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The Contemporary World

1945 to the present


After World War II, a new world order came into being in which two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, played the leading roles. Their ideological differences led to the arms race of the Cold War and fears of a global nuclear conflict. The rest of the world was also drawn into the bipolar bloc system, and very few nations were able to remain truly non-aligned. The East-West conflict came to an end in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent downfall of the Eastern Bloc. Since that time, the world has been driven by the globalization of worldwide economic and political systems. The world has, however, remained divided: The rich nations of Europe, North America, and East Asia stand in contrast to the developing nations of the Third World.

The first moon landing made science-fiction dreams reality in the year 1969.
Space technology has made considerable progress as the search for new
possibilities of using space continues.




SINCE 1945


see also: United Nations member states -


Austria's independence was restored after the end of World War II. In 1955 it achieved total sovereignty through the Austrian State Treaty with the Allies, on the condition of its perpetual neutrality. This later helped Austria to maintain relations with both Western countries and the nations of the Eastern bloc. Since the end of the Cold War and Austria's entry into the European Union, the neutrality policy has again become a topic of discussion. Domestically, the republic was characterized over the decades by the major political parties that formed a coalition government for a stable balance of interests.


Independence and Neutrality

Following the end of the war, Austria once again became independent and obligated itself to strict neutrality. The Republic became the seat of many international organizations.


1 With the approval of a broad section of the populace, Austria annexed itself to the German Reich in 1938.

The restoration of an independent Austria after the war was envisioned in 1943 by the Allies, who agreed to divide the country following the same model used in Germany; Austria and its 6 capital Vienna was divided into four 3 occupation zones and a common control council was set up.

The Social Democratic Party, the Communist Party, and the mainstream Austrian People's Party were able in 1945 to settle on a declaration of independence and a provisional government headed by the Social Democrat Party leader, Karl Renner. A modified form of the constitution of 1929 came back into force, and all the National Socialist laws added during the period of annexation were annulled. The first election on November 25, 1945, resulted in a majority for the People's party, which formed a coalition government with the Social Democrats and Communists.

1 British soldiers before Schonbrunn Castle in Vienna, April 1945

6 Destroyed houses on the banks of the Danube, Vienna, 1945

3 The Allies shake hands; (from left)
American, British, French, and Soviet
military police show their support
and cooperation in Vienna

After prolonged negotiations between the Austrian government and the Allies, à 4 state treaty was concluded in 1955 and was signed on May 15 in Vienna, restoring the 2 sovereignty of the nation.

A condition insisted upon by the Allies was the assurance of "everlasting" neutrality, which was established in the Federal Constitutional Law on the Neutrality of Austria on October 26. This day has been celebrated as a national holiday since 1965.

In 1960, Austria, like all neutral European states, joined the European Free Trade Association. Austria developed close economic ties especially with its neighboring Eastern bloc states.

4 The signatories of the state treaty on the balcony of the Belvedere Castle, May 15, 1955

2 The Allies withdraw after the signing of
the state treaty, 1955

Austria has been a member of the United Nations since 1955, and Vienna became one of the four official 7 UN sites in 1979.

Furthermore, thanks to its neutral status, Austria has become home to numerous significant international organizations, among them the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the 5 Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

7 UN complex in Vienna

5 OPEC headquarters in Vienna



Economic Development and the Neutrality Crisis

Austria became a service industry nation with a strong tourism sector. Since the 1990s, alongside the major parties, the right-wing populist Liberal Party has been gaining popularity.


The Marshall Plan provided Austria with the economic means with which to develop a new economy in the first postwar years. Heavy industry and banks were nationalized in 1946. Also facilitating recovery was the "social partnership," a close cooperation of the major economic interests with the government, which is still in practice today. The intervention by the Soviets in their occupation zone in Lower Austria led to an industrial flight to the traditionally purely agrarian west, which permanently altered the economic and social structure of the country. Since the 1970s, the service sector has surpassed all others.

To this day, Austria owes its supranational importance primarily to 8, 9, 10 tourism— particularly in the Alpine regions— and Vienna's status as center for headquarters and congresses.

The People's Party and the Social Democrat Party have been forming predominantly coalition governments since 1947, although occasionally the People's Party has governed alone. For a long time, only the Liberal Party stood in opposition to the major parties. Founded in 1949, the Liberal Party emerged out of the electoral alliance of independents, a sort of catch-all for less incriminated ex-National Socialists. Beginning in the 1990s, the party rapidly gained popularity under its right-wing populist chairman, Jorg Haider. In the National Council elections of October 3,1999, it became the second strongest party after the People's Party and with them formed the government in place since 2000. The Greens have established themselves since 1986 as a second opposition party.

