Jewish life in Austria dates to the times of the Roman Empire and peaked in the early 1930s, when Jews comprised 10 percent of Vienna's total population. The status of Austrian Jewry has been characterized both by periods of equality and prosperity and eras rife with pogroms, deportations and anti-Semitism.
There is fragmentary documentation of a Jewish presence in Austria during the first millennium of the Common Era, including the “Raffelstettener Zollordnung,” a listing of sustoms and tax rules from 906-908 that documented the presence of Jews in Austria during the 10th century.
In 1244, Austrian Jews were granted certain rights by Emperor Friedrich II and became active in commerce, but by the 14th century a fixed Jewish tax was imposed on them, followed by persecution and massacres. In 1420, all Austrian Jews were arrested, 270 were burned at the stake and the others expelled, and their property was confiscated. Jews were allowed to settle in the cities of Styria and Carinthia by King Friedrich III (1440-1493), but in 1496, Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I (1459-1519) banished them from both cities at the request of local guilds.
Despite a 1669 Edict of Expulsion, a number of privileged Hofjuden, or court Jews, were allowed to live in Austria. In 1757, about 454 Jews, all members of 12 prominent families, lived in Vienna.
By 1781, when Emperor Joseph II issued an “Edict of Tolerance,” more than 1,500,000 Jews lived within the borders of the Habsburg Empire. After the death of Joseph II, Austrian Jews again suffered a period of discrimination, interrupted by the short-lived “Pillersdorf constitution” that gave full equality to all religions practiced in the Empire.
During the first part of the 19th century Austrian Jewry enjoyed a stealth existence of sorts. In 1824 Rabbi Isak Noa Mannheimer was brought to Vienna as a preacher to the city’s growing Jewish population, but since no Jewish community was formally recognized, he was given the title of “Director of the Official Imperial and Royal Jewish Religious School of Vienna.” Four years later, when Rabbi Lazar Horowitz was invited to serve as Chief Rabbi of Vienna, he similarly received the official title of “Ritualienaufseher,” that is, “Rituals Supervisor.” The Vienna Synagogue was consecrated in 1826, and that same year Salomon Sulzer was appointed Head Cantor of the Synagogue. In 1849, Emperor Franz Joseph formally sanctioned an autonomous Jewish religious community, and the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were accorded full civil rights in 1867.
While Austrian Jewry thrived in the Habsburg Empire’s final decades, anti-Semitism became an ever-growing presence. Adolf Hitler often referred to the avowedly anti-Semitic Karl Lueger, who served as Mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, as one of the personalities who influenced his own views about Jews. Lueger, who maintained relations with some Viennese Jews, is said to have declared, “Wer ein Jud' ist, bestimme ich” (I decide who is a Jew), a comment subsequently also attributed to other anti-Semites.
Between 1848 and 1938, many Austrian Jews were prominent in Vienna’s commercial, intellectual, cultural, and political life. Among the more famous were Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Gustav Mahler (who converted to Christianity), Stefan Zweig, and Arthur Schnitzler. The composer Arnold Schoenberg converted to Christianity in 1921, but publicly returned to Judaism in a public ceremony in Paris in 1933. Victor Adler and Otto Bauer, who served as Austrian foreign ministers after World War I, were both Jews.
By the mid-1930s, some 180,000 Jews lived in Vienna, and 20,000 more in other parts of Austria. While many Austrian Jews were able to flee the country after its annexation by Germany in March of 1938, those who remained endured the full horrors of the Nazi terror, and more than 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
After World War II, the Austrian Jewish community reconstituted itself, albeit on a far smaller scale than before. In 1986, when Kurt Waldheim, a former United Nations Secretary General and Austrian Foreign Minister, was a candidate for the Austrian Presidency, the World Jewish Congress publicly exposed Waldheim’s Nazi past. The U.S. Ambassador to Austria, Ronald S. Lauder (today President of the World Jewish Congress) refused to attend Waldheim’s inauguration. In more recent years, the extreme xenophobic Freedom Party has been a source of concern for the Austrian Jewish community.
In 1996 a public auction of heirless art owned by Jews murdered in the Holocaust was organized by the Austrian government at the Mauerbach Monestary. The funds generated from the sale were transferred to a humanitarian fund for Holocaust survivors.
In 2000, the Austrian Jewish community was deeply upset when the extremist right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), led by Jörg Haider, a man with clear neo-Nazi sympathies, entered the Austrian government. On March 2, 2001, said publicly that Ariel Muzicant, President of the Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities “Dreck am Stecken haben könne” (“can have dirt on his boots”), a markedly anti-Semitic comment.
Following the October 2017 national elections, the FPÖ emerged as the second largest party, and entered a coalition government with the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), with FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache becoming Vice Chancellor, and the FPÖ controlling the Foreign, Interior, and Defence Ministries.