Austria’s position as the crossroads of Europe has shaped its history from its earliest years. The Romans built towns to defend the eastern borders of their Empire along the River Danube. One of these towns was called Vindobna—today it is known as Vienna, the country’s capital. They also built roads through Alpine passes, which carried soldiers as well as trade between northern and southern Europe. As the Roman Empire weakened, the Bavarians, a Germanic people from the northwest, and Slavs, from the east, moved in and settled.
THE EASTERN EMPIRE
In the Middle Ages, the region formed the eastern border of the Holy Roman Empire. To the east were the Magyars (the ancestors of the Hungarians), who crossed the frontier to invade the Empire in the 900s. They were defeated by Emperor Otto the Great in 955. After this victory, the border area was known as the Ost Reich (eastern empire), and this is the origin of the country’s name in German—Österreich.
BABENBERGS AND HABSBURGS
The rulers of Austria between 976 and 1246 came from the Babenberg family. They were loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor, who gave the Babenberg rulers the title of Duke of Austria in 1156. Under the Babenbergs Austria was peaceful and rich. The Danube was an important trading route between west and east, and the cities of Vienna and Linz constructed magnificent new buildings on the earnings from this trade.
The Babenberg dynasty was followed by one that lasted even longer—the Habsburgs. The Habsburgs ruled as both Dukes of Austria and also, from the 15th century, as Holy Roman Emperors. This meant that they had power over Austria and much of Germany. The Habsburgs were famous for arranging careful marriages that extended their power. Charles V, who became Emperor in 1519, was also King of Spain and ruler of the Netherlands, as well as of several states in Italy.
WARS AND EMPIRE
Charles and his successors were loyal Catholics. When the Protestant Reformation broke out in 1517 they fought hard to wipe out Protestantism in their lands, including Austria. This policy led them into a long, expensive and unsuccessful war (the Thirty Years’ War) against Protestant states.
Apart from Protestantism, the other great threat to the Habsburg rulers of Austria was the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks reached so far west that they laid siege to Vienna twice, in 1529 and in 1682. They never conquered Austria, however, and as the Austrians pushed the Ottoman armies back they acquired new territory. In this way, Hungary came under the rule of the Habsburgs.
RIVALS IN GERMANY
During the 18th century, a rival power emerged that challenged the supremacy of Austria in central Europe. This was Prussia, an aggressive kingdom in north-eastern Germany. Prussia and Austria were involved in two long wars (1740-1748, and 1756-1763), out of which Prussia emerged as the more dominant power. However, both countries struggled to overcome the formidable Emperor Napoleon in the early 19th century. In 1806 the Habsburg Emperor Francis II abolished the Holy Roman Empire (perhaps to stop Napoleon from claiming the title). Instead, he became Emperor Francis I of Austria.
ART AND POLITICS
The Austrian Empire that was created after Napoleon’s defeat was a complicated country. It included many different nationalities, among them Hungarians, Czechs, Italians, and Croats. Many of these people wanted independence for their countries, and many Austrians did not want to be ruled by an emperor. This made political life in the 19th century very troubled. Even so, during these years Austria was a famous cultural centre. Vienna was the home of great composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler, and painters such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
WORLD WAR I
Austria’s rivalry with Russia over influence in southeastern Europe was one cause of World War I. Like its ally Germany, Austria suffered a crushing defeat. The Austrian Empire was split into a number of newly independent countries, including Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Austria itself became a republic in 1918.
WORLD WAR II AND AFTER
In the 1930s Austria was annexed and taken over by Nazi Germany, whose leader, Adolf Hitler, was Austrian by birth. In 1945, at the end of World War II, Austria was occupied and divided by forces of the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Austria was only reunited ten years later in 1955. It joined the European Union in 1995.