On this day in 1934, Austrian socialists made their final stand to defend democracy from a growing fascist movement.

One hand in his pocket, nonchalantly leaning against the railing, a friendly-looking man with a moustache smiles from inside a picture. The man is Engelbert Dollfuß, the Austrian chancellor from 1932 to 1934. His political home was the Christian Social Party, the predecessor of today’s ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party). In July 2017 his portrait, which for many years hung in the offices of the ÖVP, was removed. Still owned by the party, it was loaned to a provincial museum.

Dollfuß’ time in office was punctuated by important events; the end of democracy, the prohibition of opposition parties, and the defeat of the February uprising – when socialists took a last stand against advancing Austrofascism. Fascism did not seize power over night. Instead, Dollfuß and his henchman acted carefully, demolishing democracy step by step. Their strategy is often described as salami slicing: cutting off piece after piece, until there was no meat left in Austria’s democracy.

Austria is sometimes forgotten in accounts of the rise of fascism in Europe. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy form the basis of most narratives. But four years before the Anschluss which incorporated Austria into the Nazi Reich, the country had its own fascist government. Its rise was resisted by the left – most notably in the February Uprising, which began eighty-five years ago today. The story of that resistance, and its defeat, continues to carry relevance today.

A New Century

To understand the complicated incidents that led to this situation, we have to take a look at the emergence of the first Austrian Republic. In 1918 the Austro-Hungarian empire was on the verge of collapse. At the end of the Great War people were tired; they had no interest in further fighting. Famines at home were causing riots, while soldiers at the front refused to follow orders, laying down their arms to march home. Many of them were impressed by the events in Russia, so they started to organize in councils following the Bolshevik example. The promises of peace, land and bread were more appealing to them than monarchy, war and hunger.

As the other nations of the former Habsburg Empire declared independence, Austria soon followed their example on October 26th. Due to differing opinions regarding the future of Austria, the political players of the newly founded state could not agree on a polity.

At this time, the Christian Social Party (CS) was one of two significant political forces. The other, standing contrary to the CS in almost all essential questions, were the Socialists, organized in the Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP). For years, the Socialists had been campaigning for a republic, bringing masses of people to the streets during rallies. The bourgeois CS, on the other hand, had no little in common people deciding the nation’s fortunes. They were the political expression of a handful of wealthy citizens, factory owners and rural farmers. Their own privileges were at stake: like all of Europe’s ruling classes, they were terrified by the Russian example, an anxiety they shared alongside significant sections of the Catholic Church.

The political pressure left Emperor Karl II with no choice but to renounce his claim on his part of the state affairs. A Habsburgian rump-empire no longer seemed a realistic option. The political momentum, clearly on the socialists’ side, was pushing towards a republic. On November 12th 1918, hundreds of thousands celebrated its proclamation, believing a critical question about Austria’s democratic future had been answered.

Charles I, the last Habsburg emperor, abdicated in 1918.

The driving republican force, the SDAP, backed by Austrian workers and the organized soldier’s councils, was able to carry out dozens of progressive reforms such as social insurance, support for unemployed workers, working-time reduction and the strengthening of unions. Winning a landslide victory in the first free elections after women’s suffrage was introduced in 1919 strengthened their position yet further. Still, they did not achieve an absolute majority, which led to a coalition government with the CS. Attaining reforms was only possible because the right-wing did not dare to oppose them too strongly at this early stage of the republic.

Unsurprisingly, that attitude did not last long. In 1920 the coalition broke apart, political differences seemingly insurmountable. The parliamentary arithmetic changed in favour of the conservatives, who won the elections with a slight advantage. Thinking strategically, the Socialists decided to go into opposition.

The Emergence of Socialism

In 1914, the Socialist leadership had supported the war effort, foolishly falling for nationalist propaganda. Within the SDAP, the young, progressive base attacked this position from the beginning. As the war lasted, their approach was supported by an increasing number of militants, and finally gained the upper hand. This was critical for the party’s strategy after the war, and also ensured they suffered anything comparable to the split in the German labour movement over this question.

During this period, the Socialists’ stated goal was to overcome capitalism in order to establish a democratic and free society. According to party literature, that final transition had to be legitimised by election results, which would imply an absolute majority. In order to get there, it was seen as a necessity to take part in politics within the existing capitalist society. But this didn’t change the fact that the language deployed and positions taken were often radical. While rejecting a violent overthrow of the old system it was clearly stated, if necessary, it should be defended by arms against reactionary forces.

