This Blog is the introduction of a brochure about the Centenary Celebration as well as the book “100 Jahre Republik. Meilensteine und Wendepunkte Österreichs 1918-2018” written by Heinz Fischer, former president of Austria.
This text published on this website with permission of co-author MR Mag. Stephan Neuhäuser. The book can be purchased at http://www.czernin-verlag.com/buch/100-jahre-republik. The English version will be available on Amazon soon.
The Centenary of the Founding of the Republic of Austria
This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the foundation of our Republic. Austria’s history, of course, reaches much further back than that: one thousand years ago, Austria’s north-eastern border was already given largely the form it has retained ever since. For the first mention of “Ostarrichi”, the name that was to evolve over time to “Österreich”, we must delve deeper into the past, to the year 996. The “birthday” of our Republic, however, is November 12, 1918, when more than 100,000 people witnessed the proclamation of the Republic in front of the Parliament.
The way a country deals with its own history or with certain phases and events in that history says a lot about how that country sees itself. What date could be more fitting for a close examination of the history of the Republic of Austria than the hundredth anniversary of its birth? History has its moments of high drama and can excite powerful emotions. It is equally capable of generating a sense of safety and optimism, and in practice one will often encounter both outcomes.
Events that took place more than a hundred years ago, at a time beyond the lifetime of the last three or four generations, can usually be discussed without tempers becoming frayed. Their power to stir the soul has faded, and the emotions they call forth are muted. Direct or even indirect links to either the agents or the victims of such long ago events are unlikely to exist. There are no longer any eye witnesses. The closer we are to historical events, however, the rawer are the emotions that resurface, and the more varied the perspectives and assessments that demand our attention. Our own history is a case in point, in spite of the unusually long period of peaceful and largely uninterrupted development we have enjoyed since 1945.
Our country’s transition after the lost war, a hundred years ago, from a monarchy to a republic was a dramatic turning point in its history. The First World War had taken a horrendous toll of dead, wounded and broken men, and the transition took place against a backdrop of abrupt decline, amounting almost to downright collapse. The centuries-old great Monarchy, so recently one of the leading powers of the continent with more than fifty million inhabitants, had been reduced to a barely viable rump state with a population of less than seven million, a statelet that the victorious powers could afford to treat with disdain and condescension. Deprived of its economic foundations and totally unprepared for such a situation, Austria was at the same time denied by the victorious powers any chance of becoming part of the German Reich. Given the circumstances prevailing at the time, accession to the Reich was seen by many as representing the country’s only hope for a future of any kind.
Hellmut Andics later coined the phrase of the “the state no one wanted”.i This goes too far, ignoring, as it does, the fact that there was no shortage of committed republicans, people who were disappointed in the monarchy and indeed held the imperial dynasty responsible for the lost war. Undeterred by the reigning chaos, such citizens clung tenaciously to their hopes for a brighter future, the development and consolidation of democracy, a “new society” and even a “new humanity”.
During the shift from great empire to small republic the population was shattered into factions that differed in ideology, goals and interests and had disparate attitudes both to the form the state and its government should take and to various other important constitutional questions. Some of these differences have left traces discernible even today. But the daunting problems the country was facing at the end of the war – omnipresent hunger, external pressures and the radicalism of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (seen by many as an ever-present threat) – pushed the decision makers of 1918/19 towards prolonging the so-called Burgfrieden, the war-time party truce, whose aim was to enable compromise and promote joint efforts. This worked well at first, but only for the better part of two years, until the end of the first Social Democrat–Christian Social grand coalition in the summer of 1920. Today, the effectiveness of the national-unity and coalition governments in the early days of the Republic has largely been forgotten.
The first anniversary of the foundation of the Republic – November 12, 1919 – was celebrated by all the political parties in a joint ceremony. The Constituent National Assembly had passed a resolution on April 25, 1919, declaring the 12th of November a “national holiday”. However, even by the early 1920s the Republic of Austria was no longer seen by a significant – and growing – part of its population as the confidence-inspiring Heimat they had hoped for at the time of its institution. Such people became increasingly disenchanted, even as others continued to pin their hopes to the young Republic and its purpose-oriented social policy. A rift in the body politic was beginning to form.
The gulf separating the camps was widened by the peace treaty of Saint Germain-en-Laye, imposed on Austria by the victorious powers after the First World War and aggravated by inflation, which was threatening the livelihood of large segments of society. Political and social tensions continued to increase and reached their first climax in the hostile mood that engulfed left and right nine years after the foundation of the Republic, fanned by the acquittals in the Schattendorf trial, the subsequent collective outburst of fury of the leaderless masses and the panic-driven response of an armed police force that left more than eighty people dead.
The tenth anniversary of the foundation of the Republic – November 12, 1928 – accurately reflected the widening gulf between the two major political parties. The Social Democrats enthusiastically celebrated the Republic with a triumphant march on the Ringstraße and the unveiling of a monument to the Republic (located between Parliament and the Justizpalast), dedicated exclusively to the Social Democratic founders of the Republic, Viktor Adler, Ferdinand Hanusch and Jakob Reumann. While it is true that the Christian Social President of the National Assembly, Wilhelm Miklas, delivered a speech in Parliament in which he rose to the occasion, his party as a whole contributed very little to the ten-year anniversary.
