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Austrian National Identity

The absence of an Austrian national identity was one of the problems confronted when Austria became a country in November 1918 (see The End of the Habsburg Empire and the Birth of the Austrian Republic). Before 1918 there had been no tradition among German-speaking Austrians of striving for national independence as a small German-speaking state separated from Austria-Hungary or separated from Germany. Within the context of the multiethnic and multilinguistic empire, the great majority of the inhabitants of what was to become Austria considered themselves "Germans" insofar as they spoke German and identified with German culture.

Strong provincial identities that stemmed from the provinces' histories as distinct political and administrative entities with their own traditions existed for this reason. Tiroleans, for example, identified more with their province than with the new nation-state. As a result, the idea of an "Austrian nation" as a cultural and political entity greater than the sum total of provinces, yet smaller than the pan-German idea of the unification of all German speakers into one state, virtually did not exist in 1918. The Austrian historian Friedrich Heer described the confusion surrounding Austrians' national identity in the following manner: "Who were these Austrians after 1918? Were they Germans in rump Austria, German-Austrians, Austrian-Germans, Germans in a `second German state,' or an Austrian nation?"

Furthermore, Austrians had serious doubts about the economic and political viability of a small German-speaking state. Two alternatives were envisioned for Austria: either membership in a confederation of the states formed out of Austria-Hungary or unification with Germany as a legitimate expression of Austrian national self-determination. Neither alternative was realized. Efforts to form a "Danube Confederation" failed, and the Allies prohibited Austria's unification with Germany in the treaties signed after World War I. As a compromise between these alternatives, Austria was a "state which no one wanted."

After 1918 many Austrians identified themselves as being members of a "German nation" based on shared linguistic, cultural, and ethnic characteristics. Since unification with Germany was forbidden, most Austrians regarded their new country as a "second" German state arbitrarily created by the victorious powers. During the troubled interwar period, unification with a democratic Germany was seen by many, not only by those on the political right but across the entire political spectrum, as a solution for Austria's many problems.

Nazi Germany's annexation (Anschluss) of Austria into the Third Reich in March 1938 proved to be an impetus for the development of Austrian national consciousness (see The Anschluss and World War II). Austrians increasingly focused on the historical and cultural differences between Austrian and German traditions--or the uniqueness and singularity of an "Austrian nation"--and on the idea of an independent Austrian state. It is one of those quirks of history that the experience of being "German" in the Third Reich was instrumental in awakening feelings of Austrian nationalism for many Austrians, who, by the end of World War II, wholeheartedly endorsed the idea of Austrian independence from Germany. This idea involved rejecting the concept of one "German linguistic and cultural nation" for the sake of two German-speaking nations: one German and the other Austrian.

The reestablishment of Austrian independence in 1945 set the conditions for the development of a new Austrian national identity (see Restored Independence under Allied Occupation). Allied policy, which formulated the reestablishment of an independent Austrian state as a war objective and distinguished between the treatment of Austrians and Germans and the Allied occupation of Austria from 1945 until 1955 contributed to promoting attitudes of national cohesiveness and a desire for independence. After the State Treaty of 1955 arranged for the end of the Allied occupation and a subsequent proclamation of Austria's permanent neutrality, Austrians increasingly identified themselves with their country and saw it as a state with traditions and a history distinct from those of Germany. Although a persistent right-wing minority in Austria continued to insist on "Germanness" as being one of the attributes of being Austrian, ever more Austrians came to identify with the Austrian nation in the decades after World War II. Seventy-nine percent did so by 1990, compared with 47 percent in 1966. In this respect, Austria is a "young nation."

Last Update: 2010-12-06