The Allies’ plans for Austria
With the end of the month, we approach an important, but under-reported event in history: 70 years since the Moscow Declaration signed on October 30th, 1943. Though the three powers of Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union took part in the conference that drew up the final document, much of what was agreed was initiated by Joseph Stalin. Originally, the conference was to discuss other matters including the fate of war criminals following the defeat of Hitler, which was now seen as a foregone conclusion. Stalin, however, was more focused on hemming in a post-Hitler Germany. Austria, therefore, owes its present status, for better or worse, to two of the most notorious criminals in history: Stalin and Hitler.
Before looking specifically at the Declaration, it’s worth reviewing the background. Following Austria’s 1938 annexation by Nazi Germany, the world’s powers offered an official reproach before settling down with the view that the German people within a single European state was inevitable. It had been sought in 1919; indeed, within months of defeat in 1918, the Austrian parliament voted in favour of Austria’s dissolution into neighbouring Germany, a proposal nixed by the French and Woodrow Wilson. Pan-German feelings had been poisonous since the expulsion of Austria from the German Federation in 1866 with only a supra-national aristocracy and the Catholic Church feeling any particular allegiance to the Austro-Hungarian duel monarchy. Even Austria’s Jews, largely German speaking felt themselves as part of the greater ‘German nation’ and had little truck with Catholic Austria. Indeed, as recently as last week, Eva Fox-Gál, the daughter of Hans Gál explained the position of her father, a position typical of many: “He felt first and foremost Viennese, followed by a sense of being German, which doesn’t mean he saw himself as being particularly aligned with the German State, but instead saw himself as part of a wider German cultural nation. I don’t recall any comments or statements that expressed a specific loyalty to Austria.” In those days, it would have been thought strange to speak of Austrian literature or music. It was ‘German’ inasmuch as this was their provenance. Nevertheless, it’s worth recalling the Berta Zuckerkandl, in whose salon the Salzburg Festival was conceived, saw the Festival primarily as an expression of Austrian individuality. As she put it: “One could remove Austria from the map, but not remove its spirit.” Of course, the Austria she saw removed from the map was the one that Churchill also recognized, about which, I refer further down.
Stalin shared the 1919 French concern that the wider German nation should never be allowed to come together into a single state. In 1943, enormous islands of German speaking communities still floated in what was an Eastern Europe ocean, separated from the German ‘mainland’. These were still perceived as a danger to European stability and as we now know, would lead to barbaric ‘ethnic cleansing’ in 1945. In addition to these wide-spread German communities, the idea of Austrian identity had been an impossible circle to square since Austria’s expulsion from the German Federation in 1866. Towards the end of the 19th century, pan-German Austrians even began converting to Protestantism as Catholicism was seen as anti-German. Oddly, the sense of a Catholic Austrian identity eventually out-lasted the attempt to convert Austrian pan-Germans. It hadn’t, however, solved the crisis of Austrian identity.
The Dollfuß/Schussnigg era (1933-1938), now only sporadically referred to as a ‘dictatorship’ was of course a uniquely Austrian variant of fascism, in which the Catholic Church played a central role. Only the other day I came across a letter from 1939 that referred to the years of ‘Clerical Dictatorship’. In any case, it was a corporatist government that persecuted all parties of the left including Communists and Social Democrats and most significantly, National Socialists (Nazis). Communists looked east, but Social Democrats were thus pushed into the arms of the pro-annexation National Socialists. To prominent imprisoned Social Democrats, such as Austria’s First and Second Republic president Karl Renner, National Socialism could never be worse than the ‘Clerical dictatorship’ of Dollfuß and Schussnigg. Hitler was unable, in their view, to keep hold of power. The German people, (including of course the Austrians), would not tolerate National Socialism in the long term. Thus the idea of a uniquely Austrian identity came from the Catholic, aristocratic political Right. The Dollfuß/Schussnigg regime had nearly wiped out Austria’s Communist and Socialist movements. This resulted in Austria’s Resistance Movement largely coming from the Catholic aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie. One need only think of the romanticized von Trapp family in this regard. Stalin wanted to encourage a stronger Resistance Movement within Austria and had already shown the foresight to provide uniquely Austrian refugee organisations in Great Britain and other safe havens. This meant that Austrian refugees, who from 1938 were treated as Germans, could differentiate themselves. The Moscow Declaration was meant as a further step along the way of building up, and encouraging, Austrian resistance to Hitler – preferably from the left. This could only be achieved by the Moscow Declaration recognizing Austria as a separate entity and positioning it into the status of ‘First Victim’. It thus absolved Austria, though it did not absolve ‘Austrian complicity’. This last respect is largely forgotten today, and was barely acknowledged with the end of the war.