What followed is well known: the suspension of the National Assembly in March 1933, the brief civil war in February 1934 and the establishment of the “chancellor dictatorship” on May 1, 1934. In this phase of our history, November 12 ceased to be a national holiday. This alone would have made any celebration of the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic impossible, even if the Anschluss of the Republic of Austria to Hitler Germany in March 1938 had not put paid to any such idea. Instead, it is for an event that took place on the night between ninth and tenth November, the Night of Broken Glass, during which the Jewish population in Vienna and other “German” cities were exposed to brutal pogroms, that November 1938 has become notorious.
Even after the end of the Second World War in Europe and Hitler’s dictatorship in May 1945, when Austria had already been re-established “within the borders of 1938”, a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the Republic’s foundation with a national holiday on November 12, 1948 proved impossible. The – somewhat mundane – reason was that the national holiday had been abolished in 1934, and a new one had not yet been proposed, let alone been agreed upon. Austria’s Socialist Party did organise a party conference in Vienna around the date of November 12, 1948, featuring a festive event in the Großer Musikvereinssaal where Federal President Karl Renner delivered an ardent speech commemorating the foundation of the Republic thirty years earlier. In a debate that started at around the same time, it was proposed for the first time that the reservations some people felt about November 12 be acknowledged, and an alternative date was suggested for the new national holiday, April 27, the day in 1945 when the Second Republic was founded. An additional advantage of this date was that it marked the end of the Nazi dictatorship and of the Second World War. This plan, however, was ultimately frustrated by a drawback that weighed ever more heavily as time went by: the date also marked the beginning of the four Allied powers’ occupation of Austria.
It is interesting to note that, during his first government declaration in the National Assembly on December 21, 1945, Federal Chancellor Leopold Figl turned to the High Commissioners of the four Allies, who were present in a box at the Great Assembly Hall, to offer them effusive thanks for the liberation of Austria, at which the members of the National Assembly rose from their seats and gave the High Commissioners a standing ovation. Such a scene would have been completely unthinkable years later, after Austria’s struggles with the burden of occupation and the difficulties with the occupying forces’ soldiers, especially those in the Soviet zone.
The joy was therefore all the greater when the Austrian State Treaty negotiations, which had been dragging on for ten years, came to a successful conclusion in spring 1955, and the treaty was duly signed on May 15, 1955. I remember well the contagious and liberating joy we all felt. A grammar school boy at the time, I had cycled in from Hietzing on that Sunday to stand in a capacity crowd outside the Belvedere and, as the famous scene unfolded on the balcony with Figl and the Foreign Ministers of the four signatory powers, I blissfully joined in with the frenetic applause.
As a matter of fact, Leopold Figl spoke the famous words “Österreich ist frei” [Austria is free] twice: first, as Federal Chancellor, in the declaration of government on December 21, 1945, as already mentioned, and second, as Foreign Minister, after the signing of the Austrian State Treaty on May 15, 1955. He was of course right on both occasions, even though Austria was being released from two very different types of bondage. Between 1938 and 1945, Austria was under the heel of an inhumane totalitarian dictatorship and at war for almost six years; between 1945 and 1955, Austria was a democracy, there was no war and, after the Second Allied Control Agreement, the Austrian government was gradually finding its feet.
There are in fact two dates in 1955 that have become imbued with special relevance: May 15, when, as just mentioned, the Austrian State Treaty was signed at the Belvedere, and October 25, the day on which the last occupation soldier left the territory of the Republic of Austria, in accordance with the provisions of the State Treaty. October 26 was therefore the first day since Austria’s Anschluss with Hitler’s Germany when a free, independent and democratic Austria no longer had any soldiers of a foreign power on its soil. It was, moreover, the day on which Parliament passed the Constitutional Law on Austria’s neutrality.
It was around this time that the discussion of an Austrian national holiday began again to pick up momentum. Four historic dates competed for attention:
- A return to November 12, the day of the Republic’s foundation in 1918
- April 27, (1945), the day of the liberation from Nazi rule and the foundation of the Second Republic
- May 15, (1955), the date when the Austrian State Treaty was signed
- October 26, (1955), the day after the last soldier of the foreign occupying forces left Austria and the day Parliament passed the Constitutional Law concerning Austria’s permanent neutrality
All four options had their advantages and drawbacks.
It was the then Minister of Education, Heinrich Drimmel, who issued a decree in autumn 1955, when foreign troops were still in Austria, to commemorate October 25 (as opposed to October 26). The day was to be marked by a solemn hoisting of the national flag, designed to leave a “deep and indelible [impression] on the minds of Austria’s youth”. This was called the Tag der Fahne [Flag Day]. In the ensuing year (1956), the Ministerial Council passed a resolution, again at the instigation of Minister of Education Drimmel, to celebrate October 26 (!) all over Austria as the Tag der Österreichischen Fahne [Austrian Flag Day].
