“Austria is Free!” Post-War Vienna Escapes the Soviet Bloc
May 15th, 1955, was a momentous occasion for a war-battered Europe, and for the national history of Austria as the Foreign Ministers representing the Occupying Powers gathered to sign the Austrian Independence Treaty. Leopold Figl, the former Chancellor and then the Foreign Minister, famously appeared on the balcony of Vienna’s Belvedere Palace (now home to a dazzling Klimt collection), waved the signed paper and uttered the words Österreich ist frei! (“Austria is free!”),
This treaty reinstated Austria’s sovereignty for the first time since the March 1938 Anschluss with Nazi Germany, which had annexed Austria and made it the province of Ostmark. It called for the withdrawal of the four occupying state’s forces, outlawed any future Anschluss with Germany, and banned Nazism. The newly independent country formally declared its neutrality in October of that year.
Despite the ten years of separation into different zones by the Occupying Forces, Austria’s fate turned out to be much better than Germany’s or the other countries of Central Europe, which were dragged into the Soviet sphere. One major reason was the 1943 Moscow Declaration, in which the foreign ministers of the U.S., UK, and the USSR declared that the Anschluss of Austria by Germany was null and void and called for the establishment of a free Austria after the victory over Nazi Germany.
The Soviets had pushed the Nazis out of Austria in April 1945 and went on to pillage and loot the devastated populace. By July, the Four Powers — Britain, France, the U.S., and the USSR — agreed to the demarcation of the occupation zones, with Vienna split amongst all four. The Four Powers made up the Allied Control Council, which served as the governing body, just as it did in Berlin. Elections were held that fall and the Communist Party did poorly. Moscow, not surprisingly was not happy and only grudgingly allowed Figl to become chancellor.
As retribution, it took fully advantage of the Potsdam Agreement, which allowed confiscation of “German external assets” in Austria. In less than a year the Soviets dismantled and shipped to the East industrial equipment valued at around $500 million. American High Commissioner Mark W. Clark strongly pushed back in what become one of many fronts of the Cold War.
From establishing free media and broadcasting information gained behind the Iron Wall to enduring the Communists’ strikes in 1950 and the brief Soviet seizure of Austria’s radio station, the Soviet appropriation of oil fields to the 1952 Stabilization plan, to the myriad intelligence matters that came up in what became the spy capital of Europe, the fight for Austria’s independence was extremely complicated.
Halvor C. Ekern worked as Assistant to High Commissioner, Office of the High Commissioner, in Vienna from 1945-1955. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1992. Horace G. Torbert worked as Coordinator of Intelligence in Austria from 1950-1955; he was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1988. Dr. William Lloyd Stearman was a Political Officer in Austria from 1950-1955 and was interviewed by Kennedy in 1992.
Arthur A. Bardos served with Radio Austria from 1951-1955 and went on to work with Voice of America in Germany; he was interviewed by Hans Tuch beginning January 1990. Mary Seymour Olmsted was stationed as a Commercial Officer in Vienna from 1951-1955; she. was also interviewed by Kennedy in 1992. Chester H. Opal served as a Public Affairs Officer in Vienna from 1951-1953. He helped found the NATO Information Service and was interviewed by G. Lewis Schmidt in 1989.
“By 1947, all the Red Army needed to reach the English Channel was shoes”
William Lloyd Stearman, Political Officer, 1950-1955
STEARMAN: By 1947, the West didn’t have one single combat ready infantry division in Western Europe. We had only constabulary forces. By 1947, all the Red Army needed to reach the English Channel was shoes, as the wags were wont to say.
All of this is germane to what we were discussing because that was the atmosphere which was one of the overweening Soviet military strength in Europe. We did not have the feeling that the atom bomb gave us that much of an advantage. I learned many years later that we had no atom bombs at that time, and I believe the Soviets knew that….
