Area 32,377 square mi (83,858 square km)
Population 8.534 million 2014
Highest Point 12,457 ft (3,797 m)
Lowest Point 377 ft (115 m)
GDP $436.3 billion 2014
Primary Natural Resources natural gas, iron, timber.
LANDLOCKED AUSTRIA (Osterreich in German) is located at the cultural and geographical crossroads of Central Europe. It is also situated in between the three major cultural spheres of Europe. To the south is ITALY, to the north GERMANY, and to the east several Slavic countries. This relatively small country (about the same size as MAINE) borders no less than eight other countries. Austria itself is overwhelmingly Germanspeaking and Roman Catholic (although, as is most of Europe, relatively secular in orientation).
Today’s Austria was created as what can be described as a historical accident. Before countries, or nation- states, existed in the modern sense, local rulers controlled small territories that sometimes grew to large empires. Seated in Austria, the Habsburg dynasty became one of the most powerful in Europe as early as the medieval era and governed a territory that included parts of today’s FRANCE, Italy and Germany. Over time, the Habsburg empire lost control over some of these western territories and instead expanded eastward, and after 1867 it became the Austro- Hungarian Empire, two separate states under one common ruler. The name Austria then simply referred to the predominantly German-speaking territories, which previously were not considered a coherent territorial unit. The eventual demise of Austria-Hungary was triggered by its involvement in the Balkans. Several European powers struggled for influence in southeastern Europe, which subsequently led to World War I. Austria-Hungary was on the losing side in the war, and along with a rewriting of the political map of large portions of Europe, modern Austria, now a republic, was born in 1918.
What emerged as the state of Austria was several small regions that had some basic cultural attributes in common—language and religion—but nevertheless lacked a distinct national identity. Part of this has to do with Austria’s fragmented geography. The most dominant landform is the ALPS—the mountains that cover the entire western portion of the country and stretch deep into central Austria. Like many populations that inhabit mountainous areas, the Alpine dwellers have historically been localist in their orientation rather than identifying with a larger nation. The remaining parts of Austria are lowland and river valleys, more populous, and dominated by the capital of Vienna. As Austria has been a state for almost a century, national media, a national educational system, and other nationwide institutions have created a greater sense of common identity over time.
Vienna is a classic example of a primate city—a city that dominates in a country in terms of size and political, economic, and cultural importance. Vienna has approximately 1.5 million inhabitants, while the second- and third-largest cities, Graz and Linz, have populations of only approximately 200,000 each. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Vienna was one of the most important cities in Europe, even a world city. As the capital of a large multi-ethnic empire, the city became a diverse political and economic power thriving on immigration from both German and non-German regions. This diversity also made Vienna an intellectual and creative center in many divergent endeavors, such as philosophy, arts, and economics.
The power of Vienna during this time period is also reflected in its impressive environment, with its beautiful baroque and other architectural styles, which attracts many visitors. Vienna is located on the DANUBE (Donau in German) that flows from Central Europe eastward to the BLACK SEA, a convenient location historically, as well as centrally located within Austria-Hungary. Today, Vienna’s eastern location near the Slovak border is peripheral within Austria. Facing the Iron Curtain, it was also far away from the population centers of western Europe during the Cold War and lost population. In the future, however, Vienna and Austria hope to capitalize on its proximity to the growing markets of eastern Europe.
Austria was economically prosperous during the post-World War II period, much like the rest of western Europe. Today, the economy is increasingly service-oriented, including the largest tourist economy per capita in Europe. There is, for example, one guest bed for every six Austrians. Both summer and winter tourism is common in the Alps, with the latter growing in importance. Visitors arrive from many countries, but Germany has always been the leading source of tourists. The tourism industry is also one reason behind the long-standing trend of population growth in western Austria at the expense of eastern Austria. The Alpine landscape is not only utilized by foreign visitors, but skiing has become the nation’s favorite recreational activity and has produced outstanding national sport heroes, most recently Hermann Maier.
Tourism has changed rural life, but it has also made it possible for part-time farmers to survive. The Austrian government (and now the EUROPEAN UNION, which Austria joined in 1995) also extends economic support to farmers to preserve a traditional, small-scale agricultural landscape. One the negative side, avalanches are one of the otherwise few natural risks in Austria, many lethal to skiers and others, killing dozens every year. Economically, Austria’s tourism economy is also facing challenges as European tourists are searching for more exotic and far-flung experiences than the Alps.
Recent trends are changing the social and economic fabric of the country. Global competition is felt in all sectors of the economy. Generous social benefits of the welfare state are increasingly difficult to maintain as the population is aging (while life expectancy is very high, the fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman is one of the lowest in western Europe). Immigration increased in the 1990s, particularly from eastern Europe and former Yugoslavia, leading to a rise in xenophobia and a new right-wing, anti-immigrant political party that upset the traditional consensus and cooperative spirit of Austrian politics. Austria is again struggling with its national identity, its past as part of Nazi Germany, and an increasingly multiethnic society that will shape the country for decades to come.