Austria was Europe’s only country to penalize citizens for refusing COVID-19 vaccines. Defiantly neutral, it’s one of the few EU member states that don’t also belong to NATO. And, given its notoriety as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, it claims to have the world’s strictest anti-Nazi laws.
Petra Schneebauer makes no apologies for any of it. As Austria’s new ambassador in Washington, she’s clearly proud of her country’s post-World War II accomplishments, as well as its booming trade with the United States.
“Our main issue here is business. The US is our third biggest trading partner after Germany and Italy, we have 800 companies trading with the US and 250 subsidiaries of Austrian companies here,” she said, noting that Austrian exports to this country jumped by 16.4% last year to $13.6 billion, led by machinery, motor vehicles, electrical equipment, pharmaceuticals, iron, steel and beverages. “Because of the situation worldwide, the US is becoming again a very interesting trading partner. China and Russia markets are down. For me it’s a natural development.”
In 2021, Austria ranked as the fastest-growing source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the United States worldwide, jumping to €25.3 billion, she told the Washington Diplomat in a recent interview at the Austrian Embassy on International Drive NW. Meanwhile, Austrian FDI supports 31,900 American jobs in virtually every state, according to statistics supplied by the embassy.
Schneebauer’s background is in crisis management. Born in the Upper Austrian city of Wels and raised in nearby Lambach, she studied at both the University of Vienna and the University of Salzburg. A lawyer by profession who also has a doctorate in philosophy, Schneebauer began her diplomatic career in 1993 as an intern at the European Commission in Brussels.
Assigned to Austria’s United Nations mission in New York (1997-2001), Schneebauer helped coordinate her country’s first EU presidency in 1998. Among her other overseas appointments was Austria’s consul-general in Zürich, Switzerland (2007-11) and ambassador to Malta (2011-15). She then headed the Consular Crisis Center (2015-17), where her duties included the timely update of travel advice as well as assisting Austrian victims of terrorist attacks and natural disasters abroad.
These included the Islamic suicide bombing and mass attacks in Paris (November 2015), a pair of suicide bombings in Brussels that killed 32 (March 2016), and a truck-ramming in the French city of Nice that resulted in 86 deaths (July 2016). At times, the job was emotionally exhausting.
“We knew that at the Bataclan in Paris, there was an Austrian crew playing, and on social media we could even spot one Austrian in the crowd. It was horrible,” she said, recalling the Bataclan theatre suicide bombing that left 90 people dead and 416 injured, nearly 100 critically. “For a whole day we couldn’t find this guy. We checked all the hospitals and morgues, and he was nowhere.”
Finally, she said, the young man’s father received a phone call from a nurse at a hospital that had not been vetted. Apparently, his son had been in a coma, and when he came out of it, he immediately wrote down his father’s phone number—leading to the call, and immediate relief for everyone involved.
In December 2017, Schneebauer became director-general for consular affairs at Austria’s Foreign Ministry. One of her greatest challenges was coordinating 39 repatriation flights during the pandemic in early 2020.
“In general, I think we did quite well,” said the ambassador, who’s fluent in German, English, French and Italian; she also speaks some Spanish and Russian. “We had more than 7,500 people coming back to Austria from all over the world. I learned how to get by on four hours of sleep a night.”
In November 2021, Austria ordered a nationwide lockdown for unvaccinated people in the wake of rapidly rising coronavirus infections and deaths. The move prohibited anyone 12 or older from leaving their homes except to work, shop for groceries, go for a short walk or get vaccinated. Anyone breaking that law would be fined €500.
Soon after, Austria took a draconian step further and made vaccinations mandatory for all adults, imposing fines of up to €3,600 for those who refused. But only a month later, it suspended that law, with Karoline Edtstadler, Austria’s minister for the EU and the constitution, telling journalists the law’s “encroachment of fundamental rights” could no longer be justified.
Draconian laws are nothing new for Austria, a country that will forever bear the stain of Adolf Hitler, who was born in 1889 in the western town of Braunau, on Austria’s border with Germany. Barely 20 kms east of Linz, the Mauthausen concentration camp—where 95,000 Jews and others died between 1938 and 1945—endures as a painful reminder of the horrors inflicted on the world by the Nazis and their sympathizers.
“Austria was the first country in the EU to present a national strategy against anti-semitism,” said Schneebauer, acknowledging that verbal and physical attacks against Jews in Austria have recently been on the rise. “Everybody is very much on the alert. But in Austria, you are not allowed to display swastikas or say ‘Heil Hitler’—even as a joke.”
Violations of the Badges Act of 1960, which prohibits the public display of Nazi symbols, are punishable by fines of up to €4,000 and up to one month imprisonment. However, if the violation is deemed an attempt to promote National Socialism, the Prohibition Act of 1947 applies, and that allows for up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
With the war in Ukraine supplanting COVID-19 as Europe’s latest catastrophe, Schneebauer the crisis manager soon faced a new set of challenges, starting with evacuating the 500 or so Austrians who were in Kyiv on Feb. 24, 2022, when the Russians attacked.
Since then, some 93,000 Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, have settled in Austria. In addition, the Austrian government has provided €130 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, making it the largest per-capita provider of such aid among the 27-member EU.
Austria is also part of the core group of countries that have established a special tribunal for Russian war crimes. But it has no intention of sending Ukraine weapons of any sort.
That’s because Austria remains outside the NATO alliance, along with EU members Ireland, Malta and Sweden—a policy unlikely to change anytime soon, given polls showing that 75% of Austrian voters support the country’s long-standing policy of neutrality. Under the 1955 Austrian State Treaty, three things are prohibited: military engagement in foreign conflicts, the permanent stationing of foreign troops in Austria, and membership in a military alliance.
“Politically, we have been on Ukraine’s side since the war started,” she said. “I think there’s great public sympathy in Austria for Ukraine, but the people want to remain neutral. For this reason, we support sanctions against Russia but cannot deliver weapons to Ukraine. That’s a constitutional law.”