Austria: 90 years since the ‘Austrofascism’ war against the working class

Vienna, 12 February 1934

February 12th marked the 90th anniversary of a brief civil war in Austria, when workers attempted to defeat the mounting attacks of the then ‘Austrofascist’ government on the workers’ movement and democratic rights. The text below by Laura Rafetseder is an adapted version of an article originally published in 2004. 

February 12th, 2024 marks the 90th anniversary of the consolidation of power by the ‘austrofascism’, i.e. Austrian fascists who wanted to maintain an independent Austria and not join Hitler’s Germany. In a brief civil war, the Austrian army, police and fascist militias – the so-called “Heimwehr” – shot at municipal buildings and courts handed down hundreds of summary death sentences against socialists and trade union activists. All independent organisations of the workers’ movement were banned. 

A few weeks later, the regime proclaimed a new constitution that declared Austria to be an authoritarian, fascist state on a Christian basis, the so-called “Ständestaat”, a ‘corporate state’. Ultimately the major political beneficiaries of these events were the pro-Hitler Nazis, who were finally able to assert themselves during the years of Austrofascism. 

The 1933 victory of the Nazis in Germany and the smashing of what had been the strongest workers’ movement in the world, was a tremendous shock. Internationally, many workers drew the correct conclusion that fascism had to be fought, if necessary arms in hand. Only a few days before the Austrian civil war, far rightists and fascists in Paris attempted to storm the French parliament, in clashes which left 17 dead. The ‘February days’ in Austria saw, for the first time internationally, workers rise up in armed resistance against fascism. In different Austrians towns and cities, hundreds of workers and young people, socialists and communists, rose up to defend themselves against the cannons and machine guns of the army and the fascist paramilitaries.

In Austria in the 1920s and 1930s, capitalist crisis, social misery, but also class struggle and resistance, were part of everyday life for Austrian workers and young people in the years before 1934. Since 1918, the shock of the revolutionary events at the end of the First World War had left its mark on the bourgeoisie. In fact, the Austrian workers’ movement had held one of the keys to the international socialist revolution in 1918/19. The victory of fascism was a late effect of the lost revolutionary opportunity after the First World War and marked the end of a series of defeats of the working class.

Revolutionary wave and the role of the austromarxist leaders

In 1917, the October Revolution triumphed in Russia. This event not only helped end the world war, but also sent shockwaves through the whole of Europe. Soon mass left wings in the traditional social democratic organizations, and new socialist and communist parties were the expression of a radicalization of the workers’ movement. The question of a break with capitalism and the socialist revolution was no longer just in the programmes of the workers’ parties, but actually on the agenda. In Bavaria and Hungary, inspired by the Russian model, soviet republics were formed. In Italy, workers occupied their factories. In Germany, revolution was on the cards – the first government after the 1918 revolution copied the name of the Bolshevik government in Russia but sought to stabilise capitalism. In Austria, strike movements in 1918 led to the end of the monarchy and the formation of a nationwide soviet movement. 

However, capitalism survived these events – in Austria, as well as in the rest of Europe, with the exception of Russia. The Austrian Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP) was, at that time, the biggest workers’ party in the world in relation to its population. This was especially so after the Austro-Hungarian empire broke apart at the end of the First World War into different nation states. This left Austria with a population of just six and a half million people. The social democratic leaders played an ambivalent role in the process at the time, holding back the revolution and in fact saving capitalism while sometimes using radical phrases. As the governing party in 1918-1920, the SDAP leaders worked together with the bourgeois forces against the socialist revolution. At the same time, the austromarxist left wing of the SDAP around Friedrich Adler and Otto Bauer, in particular, succeeded in preventing the formation of a new, mass communist party by means of radical words. Time and again, reference was made to the achievements that the bourgeoisie had conceded in the revolutionary crisis of 1918/19. The party leaders of the SDAP promised to the workers that this was just the beginning and that socialism would be gradually implemented in the coming years.

Removing the “revolutionary debris”

The eight-hour day, social legislation, labour protection regulations, even the parliamentary republic were understood from the outset by the bourgeois forces as products of a time of chaos and the shaking of their power. Contrary to the promises of the social democrats to “fill the parliamentary shell with socialist content”, the workers’ movement found itself politically on the defensive after the revolutionary wave subsided. From 1920, Austria was governed by a bloc of right-wing parties, whose leading force was the Christian-Social Party (CSP, whose legacy lives on in the conservative Austrian People’s Party of today). Only “Red Vienna”, with its exemplary public housing, social services, school reforms and redistributive municipal taxes, developed into a left wing model. Especially in times of deep economic crisis at the end of the 1920s, Vienna stood out as the great hope of millions of workers throughout the country.

