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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 26:13–19.


Cold War Miracle: The Austrian State Treaty at 50


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. The State Treaty was signed by the foreign ministers of the four occupation powers (Dulles/ United States, Molotov/Soviet Union, Macmillan/Great Britain, Pinay/France) and the Austrian foreign minister Leopold Figl in the glorious old Baroque Palace Belvedere on May 15, 1955.

It provided for the withdrawal of occupation forces from Austria and thus returned Austria to complete independence and full sovereignty after the ratification of the treaty by the four powers. Once this legal process was complete in late October 1955, the Austrian Parliament pronounced Austria to “eternal (“immerwährend”) neutrality.” The long period of authoritarian/fascist governments and foreign occupations had at last ended, first five years of homemade “Austro-fascism” (1933-1938), then seven years of Nazi occupation (1938), and then ten years of four-power Allied occupation (1945-1955). Few countries in the modern Western world have suffered such a prolonged period of both domestic dysfunction and foreign tutelage.

The State Treaty is part and parcel of a triad of Second Austrian Republic foundation documents. Firstly, the Allied Moscow Declaration of November 1, 1943, declared Austria as Hitler’s “first victim” and promised the reestablishment of an independent Austria after World War II, after its annexation (the “Anschluss” of March 1938) and occupation by Nazi Germany during the war. Secondly, Provisional Chancellor Karl Renner’s “Declaration of Independence” of April 27, 1945. This document proclaimed the re-establishment of an independent Austria along the lines of the Allied promise in the Moscow Declaration in the final days of World War II in Europe. And thirdly, the signing of the State Treaty on May 15, 1955.

The State Treaty is not written in soaring Jeffersonian language (“we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”), but in the dry yet precise legalese of international law and peace treaties. It is too long to be reprinted in the annex of history textbooks. It contains 38 articles and 10 annexes full of crucial provisions that few Austrians apart from a few international lawyers and even fewer historians know or care to remember. Austria’s territorial borders are determined in the State Treaty, minorities protected, an Anschluss prohibition inserted; Austrian democracy is enshrined on egalitarian principles, Nazi organizations are prohibited, the return of the last POWs (in Russia) is provided for; on top of it numerous military restrictions are featured – as if small Austria ever was a military threat to the world. But the vast majority of the treaty text deals with very complex property issues such as who will be legal successor of pre-war, and World War II “German property” in postwar Austria, including oil assets of Western oil companies. The “German assets” issue constitutes the impenetrable German reparations problem in the Austrian context. Some of the Treaty provisions have been declared obsolete after the end of the Cold War.

This clearly is not the stuff that moves a nation and inspires the people of the world as Jefferson’s Declaration did and still does. It is a legal document that finally releases Austria into independence. Its anti-German provisions eventually even allowed for the establishment of an Austrian identity.

What is edifying about the “Austrian treaty” (as it was usually called by the powers at the time) is not the text but its unexpected conclusion in the spring of 1955 in the wake of Stalin’s death in 1953, after a negotiating marathon. Eight years of seemingly incessant diplomatic negotiations and political jockeying provide a rich field of both drama and melodrama for the historian. Few historians besides Gerald Stourzh have ventured to delve into these endless rounds of diplomacy. Diplomats from the four powers gathered for no less than some 400 meetings to negotiate the details of the Austrian treaty. The Austrian treaty was on the agenda of the Council of Foreign Ministers in Moscow (1947), London (1947), Paris (1949), and Berlin (1954) in dozens of sessions. The special deputies of the Foreign Ministers on the Austrian treaty met 260 times between 1947 and 1950/1953. A special Treaty Commission gathered for 65 rounds meetings in Vienna in the summer of 1947 to establish exact lists of “German assets” in Austria. A special Ambassadors conference met for a fortnight to put the final touches to the treaty in Vienna in late April/early May 1955. And this is not counting the innumerable meetings that the Austrian government had with the four powers to discuss Austrian treaty details, as well as the regular meetings of Western diplomats coordinating and aligning their treaty strategy vis-à-vis the Soviets.

