Book Review: Wolfgang Mueller’s A Good Example of Peaceful Coexistence

A new study on Austrian neutrality during the Cold War sheds light on how Austria navigated the delicate waters of the time

A Cold War image: Hungarian refugees cross the border to Austria in 1956 | Photo: Getty Images

The Pitfalls of Coexistence

How would you characterise the relationship between Austria and the Soviet Union from the signing of the Austrian State Treaty in 1955 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991?

Based on newly declassified archival sources from the Soviet era in Russia and on varied Austrian archival materials, author Wolfgang Mueller has put together a masterful study of how Austria achieved independence from Allied occupation by convincing the Soviet Union to grant it independence under the condition of permanent neutrality and how the relationship between Austria and the USSR developed after Austria rejoined the community of nations in 1955. Peaceful Coexistence is an extension of his previous work, and one that clearly chronicles the ebb and flow of Austrian-Soviet relations from the early days until the end of the Cold War.

The idea of “peaceful coexistence”, of capitalist and socialist systems existing side by side without conflict, was one propagated by the Soviets and tacitly accepted by the Americans, yet it was one that was never really entirely trusted. The lack of a firm commitment to this concept from the West and fear of manipulation by the Soviets led to peaceful coexistence being paid little more than lip service with the exception of tiny Austria, where peaceful coexistence and acceptance of Soviet policy and the borders in Eastern and Central Europe seemed to function at least for a time.

What were the pitfalls of “peaceful coexistence” for Austria from 1955 onward and how did Austria deal with Soviet attempts at manipulation? The answers Mueller gives are surprising, namely that the wily Austrians were able to walk the tightrope between angering the Soviets and risking their neutrality to play a crucial role in East-West relations, culminating in the 1961 Vienna Summit  between U.S. President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. As the United States and the rest of Western Europe slowly began to accept the borders between Eastern and Western Europe, and these were confirmed in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the role of Austria changed from that of mediator and intermediary to a location for talks and the seat of the United Nations.

Even after the brutal Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Soviet leaders attempted to use Austria as an “icebreaker” for cultural relations with the West by proposing a bilateral cultural treaty. For the Soviets, improved cultural relations and an entry onto the Austrian cultural scene would allow them to showcase the Soviet Union in the West and reach Western intellectuals, artists, and elites with positive messages about the Soviet state.

Austria was a “special case” during the Cold War, and much of Austria’s special situation was the direct result of the signing of the State Treaty in 1955 to which the Soviets agreed on the condition that Austria become “permanently neutral”. The Kremlin allowed Austrian independence to become reality, but there were strings attached, and Soviet attempts to manipulate neutral Austria for its purposes, especially in 1956 and 1968 with the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring could not help but color the Austrian-Soviet relationship in the years until 1991.

Mueller’s thesis is that Austria was used to “neutralise” Western Europe until the onset of détente in the late 1960s, when U.S. President Richard Nixon and German Chancellor Willy Brandt became “trusted partners of the Kremlin.” The Austrian case at the beginning of the Cold War was certainly a unique one and proved to be the basis for establishing a new post-World War II Austrian identity, one that was not only to be neutral but also to speak clearly about Austrian views regarding the Soviet Union’s Western European policy.

A Good Example of Peaceful Coexistence? is a specialized study of an underexamined aspect of Austrian history, and of interest to both specialists and those wishing to know more about Austrian history during the Cold War. It fills a substantial gap that exists on this topic in English. That said, it is a not a popular work and one that requires significant pre-knowledge of the period in question and patience in reading details about Austrian politicians’ approaches to the USSR during the Cold War.


A Good Example of Peaceful Coexistence
The Soviet Union, Austria, and Neutrality,
Wolfgang Mueller
Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademieder Wissenschaften, 2011. (Volume 15 in the Series Zentral Europa Studien edited by Arnold Suppan and Grete Klingenstein)

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