Father Seipel, chancellor
Otto Bauer, Social Democrat
Chancellor Englebert Dollfuss
Emil Fey, Heimwehr leader
Austria emerged from World War I a republic and no longer part of an empire. Aristocrats maintained palaces in Vienna's inner city, but the wealth of many was diminished. They had lost their estates in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and what was now Yugoslavia.
Many Austrians believed that without empire their country's survival lay in becoming part of a greater Germany, but those nations that had won the war had prohibited this in the settlement signed at Versailles.
In 1919, six crowns (Austria's currency) equaled one U.S. dollar. In January, 1921, it was 177 crowns to the dollar. In August, 1922, 83,000 crowns. In late 1922 Austria's federal government managed to stop the spiraling inflation with help from the League of Nations in the form of a loan and the League's insistence on austerity measures.
The federal government was dominated by the Christian Social Party, which gathered its strength from the religiously devout outside the big cities. More than two-thirds of Austria's six million people lived outside its major city, Vienna, the capital – which had a population in 1923 counted as 1,918,720. Austria's three other leading cities had populations of less than 100,000. A conflict between rural and urban Austria would mark the 1920s and early 1930s – as it did in Germany and the United States. Perhaps moreso.
The Christian Social Party's chancellor was a Catholic priest, Ignaz Seipel, a believer in strong government and in protecting Austria against Marxism. He worked at forging an alliance between the Catholic Church and industrialists, and he encouraged cooperation between industrialists and Austria's leading the paramilitary units, the Heimwehr (home resistance), an organization led by veterans who saw glory serving their emperor in the Great War and treason in Marxism.
Marxists dominated the great city of Vienna. These were the Social Democrats, a political party associated with organized labor and supported by the mass of ordinary working people who lived in the drab neighborhoods that ringed the architecturally glorious inner city. Austria's Social Democrats did not suffer from the warring and split between Communists and moderate Social Democrats that Germany did. Austria's Communist Party numbered no more than 6,000 and had little if any electoral successes. The Social Democrats enjoyed support from around 60 percent of Vienna's population and held a majority of seats in Vienna's city council. They were delivering for labor, which may have helped keep the Communist Party as small as it was. In the 1920s the Social Democrats built housing projects, schools, kindergartens, libraries and hospitals. They passed social-insurance legislation and provided rent control. The largest housing complex was Karl Marx Hof, designed for a population of about 5,000, the premises including amenities such as laundromats, baths, kindergartens, a library and doctor offices. The reform program of the Social Democrats became famous among progressives in Europe as a model of socialism without the kind of revolution that had occurred in Russia.
The benefits for labor were paid for by "soaking" the city's middleclass and aristocracy, which surely did not please these segments of society. It had been the loss of support from the middleclass that brought failure to Vienna's revolution in 1848. And now in the 1920s an alliance between the Social Democrats and the middle classes for the sake of democracy was unlikely. There was an alliance with the rural poor to consider, the kind of alliance that helped give Russia's Bolsheviks success in their revolution in 1917-18. There was in rural Austria poor people who resented larger landowners, but politically they were ineffective and not inclined to support Marxists. The Social Democrats were traditionally anti-clerical and given to anti-religious rhetoric, and the clergy used this to label them "godless and Jewish-Bolshevist."
What was happening in Austria was a little like what brought Hitler to power in Germany, where conservative rural folk would support the politician most loudly condemning the evil ways in the big cities, Bolshevism and Jews. Anti-Semitism was very much alive in Austria. There were two peasant groups competing with each other over who was the most anti-Semitic. The Peasant League newspaper attacked the Agrarian League for having signed an agreement with an insurance company that had Jews on its board of directors. The Peasant League argued that Judaism was Austria's real enemy, writing, "The Jewish reptile of amorality and enervation sucks at the marrow of the German people." The ruling Christian Social Party participated in this anti-Semitism. It described the Social Democrats as bent on destroying all traditional Austria institutions, including the Church and it warned of Jewish influence in Austrian politics.
The leader of Social Democratic Party was Jewish: Otto Bauer. He believed in reformist politics while clinging to the rhetoric about the eventuality of revolution at the same time that he and colleagues were proud of the stability and order that Social Democrat rule had created in Vienna. That came to an end in 1927. In the small town of Schattendorf, on Austria's eastern border, Social Democrats were marching in a counter demonstration against a paramilitary group called the FrontKampfer Vereinigung. A barman and his son shouted insults at the Social Democrats and the marchers threw stones and tried to break into his pub. From the pub a shotgun was fired, killing two marchers, a child and a pensioner.