What amounts then to a miracle in the midst of incredible East-West Cold War tensions and the beginning nuclear arms race is the fact that a treaty was agreed to by all parties during a curious window of a Cold War “détente” of sorts and the occupation powers withdrew their military forces. The Americans were prepared to sign a treaty in 1946 and pull out of Austria. However, what the Red Army conquered in the defeat of Hitler’s Wehrmacht it usually did not give up in the Cold War. Eastern Austria is the only territory in post-World War II Europe that the Soviet Red Army evacuated. The outcome of this advance of the Red Army into Central Europe was either control through establishment of native Communist regimes (such as all over Eastern Europe), or division along lines of occupation (such as in Germany). We know today that the Austrian Communist Party wanted to establish a “people’s democracy” too after 1945, and urged a division of Austria and Communization of the Soviet zone in Moscow after the Communist electoral defeat in November 1945. But Stalin opted against it, feeling that the Soviet zone was too small to be economically viable, while the rest of Austria would have been incorporated into the anti-Soviet Western defence system. So Austria and/or the Soviet zone was not “Sovietized.”

Given the keen participation of “Ostmärkers” in Hitler’s war of aggression and the holocaust, Austria could not have been luckier. In the end, Austria was not divided by an iron curtain along East-West lines such as Germany; Austria received Marshall Plan aid, which allowed it to rebuild its economy and become prosperous (in fact, the Americans roughly invested as much economic aid into Austria as the Soviets extracted in reparations after the war); Austria was not forced to purge the tens of thousands of its native “Austrofascists” and Nazis from public life, or at least not for very long; Austria regained its full independence; it managed to stay out of the postwar military alliance systems set up by the superpowers to control their respective spheres of influence and thus did not face prohibitive rearmament costs; Austria’s neutrality and Austrians’ neutralism during the Cold War allowed it to build one of the most generous social welfare systems the world has seen; the severest restriction that came out of the State Treaty provisions and the attendant neutrality law was that Austria could not join the “European Economic Community” during the Cold War and thus was a latecomer to full European economic and political integration. Given this Cold War “miracle” it behoves us to ask how did the Austrians get away with it? How did the Austrians do it?

Often ignored by Austrian “Nabelbeschaulichkeit” – that curious isolationism of the mind — the complex history of Austrian treaty negotiations is closely tied to the ups and downs of the early Cold War in Europe and the world. The open and the hidden agendas of Austrian treaty negotiations cannot be understood other than in the context of the growing East West tensions. The “tempo and temperature” (Karl Gruber) of growing Cold tensions defined and circumscribed all progress of Austrian treaty negotiations. Moreover, the larger “German question” continuously hovered over an “Austrian solution”, namely the future shape of Germany, united or divided and with the Eastern territories (East Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia) already cut off and incorporated into Poland and Russia (Königsberg enclave).

The Austrian treaty talks, then, offer us also a fascinating window into the development of the Cold War in Europe. They can be broken down into an early phase (1946/47); a phase of maturation and progress (1948/49); a phase of complete stalemate during the “ice age” of the Cold War (1950-53); and a final phase of breakthrough after Stalin’s death and West German NATO integration (1953-55).

After World War II the “big four” did not meet for an extended peace conference like they did in 1919 in Paris. The treaties with the Germans and its satellites were negotiated one by one and in a piecemeal fashion. Disagreements were so vast over the postwar treatment of Germany that the powers were at loggerheads by 1946 and heading towards division. The first drafts of the Austrian treaty were prepared in the State Department and the Ballhausplatz in Vienna early in 1946. But Kremlin refused to allow Austrian treaty talks onto the agenda of the Paris Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) in the summer of 1946. Molotov insisted that the peace treaties with Hitler’s satellites (Italy, Finland, Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary) be signed before negotiations started on the German and Austrian treaties. Molotov, who in Paris became famous as “Mr. ironpants Njet”, was so truculent that the last traces of wartime cooperation between the powers were wasted. Molotov kept refusing negotiations for an Austrian treaty as long as the Austrians were not seriously denazifying their people. What the Austrians tried to hide – their Nazi past – Molotov put into the forefront of the Kremlin’s agenda. The deep divisions over the satellite treaties carried over into German and Austrian negotiations and contributed much to the outbreak of the Cold War in 1947.

