You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Austria Blames the Soviets

But as the Austrians bear the brunt of the cold war, their rising discontent is also directed against the Americans.


Vienna is celebrating the centennial of 1848, and a magnificent exhibit at the Rathaus vividly portrays the last time the city rose in revolt. The exhibit makes hunger an equal partner with the desire for liberty, as the inspiration of the revolution. The same reasons are behind Vienna’s present growing revolt against continued occupation.

This year’s occupation costs are fixed at $60 million, 10 percent of the entire state budget. American occupation forces have been paying their own way for a year, and the British and Frenchpartially supply their small establishments, so that the Austrians blame the Russians for their financial difficulties as well as for the prolongation of their anomalous status. Austria is a victim of violent deflation, the shortage of currency is acute, and Austrians are tired of buying bananas, figs and chocolates for the Russians while they themselves try to exist on 1,700 calories or less.

Austrians are impatient with the United States as well, despite the food ships that keep coming into Trieste, and the initial $70 million grant under ERP. They say that the occupation preventsthem from restoring their economy, and that the presence of the Big Powers in Vienna makes it hard for them to be “neutral.” The end of the Occupation would, of course, not eliminate the political and economic Schlumperei that is responsible for part of Austria’s plight, but it is true that the four-zone system, the location of Vienna deep inside the Soviet zone, the Soviet mail censorship and control off communications, and the Allied supervision of all Austrian legislation, add unnecessarily to the country's postwar inhibitions.

All three political parties—the Catholic Volkspartei, the Socialists and the Communists—are eager to have the occupation ended, but none more so than the Communists. This is probably the weakest and certainly the most feckless of the Communist Parties in Europe, and its feebleness and unpopularity are mainly due to the presence of Soviet troops on Austrian soil.

The party polled 5.5 percent of the vote in the November, 1945, elections, and at that time could legitimately complain that the elections were held too soon, with many of its leaders and supporters being deliberately kept outside the country until the returns were in. But the party has been at full strength for some time now, increasing its organizing activities, developing an excellent Communist press and propaganda, and being helped in its recruiting by the Russians in its name.

Yet it is unlikely that the Communist vote has increased more than one percent or so. Three years after the first impact of the Red Army, local elections are still conducted on the slogan: “Keep Your Wrist Watch By

Not Voting Communist.”

The Austrian Communists believe that they can do better as a party without the American, British and French armies around, but they also have had their fill of the Russian soldiers who come out to football games and cheer for any visiting team against Austria. This behavior reached its climax in the match between Austriaand Hungary, when the Russians presented flowers to the Hungarians because they played for a people’s democracy, even though they lost the game. “They ostentatiously ignored the Austrian victors,” said Die Woche indignantly. “One feels that if they could do so, they would pass an Allied resolution forbidding us to win any matches for the next ten years.”

The Austrian Communist Party’s chief preoccupation this year is, naturally, the Marshall Plan. The comparison between American aid and Adolf Hitler’s Bayerische-Hilf of 1938 is slightly ridiculous, but Communist criticism of the way in which ERP will be used by the Catholic-Socialist coalition government is valid. As Ernst Fischer, the party leader, remarks, the Danube flows eastward, after all. Historically, Austrian trade has always been with the East, and if this orientation is to be given up, the results will not be good for Austria.

It may be that the Marshall Plan is not intended to be used in this manner. However, some strange things have happened between Hoffman’s office in Washington and the USACA (US section, Allied Council for Austria) offices in Vienna’s Bank Building. The State Department originally estimated that under ERP Austria should do 26 percent of her trade with Eastern Europe, which is not much less than the prewar figure. USACA has cut this figure to 11 percent.

USACA, with its completely military outlook, is expected to have a large hand in the administration of ERP in Austria, and here its past performances with US interim aid are interesting. The Soviet zone received only 7,000 of the 58,000 tons of food brought in, while the American zone received 14,000- tons. Yet the Soviet zone includes 27 percent of Austria’s population and the American zone only 18 percent. It is the same with United Nations relief. School children in the Soviet zone receive much less under the UNICEF feeding program than children in the American zone.

If ERP is to be administered in the same way, the American zone will be favored over the Soviet zone. If the occupation were over and ERP were to be administered by the central government, as in other countries, the chances are that it would be much more equitable. Another danger of the Marshall Plan here lies in the changing nature of Austrian exports. Again under the tutelage of USACA, Austria has given priority to the development of industries which will earn dollar credits. The Polish coal we have bought for Austria will produce fancy glassware, while Austrian building-material industries are in a state of collapse. Austrian production in the future may consist mainly of leather goods, glassware and other luxury items, instead of the steel, machinery, automobiles and electric power which were the prewar backbone of the country’s economy.

The country has now slipped into a descending economic spiral, in which the shortage of currency following last winter’s devaluation has cut purchasing power drastically. This in turn has led to the decrease of production and the increase of unemployment. Prices have also been driven down, but they are still far too high for the going wages.

One of the most important arcs in this vicious circle is the failure of the Soviet attempt to operate industries in their zone of Lower Austria along capitalistic lines. The Soviet economic trust, USIA, includes about 300 factories employing 50,000 workers and representing about 12 percent of the country’s industrial capacity and about 40 percent of Lower Austria’s industry. These factories were taken over by the Russians as German assets, and in their first two Soviet years they produced a steady stream of goods, both for the Soviet consumer and, for sale to hard-currency countries. Now the general economic crisis in Austria, and the fact that the plants were run at high wages and with no apparent regard for the maintenance or assurance of a supply of raw materials, has put USIA heavily into the red. It is unable to meet its payrolls or its bills, and has accumulated a debt of something like $25 million to the Soviet military bank.

