Like most European countries, Austria looks back on a very eventful history. Yet there are some elements of the Austrian character that haven’t changed much over the centuries: the partiality for indulgence, beauty, and cultivation have always been driving forces in the country’s past and present...
The early days
The area of today’s Austria, that is the fertile Danube Valley and the Alpine valleys, were already settled in the Paleolithic Age (until approx. 8000 BC). Around 400 BC, Celtic peoples from Western Europe settled in the eastern Alps. A Celtic state, Noricum, developed around the region's ironworks in the second century BC. From the 7th century BC onwards one of the main regions of Celtic occupation was in modern-day Austria, centered around Hallstatt, a large prehistoric salt-mining area. The Hallstatt period, 750 - c.450 BC, is named after this region.
The Romans arrived 200 BC and by 15 BC they dominated the entire area. The most important Roman settlement in Austria was Carnuntum (capital of the Roman province of Pannonia in today’s Lower Austria) which became the center of the Roman fortifications along the Danube. Today there is an interesting Archeology Park with a museum and an amphitheater.
From Ostarrichi to Austria
By the latter half of the second century AD, various German tribes were extending their territory making devastating incursions into Roman territories. By the mid-500s, the Bavarians controlled the territory between the eastern Alps and the Wienerwald region. Around 800 Charlemagne, the king of Franks and eventually Holy Roman Emperor, established a territory in the Danube valley known as the Ostmark (Eastern March). In 996 the Ostmark was first referred to as "Ostarrichi", a clear forerunner of the modern German word "Österreich".
Between 976, when Leopold von Babenberg became the margrave of the Ostmark, and 1246, the Duchy of Austria was one of extensive feudal possessions of the Babenberg family. The dynasty established their first residence in Pöchlarn before moving it to Melk in the scenic Wachau region. In the 12th century Henry II moved his residence to Vienna which has remained the capital of the country ever since. Also in the 12th century the Cathedral of Saint Stephan was completed, which became a visible landmark of the city, showing its prominence.
Beginning of the Habsburg Rule
Some 100 years later Rudolf I emerged with the crown, beginning six centuries of Habsburg rule in Austria. The centerpiece of their realm was the Imperial Palace in Vienna, today accommodating several museums (Treasury, Sisi Museum) providing a good overview of the Habsburgs.
The Habsburgs increased their influence and power through strategic alliances ratified by marriages. Owing to premature deaths and/or childless marriages within the Burgundian and Spanish dynasties into which his grandfather, Maximilian I (1493-1519), and his father had married, Emperor Charles V (1519-56) inherited not only the Hereditary Lands but also the Franche-Comté and the Netherlands (both of which were French fiefs) and Spain and its empire in the Americas.
The Turkish threat, which included unsuccessful sieges of Vienna in 1529 and in 1683, prompted Poland, Venice, and Russia to join the Habsburg Empire in repelling the Turks. In the late 1690s, command of the imperial forces was entrusted to Prince Eugene of Savoy. Under his leadership, Habsburg forces won control of all but a small portion of Hungary by 1699.
With the end of the Turkish threat, the arts and culture experienced a surge. Splendid edifices such as Schloss Schönbrunn (World Cultural Heritage) or the Salzburger Dom were built; architects like Johann Fischer v. Erlach, Lukas v. Hildebrandt, Jakob Prandtauer, Daniel Gran, Paul Troger, Franz Anton Maulbertsch created exceptional monuments. Under the rule of Empress Maria Theresia (1717-1780) the Habsburg holdings were reformed and united. Following Maria Theresa's death in 1780, her son Joseph II, one of the so-called enlightened monarchs, continued the reforms along the lines pursued by his mother.
From Biedermeier to Jugendstil (Art Nouveau)
The French revolution in 1789 and the rise of Napoleon, who secured French possession of many Austrian territories, proved to be a major threat to the Habsburgs. During the Congress of Vienna (1814/15), held with the purpose of redrawing the continent's political map after Napolen’s defeat, Austrian Chancellor Metternich tried to reconsolidate Austrian power. In 1848 the French philosophy of middle-class revolution reached Austria, but the rebellion was promptly squashed, and Emperor Franz I and Metternich responded by cutting down civil liberties and introducing a strict censorship. As a result the people retreated to their houses, concentrated on the domestic and the non-political; social life came to a halt. The second part of the Biedermeier period was marked by a growing urbanization and industrialization that lead to a new urban middle class. People started to meet again, and the arts were cherished. Artists of this time include painters like Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller and Friedrich Gauermann, the composer Franz Schubert, and the poets Adalbert Stifter, Ferdinand Raimund and Franz Grillparzer.
In the end the Emperor Franz I was eventually pressured to abdicate in favor of his nephew Emperor Franz Joseph I, whose 68-year reign was one of Austria’s longest. Together with his wife Elisabeth, the legendary "Sisi", he shaped the image of the Austrian imperial rule. Under his rule Vienna became of the Europe’s most important metropolises and the center of a multinational state extending from Hungary to North Italy and deep into southern Europe.
Johann Strauß, the King of Waltz, was celebrated all over the world for his wonderful musical compositions. Sigmund Freud was the founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology, a movement that popularized the theory that unconscious motives control much behavior. Around 1900 the Vienna Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) peaked during which forward-looking artists and designers seceded from the mainstream salon exhibitions, to exhibit on their own in more congenial surroundings. Noted Jugendstil artists include the painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and the architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos. A walk along the Vienna Ringstraße boulevard with its splendid buildings, a visit to the Sisi or Sigmund Freud Museum or the Österreichischen Galerie Belvedere provide a good overview of this epoch.
The 20th Century
Brimming with ethnic tensions and locked into a rigid system of alliances from the 19th century wars, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was a catastrophe waiting to happen. The necessary spark was the assassination of the Austrian archduke and heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 in Sarajevo. Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia marked the beginning of World War I. Emperor Franz Joseph dies in 1916 and after the end of the war in 1918 the first Republic of Austria was established, ending the 640-year old Habsburg dynasty. The young republic suffered massive inflation, unemployment, and near economic collapse. In 1933, the weak coalition government between the Christian-Social and the Social-Democratic parties gave way when Engelbert Dollfuss became Chancellor in 1932 as head of a right-wing coalition government, designed to tackle the problems caused by the Depression. In May 1934 Doffluss declared martial law in order to protect Austria from Hitler. In July Dollfuss was shot and killed by Nazis in an attempted coup.
On March 12, 1938, German troops marched into Austria and the country was incorporated into the German Reich ruled by Adolf Hitler. After the end of World War II in 1945, Austria was restored to its 1937 frontiers and occupied by the victorious allies – the USA, the Soviet Union, the UK, and France – for a decade.
The 21st Century
On May 15, 1955, the Austrian State Treaty was ratified, with Austria declaring its permanent neutrality. Thanks to its location near the “Iron Curtain”, Austria soon developed into a nerve center between the West and the East. After the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring Invasion, Austria grants asylum to the refugees. Austria is also host country of many international organizations (UNO, OPEC) as well as host of many important conference and summit meetings. The Iron Curtain fell in 1989/90; in 1995 Austria becomes a member of the European Union.