The Allies’ plans for Austria

Vienna march (re Soviet occupation?)

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.