Today's Austria is what was once the German speaking core and centre of power for the large multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire with its imperial capital in Vienna. This empire stretched eastwards from present-day Austria through much of east-central and south-central Europe. It included the entire territories of modern day Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and portions of Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Poland and Italy. While Prussia united the German states to the north by force into one "Germany" in the latter part of the 19th Century, Austria remained oriented eastwards towards its diverse empire. However, from the start of the 20th century, the political history of Austria has been closely linked to the misfortunes and disasters of modern German history, mainly the First and Second World Wars and their terrible aftermath.
The modern republic of Austria came into being in 1918 as a result of its defeat in World War I. In its wake, the empire was split into many components. They included Austria's current borders, an independent Hungary, lands given to Italy South Tyrol, Trieste and Trentino, lands given to southern Poland which also came about from lands taken from the Russian and German Empires, and an independent Czechoslovakia and the northern and western half of Yugoslavia. Following an unresisted invasion and annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938, Austria more or less functioned as a part of Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Thus, a large proportion of the population supported Hitler and Austria's incorporation into Germany. Austrian soldiers also fought in the Wehrmacht. Cities were bombed heavily by the Allies and concentration camps also existed on Austrian soil such as Mauthausen near Linz.
It was not until the end of the war that the mood changed and that Austria tried to distance itself from Germany. In 1945, Austria was divided into zones of occupation like Germany. However, unlike Germany, Austria was not subject to any further territorial losses. A treaty signed in 1955 ended the Allied and Soviet occupation, recognized Austria's independence, and forbade future unification with Germany. A constitutional law of that same year declared the country's "perpetual neutrality", a condition for Soviet military withdrawal, and thus saved Austria from Germany's fate of a divided nation with a divided capital. However, the South Tyrol Question took Austria and Italy to the UN in the post-war era and international brokered mitigation found a suitable solution for both countries by the late 1980's. This official neutrality, once ingrained as part of the Austrian cultural identity, has been called into question since the Soviet Union's collapse of 1991 and Austria's entry into the European Union in 1995.
Re-examining its Nazi past is something that has become large-scale and accepted as commonplace in the media only relatively recently. Before, Austria had sought to portray itself as "Hitler's first victim". A prosperous country, Austria entered the European Monetary Union in 1999, and the euro currency replaced the schilling in 2002. Austria is also part of "borderless Europe", resulting in many students from all over the European Union studying in Austrian universities and vice verse. Austria is one of the most popular summer and winter holiday destinations in Europe and has the tourist industry to match it.
Austria is a parliamentarian, federal republic consisting of nine federal states see list above.The official head of the state is the federal president Bundespräsident, who is elected directly by the people for a term of six years. His/her function is mainly representative, however, and the federal chancellor Bundeskanzler, appointed by the president, runs most of the day-to-day politics.
The Austrian parliament consists of two chambers, the Nationalrat National Council with 183 members as the main chamber and the Bundesrat Federal Council. Whereas the members of the National Council are elected every four years by popular vote, the 62 members of the Federal Council are elected by each of the legislatures of the states of Austria for 4- to 6-year terms. The composition of the Bundesrat changes after every election to a state's Landtag State Parliament. The Austrian constitution provides the Bundesrat with the right to veto legislation passed by the National Council; in most cases this is only a suspensive veto, meaning the National Council can override it by passing the law again.
There are five major parties in Austria: The social democrats SPÖ, the conservative Austrian people's party ÖVP, the right-wing freedom party FPÖ which recently split into two parties FPÖ and the alliance for the future of Austria BZÖ and the leftist Green Party. The current government consists of a coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP.
Electricity is supplied at 220 to 230V, 50Hz. Outlets are the European standard CEE-7/7 "Schukostecker" or "Schuko" or the compatible, but non-grounded, CEE-7/16 "Europlug" types. Generally speaking, U.S. and Canadian travellers should pack an adapter and a converter for these outlets if they plan to use North American electrical equipment in Austria.
Austria is a federation. Each of its nine federal states has a unique and distinct culture.
Austrians aren't easy to categorize. In fact, the main reason Austrians stand out from their European neighbours is that they don't stand out from the rest for anything in particular. Austrians are moderate in their outlook and behaviour. Being at Europe's crossroads, their culture is influenced from several sides. The stereotype of the yodelling, thigh slapping, beer-swilling xenophobe may apply to a few individuals but it certainly doesn't apply to the majority of Austrians.
