Politics For Members

EXPLAINED: The history behind Austria's neutrality

Hayley Maguire
Hayley Maguire - [email protected] • 8 Feb, 2022 Updated Tue 8 Feb 2022 13:33 CEST
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An Austrian flag on top of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. Image: Alex Halada/AFP

It is well-known that Austria is a “neutral country”, but what does it actually mean? Here’s what you need to know about Austria’s neutrality.

The story of how Austria came to be a neutral country goes all the way back to the post-war years in the 1950s and a neutrality agreement that is still in place today.

At the end of the Second World War in 1945, Austria was occupied by allied forces and the country was divided into four zones: Soviet in the east (Burgenland and Lower Austria), British in the south (East Tyrol, Carinthia and Styria), American in the west (Salzburg and Upper Austria) and French in the far west (Vorarlberg and North Tyrol).

Vienna was also divided into four allied zones and the centre of the city was declared an international zone where the occupation of allied forces changed every month.

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This situation continued for a decade until the Austrian State Treaty (also known as the Austrian Independence Treaty) was signed by the Austrian government and representatives of the allied forces on May 15th 1955, paving the way for the allied forces to leave the country.

The last foreign troops left Austria on October 26th 1955 and on the same day, the Austrian parliament adopted the constitutional law on the Neutrality of Austria, which committed the Republic to permanent neutrality. Austria has been a neutral country ever since.

What does “neutral” mean?

The Austrian State Treaty declares that Austria can’t join a military alliance, allow the establishment of foreign military bases within Austria or participate in a war.

The status of neutrality is even recognised internationally after Austria notified countries following the signing of the Treaty in 1955.

In December 1955, Austria then joined the United Nations (UN) and Vienna later became the home of the UN’s third headquarters. The United Nations Office at Vienna (UNOV) opened in January 1980, further cementing Austria’s commitment to neutrality.

What does Austrian neutrality mean today?

Today, the Austrian State Treaty is still a part of the Austrian constitution and continues to influence Austria’s political stance on the international stage.

In the decades since the signing of the treaty, Austria has pursued a policy of “active neutrality”, mostly by hosting meetings between the east and the west, as seen recently in the discussions taking place in Vienna to revive a nuclear deal with Iran.

The Austrian Armed Forces has also participated in UN peacekeeping operations since the Federal Constitutional Act on Cooperation and Solidarity in Deploying Units and Individuals Abroad was adopted in 1997.

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Currently, Austria’s largest deployment of peacekeeping troops are in Kosovo (273 soldiers), followed by Lebanon (182) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (174). Smaller deployments are in several other countries, including Mali, Western Sahara and Moldova.

Amid current tensions between Russia, Ukraine and the west, Austria's neutrality has been brought into the political spotlight.

Before a trip to Kiev with his counterparts from Slovakia and Czech Republic, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said: "Even if Austria is a neutral state from a military point of view, we are not neutral when it comes to violence. 

“When it comes to the territorial integrity of a sovereign state, we will never remain silent, but always stand up for it resolutely."

Austria and NATO

Austria is not a member of NATO, like other neutral European states such as Finland, Sweden, Ireland and Switzerland. This means Austria is not bound to support NATO in the event of political and military action.

But Austria is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) organisation and participates in NATO’S Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC).

The PfP is a programme to promote bilateral cooperation between partners, which allows members to choose their level of cooperation. The EAPC is a forum for dialogue and consultation on political and security-related issues in the Euro-Atlantic region.

Austria’s continued non-membership of NATO has been a political topic of discussion for decades within the country, but Austria remains committed to the position of neutrality with no signs of joining NATO.

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Hayley Maguire 2022/02/08 13:33

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