The switch from October 25 to 26 was meant to underscore the significance of the declaration of neutrality. ”Without wishing to create a new national day”, as the motion submitted to the Ministerial Council put it cautiously, the Flag Day should commemorate the resurrection of Austria as an independent, neutral state as highlighted by Parliament passing the Constitutional Law of Austria’s neutrality.ii This state of affairs persisted for several years, even though there was growing unease at the fact that, while Austria had a Flag Day, it still did not have a proper national holiday like most other states. In the early 1960s, the discussion about whether there really was such a thing as an Austrian nation or whether Austria ought not to be considered as part of the German nation – as had been the near consensus in 1918 – was again rearing its head, most noticeably in the theories of Taras Borodajkewycz, then a university professor in Vienna.
By the mid-1960s, the discussion about the nature of a national holiday and what its date should be had entered the political mainstream on several levels and in different forms. As has been noted earlier, there were arguments for and against all the dates on offer, but it was October 26 that found most support in the end. In the last year of the first phase of grand coalitions, which lasted from 1945 to 1966, Parliament unanimously passed the resolution to make October 26 Austria’s national holiday.iii
As has become obvious in retrospect, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) must have harboured serious doubts about the Austrian national holiday even at this early stage. When less than two years later, on June 28, 1967, a motion was submitted to Parliament to declare the Austrian national holiday a statutory public holiday by federal law, the FPÖ delegates voted against it, calling the Austrian nation a “Retortenbaby” – a test-tube baby (Gustav Zeilinger, MP) – and an “erfundene und konstruierte Nation” [a cooked-up, artificial nation] (Otto Scrinzi, MP). The leader of the parliamentary group of the FPÖ, Friedrich Peter, summed up the position of his party as follows: while the FPÖ was happy to acknowledge a statutory holiday, it “cannot acknowledge any so-called Austrian national day, which only serves to reopen rifts between different parts of the population. The FPÖ faction is unable to acknowledge an Austrian national holiday, since this is nothing less than a denial of historical truth. This is why the FPÖ faction rejects the idea of an Austrian national holiday.”iv
Over the intervening years, the idea of an Austrian national holiday has gained complete acceptance. In 2018, however, it is not October 26 – the sixty-third anniversary of the passage of the Constitutional Law on Neutrality – that takes centre stage but the one hundredth anniversary of the foundation of our Republic and the eightieth anniversary of the so-called Anschluss with Hitler’s Germany.
What we are gratefully celebrating is that this Republic, no stranger to sorrow in its inception and then long denied the right to an autonomous existence and even expunged from the map, rose from the ashes of war in April 1945 and was resurrected in its previous form. It has found its place in history, and today, in the year of its one hundredth birthday, it is a firmly established democracy with many positive attributes that guarantee its role as a respected member of the EU and of the family of nations.
In the Second Republic’s seventy-three-year history, the conclusion of the State Treaty in 1955 and the accession to the EU on January 1, 1995 are undoubtedly the most outstanding events, and these are dealt with in detail in separate essays in this volume. Other essays focus on important developments in the First and the Second Republic, such as the Kelsen Constitution, the Hungarian crisis (1956), Josef Klaus’ first ÖVP solo government in the Second Republic (1966–1970), the Kreisky governments (1970–1983), the crisis provoked by the planned hydro-electric power station in Hainburg (1984), the fall of the Iron Curtain (1989), Austria’s accession to the EU (1995), the very special topic of the so-called Wiedergutmachung [restitution], the minority problems in Austria and the first decade of the twenty-first century. However, the anniversary years that have a special claim on our attention are those that end in 8, by which I mean, after 1848, 1918 and 1938, the years 1948 (the passage of the International Declaration of Human Rights) and 1968, the year of the brutally suppressed Prague Spring, an event that was to exert a powerful influence on Europe’s subsequent political development.
As we celebrate the Republic’s one hundredth birthday, we are of course aware that Austria did not begin with a tabula rasa in 1918. Austria has a very long history indeed. Whoever feels that history holds lessons for us, and that the past exerts an influence on the present, must be aware that the past was in its turn shaped and influenced to a certain extent by its own past: the pluperfect, as it were.
It is therefore only logical to use the one hundredth anniversary of our Republic as a cue to direct our gaze at 1848, the year of the revolution, at the Fundamental Law on the General Rights of Citizens passed in December 1867 and at the continuity of parliamentarism and the party system since the mid-nineteenth century. The stepped development of universal male suffrage, which was finally achieved in 1907, and of female suffrage granted in 1918 dates far back into the nineteenth century.
Vienna, February 2018 Heinz Fischer
i Cf. Hellmut Andics, Der Staat, den keiner wollte. Österreich 1918–1938, Vienna 1962.
ii Gustav Spann, “Zur Geschichte des österreichischen Nationalfeiertages”, in: Bundesministerium für Unterricht, Kunst und Sport. Abteilung Politische Bildung (ed.), 26. Oktober. Zur Geschichte des österreichischen Nationalfeiertages, Vienna, n.d., pp. 27–34.
iii Cf. Stenographic minutes of the 89th session of the National Assembly of the Republic of Austria, 10th legislative period, 25 October 1965.
iv Ibid., 62nd session, 11th legislative period, 28 June 1967, p. 4882.