Karl Marx-Hof in Vienna, Austria.

In the years that the SDAP was in opposition from 1920 onwards, the federal government was shaped by right-wing coalitions, including the Christian Social and German Nationalist parties among other minor forces. While the possibilities to influence federal politics were vanishing, the country’s powerful capital and only major city, Vienna, stayed red. Once Vienna became its own federal state within Austria in 1920, it gained tax authority. This made a number of reforming projects viable. High income and luxury taxes financed thousands of municipality buildings (Gemeindebauten), making affordable housing possible for hundreds of thousands of Viennese in a time of high poverty. Red Vienna became an example for progressive politics globally, and its achievements still impact contemporary life.

But it was far from hegemonic. Elsewhere in Austria, Vienna was looked upon with great disapproval. As the years passed, polarisation grew, with both sides drifting further apart. The conservatives in government used their power to push back socialist influence in the army, still fearing armed resistance. As the fronts hardened, the atmosphere grew tense. Paramilitary groups appeared on both sides. In the countryside the right-wing Home Front (Heimwehren) emerged. As a reaction the Republican Protection League (Republikanischer Schutzbund) formed in 1923 to protect socialist rallies.

On 30th January 1927, a decisive event would lead to further escalation. As socialists in the red community of Schattendorf grew aware of a right-wing militia meeting, the Schutzbund decided to call for a counter-demonstration. Outnumbering the other side, they succeeded in driving them off. But as the victorious republicans walked through the village, remaining right-wing militiamen fired a shot from a window, killing a child and a disabled veteran.

Attacks on left events were nothing unusual. The courts were already dominated by conservatives and right-wing attackers were often acquitted. When the court ruled on July 14th that the murderers of Schattendorf were acting in self-defence it was celebrated in the bourgeois press. But the workers had finally had enough.

The day after the judgement crowds spontaneously filled the streets. The Socialist leadership underestimated the momentum, and was unable to properly react. The anger of the masses was growing and looking for a valve. Many set their sights on the Palace of Justice as a symbol for the hated justice system. Protestors set it on fire and the police chief Johann Schober, a member of the right-wing coalition, ordered them to fire into the crowds. Eighty-nine demonstrators and five policemen died.

Uncertainty followed. The Party called for a general strike, but the response was lacklustre. The self-esteem of the political left was falling rapidly, with many disappointed with the SDAP. From now on the only goal of the party leadership was to prevent civil war. They backed down from the reactionaries again and again, even handing over weapons. It was an approach they would come to regret.

Descent into Fascism

For the Christian Socials, these events were a success. Not only did the Socialist Party not react properly to the massacre, the Schutzbund and the formerly socialist army did not step in. The July Revolt led to a further intensification of the political climate. In 1930 the reactionary Heimwehren, including many political leaders of the Christian Social Movement, swore the Korneuburger Oath. In it, they rejected “western democracy”, and made clear their goal to go back into a feudal class society. Close relations with the Italian fascist movement were established to guarantee Austrian independence from Germany. Although they saw themselves as Germans, the Austrofascists would later try to become a “better, Catholic Germany”. Thus, the Nazis would also be made illegal. The ruling party did not want to lose its power.

But there were many other twists and turns on the road to fascism. The financial crisis of 1929 shook the Austrian economy, and the right-wing government imposed austerity on the population, causing its support to plummet. In the elections of 1930 the SDAP won back a relative majority with 41%. Nevertheless, a coalition between the Christian Socials, German Nationalists and others was built to make a government possible. In 1932 Engelbert Dollfuß was made Chancellor, while the calls for a final strike against democracy grew louder within the coalition.

On March 4th 1933, during a debate over an amnesty for striking railway workers who refused to transport Italian weapons for right-wing militias, all three speakers of parliament stepped down with the aim of taking part in the vote, causing confusion. The Assembly recessed, since such a situation was not clearly settled by the law. When they gathered again on March 15th to go back to work, the Christian Social chancellor Dollfuß ordered the police to stop them from entering the building.

Even today Austrian conservatives speak of the “self-elimination” of the parliament. This is historical revisionism. On that day, democracy was overridden in order to establish an Austrofascist dictatorship. The elimination of the Constitutional Court would follow soon after, while Dollfuß was ruling by emergency decree. Even at this point the reaction of the Socialists was muted.

