When you think of visiting western Europe you may overlook Austria. Some of you may think I’m misspelling Australia (I really hope you don’t). But nestled in the centre of Europe, Austria is a mix of all my favourite bits of Europe. It’s like Switzerland without the insanely high prices, it’s like Bavaria but almost EVERYWHERE and has a rich and fascinating culture and history.
However even I, who classes Austria as her third favourite country in the world (Sweden and the UK will always be first), occasionally slip up. I sometimes even mistakenly call it Germany or German. But what do YOU know about Austria? Nothing? Everything?
Well I’m hoping the answer is: not much, and you want to know more! Let’s go on my little journey of Austria, a country which has spawned Arnold Schwarzzeneger, Hitler, Mozart, Sigmund Freud and Conchita Wurst. I’ll take you through the obvious, the less obvious and everything in between. (Middle-Obvious?)
1) Austria used to be massive
Austria at one point was much more important than Germany and was the dominant power of Europe after 1815’s Congress of Vienna, which stripped away Napoleon’s powers. Hungary became part of the Empire in 1815 and the Austro-Hungarian empire before WWI included areas now in Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bosnia and Serbia (and more). The Austro-Hungarian empire was HUGE forming 676,000km squared: today Austria is only a paltry 83,000km squared, around the size of Scotland. Austria lost most of its territory after its defeat in World War 1. Today only 8.5 million people live in Austria: a quarter of whom live in Vienna.
To put it in another way: if you visited Budapest, Prague, Vienna, Sarajevo, Zagreb and Trieste today you would be visiting six different countries. If you’d have visited them 101 years ago, you wouldn’t have left the empire.
2) They used to have an important royal family
Before the end of World War I, Austria and the lands which were then Austria, were ruled by the House of Habsburg. They had ruled the country since 1265. Hapsburg members and descendants also ruled at different points of history, Spain, Mexico (shortly), The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.
The most interesting and famous members of this family include Marie Antoinette, who married to the King of France, didn’t let people eat cake and got her head chopped off. You may also have heard of Elisabeth of Austria, known more commonly as Sissi. She was the anorexic, beautiful, vain and depressed Queen of Austria in the late 1800s who was assassinated in Geneva and there have been numerous films and even a musical about her.
Also interesting to note that Inbreeding played a big part on the Habsburg empire, to keep political alliances strong. (More can be read here on the BBC). This stereotype of inbreeding created the idea of a ‘Habsburg lisp’ and possibly the ugliest ruler I have ever seen, King Charles the II of Spain.
2) But WHO was Franz Ferdinand and why was he important?
If we’ve learned anything from history it’s:
- Don’t get rejected from art school
- Don’t invade Russia in Winter
- Don’t assassinate Franz Ferdinand.
The problem with many people (including me) was that in school we never really realised why he was so important. Now you know how big and powerful Austria was in the 1800s I’ve given you some context to see if you can understand. Franz Ferdinand was the heir apparent to the Habsburgs. He was supposed to take the crown after Franz Josef (Sissi’s husband), died. It is vaguely equivalent to Prince Charles being assassinated – except the Habsburgs had real power over the country, whereas the British royal family serves as more a figurehead.
The Austro-Hungarian empire was formed of many areas where people spoke different languages and had different cultures. There were many nationalist movements occurring in the turn of the 1900s especially in the Balkans, especially in the area we now call Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo is the capital).
When Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, Austria waited one month for back-up from Germany (Germany was becoming more and more important as Bismarck had united the states and were building a significant army/navy), and then Austria declared war against Serbia, triggering World War I.
4) Was Hitler Austrian or German?
Adolf Hitler was born in a border-town between Austria and Germany and grew up in Austria before becoming a German citizen. In the Anschluss, where Austria became part of Germany, Austria ceased to exist. So I would say – he was an Austrian-born German or both.
One interesting fact: Miep Gies, who hid Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam in the Second World War, was an Austrian citizen who had left Vienna as a young girl. When she refused to join a Nazi association her passport became invalid and she was ordered to go back to Austria. But, by then, there was no ‘Austria’, so she was given a German passport. But then she married a Dutchman for Dutch citizenship, and then the Netherlands became under German control regardless. Identity is confusing.
5) Present-day Austria
Austria is a small country formed mainly of beautiful mountains and scenery. Most of the country is mountainous – only 28% isn’t! The capital is Vienna, where I live and love, and other famous towns and cities include Salzburg and Innsbruck. You can travel from one side of the country to another by train in around six hours. Many people go on ski trips, but you can also find non-winter related activities, especially in cities. Summer in the Austrian countryside is absolutely gorgeous.
Austria is landlocked and but the most famous river running through is the Danube (Donau in German) which gives its name to a waltz I GUARANTEE you know, even if you know absolutely no classical music.
6) The Sound of Music
Austria was home to Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss (many of them), Haydn and Schubert to count a few. The long history and tradition of music in Austria is still prominent today – Vienna seeps with music. Almost everywhere I walk I will hear some classical-influenced piece, tidbits of an operetta or walk past somewhere Beethoven lived (to be fair, he moved around 70 times so it isn’t hard).
What may interest you more is one of the best musical films of all time, The Sound of Music being set in Salzburg and the Austrian countryside. If you go to Salzburg you’ll be able to see a lot of the filming locations.
Side thought – I’ve always been confused why they crossed the mountains at the end of the film – Switzerland is in the west direction, about 200 miles of where they’re going. The real Von Trapp family took a train from Salzburg to Austria, which, although less climatic for a film, would have been much more realistic.
7) Companies from Austria
Austria is not just its history. Did you know, for example, that Red Bull is Austrian? (I didn’t!). Equally, despite me thinking Swarovski was Russian, it is also an Austrian company. Vienna is home to one of the four world wide United Nations buildings (the others are in New York, Geneva and Nairobi), and OPEC (the Organisation for Petroleum Exporting Countries). I see lots of important people standing outside these buildings.
8) Austria in the Olympics
Austria has won more medals for alpine skiing than any other country in the Olympics. They have won 201 medals at the Winter Olympics and 86 at the Summer olympics. They have hosted two winter Olympics, both in Innsbruck. When you leave the train station in Innsbruck you’ll see a massive ski jump, which is just quite exciting really.
9) Psychoanalyse me
Where would we be today if we didn’t think know about the Oedipus complex and the meaning of dreams? (No, seriously, I’ve never studied psychology, someone comment below!). Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Otto Rank and other people you’ve probably heard of used to gather together to discuss psychoanalytical matters as part of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.
10) Cafe Culture
If you have to learn one thing from my quick tourist’s guide to Austria, it’s that cakes are good. Pastries are good. An apple strudel wouldn’t go amiss and a Wiener Schnitzel is always up your street (literally AND figuratively). Food, in general, is good. The best thing to do when you’re in Austria is just to sit in a café for hours on end sampling Sachertortes, drinking coffee and watching the world go by.
What I find bizarre is that Hitler actually developed his anti-Semitic views when he was living in Vienna and frequenting Viennese cafés. Austria, unlike Germany, is a lot more conservative today politically and especially religiously and anti-semitism was rampant at the turn of the 20th century. What I find even more bizarre is that while Hitler was developing his views, the Jewish Sigmund Freud was in another café (usually Café Landtmann), forming his own studies, as artists like Schiele and Klimt (who painted The Kiss) also… sat in cafés.
There was even a war between two Viennese coffee houses, Café Sacher and Café Demel about who ‘created’ the Sachertorte. If there’s one thing which Austrians are serious and united about, it’s most definitely cake.
So now I have introduced you to Austria in my own, a bit bizarre way. If you still think it’s Australia I’m DEEPLY ASHAMED in you all.
If Falco hadn’t sung Rock me Amadeus we would never have got my all time favourite moment from The Simpsons…
Are you tempted to visit Austria? Are you annoyed that your country is overlooked? Could you find it on a map now? Please comment, like, repost (or don’t, it’s your own life), as usual! I really appreciate any feedback to my ramblings!