This is undoubtedly one reason why the Russians will not reduce the occupation costs. But if the occupation ended, it is hardly likely that the Russians would put their own money into such a losing proposition, and the Soviet grip on a large portion of Austrian industry would consequently be relaxed, if not entirely lifted.

The general economic paralysis has had its effect upon the city’s cultural life. The Austrian publishing business, for instance, is in a strait-jacket. First, it cannot print German-language editions of current American or English books because the rights are held mainly by Swiss firms which have paid for them in hard currency. Thd latest American novel on sale here is Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

Second, Austrian publishers cannot sell the books they have printed for the Austrian trade because high costs require a retail price which in some cases is 40 to 50 percent of the average reader’s weekly income. Moreover, the currency shortage bas diverted cash into other channels.

Finally, Austrian publishers cannot sell their books to the hungry German market because the Joint Export and Import Agency in Germany, in one of the most unfortunate decisions it has made, has decreed that no German goods can be exported for books.

Despite excellent repertories, the Vienna opera and dramatic theatres play to half-empty houses. Although the concert halls sold out for Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein and YehudiMenuhin, these were rare occasions for the music-loving Viennese and theycheerfully went without food in order to buy tickets. The city’s night clubs arealso suffering from acute melancholia, while, in contrast, the wine-flowing Heurigen in Grinzing and other suburbs are jammed to overflowing bypeople drinking themselves silly asthey listen to nostalgic songs about Wien, Wien.The general climate ispsychotic, as in wartime.

Vienna is less an international capital, in the old sense of the phrase, than anadvance base for propaganda, espionage and intrigue. Intelligence agents, detectives and informers for all four occupying powers; displaced persons of a dozen nationalities; black marketeers; spivs, prostitutes, moneychangers and night-club-bar girls form a large demi-monde from which emanate strange, unconfirmed stories of the Balkans. Some of them, like the current yarn about the gigantic cigarette factory just across the border in Hungary, which is owned personally by Rakosi, Gottwald and Ana Pauker for the express purpose of taking over the European black-market cigarette trade, are cabled from here and printed in all seriousness. By the time minor incidents filter through successive layers of intrigue, they become events of international importance.

It has not been reported, for instance, that the much publicized incident in front of the Grand Hotel, in which an American GI was shot by a Russian guard, was the result of the GI’s woman companion hitting the guard over the head with a whisky bottle. Similarly, the recent Barbara Frietchie incident on the Danube, when Russian guards allegedly threatened to shoot down the American flag from a stranded excursion steamer, was pure invention.

As a matter of fact, the behavior of the Russians here is better than that of any other occupation force. They keep strictly to themselves, do not fraternize with the Austrians, go to the theatre rarely and to night clubs not at all. Their GI’s spend the evening reading Pravda or Maxim Gorky in their barracks; ours get drunk at the Oriental or Maxim’s. The street walkers of the Kaernerstrasse would starve if they depended on Russian patronage.

With everyone concerned officially agreed on the need for ending the occupation, the major question is why the Russians have now decided they do not want to go ahead with treaty negotiations, after having given every evidence that they sincerely wished a treaty. The more or less authoritative American view is that the Russians changed their minds after the Communist defeat in the Italian elections.

If the Italian Communists had won, the Russians would have been prepared to withdraw from an Austria practically surrounded by Communist neighbors. Now they are not so sure. Therefore they deliberately picked the only treaty issue on which there presumably could be no compromise—the Yugoslav territorial and reparations claims—and forced the suspension of talks.

This American interpretation, as usual, neglects to indicate any responsibility the American deputies themselves might have had for the breakdown. The Russians had given in on point after point in the discussions, and when they came to the Yugoslav clauses they made it plain that these could be compromised, too.

An important Austrian Communist told me that the Yugoslav territorial claims could be settled by giving Carinthia a semi-autonomous status and some Slovene-language schools, while the reparations claims could be taken care of by the Austrian assets which the Yugoslavs captured in their own country during the war, and which they are going to keep anyway. If Austria would also provide some Carinthian water power for Yugoslavia, said my informant, it would make a fine deal on both sides.

The Austrians are now resigned to more waiting to be set free, but the dissatisfaction and unrest are growing. I have heard several responsible Austrians say that the United States could alter the whole international picture at one stroke, by a unilateral withdrawal from Austria. The Russians then would be under the most severe moral pressure that has ever been exerted upon them, to withdraw similarly.

American military men say such thinking is preposterous, and that our strategic position in Central Europe must be maintained at all costs. In the next breath they admit that our forces could be overwhelmed in a matter of hours and that actually we have no strategic position.

It would be a gamble to pull out of Austria and see what happened next, but after three years of fruitless experimentation with all other means, it might be worth taking. Always provided, of course, that we really mean it when we say we want to leave.

Alexander Kendrick, formerly the Moscow correspondent for the Chicago Sun-Times, is now covering Central Europe for the Columbia Broadcasting System.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 1948, issue of the magazine.