May 20, 2022 - 7:00am

When Sweden and Finland formally submitted their applications to join NATO on Wednesday, General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg called it a ‘historic step’. Both Scandinavian countries have broken with long traditions of neutrality — a difficult decision, particularly for Sweden.

The move has also shone the spotlight on another neutral European country: Austria. The government in Vienna has come under immense pressure to rethink its relationship with NATO. But Austrian neutrality is more than a foreign policy principle — it is quite literally the founding principle of the state that exists today.

Having lost the Second World War as a part of Nazi Germany, Austria was occupied by the victorious Allies from 1945 to 1955 and, like Germany, split into four zones with the largest one held by the Russians.

Unlike Germany, Austria had managed to adopt a stance that cast it as Hitler’s ‘first victim’, a view also accepted by the Allies as early as 1943. Accordingly, Austria regained full sovereignty in 1955 but traded the removal of Russian troops from its soil against the promise of ‘permanent neutrality’. The unilateral declaration encompassed military and economic neutrality as well as an explicit refusal of any kind of reunion with Germany.

But neutrality was much more than a bargaining chip for Austria. It became its raison d’être — legally and spiritually. It is no coincidence that Austria’s National Day is not the date it regained sovereignty but the one on which it signed said Declaration of Neutrality, 26 October 1955.

It was this concept of neutrality that allowed Austrians to perpetuate the myth that they had merely been minding their own business when Hitler suddenly invaded the country. In turn, this idea legitimised the rebuilding process, economically, politically and ideologically. To question or even discuss it throws up extremely uncomfortable questions about culpability, shaking the very foundations on which the country rebuilt itself after the war.

An open letter by fifty prominent Austrians has now braved this political minefield. The signatories do not demand that their country join NATO but merely have ‘a debate without blinders’ about the ‘supposedly untouchable myth’ of neutrality. Politicians have responded with bullish defiance. Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg went on air yesterday to declare, that his country would “remain neutral” which “does not mean that we are isolated, that we don’t show solidarity”.

Schallenberg was certainly right to point out that “the vast, vast majority of the population agrees” with him. In a recent survey, nine out of ten Austrians said neutrality was either important or very important to them (70% opted for ‘very important’). Only 17% would want their country to join NATO.

Yet Putin’s war has not left Austrians untouched. The same survey also revealed that two-thirds of respondents want closer security and defence policy cooperation with European neighbours.

Austrians may not be ready to abandon military neutrality just yet, but this is not an all-or-nothing game. Austria has already compromised its neutrality — for example by joining the EU and NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. These steps were not taken lightly and caused controversy at the time, but they were taken, and without tearing holes in the national fabric.

The signatories of the open letter were right to assert that ‘Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is…also the last warning call to the free world, of which Austria is also part.’ As painful as it may be to accept, one day Austria may need to defend the freedom it values so deeply.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.