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Game of Zones: How Austria Unraveled the Iron Curtain

Posted on 09/11/2017

Austria 1.pngI’m thinking of a city, the glittering capital of a German-speaking people. It was the seat of monarchs and dictators before being bombed into submission during World War II. It was divided into four administrative districts by the victorious Allied powers following that war, and so came late to democracy. It was an island of independence and intrigue deep within territory under Soviet control. Adolf Hitler haunted its streets and harangued the crowds from its balconies. Perhaps you've heard of it? Berlin? No, I'm thinking of Vienna, Austria.

At the end of World War II all the pieces were in place for Vienna to suffer the fate of Berlin: a prestigious urban capital; strategic and economic importance; symbolic significance as an exclamation point marking the end of the Nazi program of German reunification. Yet Vienna and Austria were granted independence in 1955, while Berlin and East Germany labored under communism until 1990. Why such different outcomes?


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To help answer that question, Readex AllSearch enables researchers to draw together perspectives from local media with official documents and international sources through a unified search. Here we’ll use Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Reports, 1941-1996, from Readex’s Archive of International Studies, in conjunction with the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1994, from Readex’s Archive of Americana. This allows us to trace Austria’s progression from Allied occupation to independence both in-country and through the treaties and protocols that made it happen.

The postwar rapprochement between East and West began auspiciously enough. The first days of peace were full of declarations of heady optimism and brotherhood. Marshall of the Soviet Union Fyodor Tolbukhin and U.S. Major General Malin Craig with their staff met in the Palace of Franz Joseph for a sumptuous three-hour dinner during which there were many toasts of the following character:

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That spirit of international cooperation found traction in Austria through the 1945 agreement that Vienna’s urban center would be administered jointly by the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and France on a rotating basis by the Inter-Allied Control Council.

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Vienna would not be divided into exclusive districts as Berlin was.

Vienna will be jointly occupied by the Armed Forces of the Four Powers, and its administration directed by an inter-Allied organization composed of four Commanders designated by their respective Commanders in Chief.

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Austria enjoyed greater latitude than Germany due to the former country's status as an early victim of Nazi aggression as defined in the 1943 Moscow Declaration. That set the stage for eventual Austrian independence by proposing the reestablishment of Austria’s pre-war boundaries, which would be formalized in the 1955 Austrian State Treaty.

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The language of the Moscow Declaration implied that the “final settlement” of Austria's wartime complicity with the Nazi Germany would be financial and service-oriented rather than political in nature. Although the agreements from the Potsdam Conference (July 17-August 2, 1945) specified that both Germany/Berlin and Austria/Vienna would be divided into four zones under Allied control, Germany would be dismembered and demilitarized, but Austria was given a path to independence through the Moscow Declaration.

Zones or blocs of a more sinister and enduring sort were on the mind of Anthony Eden, head of the British delegation to the 1945 San Francisco Conference of fifty nations to adopt the Charter of the United Nations. During that conference, Eden gave a prescient speech expressing his fear that “Europe could be divided into groups of countries which are more or less walled off from each other.” Thanks to the Moscow Declaration and timely demonstrations of political independence by the provisional Austrian government under Karl Renner, this did not come to pass in Austria.

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The United States shared Britain’s misgivings when it came to Soviet designs on the sovereignty of European nations. Hadn’t Stalin just moved to secure Eastern Europe as a buffer against potential Western aggression? Not even a month after ratification of the U.N. Charter on October 24, 1945, the House Special Committee on Postwar Economic Policy and Planning was advising caution with regard to Soviet intentions in its Eastern occupied zones:

As long as the guarantees of freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of elections are genuinely maintained, the people of the countries concerned have at their disposal the choice of political systems, including that of state socialism if they so desire. It should be noted, however, that the riveting of a totalitarian system on any country by a minority of that country is to deprive the population of any future opportunity of getting rid of the system except by revolution.

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Following the First Meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers (London, September 11-October 2, 1945) Austria was fretting whether the four zones of occupation would be administered jointly as Vienna was, even placed under a U.N. entity, or if each occupying power would play by its own rules.  From first-hand experience, Austria came down squarely in favor of international control rather than outright partition.

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In occupied Austria, the Soviet Union seemed satisfied with stripping its zone of heavy industry and natural resources, especially oil, in return for providing an allotment of food for the war-torn country. Unfortunately, the occupying Soviet Army and refugees fleeing Soviet aggression in neighboring countries placed additional stress upon the Austrian food supply. When the Soviets reneged on their obligation to send food outside the Soviet zone, the Austrians were confirmed in looking to the West for independence, rather than to the East.

The Kremlin is interested precisely in starvation and anxiety in Europe. This is the most suitable climate for a revolution.

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Fortunately for Austria, the provisional Renner government established under Soviet influence failed to be as tractable as Moscow might have hoped. When the communists realized barely 5% of the vote during the first free national elections on 25 November 1945, the Soviet tenure in Austria was further weakened. Renner became President, and the country was eventually recognized by the other three occupying powers.

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Ten years after the war, the Soviets discovered that there were few resources left to extract from Austria, and that the territory cost more to occupy and administer than it produced in revenue. With the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in March 1953, the time was ripe for relinquishing control.

Labor unrest and more direct Western challenges to Soviet authority in occupied Germany led the Soviets to double-down on Berlin and East Germany, and relinquish any ambitions they had entertained for hegemony in Austria.

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For more information about the Readex digital collections used to research this post—the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Reports and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set—please contact

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