Austria's Report Card on Neutrality during the Hungarian Crisis of 1956

Article excerpt

In his book The Bridge at Andau, James Michener provides a useful metaphor for understanding the Hungarian revolution of 1956:

   Imagine the total Soviet position as a lake over which a green scum
   of lies, propaganda, window dressing and deceit has been allowed to
   grow. This seemingly placid lake has for some years been held up to
   the world as the serene portrait of life under communism. [...]
   Hungary, however, was a gigantic stone thrown into the middle of
   that lying lake, and waves of truth have set out from the point of
   impact. Now, as they move far outward toward the remotest shores of
   the lake, we can begin to see what life was truly like under the
   green scum. (1)

The "waves of truth" quickly reached Austria, which--as the only non-communist country bordering Hungary--was destined to become one of the countries most directly affected by the crisis. Refugees surged across the Austrian border, not only from Hungary itself, but also indirectly from Yugoslavia. (2)

Scholars usually associate the Hungarian crisis with the Polish "October" which occurred just a week earlier and for which there is a more direct causal link. (3) However, Austria was also a catalyst of the events, albeit under-researched. While the successful negotiation of Austrian Chancellor Julius Raab and his colleagues of Soviet troop withdrawal and achievement of neutrality in 1955 did not directly cause the Hungarian Revolution, it set an important precedent that aroused Hungarians' desires for a similar withdrawal of Soviet troops from their homeland. This article will examine more closely how the Hungarian revolution of 1956 affected Vienna's relations with both Budapest and Moscow. Although the crisis bolstered Austrians' self-reliance and new identity as a neutral country, it also unravelled the Austrian rapprochement with Hungary and the USSR that led to the signing of the State Treaty (Staatsvertrag) on 15 May 1955. Issues such as border incidents, espionage, repatriation of refugees, and favouritism toward organisations complicated Austrian-Hungarian relations. Needing to justify the invasion and ousting of Imre Nagy's regime, Soviet and Hungarian propagandists and party officials used the latter three issues to "prove" Austria's breach of neutrality. In response, the Austrian Chancellery prudently weighed every move, even to the point of paranoia.

Positive Effects of the Crisis

It is often stated that the Mandarin Chinese word for "crisis" (wei-ji) is composed of the characters for "danger" (wei) and "opportunity" (ji) While the Hungarian revolt heralded danger for the Austrian people, it also transformed the country from passive victim to proactive saviour. From 1944 to 1955--if not since the Anschluss in 1938--Austria's foreign policy had remained inseparably linked with (West) Germany's. Soviet general secretary Joseph Stalin and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov had persistently tried to use Austria--specifically their military occupation there--as a bargaining chip to keep West Germany unarmed and out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). In April 1950 the Austrian Foreign Minister Karl Gruber complained that public opinion, even in the West, had "lumped us together with Germany far too much". (4) Likewise General Geoffrey Keyes, US High Commissioner on the Allied Council for Austria, once pleaded with Pentagon planners in February 1950 to "please consider Austria as part of the world jigsaw puzzle and not merely as the tail of Germany". (5) For the first time since being decoupled from West Germany and achieving neutrality, Austria had its very own foreign policy crisis. West Germany lacked a border with Hungary. The external tumult drew Austrian political parties--indeed, the whole population--closer together, discredited the Austrian Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Osterreichs, or KPO), and gave military strategists a useful precedent to help them manage the next Soviet invasion on their border twelve years later (Czechoslovakia). …