ISSN 2330-717X

Why 1955 Peace Treaty Bans Landlocked Austria From Deploying Submarines – Analysis


By John Hickman

New York Times coverage of the 1955 Austrian State Treaty from the year it was signed touches on all of the pressing issues left over from the Second World War in Europe and the unfolding Cold War: sovereignty, occupation troops, return of prisoners of war, repatriation of displaced persons, war guilt, Soviet expropriations, and the implications for Germany.  Missing from the news coverage however is any reference to Article 13 of the peace treaty, which prohibited Austria from deploying submarines: “Austria shall not possess, construct or experiment with…submarines or other submersible craft…”

What makes the provision Pythonesque is that the treaty restored Austria’s sovereignty within its 1938 landlocked borders.  Ironically, the 1990 Two Plus Four Treaty, the final peace treaty of the Second World War that legitimized the reunification of Germany and ended the Cold War, included no U-boat prohibition.  The Federal Republic of Germany deployed and exported submarines before and after 1990.  Why then was Article 13 included in the 1955 Austrian State Treaty?

Arms Control Solution Without a Problem

Even a cursory examination of the geography of the Danube River reveals that there was no plausible future threat of Austrian submarines slipping up or down the river to exit in the North Sea or Black Sea.  Too narrow and too shallow for all midget submarines to operate submerged, the river is connected to the open sea by multiple locks located in non-Austrian territory, which would prevent any submarine from traveling undetected.  As representatives of a continental power with major inland rivers and experience with brown water navy operations, Soviet foreign policy makers were likely more aware of the military importance of rivers than their Western counterparts.  Still, it is unlikely that even they actually worried about Austrian U-boats per se.

Historical Trauma and Geopolitical Anxiety 

What seems a cruel joke, Article 13 served as a reminder that another feared enemy lay defeated at the feet at the Allies.  Negotiations over the fate of Austria were believed to be the precursor and model for negotiations over the fate of Germany.  Despite efforts to recast Austria as the first victim of German territorial aggression, the popularity of the 1938 Anschluss among Austrians and the participation of Austrians in German uniform in some of the worst atrocities of the Second World War made that difficult to credit. Austria had been part of the Third Reich rather than as one of the lesser Axis allies.

Today it is difficult to appreciate how much Germany was feared even in postwar defeat.  Yet another resurgence of German pan-nationalism and militarism, which might feature a future Anschluss, seemed plausible.  In Western capitals, postwar German weakness was as great a concern as potential strength.  A neutralized Germany would make the rest of Western Europe vulnerable to the Red Army.  Ultimately it was Joseph Stalin’s geopolitical vision of a fragmented Germany that was realized via Soviet and Polish annexations of eastern German territory, the effective partition of remaining German territory into the Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic, and the neutralization of Austria.

Denying militarily useless submarines as well as improbable weapons like atomic bombs in Article 13 was thus as much or more about Germany than Austria.  The U-boat was the iconic German vehicle-weapon in both world wars, with unrestricted submarine warfare seen as evidence of German barbarity.  Banning iconic weapons has been part of international legal practice since a defeated Carthage was prohibited from possessing elephants by a victorious Rome in the punitive 202 BC peace treaty imposed after the Second Punic War.  Unable to agree on the terms of a peace treaty with Germany and thus unable to impose a U-boat ban on it, the occupying powers substituted Austria as an object of punishment.

The Austrian State Treaty was negotiated by foreign policy makers who could remember a world where the Austro-Hungarian Empire was one of the great powers.  Although overwhelmingly a continental power, the empire nonetheless had an Adriatic coastline and a modest blue water navy with five U-boats.  The same foreign policy makers who could remember Austria-Hungary as a great power were also keenly aware that the borders of Central Europe and Eastern Europe had been repeatedly redrawn over the centuries and had been redrawn twice already in the 20th century.  The results of the treaties of Brest Litovsk, Versailles, Sévres, and Trianon were object lessons in the plasticity of borders.  Proposals for disposing of postwar Austria discussed by the Western Allies during the Second World War had included being joined to Bavaria in a South German Confederation and being joined to Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia in a Southeast European confederation.  The possibility that Austria might acquire a saltwater port in the future from which it might launch submarines was improbable but not impossible.

