This week we’ve set off to a country that’s inextricably linked with Europe’s history of politicking and warfare. Come with us as we explore the fascinating history of Austria, its unique culture, and amazing locations.
- Capital (and Largest City): Vienna
- Population (2015): 8,602,112 (94th)
- Total Area: 83,879 km² (115th)
- Official Language: German
- Currency: Euro (€) (EUR)
History of Austria
The early history of Austria begins with Celtic tribes – that is until the Romans eventually turned the area into a province. Once the Roman Empire fell, rivals quickly took advantage of the chaos to move in. Order came to Austria once more in 788 under Charlemagne, who brought Christianity to the formerly pagan nation. As the country began to take shape (‘Austria’ was first mentioned in 996), more powers attempted to control the region. Eventually, ruler Ottokar II of Bohemia was defeated by Rudolf I of Germany in 1278. This ushered in a period of Hapsburg rule, which lasted until World War I.
Before we jump ahead to 1914, there’s a lot to cover in the intervening centuries. The Hapsburgs (being the astute, ambitious dynasty they were) began to accumulate an ever-greater amount of land to add to Austria. The late Middle Ages also saw the Hapsburgs come into conflict with the buoyant Ottoman Empire, especially in what’s now Hungary. The Long War between 1593 and 1606 is one of the prime examples of conflict between the two powers. The struggle came to a head with the 1683 Battle of Vienna, where the Austrians managed to break the Ottoman advance.
Near the beginning of the 18th century, Emperor Charles VI’s worry about the possible extinction of his house prompted him to give up some of Austria’s land in return for certain assurances regarding his heirs. During this time, Prussia also began to grow into a larger regional player, with the two countries becoming more closely linked.
The start of the 19th century was a trying time for Austria, as the Holy Roman Empire was officially ended in 1806 after defeat at the hands of Napoleon. Despite this, the new Empire of Austria managed to emerge from the Congress of Vienna as one of the continent’s great powers. With talk of a unified Germany increasing, Austria felt threatened by its neighbour. After defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1866, Austrian influence in German affairs was ended. What followed was the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – an endeavour fraught with difficulty thanks to the diversity of national and ethnic groups within its borders.
Of course, Austria would have a major effect on the entire world when heir presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo – the catalyst that began World War I. This led to the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the beginning of more political and economic turmoil.
During the interwar period, Austria alternated between moving closer to Germany and preserving its own independence. In 1938 however, Austria was annexed by Germany and it became a part of the Third Reich – Hitler being a native Austrian himself. World War II had a lasting effect on the country, with hundreds of thousands dying during the fighting or in concentration camps.
After the war, Austria was divided amongst the victorious Allies. In 1955, the country declared permanent neutrality in response to the burgeoning Cold War, and the occupiers left the country. The next several decades saw the country integrate further into European politics, finally joining the EU in 1995. There remain differing opinions amongst the elite whether Austria should persist with permanent neutrality or become more integrated into Western military endeavors. Regardless, Austria continues to be a centre for regional and international affairs, whether the EU or the UN.
Austrian culture is interesting in that it has historically been influenced by neighbours, but has also produced many lasting works and traditions of its own. One of the most enduring examples of Austrian culture is classical music. Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and many other famous composers either hailed from Austria or found success in and around Vienna.
Austria is also known across the world for its architecture, especially in the old towns of cities and castles around the country. Most castles can be attributed to the Hapsburg era, while the cities feature styles and structures that span centuries.
While most of the country is German speaking (albeit with a variety of dialects), there is a wide array of ethnic groups living in Austria – with multiple minority languages to go along with them. The most prominent is Hungarian, however Slovene, Croatian, Czech, and more are also spoken.
Austrian cuisine is mostly known for sweets and pastries, however it has a variety of influences and dishes overall. Vienna specifically has become known for its unique cuisine featuring such dishes as wiener schnitzel (breaded and fried veal), different types of strudels, Tafelspitz (boiled beef), and much more.
Like most of Western Europe, soccer is a popular sport and, while interest has declined since the end of World War II, in 2008 Austria co-hosted the European Championships with Switzerland. Other popular sports include ice hockey and skiing – the later thanks to the Alps that dominate large portions of the country.
The Alps are one the defining features of the Austrian landscape. This means many parts of the country are rugged and unfit for civilization. Most population centres can be found in the valleys, while the Danube flows through the country and has had a huge effect on transportation within Austria historically. The Alps have served as important barriers between Austria and other nearby countries. While not official borders, the mountain passes were hugely prized as the main points of connection between the country and other industrialized nations.
By far the largest city in the country is the capital, Vienna. The population of almost 1.8 million is more than 1.5 million greater than the second largest city, Graz. Vienna is important across the world thanks to its hosting of numerous international organizations including the UN and OPEC. Another famous city is Salzburg, which is known for its baroque style in the old town and as the birthplace of Mozart.
Did you know?
- One of the most well known Austrian’s today is Arnold Schwarzenegger (he grew up there)
- Former F1 superstar Niki Lauda is Austrian
- You can’t make a right on red in the country
- ‘Austro’ means east
- The oldest zoo in the world is in Vienna (founded 1752)
- Austria’s flag is one of the world’s oldest
- The Alps cover about 60% of the country’s land
- Austria is one of the few EU countries that isn’t a part of NATO
The history of Austria is sometimes chaotic and sometimes rather forgotten as in the case of WWII, however the country has since become a prominent member of both the European and international community. Today, the wondrous cultural sights and sounds of the country draw visitors from all over the world – and will continue to do so for years to come.
Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems. Be sure to check out our Currency Spotlight for more information on the euro.
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