World War I & the Versailles Treaty -- During the Belle Epoque, Europe sat on a powder keg of frustrated socialist platforms, national alliances, and conflicting colonial ambitions. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was linked by the Triple Alliance to both Germany and Italy. Europe leapt headfirst into armed conflict when Franz Joseph's nephew and designated heir, the Archduke Ferdinand, was shot to death by a Serbian terrorist as he and his wife, Sophie, rode through Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Within 30 days, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, signaling the outbreak of World War I. An embittered Franz Joseph died in 1916, midway through the conflict. His successor, Charles I, the last of the Habsburg monarchs, was forced to abdicate in 1918 as part of the peace treaty.

The punitive peace treaty concluded at Versailles broke up the vast Austro-Hungarian territories into the nations of Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. The new Austria would adhere to the boundaries of Charlemagne's Ostmark. This overnight collapse of the empire caused profound dislocations of populations and trade patterns. Some of the new nations refused to deliver raw materials to Vienna's factories or, in some cases, food to Vienna's markets. Coupled with the effects of the Versailles treaty and the massive loss of manpower and resources during the war, Vienna soon found itself on the brink of starvation. Despite staggering odds, the new government -- assisted by a massive loan in 1922 from the League of Nations -- managed to stabilize the currency while Austrian industrialists hammered out new sources of raw materials.

The Anschluss -- In 1934, social tensions broke out into civil war, Europe's first confrontation between fascism and democracy. Austrian nationalism under the authoritarian chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, put an end to progressive policies. Later that year, Austrian Nazis assassinated Dollfuss, and Nazis were included in the resultant coalition government. In 1938, Austria united with Nazi Germany (the Anschluss). Hitler returned triumphantly to Vienna, several decades after he had lived there as an impoverished and embittered artist. In a national referendum, 99.75% of Austrians voted their support.

World War II & its Aftermath -- The rise of Austria's Nazis devastated Vienna's academic and artistic communities. Many of their members, including Sigmund Freud, fled to safety elsewhere. About 60,000 Austrian Jews were sent to concentration camps, and only an estimated 2,000 survived; Austria's homosexual and Gypsy populations were similarly decimated.

Beginning in 1943, Allied bombing raids demolished vast neighborhoods of the city, damaging virtually every public building of any stature. The city's most prominent landmark, St. Stephan's Cathedral, suffered a roof collapse and fires in both towers. The city's death rate was one of the highest in Europe. For the Viennese, at least, the war ended abruptly on April 11, 1945, when Russian troops moved into the city from bases in Hungary.

During a confused interim that lasted a decade, Austria was divided into four zones of occupation, each controlled by one of the four Allies (the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France). Vienna, deep within the Soviet zone, was also subdivided into four zones, each occupied by one of the victors. Control of the inner city alternated every month between each of the four powers. It was a dark and depressing time in Vienna; rubble was slowly cleared away from bomb sites, but the most glorious public monuments in Europe lay in ashes. Espionage, black-market profiteering, and personal betrayals proliferated, poisoning the memories of many older Viennese even today.

Der Dritte Mann & Postwar Vienna

The 1949 film The Third Man, starring Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, and Alida Valli, remains one of the best records of a postwar Vienna in ruins. Graham Greene, who wrote the screenplay (published by Penguin Books), found a "city of undignified ruins, which turned February into great glaciers of snow and ice." The Danube was a "gray, flat muddy river," and the Russian zone, where the Prater lay, was "smashed and desolate and full of weeds."

In the closing weeks of World War II, the city suffered major aerial bombardment. In the summer of 1944, Vienna tried to save itself, closing all theaters and public areas. The workweek was extended to 60 hours. A dreaded mass recruitment, the Volksturm, rounded up all males between the ages of 16 and 60 for a final defense. Hitler was in his Berlin bunker when he learned that the city of his youth, Vienna, had fallen to the Allies.

The victors found a wasted city on the verge of starvation. By 1945, Vienna had the highest death rate in Europe. Bombings had destroyed 20% of its buildings, and some 270,000 Viennese were left homeless.

The Third Man immortalized the "four men in a jeep" -- that is, four military policemen from the quartet of occupying powers -- patrolling the beleaguered city. The black market, on which the events in the film turn, became the way of life in Vienna.

