Austrians as Cold War Mediators

The Soviet condition for Austria to finally get a State Treaty in 1955 was a means to neutralize the country—the U.S. was not overly happy with this outcome but the Eisenhower administration accepted it as a price to pay to finally evacuate the country from its postwar four-power occupation. In the following years, Austria needed to define its role as a neutral country on the East-West faultline of the Cold War. The government of Julius Raab developed an armed and active neutrality policy like Switzerland.

The first big test came during the Hungarian Revolution in the fall of 1956, when the new Austrian Bundesheer was staged on the border and some 180,000 Hungarian refugees fled to Austria. Raab’s Foreign Minister Bruno Kreisky (1959–66) practiced Austrian “Ostpolitikavant la lettre, trying to mediate between chairman Nikita Khrushchev and his old friend Willi Brand in the Berlin crisis. In early June 1961, President John F. Kennedy met Khrushchev for a summit meeting in Vienna, again discussing the Berlin issue as the principal bone of contention at the time next to a series of crisis points in the Global South from Laos to Congo to Cuba. Talks in Vienna left the Berlin issue unresolved. Despite Kreisky’s and Kennedy’s mediation efforts, only two months after the Vienna summit the Berlin Wall was built to stop the flow of refugees to the West.

Austria played a particularly active role in East-West mediation during the détente phase of the Cold War in the 1970s. During the crisis in Czechoslovakia after the invasion of the Warsaw Pact troops, Austria again served as a haven for refugees. Both Presidents Nixon and Ford stopped over in Salzburg in 1972 and 1975 respectively on trips dealing with the Middle East. Chancellor Kreisky briefed Nixon and Kissinger on their way to a tour of the Near East in early June 1972. In early June 1975, President Gerald Ford met Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for a meeting on Near Eastern issues. During his opening press conference Ford noted: “Your hospitality in offering Salzburg as the site for my meetings with President Sadat reflects Austria's constructive international policy and the traditional warmth of the Austrian nation.” At the same time Austrian diplomats played a crucial role in negotiating human rights issues in the preparatory sessions for the Helsinki Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1975, markedly reducing Cold War tensions. In May 1979, President Jimmy Carter met Soviet Party Chief Leonid Brezhnev in a Vienna summit to sign the SALT II treaty. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan half a year later, Cold War tensions resumed again and the U.S. Senate never ratified the SALT II treaty. Austria punched above its weight in the United Nations, particularly with its three stints as a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 1973/74, 1991/92, and 2009/10.

Sources: Günter Bischof/Stefan Karner/Barbara Stelzl-Marx, eds., The Vienna Summit and Its Importance in International History. Lanham: Lexington Boosk, 2014.

Benjamin Gilde. Österreich im KSZE-Prozess 1969-1983: Neutraler Vermittler. Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2013.