Once a splendid empire across Europe



WHAT would be another similarity between Spain and Austria besides both being European and predominantly Catholic? Well, at one point or another, they were ruled by different branches of the same royal family, the Hapsburgs.

When one speaks of Austria in modern times, one first of all has to distinctly pronounce it differently than Australia. What comes first in our mind when Austria is mentioned is perhaps not so much the magnificent Austrian Alps, but more in the imposing personal size of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Mr. Olympic turned action movie actor and then governor of California, who was born and raised in Austria.

For a very long time, Austria almost literally lived under the shadow of Germany, but even the whole concept of Germany as a united country is a relatively new construct. For many centuries, what later became Germany was a conglomeration of hundreds of little city states, with Austria being one of the larger ones, so large that in the curiously staged Holy Roman Empire (which, as historians would argue, was neither holy nor Roman, not even a real empire) of the German nation, Austria was one of the elector-states for selecting the emperors.

In olden day Europe, Austria was essentially a frontline state, holding back invasions by the likes of Mongolians, Huns and Turks. Legend has it that coffee was introduced into Europe by the invading Turks and became popular first in Vienna, which still prides itself on its many grand cafés. In the process, Austria acquired many new territories in central and eastern Europe, including the whole of Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia, and parts of present-day Romania, Ukraine and Poland, to name but a few. All these new frontiers were gradually consolidated into what later became the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the Double Monarchy, with the Austrian Emperor simultaneously becoming the King of Hungary.

And the Austro-Hungarian Empire was indeed a many-splendored sight. As the diversity of its lands suggests, it was a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural empire, with the capital Vienna at one point (some would argue still so today) becoming the cultural capital of Europe, with the full confluence and exuberance of literature, music and the arts from all corners of the empire. The famous Austrian composer Haydn, for example, wrote most of his major works not in Austria proper, but when employed as a music master in the household of Hungarian nobility.

After the Napoleonic Wars in the then increasingly nationalistic Germany that was dominated by Prussia in the north, Austria chose to not overly compete with the other German city states for German dominance, but instead focus on its own vast empire. It was perhaps around this time that Austria could be argued to have gradually acquired a somewhat separate identity from a unifying Germany although the German culture still thrived in Austria. The comparatively halcyon socioeconomic structure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire contrasted sharply with the rest of Europe then which was often embroiled in wars, although the famous Austrian empress Sissi was assassinated in Geneva, Switzerland, at a spot not far from where I used to stay.

But things really came to a head a century ago, when the crown prince of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia by a Serbian nationalist. Through the machinations of many mutually binding treaties, World War I was triggered leading to millions of deaths in the wet trenches that were common in war times then. Austria lost its empire and became a republic after that “war to end all wars,” with many newly independent countries coming into being in eastern and central Europe. But not for long, as perhaps the all-time most notorious Austrian, Hitler, came to power in Germany. Nazi Germany in turn annexed Austria, presaging World War II which again saw countless deaths.

Austria emerged from the ashes World War II resolved to be neutral in the then fast-forming Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. In addition to the famous Geneva, Vienna also became a favorite negotiating venue between the rival Cold War camps. And also like Geneva, Vienna houses a number of United Nations agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as the headquarters of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). There was even an Austrian UN secretary-general, who later became the Austrian president.

There has always been flirting with the extreme right in the Austrian political spectrum, with a far-right party winning a number of seats. This time around, they won the most, and their leader, Sebastian Kurz, is set to become the youngest elected national leader at 31. In the huge wave of refugees from Middle East and North Africa that was sweeping across Europe in recent years, Austria was once again one of the frontline states, and it was perhaps partly in reaction to this sudden surge of foreigners that has upset many Austrian voters. But Austria would do well to recall its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural past, which was a truly magnificent feat.


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