| Austria’s history
since the 13th century is bound up with that of the Hapsburg
family. The region was conquered by Charlemagne
and remained a part of the Holy Roman Empire. By the 16th century,
the Hapsburgs had gained a firm grip on the title of Emperor,
although their power owed less to this often empty distinction than
to the extensive family lands, many of which were to be found in
Austria. Under Charles V, Austria was part of a
vast empire, however, after Charles’ abdication during 1556,
the Spanish and Germanic parts of his lands were separated, passing
to his son and his brother respectively.
The Holy Roman Empire as a political unit became
more and more fragmented, leading one 18th-century observer to comment
that it was ‘neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire’.
It was formally abolished during August 1806, Francis II having
already assumed the title of ‘Emperor of Austria’.
Much of the northern and eastern parts of the Empire had by this
time been absorbed into Prussia. During the 17th and 18th centuries,
Austria – and in particular Vienna – became one of the
major centres of the cultural renaissance associated with the terms
Baroque and The Enlightenment,
the musical achievements of this period are particularly notable.
The Austrian Empire came to an end after World War I and Austria
was declared a republic. In 1938 it was incorporated into the Third
Reich but was liberated during 1945 and established as
a republic once again under the protectorship of the allied powers.
In July 1955 full independence was restored. Austria has since been
governed according to an orthodox Western European model. The major
parties, the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP
– Austrian People’s Party) and the Sozialdemokratische
Partei Österreichs (SPÖ – Social Democratic
Party of Austria), enjoyed an effective monopoly of Austrian politics
until the 1980s, which saw the rise of the far right and environmentalists.
The decade also brought unusual and unwelcome international attention
to Austria when the former UN Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim,
stood for the presidency, although a largely titular post, the presidency
carries great symbolic significance. The controversy mainly concerned
Waldheim’s role during World War II, in which he served as
a German army intelligence officer, as well as his alleged knowledge
of and complicity in mass deportations and executions.
Dogged by the allegations throughout his 6-year tenure, Waldheim
stood down in May 1992. His replacement at the election that followed
was ÖVP candidate Thomas Klestil, who was
re-elected to a second term in April 1998. The Waldheim affair came
soon after the first appearance of the far-right party, Die Freiheitlichen,
as a major electoral force. Originally known as the Freiheitliche
Partei Österreichs (FPÖ – Austrian Freedom Party),
it was led by Joerg Haider, one of the new generation
of ultra right-wing European politicians. Concerned to exclude Die
Freiheitlichen, the SPÖ and ÖVP formed a series of coalition
governments in the mid and late 1990s, in the hope that Die
Freiheitlichen would reach an electoral peak and fade from
the political scene.
The folly of this strategy was illustrated in October 1999, when
Die Freiheitlichen increased their vote to 27 per cent. Now, even
the SPÖ and ÖVP together were unable to secure a majority
and Haider’s party entered government in
January 2000. After a furious initial reaction abroad, which included
diplomatic sanctions, the rest of the EU soon came to terms with
the new government. This was led by the ÖVP’s Wolfgang
Schüssel as Chancellor and Haider’s deputy,
Suzanne Riess-Passer, as Vice-Chancellor. Against expectations,
the government survived until the autumn of 2002, before an internal
Freiheitlichen feud between party leader Haider and Riess-Passer
spilled over into the administration as a whole and brought it down.
The election that followed saw the collapse of the Freiheitlichen
vote to just 10 per cent, a third of its 1999 level, but Chancellor
Schüssel, who held on to his post, was unable to negotiate
an alliance with either of the other two main parties, the SPÖ
and the Greens, and was obliged to form a second ‘black-and-blue’
alliance with the Freiheitlichen. Given the government’s small
majority and the ongoing feuding within the Freiheitlichen, Austria
could find itself at the polls once again.