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History & Background

Austria has an area of 32,376 square miles and a population of 8.1 million inhabitants, of which 98 percent are German-speaking. Austria officially recognizes six ethnic minorities, primarily in the southern and eastern provinces: Croatian, Roma, Slovak, Slovenian, Czech, and Hungarian. Seventy-eight percent of the population is Roman-Catholic, 5 percent Protestant, and 4.5 percent other religions. Austria is therefore characterized by a relatively homogeneous population, which nevertheless seeks to accommodate diversity. This commitment to accommodation is to a considerable extent a product of the various stages of the nation's historical development. The history of this small, land-locked European republic has reflected and shaped the continent's turbulent history for the past three millennia. Several distinct stages of Austrian history have played a central role in the establishment of its national identity.

During the fifth century A.D., Austria found itself at the crossroads of major successive incursions and migrations, including the Germanic tribes from the north, as well as the Huns, Avars, and Magyars from the east. The threat from the eastern Magyars was finally ended in the decisive battle of Lechfeld in 955 A.D. Shortly thereafter, in 976 A.D., a period of stability and development was ushered in under the rule of the house of Babenberg. Of particular interest during this ascendency in Austria's medieval importance was the establishment of several monasteries and religious orders that greatly fostered a climate of scholarship and learning.

By the end of the thirteenth century, the house of Habsburg emerged as the dominant political force in Austria, a position it was to hold nearly uninterruptedly until 1918. The University of Vienna was founded in 1365. Following a period of territorial expansion during the fourteenth century, the Habsburgs, under Albert V, assumed the crown of the Holy Roman Empire in 1438 and retained a virtual monopoly over it until Emperor Franz renounced the title of Holy Roman Emperor in 1806 in favor of the hereditary title of Emperor of Austria.

A further period of expansion and alliances through marriage extended Austria's empire during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to include Flanders, Burgundy, Bohemia, and Hungary. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were characterized by Austria's position as easternmost line of defense against the expansionist Turks, and it was a decisive victory in 1683 by the Austrian forces under Prince Eugene of Savoy that finally ended the threat of Turkish expansion into Western Europe.

The Austrian eighteenth century stood largely under the aegis of the formidable figure of Empress Maria Theresia, who ruled from 1740 to 1780. She stands in many respects at the threshold of the modern age in Austrian affairs, particularly in the administrative reform of the educational system. The spirit of reform was fortuitously continued under her successor, Joseph II. Following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, Austria emerged from the changing political landscape wrought by reaction to the Congress of Vienna and the Revolution of 1848 as a politically and economically advanced member of the European community of powers. With the establishment of the Vienna Polytechnic in 1815, Austria recognized the relationship between education, commerce, and industry that promoted dramatic growth during the Industrial Revolution. Austria's first constitution dates from shortly after 1848 and pays early tribute to the changing realities of the European nation state.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire: In 1866 Emperor Franz Joseph, who dominated nineteenth-century Austria as much as Empress Maria Theresia had dominated the eighteenth, was defeated by the armies of Prussia. The Austrian constitution was modified in 1867 and, in recognition of the more limited role that Austria was to play henceforth with its German neighbors, the Austro-Hungarian Doppelmonarchie (dual monarchy) was established. Although it was an Austrian, the heir-apparent Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo triggered the cataclysm of World War I, Austria itself quickly ceded the field of battle to the greater powers of Europe, who continued the war until 1919.

The winds of change and disillusionment that had brought down the monarchy in Russia and Germany at the end of World War I also claimed the Austrian monarchy. The last Austrian emperor, Karl, abdicated in 1918, and on November 12, 1918, the Austrian Republic was proclaimed by the Provisional National Assembly. In several political and economic respects, the shock of the war's aftermath mirrored developments in neighboring Germany. During the first years of the First Republic, intense battling between increasingly radical forces challenged the credibility and sapped the authority of successive governments. Resurgent nationalism, in its extreme Fascist incarnations, seized the imaginations of Austria's German neighbors to the north and Italy in the south.

In March 1938, finally, German troops marched into Austria and a subsequent plebiscite in April 1938 confirmed Austria's de facto annexation to the German Empire. By the time World War II broke out in 1939, Austria's military, economy, and political infrastructure had been largely integrated into Germany's war efforts.

