Disclaimer: this is an honest attempt to present a balanced introduction to Austria's history. It is not a tourist or cultural guidebook! There will be parts with which you the reader may disagree, especially if your ancestors came from the former Austrian Empire. If you feel that generally-accepted fact has been mispresented, let us know.
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Austria, its government web site tells us, "looks back on a long and eventful history and is today a wealthy, stable and prosperous nation. Because of its rich cultural past and present, for its beautiful landscape as well as a dynamic and innovative economy, Austria is being appreciated throughout the world as a cultural nation, travel destination and business partner, and the inhabitants are proud of their country."
Austria is a small (84,000 km²) landlocked country in southern Central Europe. It contains most of the Alps east of Switzerland, and the Danube region. In the north, east, and south-east the terrain is flatter and permits extensive agriculture. Although settled by Celtic and Germanic tribes in prehistoric times, Austrian lands and their inhabitants first enter historical records in the writings of the Romans. The Roman encampment named Vindobona, built on the Danube in roughly A.D. 100, eventually became the city of Vienna.
Because of its location, Austria has always been a crossroads between the great economic and cultural regions of Europe. Today, Austria has common borders with eight countries: Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Austria is a federal republic comprising nine independent Federal Provinces (Länder): Burgenland, Carinthia, Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Salzburg, Styria, Tyrol, Vorarlberg, and Vienna. The population in the 2017 census was 8.7 million, mostly German-speaking. There are an increasing number of recognised ethnic minorities in today’s Austria. And of course there’s the Austrian way of life in which rules and regulations are issued centrally, interpreted locally, and ignored anyway
The boundaries of the Austrian Republic have been essentially unchanged since it was established at the close of the First World War. In 1921, the easternmost province of Burgenland – part of the old Kingdom of Hungary and hotly contested by Hungary but solidly German-speaking – was awarded to the fledgling country. From 1938 to 1945 Austria was part of the Third German Reich of Hitler.
The Danube, the most important river in central Europe, traverses the country from the German border in the west to the boundary with Slovakia in the east, before proceeding through the Balkans to the Black Sea. Ever since Roman times, the flat land east of the mountains has been an important passage way for commerce and for migration from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean and the Balkans. Additionally, the land around the Danube was a frequent point of entry for marauding nomadic tribes and hostile nations from the east. At the intersection of these routes lies Austria’s capital, Vienna, a city of about 1.7 million inhabitants, and for centuries the historical, cultural, and artistic centre of Central Europe.
Austria has produced some of the most sublime achievements in the fine arts, the theatre, literature, architecture, medicine, and science. Twenty Austrians have been awarded Nobel prizes! The culture is part of the mainstream of Germanic culture shared with Germany and Switzerland. But what has shaped it and dominated it, what has made it essentially Austrian, are the Habsburg empire and the Roman Catholic church. The Habsburg dynasty’s tradition of patronage of the arts has carried over to the modern republic of today; for example in 2005 the total expenditure on ‘culture’ by public bodies at all levels was 2 billion Euro, 0.94% of GDP. The church was a powerful influence in Austrian architecture, drama, and music. The great Romanesque monasteries and the Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna awe the beholder, and we owe to the Counter-Reformation the gilded wedding-cake splendours of the Austrian Baroque and Rococo even in the smallest village church. Many feature on Austrian stamps, especially the Christmas issues.
Austria is especially famed for its contributions to music, notably during the Classical and Romantic periods. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler and Bruckner spring to mind - and there were many many more. The Viennese operetta, drawing heavily from the Slavic and Magyar regions of the empire, reached its peak about 1900. We think of the Strauss family, Franz Lehár and Zierer; and of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera. The Vienna Boys Choir, founded by the emperor Maximilian in 1498, still sings at Sunday masses in the chapel of the Hofburg in Vienna. In the cultural context, as elsewhere, it is important to remember that there is more to Austria than Vienna! Some of the world’s greatest folk music traditions had a marked influence on such composers as Janacek, Kodaly and Bartok; and the "Viennese School" of Schönberg, Berg and Webern still excites admiration or detestation amongst musicologists! "The Third Man", filmed in Vienna in 1949, brought the zither to a wide audience, and today’s tourists can scarcely avoid the traditional Village Wind’n’Brass Band. Austria has issued over 200 stamps on classical, folk, modern, pop and other musical topics, and over 650 special cancellations – extensive thematic collections can be assembled.