Once again, the social democratic leaders promised to escape the capitalist dead-end by slowly implementing this model throughout Austria. In 1929, 718,000 people were members of the Austrian Social Democratic Party. In Vienna more than a third of the resident population eligible to vote were members. The party controlled all the important trade unions, but also other mass organizations (women, youth and cultural associations) and had its own armed formation, with 60,000 men – the Republican Protection League (“Republikanischer Schutzbund”).

At no point, however, was state power and private ownership of the means of production seriously put into question by the social democratic leaders. On paper, they had plans for socialisation, but these remained in the table drawers and were no actual guide to political action for the leaders of the SDAP. Nevertheless, the mere existence of this powerful movement – as well as the existence of “Red Vienna” – was increasingly perceived as an unbearable threat by significant sections of the bourgeoisie and its representatives. The demand for the final removal of “the revolutionary debris” had already been raised in 1924 by the then Federal Chancellor, Seipel (CSP). At that time, however, it was not yet known what means would be used to achieve this.

Capitalist crisis

In 1929, the stock market crash in New York marked the beginning of the deepest economic crisis in the history of capitalism. For large sections of the Austrian population, the “golden 20s” had already remained an unknown entity. The Austrian economy had been suffering from a persistent structural crisis since 1918. At no time did unemployment fall below 8 percent. Even in the five years before the Creditanstalt (CA) bank crash in 1931, 150,000 jobs were lost in Austrian industry. As in Germany, the global economic crisis had a particularly fatal effect. In 1933, 557,000 (26%) people were officially (!) registered as unemployed – although only 60% of them received state support.

Despite the fact that a big part of the ever increasing mass of unemployed did not receive any benefits, state expenditure continued to rise. A quarter of all state expenditure had to be used for payments to the unemployed alone. This figure points to the complete lack of prospects and hopelessness of overcoming the crisis under the existing conditions. At the same time, leading economic and government circles were calling for increasingly urgent and comprehensive restructuring measures.

Crisis of the workers’ movement

In January 1927, an invalid and a child were shot dead by right-wing militia during a Schutzbund march in Schattendorf, Burgenland. When the bourgeois court acquitted the murderers in July of the same year, there were spontaneous strikes and a mass demonstration in front of the Palace of Justice in Vienna. The Social Democratic Party leadership called for moderation – the result was total chaos and a fiasco for the entire workers’ movement. When the Palace of Justice finally went up in flames, the government and police president gave the order to shoot: 85 died and 600 were injured. This drastic defeat was the prelude to the further developments.

The promises proclaimed in the SDAP party programme of 1926 (“Linzer Parteiprogramm”) to resort to the dictatorship of the proletariat, if necessary, had proven to be toothless. Under the conditions of the world economic crisis, the general fighting conditions of the working class also deteriorated dramatically: the number of labour disputes fell by 87 percent between 1928 and 1932. During the same period, the membership of the independent trade unions fell by around 200,000 members – not least due to mass unemployment. The political and increasingly structural crisis of the workers’ movement, as well as international developments, encouraged the bourgeoisie to adopt “new methods” in Austria.

The fascist threat in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s

The emergence and implementation of fascist mass movements – beginning with the Italian fascists coming to power in 1922 – was a new, international phenomenon in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Despite differences in form, strength and emphasis on “national” differences in the various countries, the parallels and mutual inspiration of these movements and regimes were clearly evident. They drew on the petty bourgeois masses, and sections of the most oppressed, who had suffered from the crisis. While sometimes even using “socialistic” and anti-capitalist rhetoric, they were ultimately a form of capitalist counter revolution to defeat the revolutionary forces and the workers’ movements. Trotsky described fascism as a phenomenon of the decay and rot of capitalism. When in power, fascist regimes would crush the workers’ movement and repress it violently to keep the working class in check. Nevertheless, this is not ideal for the ruling class, as a whole, and actually is a sign of the ruling class’s weakness. Democracies are generally cheaper to preside over, more predictable and easier to control for the ruling elite, which is why they resort to the fascist card only in extreme crises – when capitalism is in danger.

This is why the decisive factor was that the ruling classes had to resort to allowing the fascists to power due to the severity of the capitalist crisis. Hence only the independent resistance of the working class – and not an alliance or bloc with pro-capitalist forces – could prevent the seizure of power by fascism, as Leon Trotsky pointed out repeatedly in the 1920s and 1930s. For a long time, the extent and severity of the fascist threat in Europe was grossly underestimated by the leading politicians of the workers’ movement. In Austria, too, the leadership of the Social Democrats was paralyzed by the fascist danger.