Six months later, the barman was tried and acquitted by a jury. In Vienna a crowd outraged by the verdict went on a rampage. Workers with crowbars, wrenches and hammers shouted "Down with the justice of shame!" They marched to the university where rightist students had recently beaten up leftist and Jewish students. They shouted "Down with the murderers of workers!" The demonstrators then went to the parliament building and were joined by two thousand more demonstrators. About 25 mounted police rode headlong into the ranks slashing right and left with their sabers. The demonstrators dug up paving stones and threw rocks at the police. They stormed the parliament building and smashed their way into the Palace of Justice, ripped portraits, smashed furniture, tore up police records and set the place on fire.
Social Democratic Party leadership sent their armed men, the Schutzbund, to restrain the mob. The Schutzbund stood between the angry mob and the police. The mob spat upon Schutzbund leaders and dispersed, venting their bitterness on police stations in the outer districts. From the police stations came shots fired in self-defense. When it was all over, 4 policemen and 85 civilians were dead and 600 people wounded. The left had spent its energies uselessly.
On the federal level, on December 7, 1929, a series of constitutional amendments increased the powers of Austria's president, including his right to issue emergency decrees. Parliamentary elections the following year gave the Christian Socialists 66 seats and the German Nationalists 19. The Heimwehr, which was describing itself as fascist, ran candidates and took 8 seats. The Social Democrats won 72, the most, but were outnumbered by the combined number of those hostile to them.
With the Great Depression, unemployment in Austria reached 25 percent. In May 1932 the Christian Social Party formed a government with Engelbert Dollfuss as chancellor. Dollfuss took steps to curtail anti-Semitism by outlawing discrimination against Jews in housing and jobs. He was said to be a conservative with democratic leanings. Dollfuss considered inviting the Social Democrats into a government with conservatives to address the country's economic and political problems. But Otto Bauer and colleagues feared that any efforts at cooperation with Dollfuss would endanger party unity. They preferred to stay out of government in order to avoid responsibility for the hard times. Bauer, moreover, openly displayed his disdain for Dollfuss. Culturally, Bauer had urban roots and sophistication, and he had a PhD in law from the University of Vienna. The rural origins of Dollfuss were obvious. Bauer often insulted and mocked him, and Dollfuss came to view the Social Democrats as implacable enemies.
Dollfuss moved to the right, and he did so in tune with Austria's president and the Catholic Church. The historian David Lang Clay in his book Between Two Fires writes of Austria's deeply religious president, Wilhelm Miklas, a member of the Christian Social Party, being told by the papal nuncio (ambassador) in Vienna that, " ...a continued Social Democratic domination of Vienna presented grave dangers to the moral and political health of the state." It was time, the papal nuncio suggested, to abandon a constitutional system that allowed "subversive elements" to undermine the nation's unity. Miklas expressed reservations about violating his constitutional oath, and the papal nuncio told him that he should have no moral qualms regarding an action that would bring "an indisputable advantage for all."
The papal nuncio's words were not likely crucial among the various forces taking Dollfuss to the right. At any rate, in response to a violent confrontation in Vienna between Austrian Nazis and Social Democrats, Dollfuss put in charge of public security Major Emil Fey, a man decorated for bravery during the Great War and the leader of the Heimwehr. Fey hated the Social Democrats and was determined to force them from the capital. His first act was to ban all parades and demonstrations except those organized by the Heimwehr, Fey knowing that this would outrage the left and hoping that their response would give him an excuse to attack. But the Social Democrats managed some maturity and refused the bait.
In January 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany. Austria's small Nazi Party wanted the same kind of super-nationalist triumph in their country. They were encouraged but did not want to wait for success at the polls. They resorted to the politics of terror, planting bombs in places frequented by tourists in order to undermine Austria's largest industry: tourism. Dollfuss responded by prohibiting the Nazis from wearing their brown shirts in public. The Nazis countered by parading shirtless and wearing silk hats. Dollfuss then banned the Nazi party entirely, which inspired Hitler to impose a visa fee on all Germans traveling to Austria, reducing Austria's income from tourism by 30 percent.
Austria united with Italy for the common purpose of keeping Hitler out of Austria. Italy's political leader, Benito Mussolini (on the side of the Allies in the Great War), was concerned about German influence and expansionist ambitions in Austria. Mussolini was planning the creation of a confederation consisting of Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania and his Italy. Mussolini favored removing Marxist influence in Austria, reasoning that doing so would deprive Hitler of an excuse to intervene. Mussolini wanted Dollfuss to eliminate the power of Vienna's Social Democrats, and Dollfuss was inclined to agree.