Many authors and playwrights of previous centuries are still read and performed, such as Grillparzer, Raimund, Nestroy and Stifter; the 20th century brought Kafka, Roth, Musil, Bertha von Suttner, and many more. Their philatelic representation is rather sparse, especially for recent writers. And the notorious insularity of English speakers means that much superb work is unknown outside the German-speaking countries.
In the visual arts, Jugendstil – the Austrian Art Nouveau – is perhaps best known in other countries. Amongst its many artists Klimt, famed for his use of gold in his paintings, tried and partly succeeded in shocking Viennese society out of bureaucratic stagnation into a freer modernity. Other artists, from Waldmüller to Kokoschka, are less known abroad. Architecture has a long tradition, from Fisher von Erlach and Lukas von Hildebrand to Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos. Many architects, and their buildings, have received philatelic commemoration. Austria’s museums and historic monuments are notable both on the ground and on the stamps. Film has a more prominent place than in many other countries, although the Cold War "cultural offensive" from the USA may have helped.
Before the First World War, Austria was part of a much larger state, the Habsburg Empire, of which Vienna was the capital city. At the time the Empire becomes of interest from a philatelic standpoint it included, besides the present area of Austria, all of Hungary, Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic), Slovakia, Slovenia, and Croatia, and also parts of present-day Poland, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, and Italy. In addition, the Austrian Netherlands consisted of most of today’s Belgium, and Vorderösterreich comprised various pockets in southern Germany. These were lost to the Habsburgs in 1797 and 1805 respectively; philatelic items are rare and expensive.
The Habsburg family, originally Germans with a castle in Switzerland, appeared in Austria in 1276. Mainly through marriages, they acquired the territories mentioned above (and others strewn throughout Europe which later they lost again). They were Holy Roman Emperor, the nominally-elected Emperor of what is now Germany and some other territories: a title which in time became in name only. In the 16th century the Habsburgs held the dominating position in Europe when, as a result of dynastic marriage, they brought together the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire in the person of the Emperor Charles V. Following his abdication in 1555 they were separated again but different branches of the family ruled both empires and, had things turned out differently, Philip II (husband of Queen Mary) might well have been King of England too. This led to constant war in the 16th and 17th centuries between the Habsburgs and France, which saw itself as encircled - and with good reason! It also drove the Habsburgs to have a natural focus on Western Europe, accentuated by the dominant position of the Turks in the East. Ultimately the position changed because the Habsburgs eventually lost their dominance to France, starting in 1648 at Westphalia and culminating in the reign of Louis XIV.
It is also useful to note the catastrophic position of Hungary as a result of Turkish invasion and occupation in the 1520s-40s. The formerly strong kingdom was annihilated and only the northern and western parts remained outside Turkish control. The Hungarian nobility, defeated at Mohacs, invited the Habsburgs to assume the Hungarian crown which they did. The Habsburgs only began to extend their area of control after the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, which coinciding with the rising French power in the West caused the Habsburgs to look to compensate with gains in the East for their losses, e.g. in Alsace. Incidentally that logic continued to prevail later in Bosnia-Herzegovina which Franz Josef saw as a compensation for his loss of Italy. It was only in 1718 that the Turks were finally expelled from Hungary, by which time the country was largely desolated.
Following the French revolution of 1789-99, the military adventures of Napoleon I shook all of Europe for some 15 years. In 1804 Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French; and Francis II of Habsburg at once declared himself Francis I, Emperor of Austria, foreseeing that in 1805 under the Peace of Pressburg he would be forced to renounce the title of Holy Roman Emperor.
Napoleon defeated the Austrian army four times and occupied Vienna twice. As he came and went, many parts of Austria fell under his control for varying periods. Austria’s lowest ebb was in 1809 when it lost everything in today’s Italy, and Tirol, Vorarlberg, Salzburg, several districts adjoining Bavaria, and most of the former Yugoslavia. Venetia only came under Habsburg control in 1797; but it, Lombardy, and Manuta were lost, regained, lost again, and finally restored only in 1815. Interesting philatelic items can be found, even more so in the field of documentary revenues where both sides were anxious that the other should not profit from the use of captured material (such as pre-stamped legal paper).