There were many alternative plans on the table. Incredibly, the Americans were prepared to allow Austria to fall within the Soviet sphere of a post-Hitler Europe, a proposal that Stalin rejected, feeling that a tiny, independent and non-aligned republic was a better buffer against a future greater German state. In the long term, he would have been right. Had Austria fallen into the Soviet East, it’s probable that 1989 would have seen moves to unite the newly democratized former Soviet-styled Austrian Republic folded into Germany along the lines of the former GDR. As it was, Austria became the most Communist-phobic state in Europe following the founding of the Second Republic in 1955. Churchill’s contribution to the 1943 conference was to offer an even more bizarre twist to a post-Hitler Europe, with a powerful Austria as the central seat of a Danube Federation that would also include Bavaria. How strange this seems to us today. Yet the Churchill generation would have found it equally strange that a major power was wiped off the map in 1919 while even in 1945, the tools of empire were nominally still in place, though largely dormant over the previous 26 years. It was their heritage of empire administration that would provide support for the Nazi Regime. Churchill would most likely have seen the Austrians vis-à-vis the Germans as the British vis-à-vis the Americans. An ancient and established empire, diminished but still able to offer centuries of experience to the much larger younger brother. Stalin totally dismissed this option and Austria was left from 1943 with what it is today. Since then, work has continued unabated to establish a separate identity. In reality, Austria and Bavaria would have appeared as similar as America and Canada in 1945. Their language was the virtually the same as was their historic religious allegiance to the Catholic Church. Bavaria and present-day Austria rolled together as the engine of a Federation that looked South East would have offered us a very different Europe to the one we know today.
The ‘First Victim’ status meant that after the war, Austria saw repatriation and restitution of Jews as a low priority. The legal harassing and constant stone-walling of Nazi victims, especially Jews, has now passed into legend and remains unresolved. In order to establish the outward, or at least audible, appearance of two divergent German nations, the languages have drifted further and further apart. Urban middle-class Bavarians now speak with the same monotone, sharply chiselled consonants as found throughout the entire Federal Republic of Germany. Austria’s urban middle classes have pushed the local dialect into a personal identity that would leave anyone arriving in Vienna from a 1938 time-machine feeling as if the ruling elite had been hijacked by a semi-educated proletariat, or at the least, provincials. Yet this development has been crucial over the years in creating an identity that is, if nothing else, language based. An abstract comparison would be an independent Scotland taking Glasgow’s local dialect as the basis of its linguistic identity and as a means of separating it from the cultural sphere of a larger and more dominant England. And despite this, some of the most elegant writers in contemporary German literature are Austrian. The Moscow Declaration perhaps solved marginally more problems than it created, but the problems it created remain, and for that reason, it’s worth remembering as we approach its 70th anniversary.
A most excellent analysis, if I may have the presumption to say so, given that I am very much an amateur historian but interested in the history of post WW1 Austria.
But somewhat mystified by the nature of Karl Renner who recommended voting in favour of Hitler’s plebiscite in 1938, passing a quiet life throughout the war years, and despite all that, gaining Stalin’s favour on the entry and occupation by Russian troops towards the closing months of WW2. Had he no more commendable rival?
An interesting and fascinating point. I’ll have to ask my Austrian historian friends who have specialised on post-war periods and the Second Republic. He was probably the most prominent Social Democrat left standing, and they hated the Dollfuß/Schuschnigg regime even more than Hitler, whom they dismissed as a local yokel. They assumed they could undermine him and take control, and never anticipated his doing away with the Socialists with nearly the same resolution as doing away with Jews. His potential “rival” was Theodor Körner, who became mayor of Vienna – aposition nearly as important as Chancellor of Austria given its federal structure and Vienna’s size and significance in tiny Austria. Renner was a child of his time, an anti-Semite, Social Democratic pan-German. Probably not a “good” and “noble” man, but a practical one who saved Austria from becoming just another Communist buffer state. He had Communists in his government, but the Communist Party received the lowest number of votes of any party in Austrian general elections. It was a walk on eggshells.
