The Society and Its Environment

Austria Table of Contents

AUSTRIA'S SECURITY AND PROSPERITY during the second half of the twentieth century are a striking contrast to the instability and poverty of the first half of the century. Between 1914 and 1950, Austrians had five different forms of government and four different currencies. After enduring much hardship during World War I, they experienced the collapse of Austria-Hungary (also seen as the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and the proclamation of the Republic of Austria. In the early 1920s, they endured hyperinflation and in the 1930s the Great Depression. The end of Austria's fledgling democracy and the establishment of an authoritarian regime in 1934 were followed by the demise of Austria altogether when Nazi Germany occupied the country in 1938. The proclamation of the Second Republic in 1945 began a long period of peace and prosperity. However, the republic's first years were a difficult time of economic and social reconstruction that occurred while Austria was occupied by the Four Powers (Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States). War, inflation, unemployment, poverty, authoritarian and totalitarian rule, and foreign occupation formed the average Austrian's experience during the first half of the twentieth century.

The new state of Austria that emerged out of the chaos of World War I faced such serious structural problems that many of its citizens doubted it could survive. Social and economic relationships that had evolved over centuries either ended or were greatly altered. Moreover, the regions of this small Germanspeaking "rump state" did not join together well to form a new nation. Austria's rural areas, populated predominantly by peasant-farmers, were underdeveloped, most notably in the Alpine regions of western and central Austria. They did not mesh well with the large urban and industrial centers in eastern Austria, especially Vienna, which had evolved to meet the markets and needs of an entire empire, not a small state. The virtual absence of an Austrian national identity merely aggravated concerns about the state's viability.

The events of the late 1930s and 1940s proved these concerns justified, but by 1955 Austria had regained its independence, laid the foundations for decades of sustained economic growth, and established a system of cooperation among rival political parties, interest groups, and government bodies that brought the country an unprecedented degree of stability. Stability did not bar change, however, and Austrian society changed greatly as a thriving, continuously modernizing economy altered the way Austrians earned their living and the way they lived.

The number of Austrians engaged in agriculture and forestry fell from more than 60 percent at the end of World War II to 7 percent by the beginning of the 1990s. More and more Austrians came to live in urban areas, and over two-thirds of the country's population was concentrated in the valleys and lowlands of eastern Austria. The initial industrial growth was followed by a pronounced shift to the service sector, and peasant-farmers or blue-collar workers, who had frequently lived and worked under abject conditions, increasingly were replaced by white-collar, service-sector employees. By the early 1990s, this sector employed more than 50 percent of the labor force in a society that was predominantly middle class.

The country's population reflects the political and economic traumas that occurred between 1914 and 1945. Austria has been by turns a land of immigration and emigration. After the two world wars and during the Cold War, it was a haven for many refugees from Eastern Europe. Before and during World War II, however, many Austrians fled for racial or political reasons. During the 1960s and later, an increasing number of foreigners from southeastern and Eastern Europe settled in Austria. Their presence offset to some degree the negative growth rate of the country's indigenous population.

The Austrian family has also changed, both in size and in structure. During the last generation, it has became smaller. Traditional family values and life-styles are in a state of rapid transition, as evidenced by the increasing number of people living alone, childless marriages, and steadily increasing rates of divorce and illegitimacy. Although Austria is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, these changes show that religion no longer plays as important a role as in the past.

Social change has led to a much more open, democratic, socially mobile, and prosperous society in which there are few rigid class distinctions. Traditionally, disadvantaged groups have had greater access to secondary and university education. Furthermore, Austria has a highly developed welfare state that provides a broad spectrum of social security and health care benefits. As a result, in the early 1990s the quality of life in Austria was rated the world's ninth best by Washington's Population Crisis Committee.

Austrians have also developed a new and unprecedented national consciousness. For the first time, they have come to see themselves as a distinct people separate from their German neighbors. They have also found a new European role as a neutral state between the East and the West. However, the anticipated and unanticipated dynamics of West European and East European development--European economic and political integration and the opening of Eastern Europe--have changed the hopes and expectations Austrians have entertained, as well as the nature of their fears and anxieties.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress