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Engelbert Dollfuss And The Tragedy Of Interwar Austria

Austria sits alongside most of Europe’s nations as being an afterthought in contemporary education on the subject of WWII and the events that precipitated it. We know that Nazi Germany effectively foisted the Anschluss upon them, and thus Austria was incorporated into the Third Reich. Other than that, Austria’s interwar history is unfairly brushed off as not being worthy of note.

As much as Germany’s economy was in ruins after WWI, Austria’s was in many ways worse. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had wreaked havoc on trade relationships across all regions surrounding the Danube. Successor states had instituted high tariffs, making certain Austrian industries unviable and stuck with excessive useless capital. One example of just how desperate the economic situation was would be a law which made consumption of milk illegal for anyone over two years of age.

The economic instability not only caused a crisis of national identity for Austrians (leading to a growing German unification sentiment) but also sharpened partisan political divides. By the 1920s, the country was split bitterly between the Social Democrats on the left and the Christian Socials on the right, each of which had paramilitary factions that would routinely engage in street battles, as was common for the era. It was a nation in disarray and in search of a leader, and this search yielded an unlikely result.

Engelbert Dollfuss was born in 1892, the illegitimate child of a peasant woman in Lower Austria, raised on the farmstead of his stepfather. It was undoubtedly a difficult life, but one for which he developed a joyful regard, appreciating all forms of labor in the soil and knowing in the most intimate detail the difficulties faced by peasants during this time. His personality is said to have been consistently warm and jovial, and despite his origins, popularity was never hard to find. A pious Roman Catholic, initial plans to become a priest were scuppered in 1914 by other concerns. While not inherently brilliant, his determination and zeal for work drove him more towards action than contemplation, and he expressed interest in law. That same year, war broke out, and like many of his fellow citizens, he was quick to enlist.

Dollfuss spent three years in military service on the Italian front where he won eight medals for bravery and valor. His prohibitively diminutive stature (he was 4.11') almost saw him rejected from the outset, and was the source of much mockery initially, though he quickly proved himself a tenacious soldier and won the respect of all those around him.

Working his way up through avenues of agricultural reform politics in Lower Austria, revolutionizing peasant life through the formation of insured co-operatives which stemmed the bleeding of the heartland into the industrial cities, in 1931 Dollfuss became the Minister of Agriculture & Forestry for the Christian Social Party. As before, his tenure proved a resounding success. In 1932, President Wilhelm Miklas appointed Dollfuss as chancellor. Forming a coalition in the divided parliament was precarious, and compelled an alliance between Dollfuss’ Christian Socials, the agrarian Landbund Party, and the parliamentary wing of the Heimwehr, a Fascist-aligned paramilitary with similar origins to those of the German Freikorps. The Heimwehr used their influence to convince Dollfuss that the Social Democrats and their Austro-Marxist backers in ‘Red Vienna’ were a threat to Austria’s existence. Worth noting: while the Heimwehr was strongly backed by the Mussolini government in neighboring Italy, it had a more overtly religious agenda than the Italian Blackshirts, and specifically wanted to re-invigorate Traditional Catholicism in Austria.

Dollfuss’ move towards authoritarianism was mainly due to the Social Democrats confirming Heimwehr assumptions, as they paralyzed the government and blockaded all reforms required to save the country both economically and socially. In 1933, parliament was dissolved in bitter rancor, and Dollfuss refused to allow it to reconvene. Few in Austria mourned its demise, and fearful of election results in neighboring Germany, the chancellor’s partners in government backed the move.

The parties were abolished and replaced with the Fatherland Front which was said to represent a principle rather than a program,

"The Fatherland Front will be built on the leadership principle. I myself will be the Fuhrer of the Front. The Fatherland Front aims at a non-partisan union of all patriotic Austrians to serve the peaceful cultural and economic development of a free, independent Austrian State.”