During the New York CFM late in 1946, special Deputies were appointed to prepare an Austrian treaty draft for the next CFM. The Austrian Deputies met in London in January and 1947 and began their arduous task of preparing an Austrian draft treaty. Initial disagreements focused on Yugoslav territorial and reparations demands against Austria, supported by the Soviets. The Soviet Deputy kept insisting on pointing out the vital role Austrian soldiers played in the Wehrmacht on the destructive Eastern Front during the war. Austrian foreign minister Karl Gruber played an undignified numbers game in trying to minimize the number of Austrian soldiers who fought in Hitler’s armies (800,000 rather than the 1,4 million). The Austrian delegation was seriously embarrassed when a delegate had to be sent home from London because of the surfacing of his Nazi past (predictably, one is tempted to say today, it was the governor of Carinthia).

During the crucial Moscow CFM in March/April 1947, which contributed so much to spark the Cold War, the property issues came to the fore. Whereas the Soviets insisted on an expansive definition of German assets, Mark Clark, the American High Commissioner in Vienna and leader of the American delegation on Austria, insisted on narrow definitions. The Soviets included everything the Germans had owned before the war, seized in 1938 and built during the war in Austria. The Americans refused to count the property seized by the Nazis through “force and duress” after the Anschluss (such as “Aryanised” Jewish property and Western oil assets and drilling rights). Gruber was prepared to make any concession necessary to get an Austrian treaty and had to be whistled back by the Americans. A special commission was set up in Moscow to meet in Vienna in the summer of 1947 and establish specified lists of German assets in Austria rather than haggle over broad definitions.

Based on the Vienna Treaty Commission deliberations, the Americans sent the French treaty deputy to the fore with an omnibus plan of valuing the German assets at 100 million dollars and for the Soviets to receive compensations over such an amount for returning to Austria the German assets in their zone of occupation they had seized in 1945/46. During the London Deputies meetings in the spring of 1948, the powers agreed to a 150 million dollars “lump sum” cash payment to the Soviets. At this point, it was ostensibly the Kremlin’s support of Yugoslav territorial and reparations demands that stopped the powers from finalizing the Austrian treaty. So Stalin could be easily blamed for not signing a treaty.

We should remember, however, this was also the time when the temperature of the Cold War was rising and the tempo of tensions quickening. In May/June of 1947 the Communists had seized sole power in Budapest and in February 1948 in Prague. In the spring of 1948 the Soviet representative walked out of the Control Council in Berlin, the Western powers launched a currency reform in the Western zone, and Stalin answered with a year long blockade of Berlin. These events finally set the train in motion towards a “two Germanies” solution of the “German problem.” The U.S. launched the Marshall Plan in 1948 and thus completed the economic division of Europe. The Western powers initiated the “North Atlantic Treaty” defence alliance in 1948/49 to contain Communism. Now the Cold War quickly became militarized.

The militarization of the Cold War had its inevitable repercussions on Austria, too. The West perceived Vienna to be in an especially vulnerable situation and to be the most likely next victim of the Soviets (“Prague is west of Vienna”). Now the Pentagon insisted on a secret rearmament of Austria. Shades of Iraq today — no treaty must be signed before Austria did not have sufficient defence forces to resist internal subversion on its own! The Americans also began preparing for a potential blockade of Vienna ŕ la Berlin and secretly poured a 90-day food reserve into Vienna warehouses in the Western sectors of the embattled city (code-named “squirrel cage” and “jackpot”). The American occupiers also prepared secret lists of Austrian leaders to be evacuated to Salzburg in case of a blockade to allow for continuity of government (a quasi government in exile in their own land). The Pentagon began rearming the Austrian police forces. When Communist riots in October 1950 in Vienna – in the midst of the escalating Korean War – were interpreted by the Austrian government as a “putsch attempt,” the U.S. military began with the training of a special police force (“B-Gendarmerie”) that would one day constitute the core of a future Austrian Army. At the same time the CIA distributed some 90 arms caches throughout the Austrian Alps for a future guerrilla war against Soviet invaders. The French prepared Alpine passes and bridges for demolition in their zone to stop Soviet advances. No facts better explain the red-hot temperatures of the Cold War in Central Europe during the Korean War than the extent of this secret rearmament of Austria, which only recently has become fully known to historians. Starting in 1948, it was above all the Pentagon, then, that quietly refused behind the scenes to sign an Austrian treaty. Publically, Soviet intransigence was blamed for Cold War psychological warfare reasons.