The miniature sheet issued in 1996 to commemorate "A thousand years of Austria"
Much of the old conservative and monarchic order was restored at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) which danced its way to a Europe-wide settlement, orchestrated by Metternich. In Austria, there followed 30 years of authoritarian government under Chancellor Metternich. During this time (sometimes referred to as the Biedermeier Period), the aspirations of the middle and working classes grew, and the calm of the era abruptly finished with a turbulent revolution in 1848. Internal peace was re-established but Metternich was forced to resign and the emperor abdicated in favour of his 18-year-old nephew Franz Joseph.
The Austrian-Hungarian Empire and today’s national boundaries
Western Europe in the Middle Ages did not possess a pub1ic post. Private individuals gave their letters to casual travellers whilst the Kings, the Monastic Orders, the Universities, and the great Corporations maintained their own postal systems. Establishments of permanent messengers were maintained by cities, bishops, and lay orders of Knights. However, nearly all these posts had died out by the fifteenth century.
In Austria in 1490 the first public post, available for business and commerce, was founded by the Italian family of Thurn and Taxis during the reign of Maximilian I. It extended its activities to connect the Imperial Dominions in Lombardy with those in Austria. Maximilian’s son Philip-le-Bel, Duke of Burgundy, created Franz von Taxis "Hauptpostmeister" on 1st March 1500, and in 1504 made an agreement with him to provide a postal connection between the courts of Philip in the Netherlands and of those of Maximilian in today’s Austria and Germany, and to link these with the courts of France and Spain.
The position of Imperial Postmaster carried two chief responsibilities: transferring the mail of the Emperor and court around the Empire and to other states of Europe; and facilitating the movement of the Emperor and court around the Empire, personally escorting them on ceremonial occasions. It was thus of great importance, and it could make its holder very rich. Unsurprisingly, two families sought to monopolise it: the House of Thurn & Taxis, and the House of Paar. Both were successful in different areas, and a Compromise of 1661 tried to settle the conflict between the Houses by allocating Court mail and persons to the House of Paar, and all the rest to the House of Thurn & Taxis. The House of Paar were bought out in 1722, and the House of Thurn & Taxis activities shrank and eventually ceased. So from 1722 the history of the Austrian Postal Administration was separate from any of the princely houses; being entirely a department of the Crown.
In 1722, the Crown appointed a "Court Postal Commission" (Hofpostkommission) and ordered that the two functions of transporting people and forwarding mail should be administered separately. Two bodies were set up in Vienna: the "General Mail Coach Administration" (Hauptpostwagendirektion) and the "General Postal Administration" (Generalpostdirektorium). The Court Postal Commission was abolished in 1783, and the two departments were then run completely independently. At the same time the General Postal Administration was renamed the General Post Office Administration (Oberste Hofpostamtverwaltung). This policy of separation was maintained until 1830, when it underwent a complete reversal, the two departments being then coalesced into a General Postal Administration (Oberste Hofpostverwaltung).
In 1850 the Austrian Empire had a population of over 36 million and an area of 260,087 square miles. At the same date the United Kingdom (including Ireland) had a total population of 27.4 million in an area of 120,625 square miles, and the U.S.A. a population of 23 million in an area of 3,580,270 square miles. At the head of this vast Austrian Empire stood its absolute ruler, the young Kaiser Franz Josef I. The government of the absolute monarchy was under the Presidency of Feldmarschalleutnant Felix, Prinz von und zu Schwarzenberg. There were at least fourteen official languages, and a frequently changing set of rules on which had supremacy where.
Franz Joseph reigned from 1848 (two years before the first Austrian postal stamps were issued) until 1916 (two years before the Habsburg Empire collapsed). For the philatelist, the period is in effect the era of Franz Joseph, and a closer look at this Emperor is therefore warranted.
Franz Joseph was a simple and unsophisticated man, with no interest in music, art, or literature (except the military code). Although he lived in sumptuous palaces, he led an unpretentious, austere life and loved the type of food eaten by the Viennese bourgeoisie. He was a stickler for court ceremony and procedures, to the exasperation of most of his family, and he tended to be an authoritarian ruler. He reserved for himself administrative decisions of the greatest triviality; the result was a constipation in the machinery of government as piles of files accumulated untouched in his office.
His personal life was filled with tragedy: a brother, who had established himself as the Emperor of Mexico, was executed there in 1867; another died of typhoid after drinking water from the Jordan; his son committed suicide in 1889 at the hunting lodge of Mayerling because of a love affair disapproved of by court; his wife, the beautiful Empress Elizabeth, was assassinated by an anarchist in 1898; and his Heir Apparent, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo in 1914, an event that was the initial spark leading to the First World War. Because the common people could well understand this simple man, he was enormously popular (at least in the German speaking and in the less trenchantly nationalistic other provinces!), which certainly helped to maintain the unity of the Empire until it collapsed at the end of the First World War.
