On the flight back from Vienna yesterday, I read Christopher Isherwood’s short novel, Prater Violet. It tells the story of the young Isherwood hired to work on a film in a London studio in 1934, where he works as scriptwriter to a famous Austria film director named Friedrich Bergmann. Isherwood offers an historic account of events in Austria in 1934 through his collaboration with Bergmann. At the same time, he shows how far away these events seemed to everyone in London. It reminded me of how we view events in Egypt and Syria. We ring our hands and sigh that ‘it’s just terrible’ without any emotional or intellectual attachment. Even when Bergmann’s colleagues sense his worry and distress, they seemed puzzled as to why he can’t concentrate on directing ‘Prater Violet’ a film that is nothing but a soppy bit of Viennese Lederhosen schlock. At once, we have the juxtaposition of a lovely, fantasy Vienna – the Vienna Orson Wells described as ‘the one that never existed’ – and the reality of events in 1934.
Having just started 2014, we come to another momentous anniversary that means very little to outsiders, but was more crucial to subsequent events than perhaps credited. It proves again, that defeating a long established power, no matter how decrepit and obviously deserving of downfall, results in a vacuum that is filled by different, murderous groups, all with very conflicting interests. In 1934, Austria had both a civil war – in February – and in July, an attempted Nazi coup resulting in the assassination of the Austrian dictator Engelbert Dollfuß. Just as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt: regime change, and defeat of a once powerful enemy produces chaos, and following Austria’s defeat in 1918, the events of 1934 were manifestations of such chaos.
But first the civil war in February: The seeds had been planted in the 1918 treaty of St. Germain, that resulted in Austria being reduced to a fraction of its former size and Vienna, reduced to a magnificent ghost town. There was no industry, no port and no agriculture. There were tremendous war reparations to pay that added to the shock of losing everything. A blockade by the French and British remained in place long after the Austrian defeat, resulting in thousands of starving children and many deaths. ‘Save the Children’ would be the outcome of such barbarity shown against a defeated enemy. The world would soon experience the pandemonium of removing a major power by the stroke of a pen, wielded by the victors’ civil service. If the Habsburg realm seemed an artificial power, pot-holed, unstable and debilitated by localism and nationalism, it was wrong to think that it could simply be removed without consequence. Casually rubbing a thousand year old empire off of the map and reducing it to a few German speaking micro-regions around Vienna and along the Italian border, (while handing a goodly portion of German speaking South Tyrol to the Italians) would inevitably breed dissatisfaction, fanaticism, thirst for revenge and hatred. Scapegoats would be sought, found and held responsible, with the resultant crimes of the Second World War as progeny of such carelessness.
The fait accompli presented by the allies in 1918 left the now tiny republic of Austria divided into three broad groups: Social Democrats and their militia the ‘Schutzbund’; the Christian Conservatives (or the Christian Social Party, in no way to be thought of as ‘Christian Socialists’), and their militia the ‘Heimwehr’, with a significant third group of Pan-German Austrians, who wished only to merge with Germany. The pan-German paramilitary groups in the 1920s were fairly insignificant, and could be counted amongst others still fighting for the restoration of the Habsburgs, or on behalf of any number of other regional interests. The Heimwehr, officially not part of any political party, saw themselves as the first defence against leftist-extremism, whereas the Schutzbund saw itself as defenders of the Republic. Paradoxically, it had to subordinate itself to official Socialist doctrine, which aimed towards a ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. The Pan-German Austrians were frustrated that the allies had not allowed Austria and Germany to merge into a single republic. Though many of its members were Socialists, they tended towards coalition with Christian Conservatives. Vienna became a Socialist stronghold, known internationally as ‘Red Vienna’ with minor altercations taking on murderous dimensions. In 1927, during a demonstration in support of the Socialist ‘Schutzbund’ in Vienna’s Burgenland province to the East, 2 people, including a young child, were shot by a Habsburg militia. The killers were found not-guilty in a later trial, resulting in a massive Socialist demonstration through the centre of Vienna. The Palace of Justice was set alight and Government troops were told to open fire. In the end, some 90 demonstrators were dead, many wounded and many more arrested.
The country was clearly unstable. When in January 1933, one of the crazier Pan-German Austrians was made Reich’s Chancellor of Germany, (having only received German citizenship a few months previously), the Austrian parliament dissolved itself (on the spurious inability to come to an agreement on the payment of railway workers) and appointed the head of the Christian Social Party, Engelbert Dollfuß, as dictator. All political parties were to be folded into the single Fatherland Front Party, leaving a rump of Social Democrats. The paramilitary ‘Schutzbund’ was banned. Dollfuß prohibited the printing and distribution of Socialist publications and ordered that their offices be closed. House searches were carried out on party leaders, functionaries and parliamentarians. Given the huge numbers in support of Austria’s Socialist Party, it was a reckless step to take.
