A History of Austria - Part XII

1939 to 1945: Austria, World War II & the Holocaust

In 1939, the Second World War started after Nazi-Germany attacked Poland. The bloodshed of the war and the holocaust left about 300,000 Austrians dead. Vienna University lost more than 40 percent of its faculty. Most of the Austrian casualties were soldiers of the Wehrmacht, but also high numbers of holocaust victims persecuted for racist (like Jews or gypsies), political (like socialists, communists, conservatives) or other (like disabled people, ordinary criminals, religious pacifists) reasons.

The Memorial Against Fascism and War in Vienna

One of the hardest concentration camps outside of Poland was Mauthausen in Upper Austria. It is a holocaust memorial today and a shocking account of what humans are capable of doing to other humans. For an in-depth experience of Austria, you should definitely go to Mauthausen, but expect to meet the most disturbing face of humanity. The number of Austrians within the SS was over-proportional and many Nazi-crimes were committed by Austrians (Hitler himself was from Braunau in Upper Austria).

Towards the end of the war, large-scale bombardments of Austrian cities caused many deaths among the civilian population and a lot of Austria′s infrastructure was destroyed. The battle for Vienna left 19,000 Germans (with Austrians) and 18,000 Russians dead. Cruelty to civilians particularly in Eastern Europe was common on both sides and by the time Russian soldiers arrived in Germany and Austria, their moral standards had dropped very low, resulting in mass-rapes and other crimes.

1945: Occupation & Visions for a Second Republic

Just before the capitulation of Nazi-Germany, the former Austrian chancellor Karl Renner (a social democrat) set up an exile government with the help of the Soviet Union and declared Austria′s independence (even though that was a rather pathetic act). This government consisted of delegates from the newly formed SPÖ (Social Democrats), ÖVP (Conservatives) and KPÖ (Communists), as well as a few independent delegates.

The Social Democrat Karl Renner, the first president of the Second Republic of Austria

Austria was divided into four occupation zones ruled by one of the allies each: Vorarlberg and Tyrol (Western Austria) were French; Carinthia, Styria and Eastern Tyrol (Southern Austria) were British; Salzburg and parts of Upper-Austria (Central Austria) were US American; other parts of Upper Austria, Lower Austria and the Burgenland were Russian. Vienna was divided into four sectors (like Berlin) with a shared administration of the central district.

A great movie set in this post-war scenario is Orson Wells′ "The Third Man", a piece of poetry in black and white with all the drama and triviality you would expect in a slaughtered city full of people trying to survive.

In many Eastern European countries, German-speaking ethnicities that had often lived there for centuries were expulsed immediately after the war (comprising of several million people). They were often forced to leave all their possessions or even shot, raped or humiliated on their way by soldiers or civilians. Many thousands of them moved to Germany and Austria.

In Western Austria, France, Britain and the US tried to avoid another humiliation as it was done after their victory in World War I and spent large amounts of money on the Marshal Plan that aimed to re-build industries and infrastructure. In Eastern Austria, the Soviets demolished the remaining industries and carried them to the Soviet Union as reparation, alongside with vast amounts of natural resources like oil. This resulted in Western Austria being more advanced from about 1950 onwards, a discrepancy that was carried on for decades.

In the ten years after 1945, the Austrian government worked steadily on the reconstruction of the infrastructure, administration and economy. Efforts of a "de-Nazification" were often followed with less enthusiasm. My grandmother told me the story of a Nazi judge who had sentenced three teenage boys to death because they had fled from a tank (they had been armed with guns) in late 1945.

The boys were shot and the judge got re-installed shortly later and remained in office until he retired many years later. Such things were not unusual and often supported by both social democrats and conservatives. The problem was that most of Austria′s intelligentsia consisted either of Nazis - or not at all, killed in concentration camps or living abroad. So if you wanted to get the country going, you had to use what was left.

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Further Reading

"Austrian History in less than 1000 words"

"A Jewish History of Austria"

A Complete List of all Austrian Monarchs