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Austria has a natural beauty that rivals Switzerland and in some places probably surpasses it. It is a country of immense and extraordinary variety. From the plains of the Burgenland to the High Alps; the Danube valley to the Salzkammergut; from the inward-looking folkloric festivals of the Tirol to the world-class museums of Vienna; from Mozart to Schönberg via Strauss waltzes, oompah bands and the faux gypsy Schrammelmusik of the Heurige; the wonderful melting pot of cultures — Bavarian, Hungarian, Slav, Italian — with its consequent diversity in the national cuisine — wurst, schnitzel, goulash, ravioli. The five cities are utterly different in every way: Vienna is all cosmopolitan grandeur, Graz the epitome of charm, Linz is industrial muscle, Innsbruck a unique mixture of high culture, history and Alpine pleasures, and Salzburg is the classic city of music, romance and beauty. All this within a country of under 8,000,000 people, about the size of Maine.
The following introductory pages are not intended to provide the basis for a coherent commentary. They are just a collection of random facts, figures and curiosities.
The word most often used to describe Austria is the great German word gemütlich. This is hard to translate but means more or less warm or comfortable, genial, welcoming or cozy or a combination of these, mingled with thoughts of tradition, smallness and rusticity.
Austria is a fairly small country of 32,000 square miles. Two thirds of its area is covered in mountains (a higher proportion than Switzerland).
It is bordered by 8 countries: Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy (or 9 if you count Liechtenstein). There are 5 major cities: Vienna, Graz, Linz, Salzburg and Innsbruck (in order of size). There are 9 federal provinces: Vorarlberg, Tirol, Salzburg, Carinthia, Styria, Upper Austria, Lower Austria, Burgenland and Vienna.
The population is 7,900,000, of whom 78% are Catholics. 8.5% of the work force are Gastarbeitern. In Vienna in 1930 there were 180,000 Jews. Now there are 12,000. The language of 25,000 Burgenlanders is Serbo-Croat. 20,000 Carinthians speak Slovene.
Vienna is the third UN city, after New York and Geneva. It is the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Authority and the Industrial Development Organization. Austria is a nuclear-free zone. Recycling is compulsory.
Six months' military service is compulsory for men. Women are not permitted to serve in the army in any capacity. Education is compulsory up to the age of 15. There are 12 universities, all free, catering to 200,000 students.
Arnold Schwarzenegger comes from Graz. To the same great Austrian cinematic heritage belong Erich von Stroheim (Sunset Boulevard), Fritz Lang (Metropolis), Hedy Lamarr aka Hedwig Kiesler (Boom Town, The Ziegfeld Girl and Ecstasywith the first full-frontal nude scene in cinema history) and Anton Karas, the zither player in "The Third Man."
Austria's greatest sporting heroes are: Niki Lauda, 3 times Formula One World Champion and Franz Klammer, probably the greatest ever downhill skier.
The wettest months in Salzburg and Innsbruck are July and August. The warm, dry Alpine wind called the Föhn, particularly severe in the Inn valley in autumn, is so disturbing to the populace that it can serve as a criminal defense in Austrian law.
The highest mountain in Austria is the Grossglockner at 12,458 feet.
Earnings from tourism are the highest per head in Europe. Most foreign tourists are Germans.
The Erzberg (Iron Mountain) at Eisenerz is Europe's biggest opencast mine.
Austria's oldest citizen is called Fritz and is 5,500 years old. He was found 10,000 feet up in the Otztal Alps right on the Italian border. He suffered from arthritis and frostbit. He died in August. Now he lives in Innsbruck University. A Swiss woman identified him as her long-lost father until the authorities realized that Fritz was 5,450 years older than him.
The story of the Turks leaving behind a bag of coffee when they fled Vienna in 1683 and a Polish soldier names Kolchitsky finding it and thus introducing the Viennese and all of Europe to a long-lasting love affair, is sadly untrue. Nevertheless, the love affair is real. In the whole world, only the Scandinavians drink more coffee. On average, one Austrian drinks 55 gallons of coffee a year. The next most popular drink is beer. Average annual consumption is 30 gallons per head.
A Bit of History (A simple grasp of Austrian history is not very complicated. It is basically the history of one family. Happily, it is the sort of history that can be told in gentle, non-chronological chapters with specific relevance to the places visited. For example, if you are in the Danube valley the relevant part is pre-Hapsburg Austria; if in Vienna or the Vienna Woods, it's the century of Metternich and Franz Josef that matters; if in Innsbruck the focus of attention is Maximilian, and Maria Theresia. If you are in Salzburg then nothing because Salzburg has got nothing to do with mainstream Austrian history. To try and tell it all in one or two goes is a lost cause. Though it's not a complicated history it's just far too long.)
The Beginnings of Austria From the C9 the Germanic peoples were more or less united in a loose confederation under the overlordship of the Holy Roman Empire. In the early days of this empire Austria was just a small province. In the region where the Danube descends from the hills to enter the Great Hungarian Plain the empire reached its eastern boundary. Here on the Danube where Melk, Enns and St. Pölten now lie, the emperors established a heavily fortified frontier called the Eastern Marches. In Old German this is Ostarichi, which becomes Österreich or Austria.
So this country begins as a minor defensive province of the Holy Roman Empire on its eastern edge. By the late C10 the Emperor Otto I granted Austria to a family called the Babenbergs. They ruled for 250 years until the last of their dynasty was killed by invading Hungarians. The man elected to replace the Babenbergs was Rudolf of Hapsburg. And thus in 1273 began the incredible Hapsburg dynasty that ruled Austria for over 600 years until the end of the First World War in 1918.