This became harder to do, once Stalin gave up supporting Yugoslav demands against Austria in 1949 after his break with Tito. In fact, many historians think that the Kremlin was prepared to sign a treaty in the fall of 1949, were it not for Pentagon resistance. During the Korean War it seemed like the West was losing the initiative against world communism. The Soviets had their own atomic weapon, Mao won the civil war in China, and with the North Korean attack in June 1950 the Kremlin seemed to go on the offensive. Many feared that the Korean conflict was a diversion and the real attack would come on the Central European Cold War front. Consequently, West German and Austrian rearmament became more important than ever. However, for propaganda reasons, the Kremlin still needed to be blamed for not signing an Austrian treaty to give the Austrian people some hope.

In 1952, Washington initiated a propaganda manoeuvre to keep the blame on the Soviets and to give some hope for treaty progress to the Austrian population. Against the advice of the Ballhausplatz and their Western allies, they presented an “abbreviated treaty draft” of ten articles to the Kremlin for signature. Since it contained no provision on the “German assets”, the Kremlin predictably ignored it and refused to resume negotiations on the treaty before the withdrawal of this “skeleton treaty”, as communist propaganda called it, in the fall of 1953.

The changes in the Kremlin after Stalin’s unexpected death in March 1953 and the decision for West German rearmament within the NATO framework in 1955 precipitated the final breakthrough in Austrian treaty talks. Molotov, losing control over Soviet foreign policy to the hated Nikita Khrushchev, announced the decoupling of the Austrian from the German question against an Austrian guarantee of no “future Anschluss.” Austrian neutrality became the deus ex machina agreed on in bilateral Austro-Soviet talks in Moscow in April 1955. The bilateral memorandum also contained provisions for Austria paying the 150 million dollar “lump sum” for the Soviet return of the German assets they controlled in their zone of occupation. The Soviets accepted payments in kind (goods) rather than cash. The Austrian economy had recovered enough due to the Marshall Plan to make these payments.

The Western powers viewed these bilateral Austro-Soviet negotiations from the sidelines with a certain amount of disgust. By the spring 1955 Austrian diplomacy had emancipated itself sufficiently from Western tutelage, to dare such bilateral talks. These bilateral parleys led to the final breakthrough and the Western powers had to accept the Moscow fait accompli with a reluctant show of support. In a meeting of the National Security Council CIA Director Allen Dulles called the Soviet action “the most significant action since the end of World War II,” and added that the Kremlin showed flexibility and made “the first substantial Soviet concession to the West in Europe since the end of the war.” Even though the Pentagon was very reluctant to withdraw its forces form Austria and accept Austrian neutrality, it could not stop the treaty. As John Foster Dulles had predicted in a 1953 NSC meeting, if the Austrians desire to be neutral the West cannot stop them. The secret efforts to train and arm the core of a future Austrian Army had matured sufficiently to replace the Western forces for the defence of Austria. After military considerations had trumped diplomacy during the Korean War, after Stalin’s death patient diplomacy came to triumph over military concerns.

After a final round of four-power negotiations with Austria in early May, the Austrian treaty was signed on a beautiful spring day on May 15. Austria was “free again”, proclaimed Foreign Minister Figl. The powers also agreed to miraculously free Austria from the burdens of its World War II past. On Figl’s dogged insistence, Austrian culpability stemming from participation in Hitler’s war was struck from the treaty preamble. Figl also had signed a secret memorandum with the Western powers promising future compensation to Western oil firms for their properties and rights within the “German assets” the Austrian government nationalized. So everybody got his pound of flesh.

With the conclusion of the Austrian treaty the new leadership in the Kremlin had shown that it was prepared to make concessions. The Eisenhower White House could no longer resist Western and Soviet pressure for a summit meeting. When the world’s leaders met in Geneva 1955 during a brief Cold War respite, they failed to manage ringing in a genuine period of détente. Cold War tensions had progressed too far with the division of Germany and Europe and the heating up of the nuclear arms race to step back from the diplomatic impasse and nuclear brink in spite of the miracle breakthrough on the Austrian treaty. For that reason the Austrian treaty is just an episode in the larger Cold War history. But it is the major chapter in Austrian Cold War history and the Austrians rightly commemorate it as the completion of their difficult postwar journey towards independence. They were lucky not to end up divided like Germany.