A common misconception is that Dollfuss was against union with Germany. He wasn’t, and in his youth had been a proponent of unifying Germanic peoples, particularly drawing together Austrians and Bavarians (after WWI, there was a considerable Bavarian independence movement). What Dollfuss was against was union with the Nazis, whom in his estimation embodied Prussian instincts and were a betrayal of a truly Germanic attitude to life. Mussolini also helped in the formation of the Fatherland Front, as he was keen to have Austria be a bulwark against an expansionist Germany. The Duce and Dollfuss became close allies during this early period, meeting multiple times.

Fears about the National Socialists were confirmed when after the violent abolition of the Social Democrats, its former members flocked to Hitler’s vision mainly on the basis that it was perceived to be anti-clerical. Realizing that if he did not finalize the restructuring of Austrian society immediately, all would be lost, the chancellor introduced a new constitution in 1934.

Inspired by the papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which had been issued by Pope Pius XI in 1931, the new Austrian state was erected along occupational lines, with a neo-guild system establishing defined spheres of production: Agricultural and forestry, industry and mining, crafts, trade and communications, banking/credit and insurance, the free professions, and civil servants. The intent was, as the Pope had recommended, to end class divisions by returning to a system of “everything in its place,” and the overhaul was almost certainly influenced by the economic perspective of Othmar Spann whose lectures Dollfuss had attended regularly. Education of women was rolled back, and a general de-secularization of the school system was initiated, supported by the Catholic Church. The Fatherland Front was given absolute power to dismiss university professors espousing Bolshevism and counter-Austrian ideals. Many scholars of this period of Austrian history have objected to describing the regime of the Fatherland Front as Austrofascist, instead pointing out that Dollfuss’ vision was much more an attempt to return his nation to a pre-Enlightenment understanding of man, and thus to capture a sense of national-spiritual destiny which had been lost with the abdication of the monarchy.

Pope Pius XI declared that Dollfuss was:

“ a Christian, giant-hearted man who rules Austria so well, so resolutely and in such a Christian manner. His actions are witness to Catholic visions and convictions. The Austrian people, our beloved Austria, now has the government it deserves.”

Alas, it was not to last. On the 25th of July 1934, National Socialists launched a failed putsch against the government. The chancellery was occupied, and Dollfuss was shot twice. He bled to death on the floor, his last requests for a priest unheeded. His second in command, Kurt Schuschnigg took over, but by this point, international events were already working to seal Austria’s fate. Though he was distraught and outraged by the assassination, which he believed to have been directly coordinated by Hitler, Mussolini was becoming geopolitically isolated, and his entry into formal alliance with Nazi Germany paved the way for Anschluss in 1938.

It was the callous murder of Dollfuss that heightened G.K. Chesterton’s disgust with the Nazis, whom he compared to the Islamic hordes that had threatened Medieval Europe, and his death illustrates how willingly the nihilistic blend of left and right which bloomed during the period crushed underfoot good and honorable things as well as the wretched and condemned. Its lone pursuit was power rather than virtue, and thus it ended up with neither and now is resigned to nothing but infamy, the role of a cudgel with which to dragoon an entire nation towards self-destruction.

Engelbert Dollfuss is scarcely remembered. Some small churches in Austria dedicated during the waning days of the Fatherland Front still honor him, but like most martyrs, he is but a footnote to the public consciousness. He was not a man in possession of that which commonly marks out heroes. He did not sustain his fatal wounds in glorious battle as Jacques Cathelineau did, nor did he enrapture people in a spiritual aura like Corneliu Codreanu. No, Dollfuss was a simple man with only his determination and his love for the Austrian people to serve him in his mission to restore the nation through the Fatherland Front. His words ring true today as they did then, that if anything is to be saved, then the counter-revolution must first be launched in the hearts of men for whom nobility is only a faded recollection.

It is not power or riches that will make for the happiness of nations, but internal peace, agreement, and harmony among individuals. For this we do not need empty piety; but we do intend to be upright, honorable and resolute men. We do intend to become better and nobler men in accordance with Christian principles and to behave as such with regard to our fellows.

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