From Nagasaki to rather late 1947, we had no atom bombs at all. We assembled two for tests on Bikini Atoll in 1946, but apart from that, we had no assembled atom bombs in our inventory. The United States in 1947 did not have one combat ready infantry division, nor one combat ready Air Force wing. We had gone from 13 million in uniform in 1945 to 1.7 million in twenty months. So we unilaterally disarmed. This weakness was felt in Europe and was, I believe, one of the factors that encouraged the Communists to take over Czechoslovakia.…
We didn’t think that the Soviet’s intentions were very benign as far as we and the rest of the West was concerned. There was considerable worry. When the Marshall Plan was announced and agreed to, the Soviets waged war against it by forming the COMINFORM [Communist Information Bureau] in 1947 and by fomenting strikes, riots and disturbances in France and Italy through the local communist parties. That was a very, very disturbing time….
One has to bear in mind that we did not know, in 1948, how weak the Soviets were or the extent to which they had been bled white in the war. We did not yet know the extent of the vast destruction in the USSR. We had, for example, only a very vague idea of how many people in the Soviet Union were killed because at that time the official Soviet figure was something between 6 and 8 million. The latest figure is now 28 million killed….
And the closer you were to it, the larger loomed the threat. In Vienna we were 100 miles behind the Iron Curtain and surrounded by Soviet forces who were active in all sorts of nefarious ways throughout Vienna, even in the American Sector…One event that really had enormous impact in Europe, I think more than most people now appreciate, was outbreak of the Korean War.
“There was a great feeling of uncertainly and feeling that the Soviets might strike there next”
Many people thought that the attack on South Korea [in 1950] was a gambit in a worldwide Soviet offensive and that they were going to do something in Europe. Europe would come next. We had people in the Legation, [a diplomatic representative office lower than an embassy headed by a minster] in Vienna who sent their wives and children to France, Spain, etc. to get them into Western Europe and out of Vienna. I sent most of my possessions back to my parents in the U.S. There was a great feeling of uncertainty. We didn’t realize that Korea was an aberration.
I have long believed that the Korean attack probably wasn’t primarily Stalin’s idea, that he gave the green light to Kim Il Sung thinking that taking South Korea would be a piece of cake, that we wouldn’t do anything about it and that it would be over within a short time. That is, I believe, how the Soviets calculated that we had pretty much written off South Korea in several ways. MacArthur, [Commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific,] in March, 1949 left it outside of our defense perimeter and Acheson, [Truman’s Secretary of State,] in 1950 did the same thing. Moreover, by June 1949, we had pulled out all our troops, except for an assistance group….
And we almost cut off economic assistance too. When you look at all these things, the Soviets had to think the Americans didn’t really care about South Korea. Therefore, when Kim Il Sung asked if the Soviets would back an attack, Stalin probably said something like, “Be my guest.”
There was a great feeling of uncertainly and feeling that the Soviets might strike [Vienna] next. An attack may be imminent….
From a psychological point of view it would have been infinitely worse if we had not [responded militarily], and South Korea had been taken rapidly. As it was, we almost lost anyway…. [But] we acted fairly rapidly.
That was enormously important for the Western Europeans, to a degree which I think is still very little appreciated in the U.S. Had we not intervened then, the Europeans could well have concluded that they couldn’t rely on the Americans, and that the Russians can go in anywhere and the Americans won’t lift a finger. It was very important from the European’s point of view, what we did [for South Korea].
EKERN: You may remember that Germany was a conquered country, but the four Allies decided that Austria was a liberated country. In Germany they had the non-fraternization policy, a very stern attitude, but in Austria we were free to make friends.
The city was devastated, having been bombed very badly. The Russians got in there first. The Allied Authority in London had decided where the demarcation lines between the four zones were as well as the four portions of the city, to be divided among the British, French, Russians and U.S.