Even today, the Viennese have bitter memories of the occupation, especially by the Soviet Union. A reminder of those dreaded years survives at Schwarzenbergplatz (reached from Karlsplatz by walking along Friedrichstrasse/Lothringerstrasse). Under the Nazis, this square was called Hitlerplatz. Today, a patch of landscaped greenery surrounds a fountain and a statue left by the Russians. The city has been none too happy with this "gift" from its former conquerors. Three times officials have tried to demolish the memorial, but so far Soviet engineering has proven indestructible. Viennese have nicknamed an anonymous Soviet soldier's grave "the Tomb of the Unknown Plunderer."

In May 1955, the Austria State Treaty, signed by the four Allied powers and Austria, reestablished full Austrian sovereignty. Why did it take so long? One reason is that the Soviets were seeking heavy reparations from Austria. But as dust settles over history, another possibility arises. Stalin might have planned to stick around in Vienna, as he did in Berlin. After all, a toehold in Vienna would have given the Soviets deep penetration into the West at the peak of the Cold War. As it was, Vienna became a center of Cold War espionage and spying -- real James Bond country.

Postwar Times -- On May 15, 1955, Austria regained its sovereignty as an independent, perpetually neutral nation. As a neutral capital, Vienna became the obvious choice for meetings between John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev (in 1961) and Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter (in 1979). Many international organizations (including OPEC and the Atomic Energy Authority) established branches or headquarters there.

Once again part of a republic, the Viennese aggressively sought to restore their self-image as cultural barons. Restoring the State Opera House and other grand monuments became a top priority.

However, Vienna's self-image suffered a blow when scandal surrounded Austria's president, Kurt Waldheim, elected in 1986. Waldheim 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 stood by Waldheim; others were deeply embarrassed. Waldheim did not seek reelection, and in May 1992, Thomas Klestil, a career diplomat, was elected president, supported by the centrist Austrian People's Party.

In 1989, the last heiress to the Habsburg dynasty, Empress Zita of Bourbon-Parma, in exile since 1919, was buried in one of the most lavish and emotional funerals ever held in Vienna. At age 96, the last empress of Austria and queen of Hungary had always been held in some degree of reverence, a symbol of the glorious days of the Austrian empire.

In the spring of 1998, the Austrian government stunned the art world by agreeing to return artworks confiscated from Jews by the Nazis. Many Jewish families, including the Austrian branch of the Rothschilds, had fled into exile in 1938. Although they tried to regain their possessions after the war, they were not successful. Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin wrote, "The art was stolen by the Nazis and stolen a second time by the Austrian government." One museum director claimed Austria had "a specific moral debt," which it was now repaying.

In 1999 elections, the Freedom Party won notoriety -- and 27% of the vote -- by denouncing the presence of foreigners in Austria. Echoing Nazi rhetoric, the party blames foreigners for drugs, crime, welfare abuse, and the spread of tuberculosis. The party remains racist and Nazi-admiring in spite of the resignation of its leader, Jörg Haider, its most controversial member.

After first announcing punishing sanctions against Austria for its tilt to the far right, the European Union in September of 2000 lifted those sanctions while vowing to keep a special eye on Austria's song and dance into right-wing politics. E.U. officials concluded that in spite of earlier defiance, the Austrian government in Vienna had taken "concrete steps to fight racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism."

News of an expat Austrian, a citizen of Graz, 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.

In October of 2006, Austria's opposition Social Democrats won nationwide elections, swinging the country to the center-left after more than 6 years of influence by the extreme right. Immigration was a central theme in the campaign (sound familiar?), and the far right wants to reduce the number of foreigners in Austria by 30 percent. The Social Democrats on the other hand promised to lower the number of unemployed and reduce salary differences between men and women.

Record warmth in recent years -- with autumn temperatures in Austria prevailing even in winter -- has brought home the profound threat of a climate change in the country's ski industry.

Climatologists in Vienna announced in 2008 that the warming trend will become drastic by 2020. In reports filed, these experts said that the Austrian Alps are warming twice as fast as the average in the rest of the world. They claimed that in 1980 75% of alpine glaciers were advancing. By 2008, 90% were retreating.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.