The average Austrian on the street is likely to be friendly yet somewhat reserved and formal, softly spoken and well mannered, law abiding, socially conservative, rooted, family oriented, conformist and somewhat nepotistic, a Catholic at heart, not particularly religious but a follower of tradition, well educated if not as cosmopolitan as his/her European cousins, cynical, and equipped with a dry, sarcastic sense of humor.
Austrians, in general, like to define themselves merely by what they are not. Tourists often make the mistake of classifying Austrians as Germans, which despite a common language, they are not. Arguably, Southern Germany, especially Bavaria, is a close cultural relative of Austria in many ways. Indeed the regions of Austria are all similar to their neighbours, so you will not notice you have crossed a border, whether it be into South Tyrol in Italy, north to Bavaria or east to Hungary.
For most of its history, Austrians have a hard time defining their own nation; they face perhaps currently the most media influence from Germany but have a very different culture, especially from northern Germany. The historic minorities and individual cultures are valued, yet they have to struggle to survive.
Austria has a long history of being multicultural country: a glance at the Vienna phone book is all you need to discover this. Ironically, it is Germany to the north that is paving the way regarding the integration of foreigners into society in Central Europe. Austria remains a largely conservative and rural country with the exception of Vienna. Indeed, the cultural conflicts and national identity are as complicated and hard to understand for many Austrians as they are for visitors! The level of personal awareness and views on this vary greatly from person to person but are generally subject to a particularly Austrian avoidance of the subject, which is to the polls. It is best to try to see the diversity and enjoy the variety than to jump to conclusions.
Hence many Austrians derive their identity from their region or Bundesland state. For instance, typical inhabitants of Carinthia would say that they are Carinthian first and Austrian second and maybe European third. Asking what state that someone is from is normally the first question Austrians ask when meeting for the first time.
The fact that Austrians dislike demonstrations of national identity can, however, also be explained partly by the historical experiences Austria had during the Third Reich and especially due to the violent use of national symbols in the growing Austro-fascist movement as well as by the far-right Freedom Party. It is also due to the fact that the current state of Austria is a relatively young and loose federal republic of just 8 million people.
However, the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center rates Austria as the 5th most patriotic country in the world. So Austrians do very much love their country but are unlikely to be flag-wavers. Perhaps Austria's ascendancy to the EU in 1995 and its more recent adoption of the euro and the border-less Europe have given it a stronger sense of importance and self-worth in the greater context of Europe.
Most Austrians like to enjoy the good life. They spend a lot of time eating, drinking and having a good time with friends in a cosy environment, and are therefore very hospitable. Members of the older generation can be conservative in the sense that they frown upon extremes of any shape and form and, in general, are adverse to change. They enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world and want to keep it that way.
Austria has no well-defined class system. The rural and urban differences tend to be greater than in neighbouring countries. Generally, the further to the west and the more rural you go, the more socially conservative people are.
Austria has a temperate continental climate. Summers last from early June to mid-September and can be hot in some years and rainy in others. Day-time temperatures in July and August are around 25°C 77°F, but can often reach 35°C 95°F. Winters are cold in the lowlands and very harsh in the Alpine region with temperatures often dropping below -10°C 14°F. Winters last from December to March longer at higher altitudes. In the Alpine region large temperature fluctuations occur all year round and nights are chilly even in high summer. The northern Alps are generally a lot wetter than the rest of the country. The South East Styria and Carinthia is dry and sunny. The area around Vienna often experiences strong easterly winds.
Contrary to popular perceptions, Austria is not all about mountains. While the Alps do cover 3/4 of the country dominating the provinces of Vorarlberg, Tyrol, Salzburg, Styria, Upper Austria and Carinthia, the eastern provinces of Lower Austria, the Burgenland and the federal capital of Vienna are more similar to the geography of the neighbouring Czech Republic and Hungary. This diverse mix of landscapes is packed into a relatively small area of size. Glaciers, meadows, alpine valleys, wooded foothills, gently rolling farmland, vineyards, river gorges, plains and even semi-arid steppes can be found in Austria.
One quarter of Austria's population lives in Greater Vienna, a European metropolis, located where the Danube meets the easternmost fringe of the Alps, not far from the border with Slovakia and its capital Bratislava.
Virtually all government, financial and cultural institutions, as well as national media and large corporations are based in Vienna, due largely to history and geography. Thus, the capital dominates Austria's cultural and political life and is clearly a world unto its own. It has little to do with the rest of mainly rural Austria and outside of Graz and Linz there really are no other large scale cities in the country. There is a playful joke told in Vorarlberg province regarding the dominance of Vienna regarding national affairs that reads, "the people of western Austria make the money and Vienna spends it."