TORBERT: Our zone was the sort of center of Austria, with its headquarters in Salzburg. The British had the southern part of Austria south of the Kaertner [Carinthian] Alps, with headquarters in Klagenfurt. The French had the Alpine part of the Tyrol and the Voralberg, with headquarters in Innsbruck. The Soviets had everything east of Linz and north of the Kaertner Alps, so that they surrounded Vienna. Their headquarters was in Baden.
U.S. Zone, Austria (Walter Elkins)
“One of the Soviet officers made the mistake of reaching for his revolver and Tech Sgt Dixon shot and killed him. This was the last time the Soviets tried to board a U.S. train in Austria.”
EKERN: Mark Clark was our High Commissioner and Commanding General [1945-47].… He didn’t take too much backtalk from the Russians and the Austrians were prepared for a deliverer, which they saw in Mark Clark….
The Russians wanted to come in [to Vienna], but he said not until they sign the agreements on access, something they didn’t bother to do in Berlin [Go here to read the text]. Al Gruenther, the Deputy High Commissioner, went in and talked to the Russians and said that his Commissioner was not coming in until they sign the agreements for access by rail, air, and road. A smart decision.
STEARMAN: Al Gruenther really crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s as far as access to Vienna was concerned. This may well be why we didn’t really have the access and other problems with the Soviets we had in Berlin. We did have a few minor problems with the Soviets trying to interfere with access, but we could always nail them because we had such a tight access agreement.
We had also some early interference with air access to Vienna because that was not spelled out in as great detail as it was with Berlin. Our High Commissioner said that if there was any further interference with U.S. flights, we were going to escort all our planes with fighter aircraft ordered to shoot down interfering aircraft. Soviet air interference immediately ceased.
Now, this all demonstrated how to deal with the Soviets. We had many tests of will. One had to be tough. You have to have at least the willpower, if not actually military power, which, in our case, was evaporating rapidly as you know….
At one point early on, the [Soviets] were stopping and boarding our train…the Mozart Express which ran between Vienna and Salzburg in the American Zone. In early 1946, the American High Commissioner told the Soviet High Commissioner that they must cease and desist from doing this.
Once, in January 1946, when the train had to stop in the Soviet Zone to take on water, a party of Soviet troops boarded, headed by a senior lieutenant and two enlisted men. That car was guarded by Tech Sergeant Shirley B. Dixon of Toledo, Ohio, who ordered them to get off the train and stay off.
One of the officers made the mistake of reaching for his revolver and Dixon beat him to the draw and shot and killed him, badly wounded another soldier and the other Soviets ran away. That was the last time they tried to board a U.S. train in Austria.…
Something out of “The Third Man”
Horace G. Torbert, Cordinator of Intelligence, 1950-1955.
TORBERT: When I got to Vienna [in 1950]… we were just about to take over an absolutely immense occupation government, which involved something like 3,500 civilian Americans. There was a small American military group in Vienna, also British and French and Soviet. It was a quadripartite city, but just at the edge of the city [we were] completely surrounded by the Soviet zone. Of course, the Korean War had just started a few months previous. We were feeling probably unduly excited, and a lot of people got very nervous.
I arrived with the assignment, technically, as an economic officer, but very soon after I got there, [Deputy Chief of Mission Walter] “Red” Dowling asked me to go to a briefing session with the military with him, with a military G-2, who was a very able officer who, on retirement, spent a long term in the CIA. [The G-2] told Dowling that he thought it was absolutely imperative that he have a coordinator for intelligence, because there were so many intelligence activities in the town.
He said, “Do you have anybody that can do that?”
And Dowling said, “Yes, Torbert here.” This was the first I had heard of it.
I knew nothing about intelligence. I was thunderstruck, but it sounded interesting. I started in and organized it on a very small scale. As I say, the atmosphere was a little difficult at the time. Intelligence was certainly the largest single industry of Vienna.
Q: As seen in the movie The Third Man.
TORBERT: “The Third Man”, I think, had just come out, or it was about to come out….