Franz Joseph saw his mission in a single task that filled his life to the exclusion of anything else: the preservation of the Habsburg dynasty and wherever possible his Empire. To this purpose, during all his reign he fought losing battles against the three forces that menaced the stability and security of the Empire: the growing liberal tendencies among middle and working classes; the demands for autonomy or independence for the non-German peoples in his Empire (especially the Hungarians, Czechs and Italians); and the growing power of Prussia.
On the 1st February 1849 the General Postal Administration was made the third section of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Public Works. It was, therefore, the Minister of Commerce who was responsible to the Emperor for all postal matters.
The organisation of the posts beneath the central administrators was mainly in accordance with the territorial division of the Empire into provinces. Some provinces had systems inherited from their pre-Habsburg rulers: eg Galicia had a well-developed Polish system, and Venice had had a postal system (the Compagnia fra Corriere di Veneti) since 1200! Each province had its own postal administration, from February 1849 termed a "Postal Directorate". These controlled all the offices in their province, either directly or through intermediate Post Offices called "Postal Inspectorates" with a Postal Inspector in charge. Beneath them came the post offices; the official name of which depended upon whether they dealt primarily with stagecoaches or mail, although most offices handled both. Those which collected only mail were originally subordinated as "Letter Collections" to the other post offices, but later became independent of them. It would be a great aid to philately if comprehensive and authoritative lists of all offices at all dates were available: regrettably, they are not although many offices are well documented
Between November 1848 and May 1851 the Minister of Commerce was Karl Ludwig, Freiherr von Bruck. The Section Councillor for the Directorate of Communications was Franz Maximilian Freiherr von Löwenthal; he presided energetically over the development and consolidation of the Austrian Postal and Telegraphic Affairs and concluded postal treaties with Russia (1843), Germany (1850), Switzerland (1852) and France (1852, 1857). In January 1849 he advised his Minister that the example of Britain and many other countries be followed and adhesive postage stamps be issued for the pre-payment of mail. Dr. Herz, the Postal Inspector for Lower Austria, was sent to Munich, Brussels and London to study the production and use of postage stamps.
Based on the Herz report, the Minister compiled a long "Memorandum on the Reform of the Letter and Stage Coach Tariffs", and submitted it to the Emperor for approval. Postage for a single letter of 1 Viennese Loth (17.5 grams), would be fixed at 3 kreuzer up to ten meile (of 7.586 km), 6 kreuzer from 10 to 20 meile, and 9 kreuzer if farther; the Vienna city post would remain at 2 kreuzer. A 2-Loth letter would cost double these amounts, and so on. All letters should be franked by means of adhesive postage stamps. On 25th September 1849, the Emperor Franz Josef I agreed, writing "These proposals on the reform of the letter and stage coach tariffs receive my approval". The stamps were first used on 1 June 1850, and the rest is history!
The regions of northern Italy under Habsburg control – Lombardy and Venetia – used their own Italian currency. [see here for an extensive historical background] Therefore, special postage stamps had to be issued for use in these regions until in 1859 and 1866 respectively, when they became parts of Italy. Special stamps were also prepared for the postal service that Austria maintained in Crete and in various places in the Balkans and in the Levant. The region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while formally still part of the Ottoman Empire, was occupied in 1878 by Austria and required separate postal services as well; it was annexed to the Austrian Empire in October 1908, an event which contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914.
While the revolution of 1848 had been suppressed by armed might, the consequences were far more serious in Hungary which had declared independence under Kossuth and was ultimately brought back under Austrian control only with Russian help. Ever since then, the Imperial Dominions had been ruled from Vienna as a unitary state under an absolute monarchy. A series of reverses both military and diplomatic made the maintenance of this very difficult. The first reverse was diplomatic, when Austria sided with England and France in the Crimean War without actually taking up arms and thus lost the friendship of Russia. The second reverse was military when Austria lost the battles of Magenta and Solferino to France in 1859 and had to relinquish Lombardy to the House of Savoy. The final reverse was also military when Austria was defeated by the Prussians at the battle of Königgrätz (Sadowa) on 3rd July 1866. By the terms of the subsequent Treaty of Prague, Austria lost Venetia, and was excluded from the Germanic Confederation. Prussia thus displaced Austria from its leading role among the German states.
