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"Liberators and the Liberated"
"Occupiers and the Occupied"

The Encounter of the People of Austria with US Soldiers after World War II
An Austrian-American Dialogue

The first US troops - units of the 7th Army advancing from Belgium - reached the Austrian border on April 28, 1945. Supported by local resistance groups opposed to the Nazi regime, they liberated the province of Tyrol and its capital city. "Nowhere in Europe have we received a more festive reception than in Innsbruck," read the entry of a US soldier in his war diary. On the morning of May 4, 1945, tanks of the XV Corps, 106th Cavalry Division rolled through Salzburg. The city had been hit hard by American bombers only three days before. On May 5, 1945, elements of the 3rd Army reached Linz, which was surrendered without a fight. During their advance through Austria, the Americans came upon the Mauthausen concentration camp and its numerous auxiliary camps. One hundred thousand of human beings had been murdered here by the Nazis. Even after the liberation of the concentration camps by the Americans, hundreds of surviving prisoners died because their emaciated bodies could absorb no nutrition.

The zone of occupation controlled by the US Armed Forces consisted of the provinces of Salzburg and Upper Austria (south of the Danube River) and parts of the Austrian capital, Vienna. There were 70,000 American soldiers stationed in Austria in the Fall of 1945, though as early as January, 1946, the occupation strength was reduced to 41,000 men. Because US soldiers were constantly transferred, though, the number of GIs stationed here between 1945 and 1955 reached several hundred thousand.

How were these "victorious foreign soldiers" received: as liberators or as occupiers? What were the points of conflict or sources of friction; where did spontaneous sympathies emerge? Which preconceptions and prejudices did the respective sides hold toward their counterparts. How, then, did the first encounter between Austrians and GIs proceed?

The experience on the part of the Austrian population was very clearly marked by contradictory feelings: the relief that the war was over was accompanied by a bitter sense of defeat; the joy at their liberation was tempered by fear of the foreign soldiers, not to mention the widespread prejudices against the USA indoctrinated through Nazi propaganda. Zealous national socialists regarded the end of World War II as without a doubt "the end of the world."

Actually, the liberation of Austria had been carried out by the `wrong' US troops. Instead of proceeding as planned with the 5th Army under General Marc Clark advancing from the south, the first Americans to arrive were units from the west which had not been readied for Austria. Their 'Handbook for Germany', the land which they had been prepared to occupy, prescribed a strict treatment of the local population. These orders were applied as well to Austria, which the Americans - unlike, for example, the French - regarded as the territory of a defeated enemy. The victors' passion for `souvenirs' - watches, fountain pens, German medals and insignias - sometimes, in these early days of occupation, turned into outright plunder.

US Headquarters pursued a strict policy of non-fraternization at that time. Contacts between occupation troops and Austrians were discouraged. But this ban on fraternization ordered by the top brass was quickly being evaded in everyday practice and, indeed, by both sides. By August, 1945, the MPs could no longer keep up with the disciplinary proceedings resulting from all the infractions and the policy was annulled.

The most important factor paving the way to closer relationships in the immediate postwar years was foodstuffs. After all, an army of occupation that had plenty of everything was placed in the midst of an Austrian population suffering from extreme hunger. 80% of Austrian children were malnourished. The mood of the populace was depressed. In this contrast of poor Austrians - rich Americans , the `liberators and occupiers' can be seen in one of their many additional roles: that of provider and protector. And their assumption of this role was certainly encouraged by many Austrians. When radio station Rot-Weisz-Rot (red-white-red, the colors of the Austrian flag), which the Americans had set up in June, 1945, conducted a listener survey to gauge the popularity of its programming, the response was to a large extent bluntly pragmatic: "Words and music from America are very nice, but best of all would simply be food shipments, which arrive here much too seldom." Perhaps the Americans discovered that the way to the Austrians' hearts was through their stomachs.

