operas.

More wars followed in the next decades. The families of emperors and kings that ruled over Europe and conducted marriages and strategic alliances amongst their kin, promptly fought each other when they disagreed with the heirs.The War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714 benefited the Hapsburgs as they gained Sardinia and part of Italy. A new challenge arose when the Emperor Charles VI (1711-1740) had no male heir, but he managed to secure his succession his daughter as the next ruler. The sequence took place in 1740; Maria Theresa became the Austrian Empress. But things got wild when Frederick the Great of Prussia took Silesia, and that is how the War of the Austrian Succession 1740-1748 started against the Prussians, French, and Spanish.

Maria Theresa won the eight-year war and ruled until the end of her life together with her son Joseph II (1765-1790). Her husband Francis of Lorraine was made Emperor but died in 1765. Maria Theresa made history because of the reforms she introduced putting the foundation for a modern administrative government.

More turmoil in Europe originated after the repercussions of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. From 1792 to 1815 Austria and France had a rivalry which resulted in a series of wars. In 1804 Napoleon of France dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, and Francis II of Austria renounced the Roman imperial crown in 1806. The Habsburgs show the clear threat to their rule from the French revolution in 1789. The rise of Napoleon′s empire in France took many lands from the Austrian possession. The Congress of Vienna (1814-15) that followed Napoleon′s defeat was an opportunity for the Austrian Chancellor Metternich to redraw the political map and reconsolidate the Austrian power.

Metternich profited from Napoleon′s defeat to rise into a prominent political leader in Austria. He viewed all liberal ideas introduced with the French revolution as a threat to the monarchy system, so he pushed for a more repressive regime over Europe. The growing urbanization and industrialization led to the formation of a new urban middle class. It is the time of the Art Nouveau with meaningful social life, and cultivation of the arts.

But the rising of the urban middle class and its economic power created social unrest. Austria was the revolutionary tide in Europe, and in 1848 Austria the middle-class rebelled. Emperor Franz I and Metternich were prepared to respond to any upheaval, and they suppressed the rebellion promptly. The rebellion was an excuse for them to limit civil liberties and introduce a strict censorship. With their civil rights cut down, people retreated to their homes, and social life reduced to a minimum. The turmoil continued, and Metternich eventually resigned and Emperor Franz I made concessions to the classes.

With the army loyal to the Emperor, Ferdinand for his nephew Emperor Franz Joseph I. The new emperor restored absolute rule in Austria, and the old order returned for another 68 years, one of the longest periods of the ruling. Emperor Franz Joseph I together with his wife Elisabeth, known as 'Sisi,' they rose Vienna to one of the most important capitals.

But other nationals in the empire as the Italians, the Hungarians and the Czechs became increasingly dissatisfied with Austrian rule. During the Italian wars, the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy suffered numerous defeats. The world was changing, and the old regime needed to adapt them to survive. France beat Austria in 1859, and the same did Prussia in 1866. After the war in 1867, Vienna became the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy for an easier ruling. The Dual Monarchy broke the empire into two parts, Austria and Hungary but with the same Emperor.

In the late 19th century the area around Vienna became highly industrialized. Railways transferred materials and products across the empire. But the ethnic groups demanded their independence and the Dual Monarchy could not survive from the rise of the nationalism. Eventually, Prussia assumed the role of the dominant power in Europe.


Austria in the 20th Century

The ethnic tensions erupted after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and heir to the throne, which took place in 1914 in Sarajevo. Austria declared the war against Serbia which was the spark for the World War I. The long rule of Emperor Franz Joseph ends in 1916 and with the end of the World War in 1918 there is a significant change. The ethnic groups declared their independence thus breaking the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The 7-centuries Habsburg dynasty rule ends, and Austria announced its first Republic on 12 November, making its first steps amidst massive inflation, unemployment, and significant recession.

The recovery from the WWI then led to years of depression and social unrest. The weak coalition government between the Christian-Social and the Social-Democratic parties resulted in its demise and the rise in 1932 of the Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. He was the head of a right-wing coalition government, voted to recover from the Depression. Hitler′s annexation politics accentuated the internal problems. Doffluss declared martial law in 1934 aiming to protect Austria from Hitler. But the following month he was shot dead by Nazis in an attempted coup defeated by the army. The influence and power of Hitler forced the Austrian government in 1938 to appoint Nazis to key posts. Chancellor Shuschnigg proposed a referendum on the question of whether Austria should join Germany. But that provoked Hitler who sent the German troops in 1938 to march into Austria and incorporating the country into the German Reich.

Austria suffered great losses during the Second World War with many lives lost, allied bombing, and Russian invasion in 1945. With the end of World War II in 1945, Austria had its frontiers restored to their 1937 status following the decisions in the Allied summit of 1943. It also resulted in a decade occupation of the country by the Allies, naming the USA, USSR, UK, and France.

The occupation lasted till the signing of the Austrian State Treaty in 1955, which declared the independent Republic of Austria. The losses from the war and the long occupation led the Austrian Parliament to pass a constitutional law for the permanent Austrian neutrality. The next decades, Austria was accepted to the European community, initially as a member of EFTA and then a full member of the European Union in 1995. Austria joined the Eurozone in 1999.