Thus finally ejected from both Italy and Germany, Austria began to turn to the various nationalities within her borders and to re-organise her internal structure. The conflict between the Government of Vienna and the Hungarian nationalists was of long standing, including aspects concerning parliamentary representation, administration, and the official use of the Hungarian language. The work of reorganisation was entrusted to Friedrich Ferdinand Graf Beust who decided to placate the Hungarians and to make the Empire governable by dividing it into its two historic halves. In one of these the Germans would be the dominant people; in the other the Hungarians. The Slavs and the Rumanians would be subservient to both. This was the concept of "The Dual Monarchy" with two completely dominant peoples in two separate parts united only in the person of the Emperor-King, who controlled a joint Army and Navy and conducted a joint foreign policy. This separate administration was defined with great care in the "Ausgleich" which was concluded with Hungary, and the Dual monarchy was created. Unsurprisingly, this arrangement did not satisfy anybody except the German- and Hungarian-speaking parts of the population.
Some historians hold a very interesting view, namely that the ultimate failure of the Habsburgs to transform the Monarchy into a multilateral organisation containing a number of states of different nationalities (a sort of Commonwealth) can be attributed to the Hungarians above all who, having gained a position of independence, then pulled up the ladder behind them. In this view it was Hungarian intransigence that defeated the Czechs and others. (Note that the Hungarians were very concerned that any compromise would inevitably lead to their losing direct control especially of Croatia and Slovakia and perhaps subsequently Romanian Transylvania as well. They were certainly intransingent but their reasoning can easily be seen!).
The treaty of 1867 on the relationship between Austria and Hungary has entered into history under the name "Compromise (Ausgleich)". The official designation for the combined state was "The Austrian-Hungarian monarchy". The parts had complicated formal names: Cisleithania was called officially "The kingdoms and countries represented in the Reichsrat"; while Transleithania carried the official designation "The countries of the Holy Hungarian Crown". Designations of such kind failed to establish themselves, and Cisleithania was called "Austria" and Transleithania "Hungary"; from 1915 this became official. Both parts were equal, independent States, joined through the person of the sovereign as well as through certain common "pragmatic" affairs – notably the War Ministry.
Austria comprised the archduchies of Austria under and over the Enns (alias Lower and Upper Austria), the dukedoms of Styria, Salzburg, Carinthia and Krain (Carniola), the princely county of Tirol, Vorarlberg, the kingdom of Bohemia, the Margraviate of Moravia, the dukedom of Silesia, the kingdom of Galizia, the dukedom of Bukowina, the princely counties of Gradisca and Görz and the kingdom of Dalmatien. In 1867 the combined population was about 20 million. You may find the full German designations in works written in that language. They are: Erzherzogtüm Österreich unter der Enns, Erzherzogtüm Österreich ober der Enns, Herzogtüm Steiermark, Herzogtüm Salzburg, Herzogtüm Kärnten, Herzogtüm Krain, Gefürsteten Grafschaft Tirol, Land Vorarlberg, Königreich Böhmen, Markgrafschaft Mähren, Herzogtum Schlesien, Königreich Galizien, Herzogtum Bukowina, Gefürstete Grafschaft Gradisca, Gefürstete Grafschaft Görz, and Königreich Dalmatien. The ruler’s titles are printed, usually in a florid typeface, at the beginning of many pre-1918 laws.
The sovereign of all of these was the same person: that is, Franz Josef was Archduke of Austria under the Enns; and was Duke of Salzburg; and Princely Count of Tirol; and King of Bohemia; and Margrave of Moravia; and so forth. Indeed in earlier times the linkage between the component parts of ‘Austria’ was solely the person of the sovereign, and laws had to be reissued in each part under the corresponding name of the sovereign. When in 1804 Francis II of Habsburg declared himself Francis I, Emperor of Austria, there was in reality no Austria for him to be Emperor of!
"Hungary" was somewhat simpler; it comprised Hungary proper (which included Slovakia, Carpatho-Ukraine, the Batschka and the Banat), the Great Princedom of Transylvania, the kingdom of Croatia and Slavonia, and the port of Fiume. In 1867 about 15 million people lived there. [In German these are: Königreich Ungarn (with Slowakei, Karpato-Ukraine, Batschka, & Banat), Großfürstentum Siebenbürgen, Königreich Kroatien und Slawonien & Adriahafen Fiume.] Franz Josef was King of Hungary, and Great Prince of Transylvania, and etc.
