Large parts of Europe share a cultural history. As different as Germany and France might be, they both emerged from the Frankish Empire, along with Benelux lands of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. This Frankish influence extended through southeastern Germany into Austria, but ends somewhere before the Hungarian border.
It’s worth noting that the name ‘France’ derives from the name of the Germanic tribe, the Franks, which moved into the region - previously known as ‘Gaul’ - as a stabilizing influence to calm the chaos which filled the ‘power vacuum’ left by the retreating Roman occupational forces.
Western Austria shows its kinship to Bavaria more clearly than eastern Austria, but both bear a Germanic stamp.
To understand the cultural genesis of these regions, the reader must think back a millennium or so, to a time when the map of Europe looked very different. Instead of the modern nation-states which now organize the continent, there were many small kingdoms, with somewhat fluid borders, organized into local coalitions, and overseen by an overarching but likewise fluid empire.
There was no “Germany” or “Austria,” but rather dozens of kingdoms and duchies filled the map.
The Frankish Empire, which metamorphosed into the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), was a loose network which united most of these small entities. These little kingdoms grew and shrank, merging in marriages, dividing in inheritances among a monarch’s children, occasionally trading bits of land back and forth, or being altered in the course of warfare.
The Frankish Empire, which began in late 400s, expanded in various directions, including eastward. The term ‘march’ is used to denote “a frontier or border area between two countries or territories,” according to one dictionary. Long before the word ‘Austria’ was used or invented, this region was known as the ‘eastern march’ - the edge of the Frankish Empire, later the edge of the HRE.
Bavaria - or Bayern - was the springboard on the eastern end of the empire from which expansion into Austria was made.
From the Germanic Osten meaning ‘east’ and Reich meaning ‘empire,’ the name Österreich emerged. ‘Austria’ is a literal Latinization of the same. Thus eventually and gradually the modern nomenclature arose, as historian Steven Beller writes:
Austria began its history in the late tenth century as an eastern march of the duchy of Bavaria. It was during this period that an area in the Danube valley came to be known as ‘the eastern land’, in Latin ‘terra orientalis’, or ‘ostarrichi’ in the local German of the time. The first written evidence of this early medieval equivalent of ‘Österreich’ dates from 996. In the eleventh century the march was sometimes referred to as ‘Osterlant’; the Latin version of ‘Austria’ first appears in a document in 1147.
So ‘terra orientalis,’ ‘Osterlant,’ and ‘eastern land’ are linguistic equivalents in Latin, German, and English respectively. Of course, the spellings have changed slightly over the centuries.
These old terms took on troubling new meanings in the twentieth century. When the Nazis took over Austria in 1938 and annexed it, they called in Ostmark, meaning ‘the eastern march.’
The Austrians regained their freedom and political independence in 1945, and rejected the name which the Nazis had placed onto their country. Since then, Austrians have found the term Ostmark to be an offensive and troubling reminded of the seven years during which their nation suffered under National Socialist domination, as Steven Beller reports:
As Austrian historians were at pains after 1945 to prove, the march was never actually called the ‘Ostmark’. Nevertheless, it was as an eastern march of the German kingdom under Bavarian suzerainty, a military district on the Germans' south-east frontier, that Austria started its career.
Prior to 1933, there was nothing troubling about being the eastern extension of Frankish or Germanic heritage. Indeed, it was a mark of high civilization.
But the way in which the Nazis perverted culture caused the Austrians in the postwar era to find ways, in this case linguistic ways, to distance themselves from twentieth-century Germany.