Care packages, school lunch programs, clothing donations and, above all, the Marshall Plan became the magic words of the occupation era. These American aid programs were highly effective in much more than a material sense; rather, they also revived hopes that big, powerful America would not leave Austria in the lurch.

The US occupation of Austria lasted for ten years. In the Austrian popular imagination, this era is most closely associated with the 42nd (Rainbow) Division. How then did the "liberators and liberated," "victors and vanquished," "occupiers and the occupied." work out the details of the everyday life of occupation during the years from 1945 to 1955? What sort of contacts took place between the Austrian populace and the American soldiers? And what traces did these interactions leave behind?

Following in the wake of the Nazis' efforts to insulate society against foreign influences, the era of occupation was also a decade of intercultural encounter. Swing, jazz, American films, blue jeans, Mickey Mouse, Coca Cola and chewing gum came to symbolize the `cool', relaxed style of the Yanks and the American way of life. For the Austrian populace, these were both strange and fascinating . They were especially enchanting for adolescents growing up in postwar Austria.

The strongest impression made by the GIs was quite clearly as propagandists for the material prosperity of the American Dream, of which they themselves were living proof. For example, even the lowliest enlisted man in the US Army in those days earned more than an Austrian construction engineer. And that soldier's American homeland was the very epitome of modernity: in 1949, 70% of all telephones, 80% of all refrigerators and "100%" of all television sets in the world could be found in the USA. In Austria at that same point in time, there existed a mere 20,000 ice-boxes and fewer than 3,000 washing machines in the entire country. Thus, barely three percent of all Austrian households were equipped with these miracles of modern technology. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that America occupied a place somewhere between paradise and the promised land in postwar Austrian consciousness.

In American bars and clubs, Austrians could observe this material prosperity and American zest for life from a more intimate perspective. Army authorities attempted to make their boys' stay in Austria as pleasant as possible by instituting various measures to combat GI homesickness. These young men plainly regarded postwar Austria as a form of exile, as the American magazine Newsweek remarked ironically in December, 1945: cut off "from the land of milk and honey, of roadside hot dog stands, chocolate malted milkshakes and quiz programs, Rita Hayworth, baseball scores and bee-yoo-tiful Texas." The US Army helped them to transplant much of that life to Austria and `Little Americas' began to sprout up all over Austria.

Moreover, many postwar Austrians thronged overseas to the `real' America. Among them were several thousand Austrian women for whom the way had been opened by the passage of the War Brides Act. This law enabled American occupation troops to marry citizens of liberated and occupied countries and to bring them back to the USA. Within the first 14 days following the announcement of the passage of this bill, 300 such applications had already been filed in Austria alone, according to a report in the New York Times dated January 18, 1946. Major General Harry J. Collins, commander of the Rainbow Division, married an Austrian woman as well. What was it about Austrian females that GIs found so appealing? And why were Austrian women attracted to GIs?

The multifaceted nature of the relationships between Fräuleins and GIs was one of the most frequently discussed subjects of the era of occupation. The feelings of the Austrian public towards women who carried on liaisons with American soldiers were highly conflicted and often hostile. A commonly heard complaint was that they were dragging Austria's reputation down into the dirt. They were frequently reviled with insulting names such as `chocolate girls' and `Yank brides' - regardless of whether the relationship was a flirt, love, marriage or prostitution. And it was usually these women alone who had to accept and deal with the `consequences' of these relationships. Almost 2,000 illegitimate children of the occupation were born between 1945 and 1955 in the province of Salzburg alone. Many of them never met their American fathers.

Fifty years later, we asked teenagers of the 1990s to describe the current image of America among Austrian adolescents. Is The American Dream still, or once again, in their minds?

So much, then, for the encounters of Austrians and GIs during the era of US occupation from the Austrian perspective. What memories remain from this experience on `the American side'? What were the most lasting impressions made upon former US occupation troops by the land and the people of Austria? Let us hear from you.

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