Austria's history has been heavily influenced by its location along the Danube. Its position at the crossroads of three great European cultures -- Roman, Germanic, and Slavic -- transformed the country into a melting pot, and more often than not, a battlefield.

By 100 B.C., the Romans had begun making military excursions into Austria; by 15 B.C., they had conquered the entire country. Valued as an alpine outpost of the frontier, it remained under the control of Rome for more than 500 years. Roads were built, vineyards and wine making introduced, and Roman law instituted. The spread of Christianity began around A.D. 300.

The decline of Roman power was speeded by the arrival of Germanic tribes. The region was eventually taken over by the Bavarians from the northwest, under Frankish leadership. When Charlemagne became king of the Franks in A.D. 768, he established peace with his sword and achieved a more civilized culture.

After Charlemagne's death, the region again became a battleground, with a staggering number of claimants. The Babenbergs eventually came out on top, and ruled over Austria from 976 to 1246. This royal family realized that territory could better be gained by treaty, inheritance, marriage, and politics than through war, so the region grew, and farms, towns, and cities thrived. By the end of the 10th century, the region was already being mentioned as Ostarrichi, which evolved into the German name, Österreich (Austria).

The Hapsburg Reign

After the Babenberg dynasty died out, Rudolph I was crowned in 1273, inaugurating the Hapsburg era, which would last more than 600 years. The Hapsburgs saw their fortunes rise and fall as Holy Roman Emperors and rulers of Austria, Hungary, Germany, Bohemia, Italy, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, and other territories; their troops were involved in every conflict that erupted in Europe, and neighboring nations moved from ally to adversary and back again. During the Hapsburg rule, there were 20 emperors and kings, and there was a time, at the height of their dynastic influence, when the sun never set on the Hapsburg Empire.

Austria emerged as a major European power after the defeat of the Turks, who had moved westward to lay siege to Vienna in 1683. This crucial battle helped determine the course of European history. The Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699 brought most of Hungary under Hapsburg domination, and the Hungarian throne was made a hereditary possession of the Hapsburgs (the union of Austria and Hungary lasted until 1918).

When Emperor Charles VI died without male heirs, the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty was threatened. The Pragmatic Sanction of 1720 allowed the Hapsburg empire to pass to a female heir, and set the stage for one of the greatest and most famous reigns in history, that of Maria Theresa, who ruled from 1740 to 1780. During her reign, moderate reforms were carried out, including a streamlining of the political system. The empress, although a Catholic, also limited the power of the clergy. In 1773 she initiated public education throughout her empire.

Joseph II, son of Maria Theresa, was called "The Enlightened Despot"; he continued his mother's work with a more radical approach. However, two significant changes were his: the abolition of serfdom and the introduction of complete freedom of religion.

Napoleon, of course, played his part on the stage of Austrian history: French victories brought about the loss of Lombardy, Tuscany, provinces on the Rhine, Italian provinces, Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg.

Under the leadership of Prince von Metternich as foreign minister, and later chancellor, of Austria after the abdication of Napoleon, many of the Polish and Italian territories lost during this tumultuous era were regained at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 to 1815. But Austria never regained its previous power, and it began a slow decline that culminated in the breakup of the empire following World War I.

After the collapse of the Central Powers -- Austria-Hungary, Germany, Turkey, and Bulgaria -- at the end of World War I, the last Hapsburg was forced to abdicate the throne on November 11, 1918. The monarchy was dissolved; Austria and Hungary became separate republics, while other lands were lost to Italy, Romania, Poland, and the newly formed Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

Anschluss & World War II

Austria, along with most of Europe, shared in the political turmoil "between the wars." Political violence became a sad fact of life. Englebert Dollfuss launched a conservative government in 1932, but he was assassinated by Austrian Nazis in 1934.

After Adolf Hitler took power in 1933 in Germany, Austrian Nazis campaigned, even demanded, unification with Germany. Dollfuss was succeeded by Kurt Schuschnigg, and he faced major opposition from the Nazis in trying to maintain Austrian independence. As Hitler's troops massed on the Austrian frontier, Schuschnigg resigned in 1938.

Germany invaded Austria on March 12 of that year; Anschluss (union with Germany) was proclaimed. In effect, Austria had become a province of the Third Reich. The thousands of Austrians who turned out on March 14, 1938, to cheer Nazi troops as they marched triumphantly into Vienna must have had second thoughts by 1945. Austria paid a terrible price for its participation with Germany in World War II.