Thanks a million for your excellent explanation! Have to admit am a bit taken up by the Austrofascist segment of the Austrian interwar period…For instance (and am not a Catholic pretty much to the contrary), I think Austria was given pretty much short shrift in the aftermath of WW1…yet inevitable given the composition of the AHE and all the diverse peoples desperately and vehemently wanting their own lands…and President Wilson ready to oblige and why not…yet Austria was in my view very much a victim (Serbian fascists killing for killing’s sake …very much the fashion…Italian anarchists murdering inoffensive Aristos thinking that anyone of privilege guilty of the sins of the world…absurd..but passons)…And were Dollfuss andSchussnig as bad as all that? Right, the Vienna civil war and Dollfuss cannonading the prize Max Hoff social buildings, too much..but he only outsmarted the socialists initially – and fairly enough given the system was at odds with itself and in those years parliamentary democracy was not on the upside because of its hesitations…aka lack of action…which was Mussolini’s gambit fraud boaster and murderer that he was…But Dollfuss was his personal family friend his wife with Mussolini’s family when he was assassinated…Musso’ reacting as appropriate…but without friends over Ethiopia and of different nature to Schussnig ie not of same social background, Austria mattered little by then. I think somewhere I have read that Schussnig or his ambassador to London trying to reap some sympathy and/or financial support fromBritain and France met with some indifference from Eden who dismissing his concerns said something like that they (the Austrians) should have little problem « peoples having the same language should find it easy to reach mutual understanding » or words to that effect…If true, (ie if my recollections are not playing me up…) this sort of attitude in my view could explain the lack of vision and other shortcomings held by the political classes in Britain and France at the time…But weren’t we all traumatised by the First World War…to our relative credit, but trouble was with the totalitarians – as George Orwell was able to see through …but even he …even he confessed (?) is on record as writing about Hitler « that he could see little wrong with him » but not for long, but he at one stage did feel at odds in that respect with the opinions of many others. Then Dollfuss was murdered and Schussnig spent the war in Nazi Germany as a prisoner, chose peace to save bloodshed…didn’t he get any credit post war? And Renner spent a quiet life during the war inthe country…
Thanks a lot for your patience…
There are many points that you bring up and many are difficult to understand without delving back into the mind-sets of the age. What is shocking is the Austrian dissolution of its own Parliament in March 1933. The context is important, but the reasoning is still difficult to grasp. After the First World War, France wanted Austria totally wiped off the map. By this point, whatever justice might have been felt following the Serbian assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, France hated the multi-national network of nations kept under the Habsburg thumb. The nationalist movements had sympathies everywhere and Austria was presented as tyrant. This was not quite the truth, but there were genuine issues that Austria was unable to solve. In the Crown-Lands of the Habsburgs, the German speaking minorities were granted governmental and administration control. The Emperor himself felt that all his peoples were equal, yet the heavy hand of Metternich days still ruled in far-flung regions and Clemenceau felt the only way to create stability in Europe was to get rid of Austria altogether. He and Wilson then made the (for 1919) disastrous decision not to unite the rump of German-speakers left over into the new German Republic. It might have been a good idea, but it would also have been a bit like amalgamating Great Britain with the United States (had it been a neighbouring state). Austria was old, Germany was new – Austria was poor, German was potentially rich. Also, nobody could quite decide what “German-Austria” consisted of. It was not just present day Austria with South Tyrol, but a crescent of German speakers along the borders of Moravia and Bohemia. Czech speakers still dominated, though some regions were pure German – hence the Sudeten Crisis of 1938. The only way for Austria to survive under those conditions was to make itself something that wasn’t Germany – Catholicism and ancient European aristocracy were about all it could offer if it wished to differentiate itself from Bavaria – which was part of Germany, but was just as Catholic as Austria and spoke the same variant of the German language. Dollfuß und Schuschnigg believed that Catholicism was the defining Austrian character – and above all, the Catholicism of its aristocracy. It was a hard card to play. German speaking Austrians – even Jewish German speaking Austrians – saw themselves as part of the “German nation” even if they were not part of the German state. Social Democrats were anti-clerical and this was enough to upset the basis of Austrian identity if the country was to exist as an independent entity from neighbouring Germany. The poverty that was imposed on Austria following its defeat led to a rise of power within Social Democracy and a questioning of the Catholic Church’s loyalty to the country’s aristocracy. It was a clear advisory to the aspirations and intentions of the Christian Social Party led by Dollfuß. In the meantime, the Republic of Germany, as created by the constitution in Weimar, was (similar to today’s Britain) convinced that it was the natural country to lead an empire and in order to rebuild its empire (Reich), it needed to expand and taken in all of Europe’s German speakers. This again spooked the Christian Social Party and Catholic Church, as Hitler’s Reich was also anti-clerical and threatened again to jeopardise the one card they had to play that justified keeping Catholic, conservative, aristocratic Austria apart from Germany. Some Social Democrats wanted to be part of Germany in much the same way that British politicians believe they’re more entitled to run the United States because of their history – they see the Americans as rich parvenus in need of wisdom. Austrian Social Democrats such as Körner and Renner felt they were far more qualified to run the German nation than the proletarian thugs the NSDAP had thrown up. History doesn’t repeat itself, but its shadows can be felt across the decades. The panic that Austria could lose its new-fangled, new-found identity and independence, and become part of the thuggish nation to the north, (something that was longed for – I would suggest – by a majority of Austrians in 1933) was enough for Parliament to shut itself down. Dollfuß then imposed himself with the Catholic primate Seipel as close advisor as leader of what essentially became a clerical dictatorship. Jewish Austrians supported the move because the NSDAP was anti-Semitic (as was the Catholic Church – just not murderously so). Perhaps with so many German-speaking Austrians of Slavic, Hungarian, Italian descent (just look in any Viennese phonebook) they were less taken with the view of the German Nation as a “race”. Austrians would have been more inclined to see it as an identity. It’s difficult to nail down the conflicts and imbalances of the period as in retrospect through the prism of Nazi crimes. The Dollfuß dictatorship was both the facilitator of the Anschluss (by its attempt to halt any democratic debates and its persecution of all opposition) and the bulwark that kept the country – if not independent – at least in a state of limbo with the appearance of independence. If you want to know what an Austro-fascist type was, one need only watch “The Sound of Music” with its portrayal of Captain, Baron von Trapp.