The Second Republic: When Germany collapsed in 1945, Austria experienced, along with other targets of Germany's aggressive expansionism, a sense of liberation. After U.S., Soviet, and British troops had entered Austria by March 1945, a Provisional Government was proclaimed under Karl Renner on April 27. Following a long series of negotiations with the occupying powers, Austria finally regained sovereignty through the Austrian State Treaty, signed by all parties on May 15, 1955. On October 26, 1955, the Austrian parliament affirmed the country's permanent neutrality. Austria's reintegration into the community of nations was acknowledged formally on December 15, 1955, when it was admitted into the United Nations.

According to its constitution, the democratic Republic of Austria consists of nine independent provinces. The constitution furthermore guarantees all civil rights commonly associated with a modern, democratic republic, including: equality before the law, individual liberty, freedom of opinion, and an independent judiciary. Legislative competence is vested in the parliament, which is divided into the Nationalrat (National Council) and the Bundesrat (Federal Council). The National Council is elected in equal, direct, and secret elections according to a proportional-representation system. The 183 delegates currently represent the Social Democratic Party, the People's Party, the Freedom Party, and the environmentalist Green Party.

The Federal Council consists of 54 delegates who are elected by the respective provincial legislatures. In general terms, the Federal Council acknowledges formally, and represents the interests of, the provinces. Executive competencies are divided between the federal president and the federal government. The president is elected by general, equal, and free ballot for a term of six years. The powers of the federal president include appointment of the federal chancellor and ministers, convocation and, under specific circumstances, dissolution of the National Council.

The federal government consists of the federal chancellor and federal ministers. While the federal chancellor and cabinet together enjoy broad competencies in governing the country, a vote of no confidence can be invoked to relieve members of the federal government from office. The interests of the provinces are represented by the provincial government, headed by the provincial governor. The competencies of the provincial governments are further delegated to subordinated district and municipal governments.

The Second Republic has enjoyed a remarkable stability and level of support. Domestic and international crises have not substantially challenged the legitimacy of Austria's political foundations. Two international crises have, however, suggested that Austria faces questions about its past association with anti-democratic forces. The first crisis involved Kurt Waldheim, Austrian president and former general secretary of the United Nations, whose tenure was overshadowed by international criticism of Waldheim's alleged role as officer during World War II. The second crisis involves Jörg Haider, Provincial Governor of Carinthia and one-time leader of the Freedom Party, whose anti-European and anti-immigration policies have given rise to concern, within Austria and abroad, about the rise to prominence of right-wing extremism in Austrian politics and society.

Until the eighteenth century, Austrian education was dominated by the Church. Since the introduction and promotion of monastic schools throughout the Carolingian empire in the late ninth and tenth centuries, education was the province of the clergy for most of the Middle Ages. The strict control of the Roman Catholic clergy became even more pervasive during the Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The monastic schools not only oversaw the basic education of the nobility, but were also one of the few avenues out of their situation available to poor but talented sons of commoners, be it as members of the clergy, tutors to the gentry, or as administrative assistants.

The situation changed with the advent of the Enlightenment and a general European spirit of fostering education as a necessary means to a desirable end. The origin of systematic efforts on behalf of Austrian public education goes back to the educational reforms in 1774 under Empress Maria Theresia. Although economic constraints led to the establishment of fewer new schools than envisioned, the notion of mandatory and public education became a fundamental element of public policy.

Legislation to guarantee academic freedom in science and teaching was enacted in 1867. Two years later, in 1869, the entire compulsory-education system was unified under the Imperial Primary Schools Act. Compulsory education was raised from a period of six to eight years. The basic elements of the 1869 act established the foundation of Austrian educational policy, to assure the best possible education to students without regard to gender, status, national origin, or religion.

Reforms instituted in 1918 under the Viennese superintendent of instruction, Otto Glöckel, built upon the concept of generally accessible and optimal educational opportunities by advocating for the importance of considering the child's educational development and aptitude in matters of academic progress.

Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineGlobal Education ReferenceAustria - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education