On the 11th February 1867 Julius Graf Andrássy was appointed as the first prime minister of the new parliamentary regime in Hungary, and on the 8th June 1867 Franz Josef I was crowned as Apostolic King of Hungary in the great cathedral of St. Matthias in Buda. Transylvania was united with Hungary, and in 1868 a further Ausgleich between Croatia-Slavonia and Hungary joined the former to the latter under a law guaranteeing the equal rights of nationalities. The Hungarian Ministry of Commerce took over from the Austrians the administration of the posts in Hungary, Transylvania, the Temeser-Banat, Croatia-Slavonia and the military Border Region. Austrian stamps were no longer used in the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy after June 1867 (the joint issue of that year, first appearing in Hungary, was adopted in Austria as stocks of the previous issue ran out: separation of earlier printings is possible if the stamp is legibly cancelled).
Thus neither Austria nor Hungary (anticipating the modern terms) alone could declare a war or pursue their own foreign policy. Certain financial resources benefitted both parts, and counted among the common affairs were the War Ministry (Reichskriegsministeriums; the Hungarians objecting to the prefix "Reich" on the grounds that they did not recognise any entity that came between them and their King) and the Foreign Ministry (Außenministeriums) as well as the common Treasury (Finanzverwaltung). When Bosnia and the Herzogowina were annexed in 1878 the administration was declared as common. It was not until 1883 that the words "Österreichische Post" (Austrian Post) first appeared on the stamps of the western part of the Empire. Both halves contained much territory besides present-day Austria and Hungary: Cisleithania included Bohemia and Moravia, Slovenia, Dalmatia, and parts of southern Poland, western Ukraine, and northern Italy; Transleithania also comprised Slovakia, most of Croatia, and parts of Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine.
Above is the start of the Imperial Patent in which Franz Josef announces to his subjects that he is now their ruler.
For the rest of it, follow this link to the ALEX site
Commonly-met expressions such as "A k.u.k. Postmaster in full-dress uniform" or "The opening of the k.u.k. Post office" are wrong: the "u." is superfluous. However "k.u.k. Feldpost" is right! The following explanation may assist. For a fuller explanation see here.
K.u.K.: The authorities responsible for common affairs acted "imperially and royally". All agencies of the Foreign and the War Ministries thus carried the abbreviation "k.u.k.", whereby the first k stood for the Kaiser (Emperor) of Austria, the u is ‘und’, and the second k is for the King of Hungary.
K. k.: The autonomous authorities and offices of Austria received the addition "imperially-royally", as there were also kingdoms in Cisleithanien – for example Bohemia.
K. or Kgl.: These abbreviations were used in German-language texts for "Hungarian-royally". In the Hungarian language it became "magyar kiraly" generally shortened to "mag.kir." or "m.kir."
Franz Joseph died on 21 November 1916 during the First World War and was succeeded for two years by the Emperor Karl. When the war was lost the Empire disintegrated, and Karl "withdrew" (he did not formally abdicate, as explained here). On 30 October 1918 the German-speaking part of the former monarchy was proclaimed by the new National Assembly as the independent state of Deutsch-Österreich (literally German-Austria); it would seek union with Germany. This lasted for just under one year, until 21 October 1919, when the Austrian national assembly reluctantly accepted that under the Treaty of Saint Germain the name had to be just Austria and any efforts to unite with Germany were banned. Interestingly, the name of Deutsch-Österreich remained in use on Austrian stamps until 1922
The First Republic, which lasted from 1918 until 1938, was a state nobody really expected to last. As a result of the war, Austria had lost much of its heavy industry in Bohemia, its food provisions from Hungary (which was itself in turmoil), its access to the Mediterranean, the southern part of Tyrol, and for a while its attraction for tourism. To this was added a disproportionately large capital city, the deadly flu epidemic of 1918-19, high unemployment, a hopeless political split between the conservative countryside and the socialists in Vienna and the industrial centres, black markets, and marauding armed ex-soldiers who started forming paramilitary organisations on the political left and right. There was rampant inflation, although a continued flow of Charity Stamps appeared, heavily surcharged and now difficult to collect.
