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AUSTRIA, LEFT and RIGHT, to 1934

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Austria, Left and Right, to 1934

Austria emerged from World War I a republic. The Habsburg monarchy was gone. 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 the Versailles Treaty prohibited it.

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.

Father IgnazSeipel

Father Seipel, chancellor

Otto Bauer, Social Democrat

Otto Bauer, Social Democrat

Chancellor Englebert Dollfuss

Chancellor Englebert Dollfuss

Major Emil Fey

Emil Fey, Heimwehr leader

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, its 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.

The Christian Social Party's leader and Austria'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 paramilitary units, the Heimwehr (home resistance), an organization led by anti-Marxist veterans of the world war.

Social Democrats enjoyed popular support in Vienna, their political party associated with organized labor and supported by the 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 with the Communists as in Germany. 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 workers were paid for by what some describe as "soaking" the city's middle-class and aristocracy. It made an alliance between the Social Democrats and the middle classes unlikely. An alliance between the urban Social Democrats and the rural poor was also unlikely. Austria's rural poor resented wealthy landowners but politically they were ineffective and not inclined to those still viewed as Marxists. The Social Democrats were traditionally anti-clerical and given to anti-religious rhetoric, and the clergy used this to label them "godless "

As in Germany, rural folk were inclined to support a politician who was condemning the evil ways in the big cities, including 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 Austrian institutions, including the Church and it warned of Jewish influence in Austrian politics.

The leader of the 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's city rule had created in Vienna.

More Politics by Violence, and Civil War

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.

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 7 December 1929, a series of constitutional amendments increased the powers of Austria's president – a member of the Christian Social Party like the chancellor. The president now had the power to issue emergency decrees.

Parliamentary elections in 1930 gave the Christian Social Party 66 seats and the German Nationalists 19. The Heimwehr ran candidates while describing itself as fascist and took 8 seats. The Social Democrats won 72, the most seats, but they 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 has been described as a conservative with democratic leanings. He considered inviting the Social Democrats into a government with conservatives to address the country's economic and political problems. But the leader of the Social Democrats, Otto Bauer, and his 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, including a PhD in law from the University of Vienna. The rural origins of Dollfuss were obvious. Bauer was supposed to be the champion of common people, but he often insulted and mocked Dollfuss, and Dollfuss began to view the Social Democrats as implacable enemies.

Dollfuss moved to the right, putting himself closer to 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 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. President 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."

In the streets of Vienna were violent confrontations between Austrian fascists and Social Democrats. Dollfuss put in charge of public security a man decorated for bravery during the World War and leader of the Heimwehr: Major Emil Fey. 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. He knew this would outrage the Left and is reported to have hoped that their response would give him an excuse to attack. But the Social Democrats 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 large tourist industry. 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.

The Dollfuss regime united Austria with Mussolini's Italy for the common purpose of keeping Hitler out of Austria. 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. He favored removing Marxist influence in Austria not only because he was anti-Marxist but also reasoning that doing so would deprive Hitler of an excuse to intervene there.

In February 1933 railway workers in Austria 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).

Dollfuss wanted Austria to be a bulwark of Christian German culture against Nazism and communism. And he wanted to copy Mussolini's economics. In September 1933, he 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 political party wrangling. There was to be only one political party.

Social Democrats and labor responded with calls to mobilize their Schutzbund to overthrow the Dollfuss regime and restore democracy. But Otto Bauer was in a pacifist mood. He 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 the city of Linz fell to the government forces.

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, but this didn't happen. 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 force surrendered. Dollfuss announced in response: "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. It was, he said, "the usual twaddle of the European Left." After eleven captured Schutzbunders were hanged an international outcry brought an end to the hangings. Conservative estimates are that during the uprising 1,500 or 1,600 died, around 5000 were wounded and 1,188 imprisoned.

An Attempted Nazi Coup

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 Nazis envied Dollfuss' position. Hitler, originally an Austrian, is said to have been adamantly opposed to family history disclosures and was concerned about an investigation by the Dollfuss regime. In July, 1934, Austrian Nazis, backed perhaps by Hitler, attempted a coup against Dollfuss and his government. The Nazis captured a radio station in 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.


Between Two Fires, Chapter II, "The Death of Red Vienna." by David Clay Large, 1990

Copyright © 2007-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.