Although French and American troops had been in Austria since April, and British since early May it took until June 3rd before an advance party of the Western Allies went to Vienna to meet the Russians. Their vehicles were spotted by Viennese who gave them a jubilant reception. In July the borders of the occupation zones in the country as a whole were agreed. Vienna would be in the middle of the Russian zone.
The British, it seems, were responsible for some of the subsequent delay by the Western Allies in taking up the occupation of Vienna. They were annoyed that the Russians had appointed Karl Renner as head of state, along with others who were felt to be too much under the thumb of the communists, and so they played hard to get.
Towards the end of July, American occupation troops began arriving in Vienna and in September, after the Russians had issued an ultimatum that they would be withdrawing from the Western sectors from the first of the month leaving the population to fend for themselves, the Western Allies took up their positions, with the British arrived in numbers. The first formal meeting of the four powers who would govern Vienna was on September 12th, five months after the Russians had taken the city.
During those five months, conditions for the civilian population were very hard. Aside from Viennese, the city contained half a million foreign workers, refugees and Reich Germans. Battalions of Austrians were formed in Yugoslavia from 1944 to fight alongside Tito against the Germans. These opponents of the Nazis came to Vienna after the fall of the city and were allowed by the Russians to carry arms and to police the city, the regular police having all been disarmed. Some of the men who joined this police force had been in concentration camps and they took it out on any Nazis they found by beating them up.
An eye witness reports on conditions in early July 1945:
“ ‘American technical accomplishments, Persian culture and Russian lack of taste’ is the description given to the many Russian-driven jeeps covered with the most expensive Persian rugs and lavish drapes.
The looting and raping in Vienna itself has ceased completely, according to [my anonymous] informant…Punishment for looting and raping is death, and while there was no enforcement up to recently, a number of Russian soldiers and even officers have been shot for these crimes...
The food shortage in Vienna is serious and acute… The bread situation is getting worse. There is no gas or coal in the city, and to get the existing wood from the Wienerwald, the city lacks the necessary vehicles…
The black market is flourishing, although every attempt is now being made to eliminate it. Thus the trading on the Karlsplatz in the Resselpark is subject to frequent joint raids by Russian MPs and the Austrian police, (who are armed). A watch brings about 4 to 6 pounds of fat…the Austrians are anxiously waiting the Americans…”
Paul Sweet in a report dated 10th July 1945, in Rathkolb (1985), pp.281-3)
Because Russians would often requisition trucks going to get supplies from the countryside the city authorities only had twelve trucks at their disposal and supplies of basic necessities - food and fuel - were chaotic and inadequate to feed the city. Although banned at first, people therefore went out into the countryside to forage, the so-called Rucksackverkehr (rucksack traffic). An eyewitness describes this:
“The lack of transport is so acute that some people hike 20 miles into the country to buy potatoes and vegetables from farmers…Every day in the beautiful Vienna woods… thousands of aged people are collecting wood for stoves and painfully trudging the miles back home with towering loads on their backs. People also may be seen rummaging through rubbish piles in the streets for useful junk.”
(Ira Freeman in “This is Vienna” (Yank magazine, October 5th 1945)
Martin Herz described a family of three, a mother and two children under 5, who he visited on September 14th 1945, living in the Russian zone. The father was missing in action since January 1945. Their rations include bread, sugar, peas, salt and coffee surrogate. There are no potatoes, fat, butter, vegetables or milk. The mother has lost 20 kilos since April. Their apartment consists of a single room with kitchen. The window panes were broken by concussion so are patched up with cardboard. A wire strung across the courtyard from a friendly neighbour means they now have electric light to burn one bulb. Health of children is ‘good, except that children frequently get diarrhea.’ She has nothing to trade on the black market. (Herz in Wagnleiter, 1985 p. 42)
Another visitor describes Vienna in October1945:
“The shivering misery of the people on the streets, the burnt-out filigree of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, the shattered baroque façades, the boarded-up shops, the grassgrown ruins…The parks and squares have been dug up for airraid shelters. Wherever there is a patch of grass you see a scattering of the white crosses of the graves of the Russians who died in their assault on the city.
[Yet] the life that is starting up again in the ruins takes on the semblance of the old pattern…Though many of the auditoriums are ruined, all the theaters are open. Concert programs offer more good music in a week than you could hear in a month in New York…In cafés, uncleaned and unheated, people sit reading the newspapers over cups of the moldy tasting dark gruel called coffee that has become truly the national drink of the European Continent.
‘What do you eat?’ you ask people.
‘Bread and dried peas,’ they answer.
‘How do you get the money to buy the rations?’
By selling furniture or extra clothes or themselves, they answer.
(dos Passos, 1946)
As in Germany, the Russians were keen to ship industrial equipment back to Russia to rebuild their own devastated economy. They also wanted the oil that Austria at that time produced, particularly from oil wells in the Soviet zone. These things led to tensions between the Russians and the Western Allies, whose priorities were to restore order, seek out Nazis, and feed the population, all of which were made more difficult if the transport and production infrastructure was being stripped bare by the Russians.
These early tensions were precursors of a much deeper-seated hostility and suspicion, being early harbingers of what was to become known as the Cold War.
Sources for this page
Dos Passos, John (1946) Tour of Duty. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group
Wagnleitner R. Understanding Austria: The political reports and analyses of Martin F Herz, Political Officer of the US Legation in Vienna 1945-48; Salzburg 1984.
Rathkolb, Oliver (1985) Gesellschaft und Politik am Beginn der Zweiten Republik : vertrauliche Berichte der US-Militäradministration aus Österreich 1945 in englischer Originalfassung (Hg.). Wien : Böhlau. [Society and politics at the beginning of the Second Republic. Confidential reports of the U.S. military administration from Austria in 1945 in the original English version]