The Communist Party and the Nazis were made illegal in 1933 and the Socialist Schutzbund was largely disarmed. On February 11th 1934 the Christian Social Party released a statement saying they would “go to work the next day,” suggesting a final strike against the Socialists. While the official party position was to remain calm, many militants were outraged by the silence in the fact of countless humiliations.

Fighting started the next day in Linz. The local Schutzbund commander, Richard Bernaschek, stated clearly that he would not be willing to accept further searches by the police. Against the will of the party leadership, this marked the beginning of the February Uprising (Februarkämpfe). As troops approached, trying to storm the socialist meeting place, the Schutzbund opened fire. Soon, the fighting spread over the other industrial regions of the country.

Austrian soldiers attempt to remove the socialist arsenal of weapons in the Hotel Schiff, Linz.

As soon as the uprising started, it was impossible for the party leadership to retreat. A general strike was ordered, trying to make the best of the situation. But their industrial strength was already weakened by government actions in previous years. Their organisation was infiltrated by hostile agents, and their communication systems did not work properly. In addition, the socialist forces were vastly outnumbered by police, Heimwehren and military.

Resistance in Vienna was the strongest, using municipal buildings as strongholds. Resistance would last until February 15th. After intense fighting, including military artillery attacks, the resistance was defeated. Austrian Socialists and Communists were the first to take a stand against emerging fascism in 1934, but their brave fight for freedom and democracy failed. Leading Party members fled, as did many who were involved in the uprising. Others were imprisoned or executed. The socialist opposition was broken, and the Austrofascists had won.

Enduring Legacy

In order to establish their reactionary system, the Austrofascists introduced a new constitution in May 1934. From now on God would be the sovereign of the country. Austria was no longer a republic. But their fantasy of a feudal society was never fulfilled, and attempts to organise all Austrians into a one-party system following fascist examples in other countries also failed.

The new fascist state also had to deal with Nazi Germany’s ambitions. Hitler viewed Austria as part of a greater Germany and agitated openly for an Anschluss (Unification). Under pressure from Berlin, Nazi officials were taken into the Austrian government. But tensions continued and terrorist attacks were sporadic. Then, in July 1934, Dollfuß was killed in a failed Nazi coup. The Conservative Schuschnigg succeeded him. After Mussolini abandoned the cause of an independent Austria, the country was annexed by Germany in 1938. The Austrofascists did not resist, since they did not want to “shed German blood”. We know today what horrors would follow.

After World War II, there were some attempts to deal with the legacy of fascism. Liberal democracy returned and the newly-founded major parties, the socialist SPÖ and conservative ÖVP, pursues a system of social partnership. Employer representatives and workers’ unions were able to negotiate collective agreements and strikes fell to an all-time low. Even though there were absolute majorities, leading to one party governments from 1966-1970 (conservative) and 1971-1983 (SPÖ), the concept of cooperation ruled supreme.

But comforting narratives of denazification never really told the full story. Over the years a third party established themselves, the successor of the former German Nationalists in the first republic, the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Anton Reinthaller, the founder of the FPÖ in the postwar era, was a Nazi Minister of Agriculture and former SS officer.

The portrait of Engelbert Dollfuß which hung until recently in the office of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).

In recent years, the ideology of social partnership has waned. The ÖVP, under the leadership of right-winger Sebastian Kurz, recently made a coalition with FPÖ. Their policies so far have included cutting funding for women’s shelters, defunding republican memorials, undermining integration measures, questioning human rights law, cutting social care, attacking unions, reducing the social security system, and reducing corporation tax. All while spreading racist propaganda videos about immigrant scroungers on social benefits.

As in many other countries the Social Democrats are suffering an ideological crisis, which will either be overcome or lead to their extinction. Protests have formed against the government, and pressure has built on the labour movement to resist – but the context lacks clear political direction. The history of Red Vienna seems a long way in the past.

And yet we live in a time of crisis, and swift political changes are possible. It is an era when history is especially valuable. In the Chancellor’s party, the ÖVP, Engelbert Dollfuß is still a hero for many. Liberals today, reacting against the government’s anti-immigrant positions, often ask, “What happened to the real Christian Socials?” Dollfuß’ portrait now hangs in its new home in lower Austria. The country is some way from the conditions of his time. But his heirs have never been closer to his politics.

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