Communist, Socialists and most importantly, National Socialist, (Nazis) were all declared illegal. When on the night of the 11th to 12th of February, on the orders of Dollfuß, Heimwehr troops searched the Hotel Schiff in Linz for illegal Schutzbund weapons, fire was opened, while a telegram from Socialist headquarters ordering locals not to resort to violent resistance was surreptitiously intercepted by the Heimwehr. With news of the skirmish in Linz, fighting soon broke out across Austrian towns and cities. Not all Social Democrats supported the Schutzbund action, and the Socialist mayor of the Corinthian capital Klagenfurt resigned from the party in protest. The government managed to quell the uprising with the use of cannons aimed at workers barricaded in some of Austria’s most revolutionary social housing estates.
These were socialist projects, which governments of both left and right from around the world had come to admire, such as the massive Karl Marx Hof. There followed a number of high-profile executions, including the parliamentarian Koloman Wallisch, about whom Brecht would write a ‘cantata’, intended for Hanns Eisler to set to music. Dollfuß had a large detention centre set up in Wöllersdorf for Communists, Socialists and Nazis. Socialist leaders fled to neighbouring Czechoslovakia and Dollfuß came out of the skirmish as victor, having apparently demolished all domestic opposition.
The fighting across the country was subsequently exaggerated and romanticised and would have been forgotten, had the newly established Nazi dictatorship in Germany not continued its constant and unwelcomed attempts to destabilise Austria in order to absorb it. Hitler was Austrian and had spent his entire life dreaming of a Germany that included his homeland. Austrian Nazis, banned even before the start of the Dollfuß regime, saw themselves as having been robbed of any chance of power through the ballot box. The dissolution of parliament, the decree that forbade all public gatherings and the complete control of the press, (The prestigious ‘Neue Freie Presse’ was forcibly taken over by Austro-fascists) meant that Austrian Nazis had limited room for manoeuvre. The German Nazi party instigated a policy of sabotage and intimidation, initially making it nearly impossible for Germans to visit Austria as tourists. German planes would drop propaganda leaflets while maintaining a vigorous campaign of anti-Austrian broadcasting. Austrian composers and writers, regardless of whether they were Jewish, landed on German blacklists.
The situation climaxed on June 12th – four months to the day since the aborted ‘civil war’: Austrian Nazis unleashed a day of terror across the country. Dollfuß responded with the arrest of some 2500 Austrian Nazis. In retaliation, Austrian Nazis tossed grenades at a Christian-Social sporting event. There were no deaths, but many athletes were badly injured. Austrian Nazis had secretly infiltrated as many organisations as possible while waiting for instructions from their German leaders based in Bayreuth. On July 5th, the order ‘to liberate Austria’ was given, with the 25th as the date of the putsch. Local Nazis were handed out uniforms and weapons, with a number disguised as Austrian soldiers able to enter the executive offices where it was intended to hold Dollfuß hostage. The plan was thwarted and Dollfuß was assassinated. Nazis took control of Austrian Radio (RAVAG) and managed to carry on fighting for several days longer than the ‘civil war’ of February.
The putsch failed because against all expectations, neither the surviving Austrian executive, nor the Austrian people rushed in to support the Nazis. This came as an unwelcome surprise – and reminds me personally of American and British deluded expectations of Iraqis rushing to greet the conquering troops, making further bloodshed unnecessary. The Nazis, encouraged by Hitler, believed that a small force would result in the entire population rising as one against the Dollfuß dictatorship. In fact, the Austrian army was able to make quick work of the uprising, with Hitler suddenly placing great distance between events and himself – if only to placate an agitated Mussolini, who stood as guarantor of Austria’s integrity. Hitler, according to the Austrian historian Kurt Bauer, was convinced, however, that on a meeting on June 14th, Mussolini had given tacit approval for ‘regime change’ in Vienna. With Hitler’s removal of Ernst Röhm and his ‘Sturmabteilung’, only a few days before the Austrian putsch-attempt, Hitler had sorted out his domestic German problems. He now looked to Austria as an opportunity of expansion before either the French or the Italians could intervene.
Kurt Schuschnigg succeeded the assassinated Dollfuß and followed up with two years of even more repressive measures against Austria’s Nazi Party, until both the Fatherland Front and the Heimwehr were disbanded in 1936, in an unashamed act of appeasement towards Nazi Germany. The punishment for the ‘foot-soldiers’ of the attempted putsch was relatively mild, with many not even being brought to trial. Thirteen captured leaders were executed following military tribunals that were generally seen as both sloppily carried out and biased.
Does this matter? In a way it does, as it is a template for what we see happening today where removal of authority does not result in happy, ‘liberated’ democrats, but a vacuum that is filled by something far worse. The danger in 1918 was not the success of ‘regime change’ and removal of the Austrian Empire, but the fact that nobody had a legitimate plan of what to do with the Austrians once they had been relieved of their lands, wealth and place in the world. Indeed, history teaches that democracy is not the default setting of society – it’s dictatorship. How staggering that this is a lesson that the world still struggles to learn 80 years on.