The Adriatic port of Trieste was a major sticking point in the negotiations.  One of the most populous and wealthy cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it had been annexed by Italy following the First World War against the wishes of its overwhelmingly Slovene population.  Post Second World War Trieste was divided into Allied occupation zones, with the Americans and British in Zone A and the Yugoslavs in Zone B.  As in Berlin, and Austria, occupation by zones resulted in intense friction between the non-communist and communist occupiers.  Josip Broz Tito’s communist government of Yugoslavia was incensed by the escape of ethnic Croatian Ustaša and ethnic Serbian Chetnik collaborators and accused war criminals via Zone A in Trieste to the British occupation zone in Austria and hence to Italy or Switzerland, some to escape to the Americas via a ‘ratline’ organized by conservative Roman Catholic clergy and laity. Despite the 1948 Stalin-Tito split, the Soviet Union still supported Yugoslavia in its confrontation with the United States and Britain.  Geopolitical fear ran deep in Moscow.  Might the Western Allies be plotting to return Trieste to Austria, freeing it from landlocked constraint?

Stalin’s death in 1953 and resolution of the subsequent Soviet succession crisis, with the triumph of Moscow party chief Nikita Khrushchev over secret police head Lavrentii Beria appears to have permitted the diplomatic de-linking of negotiations over the fates of Austria and Germany.  On February 8, 1955, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov announced that the two sets of negotiations were independent.  A peace treaty with Germany however would have to wait for another 35 years.

Similar Arms Control Treaty Language 

The U-boat ban in Article 13 is embedded in a list of prohibited weapons that include atomic weapons, guided missiles, and chemical and biological weapons.  If the idea of Austrian atomic bombs and U-boats now seems silly, almost any military technological marvel seemed possible in 1955, provided that it was designed by scientists and engineers with German accents.  German jet and missile wunderwaffe together with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had changed perceptions about the nature of future wars.  That the United States acquired ‘the bomb’ before the other great powers was attributed to its refugee Central European scientists.  Western Allied and Soviet intelligence services raced one another to recruit the Third Reich’s scientists and engineers even before the end of combat operations in Europe in the Second World War.

Comparison of the arms control terms of the 1955 Austrian State Treaty with those in the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties signed with Germany’s allies Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania point to another possibility for the U-boat ban in Article 13.  Each of these treaties included prohibitions against atomic weapons and guided missiles and all but one of them prohibited submarines.  Although the similarity suggests a ‘cut and paste’ carelessness due perhaps to diplomatic exhaustion, it is more probable that it reflected an impulse to impose the same burdens on the former European Axis Powers as reminders of their collective association with defeated Germany.  Landlocked Hungary must be prohibited submarines because coastal Romania and coastal Bulgaria were prohibited submarines.  It follows that landlocked Austria must be prohibited submarines because landlocked Hungary was prohibited submarines.

The wrinkle in the collective reminder explanation is that the peace treaty with Italy had no submarine prohibition.  With its long coastline and greater naval experience than Romania or Bulgaria that appears anomalous.  Leniency toward Italy is also evident in being allowed to keep majority ethnic German South Tyrol/Alto Adige though it had to give up its other non-Italian territorial possessions.  The clemency shown Italy is unlikely to reflect feelings of gratitude for having changed sides in 1943.  Romania and Bulgaria changed sides in 1944, and for the same reason.  The better explanation is that the missing arms limit provision is the result of competition between the Western Allies and Soviet Union for a valuable future ally at the dawn of the Cold War.  Italy had a larger population than Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Austria combined.  Moreover, its future economy and military potential were likely to be greater than theirs as well.  Although Italy would join NATO in 1949, the postwar Italian Communist Party was powerful enough for the Soviet Union to envision Italy changing alliances once again.  By 1955 it was clear that there was little chance of Austria succumbing to communism, and its small population made it less than valuable as a potential ally for either side than as a location.

Less important than Italy to both the Western Allies and Soviet Union geopolitically, Austria was still valuable as a north-south corridor between Germany and Italy.  Had it become another Soviet client state, rail and road transport through the Brenner Pass between northern Europe and Italy might have had to move through the alpine passes of Switzerland and France.  In effect, the little republic ultimately mattered not because it could actually threaten shipping, but because it could threaten surface traffic.


Why was landlocked Austria prohibited submarines in the 1955 Austrian State Treaty, the penultimate peace treaty of the Second World War in Europe?  Historical trauma and geopolitical anxiety were factors.  In the absence of a peace treaty with Germany, Austria could be burdened with an improbable arms limit banning an iconic weapon. Central European and Balkan international borders might shift again in the future.  Imposing the same arms limit on Austria as Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary also may have been a factor.  Article 13 was objectively absurd when the treaty was signed and it is still absurd today.  Rather than laughter however, fremdscämen or embarrassment on someone else’s behalf might be the better response.

This article was published by Geopolitical

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