Austria: nation, state or empire?

Studying the evolution of Austria in the 20th century offers deep insight into essential Western political categories.

Belvedere Castle, Vienna
Belvedere Castle, Vienna. Credit: Adobe Stock

The three ideological concepts – nation, state and empire – are quite familiar to the political and historical discourse held in the traditional, mostly alpine lands that make up today’s Austria. However, in contrast to the textbook ‘nation states’ such as France or even Germany, these categories hardly ever overlapped in the case of Austria. Rather, for most of ‘Austrian’ history, the three concepts coexisted alongside each other, covering very different aspects of the political lives of the people living in the territories we are now dealing with. After the end of Habsburg rule in 1918, the political struggle to make these three concepts square with one another caused much of the historic tragedy of the failed First Austrian Republic.

Old Austria: German nation, Austrian state and Habsburg Empire

During the famous Habsburg monarchy, dating back well into the middle ages and leading up until its end in 1918, the concept of nation meant a family of culturally and, most importantly, linguistically related peoples, including modern-day Germans and plenty of Eastern European communities. German-speakers in Vienna, Tirol and even Salzburg (an independent church-state until 1815) would refer to themselves as ‘Germans’ if asked about their cultural sense of belonging. But they were Germans who lived under Habsburg rule. The same would have been true for German-speakers in places quite far from the core of German-speaking central Europe, as in the German cities of Transylvania in today’s Romania, for the Jewish intellectuals in Lemberg (Lviv in today’s western Ukraine), and of course in the predominantly German culture of Bohemia with its centre in Prague. German (or rather, greatly varying dialects of it) was the mother tongue of these peoples; many songs, traditions and customs were shared with the German neighbours to the north and west in what is today’s Germany.

The Austrian ‘state’ – I shall define my understanding of this term below – did little to influence that. There was no serious effort to forge a cultural nation as was the case, for example, in the French and Italian nation states of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Habsburg Austria never was, and never could be, a nation state, and it has become a commonplace of the post-imperial historical narrative that this was one of the major reasons for its ultimate failure. This interpretation is seriously challenged in more recent research (see for example Pieter Judson’s The Habsburg Empire: a new history), and this author has also been pointing to the complete military and economic defeat of Austria-Hungary in the First World War as a predominant reason for the disintegration of the empire, rather than old Austria’s multinationalism.

The notion of the state, on the other hand, meant a military-administrative apparatus headed by the emperor. It dates back to two major events which both took place during the baroque period of the 17th century, one external, one internal: these were the state-forming wars against the Ottomans on the one hand, and the Counter-Reformation against the inner enemy, Protestantism, on the other. At first, we are talking about a state that raised armies and levied taxes to equip them, and not much more. After these formative wars, however, the Empress Maria Theresa and her sons laid the groundwork and established the institutional structures for a substantially more comprehensive and efficient modern state in the 18th century. This state began to take up administrative tasks: it built schools and hospitals, punished crimes, introduced rent control and pension schemes. In the later stages of the Habsburg monarchy, the state became omnipresent in the image of the Staatsdiener, the ‘state’s servant’, its uniformed functionaries and bureaucrats staffing the offices of the empire. Even the Emperor Franz Joseph himself represented the image of the ‘first public servant’, toiling away at his desk from dawn till dusk for the sake of his subjects. This picture still lingers in the heads of modern-day Austrians.

The term empire, finally, historically relates to the legacy of the Habsburg dynasty and their glorious past of accumulating territories throughout Europe by war and – more often – by marriage. The Habsburg empire extended as far as the Americas under Emperor Charles V and it was politically shared with Hungary after 1867. The Habsburg empire was first the Holy Roman Empire, in which the dynasty, most influential and wealthy among the German princes, grew to claim a birthright to nominate the emperor. Under pressure from Napoleon’s armies, the Holy Roman Empire was declared to be at an end (to keep Napoleon from claiming the title for himself) and, in 1815, the former Holy Roman Emperor Franz II (now Franz I) proclaimed an ‘Austrian empire’ comprising the territories of the Habsburg dynasty. This empire survived until 1918, when it disintegrated essentially due to its non-German parts declaring independence, and – as a result – Habsburg rule over central Europe came to an end. The remaining inhabitants of modern-day Austria had to find themselves a new nation, which brings us to the struggles of interwar Austria and its failure to establish itself as a stable democratic republic.

Interwar Austria: ‘the State against its will’

After the end of the Habsburg monarchy, Austria was essentially composed of those German-speaking territories which remained after the other nations had declared the independence of their new ‘nation states’. There were exceptions, such as the southern part of Tirol claimed by Italy or extraterritorial German language islands in Moravia and even farther east, which for obvious political reasons could not be part of the new German-Austrian state. The Republic of German-Austria – Republik Deutschösterreich – was indeed the name of the new state, already indicating the inherent identity problem of the young republic which, in the plans of the most relevant politicians of the time, was intended soon to become a part of the German Reich. However, the Treaty of Saint Germain (the equivalent of the Versailles Treaty with Germany) banned Austria from seeking immediate accession (Anschluss) to the German Reich in order to avoid strengthening Germany. As a consequence, little Austria was left with an economically weak fraction of its former territory, its predominantly German-speaking population and, of course, no more empire. At the time, leading politicians from both sides of the political spectrum – including the socialist chancellor, Karl Renner, and the famous jurist and author of the Austrian constitution, Hans Kelsen – were advocates of unification with Germany, and the sooner the better.

However, by the late 1920s, it was apparent that immediate unification with Germany was politically unfeasible for the time being. Facing rising and increasingly aggressive nationalist politics following (Austrian-born) Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1930, Austrian leaders decided to develop a nation-based counter-model against National Socialist German hegemony. It was sought, but never truly found, in a mixture of Roman Catholic religious institutions and traditions, Austrian dominance in high culture and a supposedly more friendly and social character of the Austrian as opposed to the German. This notion of patriotic politics was put on display in the image of Italian-style fascism and understandably very much conflicted with the socialist and communist ideas widely spread among Vienna’s large working-class population. These disputes – and the bloody conflict between government armed forces and socialist militias which erupted in 1934 – demonstrated once again the roots of the country’s deep political and ideological division between left and right. If, for the first time since 1918, Austrians were once again told to be proud of their fatherland, it was in the years of conservative, partly autocratic rule which led up to Germany’s annexation in 1938. The so-called Anschluss – and the polls staged after military occupation took place – remain an ambiguous event in Austrian history to this day. Praised by Nazi propaganda as the ultimate victory of German nationhood and reunification of Austria with the Reich, the Anschluss was hardly a democratic decision, and it is highly doubtful that a majority of 99.7 per cent of Austrians, as late as 1938, would have agreed to become part of National Socialist Germany without the military and political pressures of the day. However, in March 1938, Austrian statehood ceased to exist and a whole generation of children born in Austria – or Ostmark, as the Nazis redesignated the country – were born as German nationals.

At this point, it is interesting to remark that what we referred to above as the ‘bureaucratic state’ managed to survive both the end of the monarchy and Nazi rule substantially intact. The administrative state – of well-versed, if sometimes inefficient officials, administrative legislation, institutions and procedures – was one of the great achievements of the Habsburg monarchy, and it has run more or less smoothly throughout the troubled 20th century to the present day.

The Second Republic and a new consensus

After the end of the Third Reich, however, the old questions turned up again with a vengeance. What to make of the small alpine country on the eve of the Cold War? Unification with Germany, as wished for by large parts of the population as well as the political elites in 1918, was out of the question. Political, if not economic, independence was the only solution. Pragmatically speaking, Austrian independence as it was re-established by the Allies was also a comfortable way to shrug off the guilt of Nazi crimes and contributions to the Holocaust, a way back into the international community as a ‘first victim’ of Nazi Germany in 1938. Austria, the violated nation, should and could not be held responsible. Again, national identity was sought in cultural clichés, mostly through the music of Mozart, Strauss, Schubert, and Haydn etc. It is instructive that in this endeavour of national realignment, Austrians sought to represent Hitler as a German (he was born in Braunau am Inn in Austria-Hungary and spent his formative years in Vienna) and Beethoven (born in Bonn, Germany) as an Austrian.

However, national identity shifted only slowly to the new notion of Austria. As late as 1956, only 49 per cent of the Austrian population saw their country as an Austrian nation, while 46 per cent still called themselves Germans. Only after 1989, and the country’s accession to the European Union in 1994, did the struggle for national identity and definition lose its intensity. After an almost 70-year period of thus casting its national identity as a neutral, friendly, culturally laid-back, east-west bridgehead – home to Mozart and idyllic mountain resorts – Austria has only recently been forced to reflect on and refine its true identity again, if only to present it to new arrivals seeking to integrate. What is there to integrate with? A welfare state, a bundle of European values, or merely a country ‘eating too much Schnitzel’, as was recently suggested by a politician from the Green Party? Today, it seems, there is no consensus about very much more.

In the early 1990s, the right-wing politician Jörg Haider called Austria an ‘ideological teratism’ – in essence, a developmental abnormality – alluding to the country’s inherent identity problem after the First World War and the end of the Habsburg monarchy. At the time, the statement was intended as a message to Haider’s German-nationalist voter base, which traditionally flatly denied the existence of an Austrian nation. However outdated and ideologically misconceived, the statement does point a finger at Austria’s reluctance to adopt much in the way of introspection and historical self-assessment after the end of the Habsburg monarchy. Whether we will see the emergence of a wider consensus on a European identity, or rather another redefined version of Austrian nationalism, remains unclear. However, this question will be one of the major political tasks of the years to come.


Martina Winkelhofer-Thyri