I worked very hard at trying to get a handle on the whole [of the intelligence] problem. I identified about thirty more or less autonomous U. S. intelligence units operating in or through Austria. The CIA was just being reorganized and consolidated. They had two branches, one of which was the psychological warfare and dirty tricks department, and the other was collection of intelligence….
Vienna was important from the intelligence point of view, not only for what went on there, but because of all of the things that went on through Vienna. We were right in the middle of Eastern Europe. A lot of defectors and many refugees, of course, came out that way.
I got a little bit over being scared by going up in December on a trip to Germany, to inspect their immense establishment which was supposed to compare to mine. I think they had 50 or 60 officers working for the man who was my counterpart up there. I had, at that time, nobody except a secretary. (Laughs) Eventually I got two or three people, but I never had a very big staff….
“This was the difference between liberation and conquest”
Chester H. Opal, Public Affair Officer, 1951-1953.
OPAL: We had several objectives in Austria: one, to promote positive American values; second, to counter Soviet propaganda, but not so stridently that there would be Soviet reprisals against our people or friendly Austrians.
Also, much of the work we did with the Austrians was for restoration of their own pride and confidence. They had bought Hitler, although we said they were forced to — and many certainly felt they were indeed forced — [despite] all the pro-Nazi sentiment that existed before the Anschluss.
We had an interesting occupation policy. Unlike Germany, in Austria, unless everybody disagreed with an Austrian initiative, then it was possible. Only one approval in the Allied Control Council was necessary. In Germany all had to be for it or it was not permitted. This was the difference between liberation and conquest.
In Austria, the Austrians could do anything, as long as one of the Allies supported them. So the Russians were not able to veto their actions on press and so on. We got a lot of free press kind of activity out of the Austrians. If we objected to something — and there were many times we did, although I think we tended to be liberal — it would be on the question of revival of neo-Nazi doctrine.
In east Tyrol, around Innsbruck [occupied by France], and in parts of Austria that were occupied by Britain, Graz for example, there was some neo-Nazi sentiment. We expressed our objection to it, but we never put it down entirely, because we felt they would sit this out and eventually come to some sort of resolution. There was an awful lot of Nazi-like thinking still in Austria, but we felt that we should free them, let them find their own way.
“It was a shoestring operation”
STEARMAN: I had a fascinating job in Vienna. I was in the political section and represented the U.S. in a subcommittee of the Political Directorate dealing and negotiating with the Soviets. I did that for four and a half years. I also started something which became quite an operation, to help both our people and correspondents to report on Eastern Europe….
I set up a little FBIS [Foreign Broadcast Information Service] operation. We got newspapers from our various legations and embassies behind the Iron Curtain. I had a small staff of people who translated interesting press items. We also did some radio monitoring. In addition, we had an unbelievable source of intelligence and information.
Because of a Four-Power arrangement, there was an agreement that all communications going outside of Austria to any foreign country would be monitored by all four powers who got transcripts of everything, letters, telephone conversations, and telegrams. So we got copies of all of this coming out of Eastern Europe. Then we had many refugee interrogation reports.
I would take these items and sanitize them. I would delete the names of all the parties on both ends or anything that would identify them. But the information was still there and now being unclassified, it could be used by correspondents or anyone else.
Then I set up an unclassified archive. This was useful not only to the media, but also to government agencies like VOA [Voice of America], etc. Every single day of the year, Reuters worldwide service, [the international news agency,] carried at least one piece from us on events in Eastern Europe. It was a shoestring operation, cost the USG [United States Government] practically nothing and was remarkably successful….it was so unorthodox….
“This was a matter of psychological warfare. Our job was to keep the Austrian Government in control of Austria”
TORBERT: Our job in Vienna developed to where I was almost chief of staff for the High Commissioner. I was monitoring all of the political, intelligence reporting, propaganda activity, and — in a sense — security. Eventually I became the Assistant Deputy High Commissioner, which meant that I presided at some of the High Commission meetings.
