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In its early years, the land that became Austria was invaded by a succession of tribes and armies using the Danube Valley as a conduit - the Celts, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Huns, Avars, Slavs and Manchester United supporters all came and went. Charlemagne established a territory in the Danube Valley known as the Ostmark in 803, and the area became Christianised and predominantly Germanic.

By 1278 the Habsburgs had gained control and this mighty dynasty managed to rule Austria right up until WW I. Although the Habsburgs were not averse to using a bit of muscle, they preferred less barbaric ways of extending their territory and so Austria gradually expanded thanks to judicious real estate purchases and some politically-motivated marriages. One such marriage produced two sons: the eldest became Charles I of Spain and then mutated three years later into Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire; the younger son, Ferdinand, became the first Habsburg to live in Vienna and was anointed ruler of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia. In 1556, Charles abdicated as emperor and Ferdinand I was crowned in his place. Charles' remaining territory was inherited by his son, Phillip II, splitting the Habsburg dynasty into two distinct lines - the Spanish and the Austrian.

In 1571, when the emperor granted religious freedom, the vast majority of Austrians turned to Protestantism. In 1576, the new emperor, Rudolf II, embraced the Counter-Reformation and much of the country reverted, with a little coercion, to Catholicism. The attempt to impose Catholicism on Protestant areas of Europe led to the Thirty Years' War, which started in 1618 and devastated much of Central Europe. Peace was finally achieved in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia. For much of the rest of the century, Austria was preoccupied with halting the advance of the Turks into Europe. Vienna nearly capitulated to a Turkish siege in 1683 but was rescued by a Christian force of German and Polish soldiers. Combined forces subsequently swept the Turks to the south-eastern edge of Europe. The removal of the Turkish threat saw a frenzy of Baroque building in many cities, and under the musical emperor Leopold I, Vienna became a magnet for musicians and composers.

In 1740, Maria Theresa ascended the throne and ruled for 40 years. This period is generally acknowledged as the era in which Austria developed as a modern state. During her reign, control was centralised, a civil service was established, the army and economy were reformed and a public education system was introduced. But progress was halted when Napoleon defeated Austria at Austerlitz in 1805. European conflict dragged on until the settlement at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. Austria was left with control of the German Confederation but suffered upheaval during the 1848 revolutions and eventual defeat in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War. This led to the formation of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867 under emperor Franz Josef and exclusion from the new German empire unified by Bismarck. A period of prosperity followed but Austria's expansionist tendencies in the Balkans and its annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (nice move) in 1908 led to the assassination of the emperor's nephew in Sarajevo in June 1914. A month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, the Russians came to the Serbians' aid and the slaughter of WW I began in earnest.

At the conclusion of the war, the shrunken Republic of Austria was created and was forced to recognise the independent states of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia which, along with Romania and Bulgaria, had previously been under control of the Habsburgs. The new republic suffered economic strife, which led to an upsurge in Nazi-style politics. Austria's embrace of fascism meant that German troops met little opposition when they invaded in 1938 and incorporated Austria into the Third Reich. A national referendum in Austria that year supported the annexation. For its troubles, Austria was bombed heavily in WW II and by 1945 it had been restored to its 1937 frontiers by the victorious Allies. It was divided into four zones by occupying American, British, French and Russian troops who remained entrenched for a decade before withdrawing and allowing Austria to proclaim its neutrality.

In the post-war years Austria worked hard to overcome economic difficulties and established a free trade treaty with the European Union (EU, then known as the EEC) in 1972. Apart from the election of former German army officer and UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim to the Austrian Presidency in 1986, Austrian politics became a rational zone of consensus rather than conflict. Increases in Eastern European immigration following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc resulted in the rise of the right-wing anti-immigration Freedom Party in the late 1980s. Concern among moderates has been exacerbated by the recent influx of refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

The Austrian people heartily endorsed their country's entry into the EU in a referendum in 1994 and formally joined the Union on 1 January 1995. Since then most Austrians have been rather ambivalent about the advantages of EU membership.

In 2000, the right-wing Freedom Party came in just behind the Social Democrats in Austria's most recent election, thus forming a ruling coalition with the moderate right People's Party. Both the Freedom and People's parties have 52 seats each, while the Social Democrats have 65 seats. Initially, Freedom Party leader and Nazi sympathiser Jörg Haider opted to keep out of the government, but there are growing concerns among the remaining EU member countries that he may change his mind.


Austria's hills are alive with the sound of music. Composers throughout Europe were drawn to the country in the 18th and 19th centuries by the generous patronage of the Habsburgs. During this period Vienna became to classical music what Seattle is to grunge. In fact many of the Habsburgs were themselves gifted musicians and would, history allowing, have made a funky quartet consisting of Leopold I (composer), Charles VI (violin), Maria Theresa (double bass) and Joseph II (harpsichord and cello). Back in the real world, at various times Beethoven, Brahms, Gluck, Hayden, Mahler, Mozart, Schubert, Schönberg and the Strausses all had their heads in the clouds and their bums on piano stools in Vienna. Today, institutions such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the angelic Vienna Boys' Choir, the Staatsoper (State Opera), the Musikverein and the Konzerthaus are unrivalled.

Austria has its fair share of fantastic buildings just to prove that some arty types were actually outside wearing tin hats and big boots instead of slippers and wigs. The Gothic style was popular between the 14th and 16th centuries, as evidenced by the number of imposing buildings with flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed ceiling vaults and pigeon toes. St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna is considered to be Austria's Gothic masterpiece. The next major stylistic influence was Baroque. Learning from the Italian model, Fischer von Erlach developed a national style called Austrian Baroque, typified in the National Library and the Church of St Charles in Vienna. Empress Maria Theresa had a fling with Rococo, a style so fussy that it makes Baroque look like Bauhaus - the interior of the Schöbrunn Palace is a fine example of such prissiness. The most interesting modern buildings are those designed by maverick architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser: several of his structures are the closest an apartment builder has ever got to recreating the exuberance of Gaudi.

There's plenty of beautiful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art in Austria's churches. Biedermeier, which is more well-known as a furniture style, also had its day in the gallery - and Biedermeier artist Moritz Michael Daffinger even found his way onto the AS20 note. The most famous Austrian painters were probably Gustav Klimt (Art Nouveau ) and Oskar Kokoschka (Viennese expressionism), but the most outrageous publicity was reserved for Viennese Actionism. This offshoot of abstract expressionism emerged in the late 1950s and sought access to the subconscious through the frenzy of direct art - read pouring paint over canvas and slashing it with knives; using blood and excrement as 'paint' and human bodies as 'brushes'; psychological endurance tests, self-mutilation and other nice Sunday school activities.

The biggest splash in the world of art, however, was made by an Austrian psychiatrist called Sigmund Freud. The originator of psychoanalysis gave us The Interpretation of Dreams, The Ego and the Id, penis envy, surrealism, a whole new language of symbolism, and large cushy leather couches. Other scary Austrians include the great film director Fritz Lang and muscly motormouth Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Traditional Austrian food is stodgy, hearty fare of the meat-and-dumpling variety. Wiener Schnitzel is Vienna's best known culinary concoction and it has spread to every two-bit eating house from New York City to Alice Springs. It's a fried cutlet, usually veal, covered in a coating of egg and breadcrumbs and, when cooked properly, has actually been known to be edible. Austrians are fond of eating bits of beasts that other nations ignore. Beuschel may be translated on menus as 'calf's lights' but it's really thin slices of calf's lungs and heart. It's quite tasty. Really. Austria's excellent pastries and cakes are effective at transferring bulk from your money belt to your waistline.

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