Austria: The Forgotten Partition

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The official partition of Austria into four zones in July 1945 was far from unanticipated. Although in the Declaration of Moscow (1943), the wartime allies of the USSR, US, and the UK had agreed that Austria would be regarded as the first victim of Nazi aggression, by early 1945, policy had shifted, and Austria came to be seen as responsible for “participation in the war at the side of Hitlerite Germany”. As such, partition was inevitable and the country was split into four zones under the suzerainty of the United States, France, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union respectively.

Perhaps because Austria was made independent and reunified in 1955, the intervening decade of partition is forgotten as ultimately unimportant, but this outcome was not inevitable.

The events that brought about the division were initially military: on 20 April 1945, after Vienna had fallen to the USSR, Stalin ordered Renner, a leading Austrian politician, to form a provisional government of exiled communists. So significant was Soviet influence that not only was one-third of Renner’s cabinet staffed by communists, including the Secretary of State of the Interior and Secretary of State for Education, but NKVD (Soviet secret police) bodyguards were employed to guard and watch his ministers.

Just under a week later, independence from Nazi Germany was declared, and Renner’s cabinet called for the establishment of a socialist state. The Allies, suspecting the formation of a Soviet puppet state, refused to recognise this government.

Unsurprisingly, that did not deter Soviet ministers. They ordered Red Army and NKVD forces to comb through Austrian territories, searching for ‘dissenters’. By 23 May, they’d already found 1,655 such ‘threats’. Discord between Renner’s government and the Allies persisted until he finally appointed the anti-communist Gruber as Foreign Minister; therefore, the Allies recognised his reformed cabinet in October.

The division of Austria into areas of international ‘influence’ was effectively settled by 9 July. Vienna was similarly divided into four sections, with the historical centre declared an international zone. The forces of these powers peaked at approximately 150,000 Soviet, 55,000 British, 40,000 American, and 15,000 French, all of which had to be funded by the Austrian government.

With the size of the USSR’s force and the recognition of a pro-communist government, a Soviet chokehold seemed to be developing, as with much of Eastern Europe. Indeed, even by 1947, Soviet control and tension was great enough that the Americans prepared to airlift supplies to Vienna, fearing an Austrian equivalent to the Berlin Blockade.

It was not until the general election of November 1945 that there was a significant blow to the regime’s control. To the ire of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party only received 5% of the vote, whilst the conservative Coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats secured backing from more than 90% of voters. The position of Federal Chancellor was then offered to Julius Raab, a known fascist who had joined the Fatherland Front in the 1930s.

Still, the Soviets continued to wield great influence, particularly economically. It had been agreed at Potsdam that the Soviets could confiscate loosely defined ‘German external assets’ in Austria and, in less than a year, they dismantled and shipped off industrial equipment worth about $500 million, despite the objections of the Americans. Their exploitation did not stop there. The Soviets had previously secured rights to Austrian oil fields in 1945. Following this, from February 1946, the USSR commandeered hundreds of businesses in their zone, combining 400 of them into the USIA (Administration for Soviet Property in Austria) in June. Although the organisation controlled less than 5% of the nation’s total economic output, it held a near-monopolistic share in the key industries of glass, steel, oil, and transportation. Such businesses were entirely Eastern-focused: between 1946-1955, 38% of USIA products were exported to Eastern Europe, whilst only 1% went to the West.

Yet, for the majority of Austrians, it was very much a Western country. Indeed, in February 1950, Geoffrey Keynes, US High Commissioner in Austria, expressed the (somewhat hyperbolic) opinion that “90% of Austrians” were “western-minded”, whilst US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles assured the National Security Council in October 1953 that “there was no country in the world with less indigenous Communist strength”. The reasons for this leaning were two-fold: firstly, the extent of Western influence, bolstered by the effects of Marshall Aid, and, secondly, the anti-communist beliefs of many Austrians.

Austria was, on a per capita basis, the greatest beneficiary from Marshall Aid, receiving $133 per person. The first trickles of aid arrived in March 1948, to stop this “key area” from falling under Soviet influence.” Administrators channelled any available funding into heavy industry, which began to recover, reaching 150.7% of the pre-war output in 1951. These industries contributed to 14% of national income for that year, and, over the course of the Marshall Aid program, Austria received nearly $1 billion, alongside 500 million in humanitarian aid.

Alongside the allure and transformative effects of Marshall Aid, the anti-communist stance of the West was additionally very attractive to most Austrian citizens. When the allied powers were identifying wartime offenders, 537,000 Austrians, nearly 15% of the adult population, were classified as Nazis. While in the 1945 election these Nazis were disenfranchised, in 1949 their vote was restored, and the hypernationalist WdU secured 11.7% of the vote.

As Austria drifted westwards, reunification became an increasing possibility. The Soviets were increasingly unpopular and, by 1954, after Stalin’s death, the ‘Krushchev thaw’ was sweeping through the East. The Soviet occupation force plummeted to 40,000, and, in a symbolically monumental act, the Soviet military governor of their administrative zone was replaced by a civilian ambassador.

Tensions fizzled out, leading to the 1955 decision to reunify Austria. Soviet diplomats had urged Foreign Minister Molotov to unlink the issues of Germany and Austria, and conditions were quickly agreed upon. Austria would have to conform to neutrality “on the Swiss model”; there were to be no foreign military bases; and had to guarantee against a new Anschluss. In return, “eines unabhängigen und demokratischen Österreich” (an independent and democratic Austria) was to be established, returning the nation its sovereignty for the first time since 1938. Geoffrey Wallinger, a British signatory, described the Austrian State Treaty as “far too good to be true” when it was signed on 15 May 1955 in Vienna.

To neglect the importance of Austria is to neglect a major battleground of the Cold War: for the years of Allied occupation, the issue of Austria was paramount. The partition may not have been as long, as divisive, nor as tumultuous as that of Germany, but it was nonetheless vital to the early development of the Cold War in the European theatre.

Bischof, G., Pelinka, A. & Stiefel, D., 2000. The Marshall Plan in Austria. Transaction Publishers.

Carafano, J. J., 2002. Waltzing into the Cold War: The Struggle for Occupied Austria. Texas A&M University Press.

Steininger, R., Bischof, G. & Gehler, M., 2009. Austria in the Twentieth Century. Transaction Publishers.