8 View over Salzburg; the Fortress Hohensalzburg in Salzburg, (front right) Kollegien Church, 2002

9 Skiers in the Karwendel range, 2003

10 "Fiaker," an Austrian coach, Salzburg

Austria has used its neutrality as an active peace policy since Chancellor 12 Bruno Kreisky's term of office (1970-1983).

Among other things, the country has provided military contingents for the peacekeeping activities of the United Nations in the Golan Heights and Cyprus, as well as in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. In addition, Austria participates in the NATO Partnership for Peace program.

Austria's neutral status, however, has been an issue of discussion domestically since the 1980s, when membership in the European Community was proposed in order to be a part of the European Common Market.

In 1989, the government of 13 Franz Vranitzky made a formal application, resulting in EU 11 membership in 1995 and the Euro monetary system in 1999.

Austria, however, has never officially given up its neutrality.

12 Bruno Kreisky, 1973

13 The Austrian Chancellor and chairman of the SPO, Franz Vranitzky, 1992

11 Celebrations on the Heldenplatz in Vienna
following Austria's assumption of the European Union
presidency in 1998



The Waldheim Affair

The election of Kurt Waldheim as Austrian federal president in June 1986 provoked controversy at home and abroad because he had been an officer in the Nazi German army.

Waldheim had been UN general secretary from 1972 to 1981 and entered the elections as a People's Party candidate. He commented on his past in the following way: "I did nothing different in the war than hundreds of thousands of other Austrians, namely, fulfilled my duty as a soldier."

Although it could not be proven that he was guilty of any war crimes, Waldheim remained internationally isolated.

Kurt Waldheim


Kurt Waldheim

Future Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, with wartime colleagues

president of Austria

born Dec. 21, 1918, Sankt Andrä-Wördern, Austria
died June 14, 2007, Vienna

Austrian diplomat and statesman who served two terms as the fourth secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), from 1972 to 1981. He was the elected president of Austria from 1986 to 1992.

Waldheim’s father, a Czech by ethnic origin, changed his name from Waclawik to Waldheim. Kurt Waldheim served in the Austrian army as a volunteer (1936–37) before he began to study for a diplomatic career. He was soon conscripted into the German army, however, and served on the Russian front until 1941, when he was wounded. Waldheim’s later claims that he spent the rest of World War II studying law at the University of Vienna were contradicted by the rediscovery in 1986 of documents suggesting that he had been a German army staff officer stationed in the Balkans from 1942 to 1945.

Waldheim entered the diplomatic service in 1945. He served in Paris (1948–51) and was head of the personnel department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vienna from 1951 to 1955. He led Austria’s first delegation to the UN (1955) and subsequently represented the country in Canada (1956–60), first as minister plenipotentiary and then as ambassador. After a period as director general for political affairs in the Austrian Foreign Ministry, he became his country’s ambassador to the UN (1964–68, 1970–71). During 1968–70 he served as Austrian foreign minister. After the electoral defeat of the Austrian People’s Party, Waldheim was elected chairman of the Safeguards Committee of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In 1971 he ran for president on the People’s Party ticket but lost.

Waldheim’s UN secretaryship beginning in 1972 was characterized as efficient and ministerial. He oversaw effective and sometimes massive relief efforts in Bangladesh, Nicaragua, the Sudan-Sahel area of Africa, and Guatemala, as well as peacekeeping operations in Cyprus, the two Yemens, Angola, Guinea, and, especially, the Middle East. Waldheim also took a special interest in the future of Namibia and South Africa. He was reelected in 1976 despite some opposition from less-developed countries, but a third term was vetoed by the Chinese government in 1981.

In 1986 Waldheim ran once again as the People’s Party candidate for president of Austria. His candidacy became controversial, however, with the dissemination of wartime and postwar documents that pointed to his having been an interpreter and intelligence officer for a German army unit that engaged in brutal reprisals against Yugoslav Partisans and civilians and deported most of the Jewish population of Salonika (Thessaloníki), Greece, to Nazi death camps in 1943. Waldheim admitted that he had not been candid about his past but disclaimed all knowledge of or participation in wartime atrocities. He won election to the Austrian presidency in June 1986 for a six-year term. An international investigation by a committee of historians cleared Waldheim of complicity in war crimes, but as president he was a rather isolated figure on the international scene. Consequently, he chose not to run for a second term in 1992. The “Waldheim affair” triggered a fundamental debate in Austria about the country’s past during World War II.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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