Hannes Richter

Austria 1955 - 2005

Hannes Richter
Fifty Years of Austrian Sovereignty

Signatures on the State Treaty

At the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Austrian State Treaty in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna on May 15, 2005, British Minister of State for Europe Douglas Alexander addressed the Austrians: "From the rubble of war, you built one of Europe's most prosperous and democratic countries." Without this treaty, Austria would look very differently today. With it, Austria became a so-called ‘miracle of the Cold War.’ What amounted to a miracle was the fact that a treaty was agreed to by all parties in the midst of steadily rising East-West tensions and the beginning nuclear arms race.

In the months surrounding the signing of the treaty in 1955, Austria's future was uncertain. It was unclear whether Austria would emerge as part of the free world or as a Soviet satellite state. Only with time were the four foreign ministers of the Allied occupying powers - Macmillan of Britain, Pinay of France, Molotov of Russia and Dulles of the United States - able to come to an agreement: Austria should remain neutral.Through the tense years of the Cold War, Austria would remain, in the words of Federal Chancellor Leopold Figl in 1953, the "easternmost outpost of the free world."

In her speech given during the celebration at the Belvedere, Austria’s foreign minister, Ursula Plassnik, touched upon the fact that the generation of today has little inkling of the precariousness precluding the treaty: How close the Soviet-occupied zone in the Eastern part of Austria came to be "sovietized" or that Eastern Austria was the only territory in post-war Europe that the Soviet Red Army evacuated. Nor could the younger generation comprehend how lucky Austria was to avoid being divided along the lines of the Iron Curtain such as was the case of Germany. "We, the generation who did not experience the anxious waiting in the time leading up to May 15 have no sense of the euphoria of that day; we were privileged to grow up in a country which was already peaceful and no longer divided."

"But when we talk about the Fathers of the State Treaty" said Minister Plassnik, "we do so in the awareness that both the achievement of freedom and the reconstruction of this country were not only due to the fathers, but also to the mothers. In these difficult initial years, the women of this country accomplished incredible achieve-ments. In this solemn hour we would thus like to express our deepest and most heartfelt thanks to them."

Austria was indeed fortunate in a number of ways. The status of neutrality, guaranteed by a separate law in October 1955, proved to be a blessing. It allowed the country to stay out of the struggles between the superpowers to control their respective spheres of influence. It also saved Austria from prohibitive costs of rearmament. Instead, the treaty, establishing self-governance and independence, set the country free, with the aid of the Marshall Plan, to build its economy anew. It also permitted it to build one of the most generous social welfare systems the world has ever seen.

In her speech Minister Plassnik talked about the confidence shown by the signatory powers in Austria: "Our parents and grandparents" acted responsibly and "supported by your assistance, they reconstructed a country which soon found its place among the community of nations. As early as December 1955, Austria became a member of the United Nations and one year later, she joined the Council of Europe. Today, Austria is a country which enjoys respect; in fact, she is even envied by many."

The Minister emphasized that Austria, an EU member since 1995, is now supporting others in return, in particular its South-Eastern European neighbors, on their way to European integration.

If the symbolic expression of "Österreich ist frei" - "Austria is free," proclaimed by Austrian Foreign Minister Figl on that beautiful spring day of May 15, 1955, sounds banal today because of its historical over-usage, one only need be reminded of the extreme instability of the years surrounding the signing of the Treaty in 1955 - the myriad of ‘open’ and ‘hidden’ agendas, as the Austrian historian Günter Bischof has phrased it, involved in the negotiations and how they mirrored the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ of Cold War tensions.

And if the Austrian treaty takes its place in the annals of history as just another small event within the larger Cold War picture, its meaning for Austrians and its consequences for their country today goes far beyond that. The following analogy made by Günter Bischof is truly valid: "The Austrian State Treaty of 1955 is to Austrians of the post-World War II Second Republic what the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 is to Americans. It is something of a sacred foundation document."