The Empire of the Hapsburgs Rudolf defeated those Hungarian invaders 5 years later. Within a few generations he and his successors added to their lands Carinthia and the Tyrol, the neighboring mountainous regions to the south and west. By the late C14 Hapsburg Austria covered more or less the same territory which it does today (with the exception of the province of Salzburg which remained an independent entity until the great European political reshuffle that followed Napoleon). But it grew much bigger. In 1493 Maximilian I came to the throne and was elected Holy Roman Emperor. He was married to Marie, Princess of Burgundy, and through her he inherited The Netherlands. This was the beginning of a brilliant diplomatic marriage policy which brought Austria more territory than would ever have been possible by means of war. There was a famous Latin couplet:
Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube
Nam quae Mars aliis, dat tibi regna Venus.
"Let other people wage war. You, happy Austria, marry instead.
For the goddess of Love gives lands to you that others must win by battle."
The motto of the Hapsburgs became, cryptically, A.E.I.O.U. Deciphered, it's another Latin phrase: Austria Est Imperare Orbi Universo = It is given to Austria to rule the world.
Going forward two generations to the reign of Charles V (1519-1556). He was Holy Roman Emperor, ruler of Austria, Slovenia, Bohemia, Hungary, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Portugal, southern Italy and Sicily, as well as the new territories of the West Indies, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, New Mexico, Florida and more.
After Charles V the Hapsburgs split into two branches, an Austrian and a Spanish one. The Empire never reached that same vast unwieldy mass of territory again, but they continued to dominate European politics, rivaled only by Louis XIV of France in the late C17, right through until about 150 years ago.
From Maria Theresia to the last of the Hapsburgs Maria Theresia is a great figure in Austrian history. She was Empress from 1740-80, a highly successful and popular monarch. This was in spite of almost constant war. First, other European nations declared war on Austria on the spurious grounds that a woman had no right to the imperial throne. Then after eventual victory she found herself repelling the new might of the Prussians who were flexing their muscles against Austrian possessions. In spite of these external troubles, Maria Theresia proved herself a great reformer at home, bringing Austrian internal policy into the modern world, establishing a system of public education, a civil service, modernizing the army and streamlining the economy. She is one of the great women of European history (as well as being the mother of Marie Antoinette). Frederick the Great of Prussia famously said: "When the Hapsburgs finally get a great man, it's a woman."
Austria was devastated by the Napoleonic Wars which brought it to the brink of bankruptcy but the eventual victory over Napoleon at Waterloo allowed it to regain its former power. At the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15 Chancellor Metternich — Henry Kissinger called him the most brilliant statesman of the C19 — secured possessions in Italy and Eastern Europe and Austrian hegemony over the Germanic nations.
This was the great century of Vienna and the Viennese. In the 1850s when Emperor Franz Josef took power his city became in a very real way the epitome of civilization, prosperity and good living. This was the time when Austrian life, most especially Viennese, reached it apogee. This was the age of the New Hofburg, of the magnificent grandeur of the Ringstrasse, of the apotheosis of the middle classes, of Johann Strauss and trips to the Vienna Woods. Vienna was the social and cultural centre of Europe. But for the first time in centuries Austria was not the economic and political powerhouse of Central Europe. Other new industrialized powers like Germany and Russia were leaving Austria behind. In 1914 at the outbreak of WW I, provoked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia, Austria — Europe's cultural heart — was already a backward nation by comparison with Germany, England, Russia or the United States. The small, even insignificant country that emerged from the war defeated and stripped of empire is more or less the Austria of today.
From Anschluss to the Present Day On March 11, 1938, the Nazis marched into Austria. They met no resistance. In April, a referendum was held which seemed to support the Anschluss or annexation. Austria was incorporated into Hitler's Third Reich. During WW II Austria was part of the Nazi war machine. After the war it suffered the same fate as Germany, divided into four zones by the victorious Allied powers (Russians, French, British and Americans). In 1955 independence was restored subject to a pledge of eternal neutrality. This pledge on October 26, 1955, the national day, is the birth of the Democratic Republic of Austria. Eleven years later all foreign occupying forces finally left the country. On January 1, 1995, Austria joined the European Union.
Important Dates in the History of Austria
976-1246 Rule of the House of Babenberg
1273-1291 Reign of Rudolf I, founder of Hapsburg dynasty
1335 Annexation of Carinthia
1363 Annexation of the Tyrol
1493-1519 Reign of Emperor Maximilian, beginning of marriage acquisition policy
1519-1556 Reign of Charles V
1529 Vienna besieged by the Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent
1556 Partition of Empire: Spain and Mediterranean possessions to Philip II Austrian monarchy (and Hungary) to Ferdinand I
1683 Vienna besieged by the Turks for the second time.
1740-48 War of Austrian Succession
1740-80 Reign of Maria Theresia
1792-1815 Napoleonic Wars
1814-15 Congress of Vienna; Austria gains northern Italy, leads Germanic Federation
1848-1916 Reign of Emperor Franz Josef
1852-70 Austria loses Italian possessions
1866 Austria defeated by Prussians. End of interest in Germanic Federation
1878 Austria turns to the Balkans. Invasion of Bosnia-Herzegovina
1914 Assassination of Crown Prince Ferdinand at Sarajevo. The road to WW I
1918 End of the Austrian Empire
1938 Nazis annex Austria, entering the country unopposed
1939-45 Austria enters the war against the allies
1945 Division of Austria and Vienna into four administrative zones: French, British, Russian and American
1955 Austria joins the European Union
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