In February 1933 railway workers went on strike. The government sent the army against them and arrested strikers. In parliament the Social Democrats and their opponents were deadlocked in debate over this issue. There was a procedural crisis, and Chancellor Dollfuss refused to dissolve his government although he lacked a majority in parliament. The Social Democrat president of parliament, Karl Renner, responded with anger to the wrangling and resigned. So too did parliament's two vice presidents, putting parliament out of commission. Urged on by Mussolini, Dollfuss declared parliamentary government unworkable and suspended parliament indefinitely, and he began governing on the basis of a War Emergency Powers decree dating from 1917.
In addition to outlawing the Nazi Party, Dollfuss outlawed Austria's insignificant Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party's paramilitary Schutzbund – all of whom, including the Nazi Party, went underground. Dollfuss merged his Christian Social party into a new united political grouping called the Fatherland Front (Vaterländische Front). Instead of union with Hitler's Germany, Dollfuss wanted to see Austria resume its historical role as the Central European bulwark of Christian German culture against Nazism and communism. And he wanted to copy Mussolini's economics. In September 1933, Dollfuss announced plans to organize Austria constitutionally as a Catholic, ethnically German, corporatist state. He said that Austrians wanted their government to be "based on new principles and ideals which in reality are very old ones for a Christian and German people." He announced the end of the "liberal capitalist order" and of "party rule." There was to be only one political party.
The Social Democrats were not inclined to take all this passively. From labor were calls to mobilize the Schutzbund, to overthrow the Dollfuss regime. Otto Bauer was in a pacifist mood and was to say "We avoided confrontation because we wanted to spare the country the catastrophe of a bloody civil war." Civil war came anyway in 1934, beginning with a search for what the government deemed was the illegal possession of weapons by the Schutzbund. In the city of Linz, Schutzbund members responded to a police invasion with machine gun fire. Police were killed. The army arrived to help the police, and artillery was called in, giving government forces the advantage of range. Fighting on the side of the government was the Heimwehr, armed country boys rampaging through Linz, and after three days of fighting government forces won control of the city.
The conflict spread to Vienna. Social Democrat leadership called a general strike, which shut down the city's electric power. The Schutzbund took weapons from hiding places and assembled at prearranged points around the city, under instructions not to use their weapons unless attacked. It was strategy that doomed the Schutzbund to defeat. From defensive positions the Schutzbund would be targets of artillery with its range longer than Schutzbund weaponry. The only hope was offensive guerrilla tactics, striking with surprise and neutralizing the government's big guns. Members of the Schutzbund barricaded themselves in workers' housing units, including Karl Marx Hof, where the Socialist Democratic Party leadership attempted an unsuccessful stand. Exchanges with small arms escalated to the army's use of light artillery and tear gas. The leftist forces surrendered. Dollfuss announced, "Full of reverence, we kneel before the heroes of these past few days, men who have sacrificed their lives and blood for their country."
Some Social Democrats, including Otto Bauer, managed to escape and flee the country. Dollfuss told the army that it could engage in "the joyous hangings of wartime, " and Mussolini told Dollfuss not to be intimidated by criticism from outside his country – "the usual twaddle." he said, "of the European Left." But, after eleven captured Schutzbunders were hanged an international outcry brought an end to it. Conservative estimates are that during the uprising 1,500 or 1,600 died, around 5000 were wounded and 1,188 imprisoned. The Social Democrats never had been a majority and now, as in Italy and Germany, the left was no longer a force capable of opposing fascism's rise in power.
In Austria in April 1934, following the government's military victory against the left, Austria's National Assembly endorsed a new constitution that made Chancellor Dollfuss a virtual dictator. Austria's National Socialists envied Dollfuss' position. There is speculation too concerning Dollfuss having an investigation done on Hitler's family history – Hitler originally an Austrian. Hitler was adamantly opposed to family history disclosures. In July, 1934, Austrian Nazis, backed perhaps by Hitler, attempted a coup against Dollfuss and his government. The Nazis captured a radio station in the capital, Vienna , and they wounded Dollfuss. Dollfuss died of his wounds. German troops were massed on the German-Austrian border. But Yugoslavia and Italy were adamantly opposed to Germany taking over Austria. Mussolini, who had been a friend of Dollfuss, rushed army divisions to the Brenner Pass (at the Austro-Italian border). Hitler chose not to attack Austria. He was in no position to justify warring against Mussolini, and he left the National Socialists in Austria to their fate, while the Austrian army crushed the Nazi rebellion.
Copyright © 2007-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.