Margarethe Ottillinger is one of the most important women in the history of Austria’s economy. And yet little was known about the reasons for her abduction after World War II. Now a new book and an Austrian documentary are reconstructing the life of the first female member of the OMV Executive Board with newly discovered material from Russian archives.
November 5, 1948: At the Enns Bridge near St. Valentin, Lower Austria, where the American and Soviet occupation zones meet, an official car is crossing the border. Sitting inside are the Austrian Minister for Asset Protection and Economic Planning, Peter Krauland, and top civil servant Margarethe Ottillinger – a successful young woman, aged 29 at the time.
A spectacular case of kidnapping
Both passengers are forced out of the car by Soviet border guards. Peter Krauland is allowed to continue on his way, but Margarethe Ottillinger is arrested, sentenced to 25 years of forced labor, and carted off to a Soviet labor camp. The alleged crime: Spying for the USA and escape aid for a Soviet engineer. Her work for the American Marshall Plan and the planned decrease in steel allowances for Soviet companies in eastern Austria attracted the suspicion of the Soviets. “It was the most spectacular case of kidnapping in the post-war period,” says the Historian Stefan Karner, who has been investigating the fate of Margarethe Ottillinger since 1992.
Austrian actress Ursula Strauss as Margarethe Ottillinger
What nobody knew at the time: Margarethe Ottillinger would later become the first female member of the OMV Executive Board (at that time still ÖMV) and help the fledgling Austrian oil and gas company to grow. “Willpower, extreme intelligence, and a strong moral conscience enabled Margarethe Ottillinger to survive everything and to achieve against the odds,” says Ursula Strauss. The Austrian actress is taking on the role of the successful manager in a new German language documentary of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation Margarethe Ottillinger – Die Frau, die zu viel wusste (“Margarethe Ottillinger – The woman who knew too much“). With the help of newly released intelligence documents discovered in Russian archives by the Historian Stefan Karner, the film reconstructs what happened to Margarethe Ottillinger at the end of the 1950s.
From the Gulag to the top ranks of ÖMV
Once incarcerated, Margarethe Ottillinger fell seriously ill in prison. She spent seven years in the Gulag and in Soviet prisons. But even though she was unwell, she still tried to help those weaker than herself, says Ursula Strauss. Then, after the signing of the Austrian State Treaty, everything happened very fast: She was released in 1955 and returned to Austria.
The Austrian Chancellor Julius Raab stepped in personally to help her return to work. A few months later Margarethe Ottillinger joined ÖMV – where she rose through the ranks very quickly. Just one year later, she was the first woman to be appointed to the Executive Board. The fact that the former ÖMV has become a showcase Austrian company is thanks in a good part to Margarethe Ottillinger. She was the one who negotiated agreements with the USSR to bring gas to the West via Austria for the first time from 1968. What’s more, as a member of the Executive Board, Margarethe Ottillinger helped to improve ÖMV’s international standing.
Margarethe Ottillinger was smart, cheeky and curious. While she was incarcerated she learnt Russian and came to understand the country with all of its facets – this enabled her to strengthen relations between ÖMV and the USSR.
Ursula Strauss, Austrian actress
Margarethe Ottillinger retained her position until she retired in 1982; she died ten years later in Vienna. “I haven’t even tried to relate to everything this woman experienced, that would be presumptuous,” says Ursula Strauss. “But it’s high time that people learn more about Margarethe Ottillinger and I hope that we can play a part in this.
More exciting details about the outstanding life of Margarethe Ottillinger can be found in the recently published book by historian Stefan Karner, Im Kalten Krieg der Spionage. Margarethe Ottillinger in sowjetischerHaft 1948 – 1955. (German language only)
Born on June 6, 1919, in Steinbach, a small village which today lies close to the border to Vienna; Studied at the University of World Trade in Vienna; in 1941, she graduated with a doctorate in commercial sciences; In 1946, she was appointed as a consultant on economic affairs for Austria’s Federal Minister for Asset Protection and Economic Planning, Peter Krauland; From 1949-1955 she was in a Soviet Gulag; In 1956, she started her career in OMV, becoming a member of the ÖMV Executive Board in 1958. She died in 1992, ten years after her retirement.
Image copyrights: Philipp Horak, Stefan Karner, ORF/Epo Film/Petro Domenigg