The First Republic, surrounded by mostly totalitarian states, finally became a pseudo-fascist state in 1934 under Engelbert Dollfuss, whose government, backed by the army and the Heimwehr (Home Defence Force), crushed a Socialist uprising. Soon he abolished all political parties except for his Fatherland Front. In July Chancellor Dollfuss was assassinated (the 10 Schilling memorial stamp is famous, and expensive) and Kurt Schuschnigg took over. His right wing and anti-democratic government was quite unpopular, but in retrospect was perhaps unavoidable, since Austria was wedged between the competing and expansionist states of Hitler and Mussolini. When in 1938 German troops occupied Austria (the "Anschluss"), there was negligible resistance. Austria’s Jews had their assets expropriated, and unless they could escape were deported to concentration camps such as Mauthausen and Auschwitz.
From 1938 until 1945, the Austrian state ceased to exist and the stamps and postal materials of the German Reich were used. The philatelic feature of greatest interest relating to these events was the use for several months of a mixture of Austrian and German stamps, during the several stages of the transition from the Austrian to the German system.
At the end of the Second World War, Austria was resuscitated. The situation at that time was worse than after the First World War. A large fraction of the adult male population had been killed, had gone into exile, or were still missing or being held prisoner - many not returning from the Soviet Gulags until after Stalin’s death. This time the war had hit Austria proper. Many historical buildings in Vienna, such as the Cathedral of St. Stephen, the Burgtheater, the Opera House, and the City Hall had been destroyed or seriously damaged. The country was divided into four zones, each one occupied by one of the four victorious powers, as was Vienna itself.
The occupying powers were the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and the United States. Soviet intransigence led to the decade-long occupation; the other nations had wanted to end their presence quickly. As the differences among the powers mounted, communication between the zones became difficult. It was only in 1955 that it became expedient to establish Austria as a neutral buffer. The Austrian State Treaty was signed [see here for an eyewitness account of the negotiations] and the occupation was lifted, and Austria was permitted to freely govern itself and join the United Nations. The border with Hungary, in the meantime, had become part of the Iron Curtain, to the detriment of commerce between the two states.
This time, however, the Austrians had learned from their past mistakes. To avoid any future split between the left and the right, a procedure called the "Proporzsystem" was established, in which an even sharing of power between the parties was assured. (This tended to mean that everything was duplicated, and jobs filled on political considerations rather than on competence.) In an extraordinary effort, the destroyed landmarks of Vienna and elsewhere were rebuilt as faithfully as possible. A system of strict neutrality in foreign policies was established, and, in large measure thanks to this effort, tourism was re-established and Austria became a European center for the activities of the United Nations. Especially in the immediate post-war period, the design of postage stamps carefully avoided controversy, concentrating on scenery, old buildings, and traditional costumes.
Unfortunately, it proved more difficult to re-establish the extraordinary cultural position that Viennese art and science had occupied before the war, and to replace or reverse the exodus of culture and civilization that had occurred. The political approach of "Don’t mention the war" and "Austria was an innocent victim of Hitler" led to a collective amnesia - it has been said "What other country could persuade the world that Beethoven and Mozart were Austrian while Hitler was German"! [Mozart was born in 1756 and died in 1791, during all of which time Salzburg was an independent Prince-Archbishopric.]
This cosy consensus lasted until 1986 when the former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim was elected president, despite growing international controversy over his role in the German army in World War II, the details of which he had forgotten. Austria was viewed in a different light now, and reacted by asserting its right to govern itself as it saw fit. Far Right-wing parties began to win substantial numbers of votes in national elections, and joined the governing coalitions.
This re-emergence of the Right prompted much reflection, especially from the post-war generation, and produced a slow swing back to the centre. Also, in 1998 the Austrian Government set up an independent Historical Commission to examine Austria’s role in the expropriation of Jewish assets during the period of Nazi rule in World War Two, and in returning those assets afterwards. When it reported in 2003, public and private funds were used to make some redress for past wrongs – and the "it wasn’t us" approach was dropped.
When the Cold War ended, Austria found itself no longer at the border between East and West but at the centre of a larger Europe. Conflict was replaced by new forms of partnership and co-operation. Austria started to set a new and important international course for itself, and joined the European Union on 1 January 1995.
Austria actively supports the peace missions of NATO, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Austria has participated in missions in the Middle East, Cyprus, and Africa by providing troops and other assistance. A considerable diversity of philatelic fieldpost is thus generated!
Some older classics:
Some more modern works:
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