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Austria Travel Guide: 20,118 reviews and 56,597 photos

Under the rule of the mighty Habsburgs, Austria was the dominant political force in central Europe. Today it may be politically reconciled to being a minor player in the European Union but it has few peers as a year-round holiday destination, with plenty of winter sports in the Schwarzenegger-sized Alps, some of the most impressive and overblown architecture in Europe and an unrivalled musical tradition that even The Sound of Music couldn't sully.

Full country name: The Republic of Austria
Area: 83,854 sq km
Population: 8,139,000
Capital city: Vienna (pop: 1.64 million)
People: 97% Germanic origin, 2% Slovene & Croat and 1% Turkish
Language: 97% German, plus some Turkish, Slovene and Croat
Religion: 88% Roman Catholic, 6% Protestant
Government: Federal Republic
President: Thomas Klestil
Chancellor: Wolfgang Schüessel

GDP: US$184.5 billion
GDP per head: US$22,700
Annual growth: 2.9%
Inflation: 0.9%
Major industries: Machinery, textiles, iron & steel and timber
Major trading partners: EU (esp. Germany, Italy), Japan & Switzerland
Member of EU: yes
Euro zone participant: yes

In its early years, the land that became Austria was invaded by a succession of tribes and armies using the Danube Valley as a conduit - the Celts, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Huns, Avars, Slavs and Manchester United supporters all came and went. Charlemagne established a territory in the Danube Valley known as the Ostmark in 803, and the area became Christianised and predominantly Germanic.

By 1278 the Habsburgs had gained control and this mighty dynasty managed to rule Austria right up until WW I. Although the Habsburgs were not averse to using a bit of muscle, they preferred less barbaric ways of extending their territory and so Austria gradually expanded thanks to judicious real estate purchases and some politically-motivated marriages. One such marriage produced two sons: the eldest became Charles I of Spain and then mutated three years later into Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire; the younger son, Ferdinand, became the first Habsburg to live in Vienna and was anointed ruler of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia. In 1556, Charles abdicated as emperor and Ferdinand I was crowned in his place. Charles' remaining territory was inherited by his son, Phillip II, splitting the Habsburg dynasty into two distinct lines - the Spanish and the Austrian.

In 1571, when the emperor granted religious freedom, the vast majority of Austrians turned to Protestantism. In 1576, the new emperor, Rudolf II, embraced the Counter-Reformation and much of the country reverted, with a little coercion, to Catholicism. The attempt to impose Catholicism on Protestant areas of Europe led to the Thirty Years' War, which started in 1618 and devastated much of Central Europe. Peace was finally achieved in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia. For much of the rest of the century, Austria was preoccupied with halting the advance of the Turks into Europe. Vienna nearly capitulated to a Turkish siege in 1683 but was rescued by a Christian force of German and Polish soldiers. Combined forces subsequently swept the Turks to the south-eastern edge of Europe. The removal of the Turkish threat saw a frenzy of Baroque building in many cities, and under the musical emperor Leopold I, Vienna became a magnet for musicians and composers.

In 1740, Maria Theresa ascended the throne and ruled for 40 years. This period is generally acknowledged as the era in which Austria developed as a modern state. During her reign, control was centralised, a civil service was established, the army and economy were reformed and a public education system was introduced. But progress was halted when Napoleon defeated Austria at Austerlitz in 1805. European conflict dragged on until the settlement at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. Austria was left with control of the German Confederation but suffered upheaval during the 1848 revolutions and eventual defeat in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War. This led to the formation of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867 under emperor Franz Josef and exclusion from the new German empire unified by Bismarck. A period of prosperity followed but Austria's expansionist tendencies in the Balkans and its annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (nice move) in 1908 led to the assassination of the emperor's nephew in Sarajevo in June 1914. A month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, the Russians came to the Serbians' aid and the slaughter of WW I began in earnest.

At the conclusion of the war, the shrunken Republic of Austria was created and was forced to recognise the independent states of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia which, along with Romania and Bulgaria, had previously been under control of the Habsburgs. The new republic suffered economic strife, which led to an upsurge in Nazi-style politics. Austria's embrace of fascism meant that German troops met little opposition when they invaded in 1938 and incorporated Austria into the Third Reich. A national referendum in Austria that year supported the annexation. For its troubles, Austria was bombed heavily in WW II and by 1945 it had been restored to its 1937 frontiers by the victorious Allies. It was divided into four zones by occupying American, British, French and Russian troops who remained entrenched for a decade before withdrawing and allowing Austria to proclaim its neutrality.

In the post-war years Austria worked hard to overcome economic difficulties and established a free trade treaty with the European Union (EU, then known as the EEC) in 1972. Apart from the election of former German army officer and UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim to the Austrian Presidency in 1986, Austrian politics became a rational zone of consensus rather than conflict. Increases in Eastern European immigration following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc resulted in the rise of the right-wing anti-immigration Freedom Party in the late 1980s. Concern among moderates has been exacerbated by the recent influx of refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

The Austrian people heartily endorsed their country's entry into the EU in a referendum in 1994 and formally joined the Union on 1 January 1995. Since then most Austrians have been rather ambivalent about the advantages of EU membership.

In 2000, the right-wing Freedom Party came in just behind the Social Democrats in Austria's most recent election, thus forming a ruling coalition with the moderate right People's Party. Both the Freedom and People's parties have 52 seats each, while the Social Democrats have 65 seats. Initially, Freedom Party leader and Nazi sympathiser Jörg Haider opted to keep out of the government, but there are growing concerns among the remaining EU member countries that he may change his mind.

  • Intro Written Sep 1, 2002
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