The History of Vienna

Depiction of Vienna in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Celts and Romans founded the city but it was the Hapsbergs who were responsible for the construction of glorious buildings fit for an empire.

Underneath the present-day city of Vienna lies the remains of the 1st Century CE Roman settlement of Vindobona, itself a Celtic name which suggests that the region was inhabited from an even earlier time. By the 11th Century CE, it was an important trading centre with goods passing along the Danube, and in 1221 received the rights of a city. This meant traders travelling through the city had to offer their goods to these citizens. It emerged as one of the most important cities of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Rise of the Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire

In 1278, Rudolf I gained control of Austrian territory and thus began the long reign of the Habsburg reign, a reign that was to last over six hundred years.

Initially, the Hapsburgs built grand buildings to keep up with the Luxembourg’s imperial residence in Prague; Vienna stood in the shadow of its more illustrious neighbour. But then in 1548, building work was concentrated on the defense of the city with a moat, an extended city wall, and eleven bastions being added to the city during the next hundred years. Vienna became a fortress that proved decisive in the Second Turkish Siege of 1683 when the city held out for two months before the Polish King Jan Sobieski defeated the Turks.

The Effects of Defeat in the First World War

In 1914, Vienna was the capital of an empire of 55 million people that stretched from the Alps in the West and the Dalmatian coast and Trieste in the south, to Krakow and the Duchy of Auschwitz in the north and to Tamopol and Czernowitz along the Russian border in the east. Vienna was a culture and creative centre where music, art, theatre, opera and architecture thrived.

But after the Great War, and the defeat of Austria, the Hapsburg Empire was broken up and with no loyalty to the Emperor from its subject states, it just disappeared. The Republic of Austria was born, civil strife ensued and its people looked to Germany for identity and culture.

The Annexe of Austria into The Third Reich

In 1938, the population of Austria voted for the Anschluss – the annexe of Austria into the Third Reich. Very few civilians resisted the Germans; most of the resistance was to be found in the military and in small pockets of Catholic groups formed as a resistance to the Nazi regime.

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, 200, 000 Jews lived in the city; in 1945 that number had reduced to 9000. But many people escaped thanks to the courage of priests in the Catholic Church. Hitler found he was unable to take revenge on the Church because of the strong Catholic faith of the Austrian people.

After the war, the Moscow Convention declared Austria Hitler’s first victim and this lie has entered the collective consciousness. Unlike the German people who have found a new identity, the Austrians have not faced up to their part played in the war and have never allowed a public discussion. It would open up old wounds and it is easier to live the lie.

Vienna was quartered and governed for ten years by the four victorious powers – USA, Great Britain, France and USSR. It became a city of conspiracy, a centre of intrigue of the Cold War. The USA deliberately fed the population under their control a diet of American culture, films, books and popular music.

The Second Republic of Austria

In 1955, the Second Republic of Austria declared itself a neutral power and has become a country of political compromise with no party ever enjoying a majority. Vienna had lost the Jews, who in Weyr’s view were the creative, intellectual and economic forces of the Viennese culture. Gone are the days when composers such as Mahler and the ‘father of psychoanalysis’, Sigmund Freud sat and enjoyed a coffee in the Café Central. Instead an inward, reserved psyche has entered the Viennese population distrusting change and leaning instead towards tradition. The cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s managed to miss Vienna completely, ‘Austria’s essence is not to be central, but peripheral’.


  1. Twilight of the Habsburgs by Alan Palmer, 1994, Weidenfield and Nicolson, London
  2. Vienna 1900 by Peter Vergo 1983, National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, Edinburgh
  3. The Setting of the Pearl Vienna under Hitler by Thomas Weyr, 2005, Oxford University Press, New York
  4. Fin-de-Siecle Vienna by Carl E. Schorske: Politics and Culture, 1980, Alfred A Knopf, Inc, New York
  5. The Double Eagle: Vienna, Budapest, Prague by Stephen Brook 1988, Hamish Hamilton Ltd, London