At that time, Vienna was the only country in which we were meeting regularly with the Soviets. The quadripartite arrangements in Germany had broken down, but for some reason, the Soviets were willing to continue them there. Every month while I was there, we had a meeting of the Allied High Commission preceded by the meetings of executive committee and various subcommittees.
It was an exercise on our part in trying to keep the Austrian Government able to run Austria. Some bright man early on — and several people have claimed credit for this — had put in our agreement with the Soviets that anything the Austrian Government decided on would be all right, unless it was vetoed unanimously by the Allied Control Commission.
Our object was to take any question that the Soviets raised and bury it as far down as possible in the bureaucratic process of the High Commission subcommittees. Then when it got up to the top of the High Commission, if it was something that we didn’t want, we’d all vote against it, the British and French, and then we tried to construct the record.
We had an agreement that we never published anything until it was finally acted on by the High Commission itself, the top body. But then we would blast out as a propaganda exercise in the Wiener Kurier, which was the biggest newspaper in Austria, which we operated at that time, and on the radio network, and tried to gain psychological advantage from it.
A great deal of this operation during this time was a matter of psychological warfare…. aimed not only at the Austrian population, but at the international population, the world population, really, the whole European population, I would have to say.
Because the Soviets liked to use Vienna and Berlin as seats for their great popular movements, such as the World Peace Council. You name it; they had an international group for almost everything. They tried to have big meetings, usually run by a non-communist, a fellow traveler. We would spend time trying to make those meetings as ineffective as possible….
Our job was to keep the Austrian Government in control of Austria, pending negotiation of the state treaty, which was being negotiated for many, many years…
“We were really running the information machinery in Austria”
Arthur A. Bardos, Radio Austria, 1951-1955.
BARDOS: I was hired to be radio program officer in Vienna. So we had there this radio network, Vienna, Salzburg, and Linz, and this was by far the most listened-to radio in Austria…. Called Rot-Weiss-Rot, “Red-White-Red,” which always bothered us because we were flying the Austrian national colors as an American-operated station. It was a little bit embarrassing at times. But that’s what the Army had done, and there was no way we could change it at that point.
We had the country’s largest newspaper, called Wiener Kurier, which still exists under Austrian management, named Kurier, simply. It is a fairly direct successor. We had every kind of operation imaginable.
I don’t think that most people are aware of the degree to which we were really running the information machinery in Austria. Whether one considers this a good or bad thing, it was, I think, enormously effective….
There was a coalition government in Austria. There were altogether four parties. The two big ones, that mattered, the People’s Party, which was a Christian Socialist party, and the Social Democrats, who were called Socialists, were in coalition. But it was not a very heartfelt coalition; it was tense, sometimes hostile.
Every time we reported something about one party that may have been useful and favorable to that party, the others would complain and demand equal time. They would go to the Ambassador — High Commissioner — to complain. The Socialists felt we should include the mass, which we broadcast every Sunday morning, as one of the party broadcasts of the People’s Party.
Obviously, the trade union broadcasts were considered by the latter as being Socialist broadcasts. So, much of the thankless task of Americans working in Rot-Weiss-Rot was to somehow keep our heads down in some of these cross-fires in which we were constantly caught….
The Soviets insisted on certain hours of air time for programming which they prepared. Their programs were called “Russische Stunde,” Russian Hour. That was helpful to us, because it contributed to the popularity of our station, because the “Russische Stunde” turned everybody off….
The Soviets also insisted, for instance, that news from the Soviet zone be broadcast in the “official” version, and this drove Austrians up the wall. A typical news story might have been, “A person in the uniform of an officer of one of the occupying forces last night in such and such village shot an Austrian gendarme [police officer of a French-speaking country]. Investigation proceeds.”
And Austrians found it outright refreshing to hear, over our station, “A Soviet officer, drunk, shot an Austrian gendarme in such and such village,” which was the truth and everybody knew to be the truth…. In that sense, there was little competition.