Vienna remains one of Europe’s most attractive destinations and is a city that has been near or at the core of much of Europe’s history.
Although the modern country of Austria dates only from 1955, Vienna and the Austrian people have a history dating back millennia. Known for its high quality of life, association with music and as the center of the Habsburg Empire for over six-hundred years, Vienna offers a delightful range of attractions that reveal the city’s unique history intertwined with its cultural traditions.
With Austria’s joining the EU in 1995 and the “opening” of Eastern Europe earlier in the decade, multicultural Vienna is now, more than ever, an important portal between Eastern and Western Europe.
Traces of first human occupation have been found dating as far back as the Paleolithic Period (Old Stone Age). The area was subsequently inhabited by the Illyrians and then the Celts. In 16–15 BCE the Romans, under the future emperor Tiberius, occupied the foothills of the Alps, and in the next century the Roman Empire established the settlement of Vindobona on the banks of the Danube, approximately at the location of modern Vienna’s Old Town, in the 1st century CE. Vindobona was an important center of commerce for approximately four hundred years, but it declined as the Roman Empire decayed.
A small settlement grew at this location and became known as Wien. The modest village survived the fall of the Roman Empire and prospered over the next several centuries. It, too, declined, but was provided a new lease on life in the 12th century, when the Babenbergs established a fortification in the area. The Habsburgs conquered the Babenbergs in the early 13th century and it was the Habsburgs who established Vienna as an important European capital. In addition, the Habsburg monarchs were responsible for constructing the city’s stunning collection of palaces and grand buildings.
The existence of Habsburg Vienna was threatened when it was besieged by the Ottoman Turks in 1529 and again in 1683. While both invasions were repulsed, the Turks were a constant threat to the city during this period.In the 18th century many of Vienna’s finest building and churches were constructed. In addition, this was, also, the period when the then suburban palaces of Schönbrunn and Belvedere were constructed. Unfortunately, in the early 19th Century Wien was twice captured by Napoleon and his second siege damaged large sections of the city.
Vienna and the Habsburg Empire reached its peak under the Empress Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa and her aides arranged marriages for her 16 children helping to spread the influence of the Habsburgs across a wide swath of Europe from Austria through Spain. Unfortunately, power often begets animosity and the Habsburg rulers and Austria suffered from wars, assassinations and the weight of history.
The second half of the 19th century appeared to be a time of growth and promise for the Habsburg Empire, but this promising path eventually turned into a troubled future. For example, Emperor Franz Joseph dedicated his life and almost every waking moment to ensuring the success and longevity of the empire. He ordered the creation of the Ringstrasse and the construction projects that populated the Ring with many of its grand building.
However, the world was changing and the Habsburgs were having a difficult time retaining their relevance and power base. The Emperor survived an assassination attempt, his son and heir committed suicide, and, then, his wife (Sisi) was assassinated by an Italian Anarchist. A few years later, Franz Joseph’s nephew and heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 by the anarchist Princeps, in what became a factor leading to World War I. Franz Joseph died in 1916 after a reign of 68 years and was succeeded by a distant relative, but after the war, the monarchy was dissolved.
Once the center of power for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria was reduced to a small republic after its defeat in World War I.
Following annexation by Germany in 1938, the country was aligned with the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) during World War II. The Republic was occupied by the victorious Allied forces in 1945 and ruled by France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States. For example, at the Schwartzenplatz you will find a monument to the Soviet Armies that took part in the liberation of Vienna near the end of World War II.
A State Treaty signed in 1955 ended the occupation, recognized Austria’s independence, and forbade the country’s unification with Germany. A constitutional law adopted that same year declared the country’s “perpetual neutrality” as a condition for Soviet military withdrawal. This neutrality, once ingrained as part of the Austrian cultural identity, has been called into question since the Soviet collapse of 1991 and Austria’s entry into the European Union in 1995. Present day Austria is a prosperous country, and entered the European Monetary Union in 1999.
Many of Vienna’s most important buildings were damaged during the last half of World War II. Over the following 50 years the buildings and antiquities were restored and today’s Vienna bears few hints of its turbulent past.