by Katja Hoyer
Friday, 20
May 2022
Explainer
07:00

Unlike Sweden, Austria stays neutral

The country's founding principle is holding firm — for now
by Katja Hoyer

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.

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C W
C W
2 months ago

Being in central-west Europe the Austrians are very safe and snug, like the Swiss. It is easy to be neutral if you feel safe.

Sweden and Finland, on the other hand, are on the edge – not a position for neutrality.

David McCormick
David McCormick
2 months ago

It’s fascinating how Austria has managed to play the victim card. Hitler was widely welcomed in Austria when he undertook the Anschluss or coming together. Austrian society was widely antisemitic and welcomed Der Fuhrer with open arms. The ultimate fact is course that Hitler was Austrian yet most people think he was German

Peter Sedlmayr
Peter Sedlmayr
2 months ago

Hitler renounced his Austrian citizenship and adopted the German one. Otherwise, he would not have been able to start his political career there.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 months ago

When I went on holidays to Germany and Austria touring historical sites related to WW2 and talking to tour guides and local visitors, it was pretty shocking to see the contrast between the two countries.

The Germans readily accepted discussing the war, and the German sins – and their historical sites detailed the German involvement; but Austrians weren’t prepared to discuss it, and when they did do so it was to refer to the German war; and their historical sites usually failed to mention Austrian involvement. Total denial. Sometimes it was quite embarrassing when they would claim there was limited Austrian support for the Germans.

Last edited 2 months ago by Ian Stewart
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 months ago

I think it is quite correct for Austria to avoid the neutrality discussion while the Ukraine war is still going on. If Finland and Sweden feel the time has come to abandon their neutrality then that is something for them to decide. Personally, I think Austria is correct to step back from the discussion for the time being, as decisions taken in the thick of emotion are rarely good ones.
However, I fully endorse the idea of having an open discussion about it once things have calmed down. It is completely true that there is great attachment to neutrality as a founding principle of the 2nd republic, as proclaimed in 1955. However, I think the continuing attachment is largely nostalgic and fails to fully look the fact in the face that the world has changed in the last 70 years. Security policy in 2022 must be based on the real circumstances in the world today, not some attachment to something that happened in the past. The fact that the Soviets made neutrality a condition to them signing the state treaty in ’55 is in no way an argument for neutrality today. The Soviet Union has long ceased to exist, and, as we see today, Russia is a much diminished power. Austria is a (sort-of) democracy, a fully paid-up and reasonably enthusiastic member of the EU (and euro) and can do what it wants.
The attachment to neutrality also has to do with Austria’s abiding idea of itself as a “bridge-builder” – a place where other powers can come together to make decisions/negotiate. This idea is based more on wishful thinking than reality and my opinion is that this continued, vehement avoidance of the discussion is a lot to do with the kind of cowardice and tendency to shy away from controversial debates that is unfortunately a national character weakness.
I saw Sanna Marin talking about Finland’s NATO application 2 days ago and she used phrases like “we must be brave”. Schallenberg wouldn’t be caught dead saying stuff like this! “Brave” or “courageous” don’t seem to be desirable attributes here. Too great is the fear of rocking the boat.
My favourite phrase to describe the situation is “lieber feig im Frieden als mutig im Krieg” (“[we] prefer to be cowards in peace than be courageous in war”). Hits the nail right on the head.
Greetings from the former Soviet sector in Vienna 🙂

Samantha Sharp
Samantha Sharp
2 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

A lovely response and I love the way you sign it off!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Good comment. I was disappointed and shocked when visiting Austria as a tourist interested in WW2 at the determined avoidance of Austrians to discuss or even acknowledge the role of Austria in the war.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

It’s not just the war, there is pretty much an allergy to discussing anything controversial. Too great is the drive to conformism.

Michael Sinclair
Michael Sinclair
2 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

A well writen response – balanced and informative

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 months ago

They (AUSTRIA) are too busy persecuting ant- vaxxers. It’s in the blood as us Neanderthals would say.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 months ago

As a child I collected stamps and was always puzzled by the Austrian stamp that had a hammer and sickle on its coat of arms (this was the 1960s). I believe the hammer and sickle is still there in some form.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 months ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

The Bundesadler (“federal eagle”) of modern Austria has nothing to do with Communist symbology. Back when it was a monarchy (up to 1919), the Austrian coat of arms was a double-headed eagle (“Doppeladler”).
After the fall of the monarchy and the creation of the 1st republic, this had to be adapted. The main political parties agreed to keep the eagle symbol, but with a single head and a three-spiked crown, symbolising the bourgeoisie. The sickel was to represent the farmers and the hammer the workers.
The idea was to create a symbol where all of these groups were shown living and working together in harmony with a common objective and vision of the state. Of course it didn’t turn out quite like that, but that’s another story….
Here’s more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms_of_Austria

Last edited 2 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Samantha Sharp
Samantha Sharp
2 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

That’s interesting. Thank you for that. You explain and write well. Do you have a twitter feed?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 months ago
Reply to  Samantha Sharp

Oh, thank you very much Samantha! I’m very flattered. I am a committed avoider of Twitter, but I do enjoy writing and have a few things on Medium (I should do that again..)
The BTL on Unherd is my preferred way of sharpening the old writing claws, as I most need something to respond to to get the juices flowing.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
2 months ago

Austria has the great benefit of being surrounded by NATO countries (or pretty much so anyway) and so has the comfort that unless it is invaded by airdrop only its neighbours will have to take all the risks and do all the fighting.
It also lets all its neighbours do the defense spending, even Germany spends more!

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 months ago

Perhaps Austria takes its treaty obligations seriously and it is not as simple as throwing whatever agreement they signed overboard. Boris Johnson please note (NI Protocol).

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 months ago

Haha, that is a quaint thought. But no. Rules in Austria generally have the quality of recommendations – everybody is breaking them, but the trick is to be seen to be compliant. Or know the right people to bribe.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 months ago

At least you got a laugh.

P.S. Austria sounds a lot like most other places in the world.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 months ago

It is. Although most people seem still to assume that, just because the official national language is German, then it must be “just like Germany”. It isn’t.

Samantha Sharp
Samantha Sharp
2 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Oh no it isn’t.. Neither are the people.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

For most of its history Austria was part of the German Reich in one form or another.
It was jettisoned by Bismarck in 1867 for bring a thorough nuisance, denied reunification in 1919 by the Allies, reincorporated by Adolph again in 1938, and again ejected by the Allies post 1945.
However it is, and will always remain far more German that say Scotland or Ireland will/would ever be England.
Even the case for the Netherlands or Switzerland only dates from Westphalia, 1648.

Samantha Sharp
Samantha Sharp
2 months ago

I was about to say the same but you beat me to it.

Samantha Sharp
Samantha Sharp
2 months ago

Or indeed Russia ignoring the 1994 Budapest Memorandum to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty… Katharine has a point. Austria signed the treaty with the USSR, and it should therefore no longer be valid really …

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 months ago
Reply to  Samantha Sharp

Oh. Better not Minsk my words here.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 months ago

So you’re not a big fan of the EU chucking out treaty obligations either then? Their attempt to deny life saving drugs to the U.K. being one of many, many EU treaty transgressions.