Here are some excerpts from a paper I recenty wrote for my Modern Austrian History class (see source at the end).
In order to understand Austrian identity it is crucial to understand the historical context of the last several centuries. Since it’s conception territorial Austria has been a mix of many languages and cultures. This diverse and turbulent history has greatly influenced the modern Austrian identity. From the fall of the Habsburg empire to the Anschluss with Nazi Germany the Austrian people have had to revaluate their identity linguistically, culturally, territorially, and politically.
Prior to 1918 there was no national concept of Austria (Johnson). The territory was a mixture of different languages and cultures all ruled by the Habsburg dynasty. John Stuart Mill once said that a nation and the state must exist together as a unit in order to be defined as one. This was not the case for the Habsburg Empire. In 1910 the monarchy was made up of 23.9 percent Germans with the rest of the population a mix of Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, among others. Even among German-speaking Austrians there was no sentiment to create a small independent state at that time, therefore the Austrian nation is a recent phenomenon (Johnson).
After World War I German-speaking representatives of the Reichsrat proclaimed German-Austria as a republic on November 12, 1918. German-Austria remained an independent state until 1938 when it was occupied by Nazi Germany and made part of the Third Reich. After World War II on April 27, 1945 Austria again proclaimed itself a republic. Both of these establishments of the Republic of Austria have important similarities. “In both cases, Austrian independence was preceded by war and the collapse of empires, and achieving independence entailed the dissociation of a small state from an empire” (Johnson, 542). Another similarity is that both times the victorious powers were the ones who dictated the conditions for Austrian sovereignty.
Austrian identity issues have been greatly influenced by their relationship with Germany. Austrians and Germans both speak German, which has made it difficult to define Austria as an autonomous nation within the realms of language. During the 19th century this language similarity caused many people to view Austrian culture as a regional manifestation of German culture (Johnson). In the 19th century German-speaking Austrians considered themselves German and identified themselves with the larger German-speaking linguistic, cultural, and ethnic community (Johnson). Even after the fall of the Habsburgs and the end of the war German-Austrians sought the unification of all Germans as one democratic state. Of course the postwar treaties forbade a unification of Austria and Germany so German-Austria was forced to become independent. Since this wasn’t the kind of state the people wanted the First Republic of Austria was doomed to fail. They struggled economically through inflation and depression and the political culture became extremely polarized (Johnson).
This domestic atmosphere made German-Austria vulnerable and eager to join the Nazi Anschluss in 1938. From thereafter the Nazis forbade the usage of the word “Austria” and those who fulfilled Nazi racial criteria became German citizens (Johnson). A unification that was once desired and welcomed turned into a bloody war and broken promises. “Disillusionment with the Anschluss, Nazi policies, and the war became more and more widespread as the war drew on, and they contributed to a retrospective appreciation of those things that many Austrians had lost…and hoped to achieve or re-achieve thereafter” (Johnson, 547). Democracy and domestic peace as well as national independence instilled a desire among Austrians to be Austrian in a small, independent state. After World War II in the Moscow-Declaration Austria was referred to as “the first free country to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression” (Johnson). This status parallels the feelings of disillusionment and psychological disposition that many Austrians had at the end of the war (Johnson). On October 26, 1955 after the last group of allied forces evacuated Austria they declared themselves a neutral country. This neutral status allowed Austria to play a national role as mediator and nonpartisan broker (Johnson).
Culturally during this time Austria was working to define itself with a new national identity. This new identity focused on the differences of Austrians and Germans and highlighting Austria’s smallness and independence. One thing that remained the same is the provincial identities of Austria, which have always maintained stability. By highlighting the cultural importance of these provinces Austria has reinterpreted old traditions specific to their new independent republic. In a 1987 survey, Austrians were asked whether their main identification was with their native place, their federal province, the country Austria, Germany, Europe, or indeed the world. In Tyrol 58 percent were first Tyrolean’s versus 19 percent who were first Austrians. This feeling of intense localism can still be seen today. At the same time, according to Eurobarometer surveys since 1990, Austrian’s demonstrate a comparatively high degree of national pride compared to other European countries (Johnson). The objects of modern Austrian pride tend to be non-political and have little to do with Austrian political history. Overall the occupation had a great impact on Austrians by creating a sense of national community that served as a catalyst in national reconstruction.
The Austrian national identity has been influenced by many factors. The fall of the Habsburg Empire introduced a new republic that fell to the power of Nazi Germany. After the war Austria was left with a broken economy and a chance for a new beginning. By embracing their status as a small independent and neutral country Austria began to distinguish itself from Germany and German nationalism. All of these factors have played out in Austria psychologically, politically, and domestically. The state succeeded in creating an independent Austrian nation that has gained respect and responsibility on the international stage.
Lonnie, Johnson R. "Austria." Nations and Nationalism: a Global Historical Overview. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008. 539-54. Print.