On April 13, 1945, Allied forces liberated Austria and a republic was reestablished. Austria was divided into four zones of occupation, each controlled by one of the Allied powers -- the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France. Vienna was jointly administered by all four powers (as was Berlin in neighboring Germany). U.S. aid helped to stabilize the war-torn economy.

Postwar Austria

Occupation forces withdrew in 1955, marking the beginning of coalition governments and a stable economy. The Soviets returned property that in 1945 had been seized as German assets. Austria was given back major industrial plants, oil fields and installations, and the assets of the Danube Steamship Company, in return for money and goods as reparations to the Russians.

In the Austrian State Treaty, a peace treaty signed by the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union in 1955, Austria was recognized as a sovereign, independent, and democratic state, with the four powers declaring that they would respect its independence and territorial integrity. The pre-1938 frontiers were guaranteed, political or economic union with Germany was prohibited, human rights and the rights of the Slovene and Croat minorities and of democratic institutions were pledged, and all National Socialist and Fascist organizations were dissolved.

Although not mentioned in the treaty, the Allied powers also guaranteed Austrian neutrality. The Austrian federal government passed a constitutional law declaring the country's permanent neutrality and stating that Austria would never again accede to any military alliances nor permit the establishment of military bases by foreign states on its territory.

Recent History

The world paid Austrian politics little attention until 1986, when Kurt Waldheim, former secretary general of the United Nations, was elected president of Austria, a largely ceremonial post. It was revealed that he had been an officer in the Nazi army and had countenanced the deportation of Jews to extermination camps. The United States declared him persona non grata. Many Austrians defiantly stood by Waldheim, declaring that they would not let world opinion dictate their choice of a president. Other Austrians were deeply embarrassed by Waldheim's election.

Waldheim was forbidden to seek reelection; and, in May 1992, Thomas Klestil, a career diplomat, was elected president. His candidacy was supported by the Austrian People's Party, representing the center of the political spectrum in Austria.

In the 1990s, Austria was at the crossroads of upheaval, war, and change. To its east, Hungary was the first country to dismantle a once heavily fortified frontier -- called the beginning of the "Iron Curtain" during the Cold War. To the south, Yugoslavia was split apart with war, and new countries emerged, including Slovenia, which shares Austria's southern border. Since 1989, Austria has become either the final or the first destination of Balkan refugees and waves of emigrants from Eastern Europe, and this has led to inevitable tensions. Austria's admission into the European Union was a slow and laborious process, initiated in 1972 and finally completed in 1995. Since the last World War, Viennese and Austrian politics have been dominated by the moderate policies of the Social Democrats, who have at times shared power with the more right-wing proponents, the ÖVP (Austrian People's Party).

Early in 1997, Franz Vranitzky, the chancellor of Austria, announced his retirement. "Ten years are a sufficient spell" for a job, claimed the man who took Austria into the European Union and was the first leader to acknowledge guilt for the country's Nazi past.

In 1998, as part of an ongoing effort to lay the past to rest, Austrian officials agreed to return to their rightful owners art confiscated by the Nazis. The Austrian minister of culture, Elisabeth Gehrer, said she wanted to correct what she termed "immoral decisions" made at the end of World War II. This bold move sent reverberations throughout the museum world of Europe and the U.S.

In 2002, Austria faced one of its worst major disasters in decades. Along with its Central European neighbors, such as Germany, Austria suffered crippling floods as the banks of the Danube overflowed. Billions of euros in damage were done to homes, farms, buildings, and businesses, a nightmare for the insurance industry.

In 2004, Elfriede Jelinek, the controversial feminist writer and outspoken critic of the far-right Freedom Party, won the Nobel Prize for literature. On another front, Charles I, the last Hapsburg to rule as emperor, was beatified by the pope.

But it was news of an expat Austrian, a citizen of Graz, that made the biggest headlines in both Vienna and the country itself in 2004. Their homegrown son, muscleman/movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, swept into the governor's office in California in a recall vote. Even though he's married to a Kennedy, Maria Shriver, Schwarzenegger is a Republican, and lent the prestige of his name in the campaign of George W. Bush for reelection. For his efforts, he told a stunned nation, he was denied sex for 2 weeks.

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