 Who were the Austrofascists?

At the cradle of the fascist movement(s) in Austria were mainly local military associations, but also smaller – primarily anti-Semitic – groups. The Front Fighters’ Association, led by Colonel Hitl and the later central Heimwehr functionary, Major Fey, was particularly active in the Vienna area. At the same time, they saw themselves standing “on the ground of devout Christianity”. Despite these common historical roots, two mass movements of the extreme right subsequently formed in Austria: the Austrofascist Heimwehr and National Socialism (the Nazis). The Heimwehr and the CSP had their basis mainly in the rural areas among farmers, while the Nazis were more anchored among urban petty bourgeois, such as teachers, shopkeepers etc. 

The later rivalry between the two movements did not consist of the Austrofascists’ outright rejection of Nazi anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic pre-First World War mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, for example, was viewed with admiration by both currents. In fact, different strategic ideas and opposing claims to power emerged between the Austrian-oriented leadership of the Heimwehr and the pan-German Nazis instructed from Berlin. For a long time, key circles of Austrofascism relied on support from Mussolini and an alliance with Fascist Italy, while the Austrian Nazis were keen to join a National Socialist Germany. At the same time, cross-connections between the two camps continued to exist. The main characteristic of the Austrofascist movement was above all its relative weakness and lack of unity. At the time of their greatest expansion – 1929 – the Heimwehren, Heimatschutz organizations had a maximum of 300,000 supporting members.

Even during this period, the main role and common ground of this non-homogenous scene was to organize provocative marches and clashes against the social democrats and to push the government to take more radical measures against Marxism. In 1930, an important step towards radicalization was taken: with the so-called “Korneuburg Oath”, the Heimwehr demanded the immediate establishment of a fascist system in Austria, and thus set its sights on a stronger independent development than before. In the following elections in November, however, a mere 6.2 percent of the vote for the “Heimatblock” showed that these formations had already passed their peak. In 1931, an adventurous coup attempt by Pfrimer, a regional Heimwehr leader, failed miserably and he briefly fled to Yugoslavia. In 1932, the Christian-Social Party, led by Engelbert Dollfuss and the Heimwehr, led by Count Starhemberg and Major Fey, agreed on an alliance, whose fragile balance of power was supplemented by the “Ostmark Storm Troopers” of the future Federal Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. The decisive coalition for the fascist seizure of power had thus been forged.

On the way to the “Ständestaat” (“corporate state”)

On March 4, 1933, CSP leader Dollfuß took advantage of an incident in parliament to shut it down completely. Based on the War Economy Enabling Act, the Dollfuß government was now able to issue emergency decrees without Parliament. The Social Democratic leadership offered no active resistance. On March 16, 1933, the Social Democratic paramilitary Schutzbund was banned, although, despite persecution, it continued to exist. The May Day march was also banned by emergency decree. The Dollfuß government imposed a ban on strikes, banned the Communist Party, worsened working time regulations and cut unemployment benefits. Red Vienna was initially to be financially starved. 

The government and the Heimwehr now announced ever more clearly that they would soon eliminate the remaining ‘remnants of Marxism’. Heimwehr functionaries took on decisive roles, particularly in the security apparatus: Their leader, Major Fey was, in 1932, appointed a state secretary, and in 1933 minister for public security, which gave him control of the Austrian police and gendarmerie. At the same time, the Heimwehr was declared an “assistant force” to the Austrian police and army. The arbitrary acts of the authorities against the workers’ movement increased accordingly, especially searches for weapons. Yet, at this time, the regime was of a bonapartist character, as the workers’ movement had not been fully crushed yet.

February 1934

On February 12th, 1934, SDAP party premises were searched for hidden weapons. When the Heimwehr officially searched for weapons in Hotel Schiff, in Linz, headquarters of the regional Schutzbund, the Schutzbund put up armed resistance. As a result, there were – finally – armed uprisings by sections of the Schutzbund in several cities such as Vienna, Steyr and Graz.. 

With a few exceptions, the high officials of the SDAP did not take part in this heroic struggle of the Austrian working class. One of the reasons why the Schutzbund’s resistance failed was that there was no central coordination and no plan for the uprising. Many workers who were ready to fight did not know where the weapons depots were and those leaders who did know did not take part or in some cases even voluntarily went into protective custody. With the help of the army, communally-owned public housing blocks were shelled with heavy artillery. The resistance of the workers was brutally crushed by the fascists. There were 137 deaths and 319 injuries on the side of the Schutzbund. Dollfuss had already had detention camps set up for political opponents.

The Austrofascist “Ständestaat” and its failure

Despite the crushing of the workers’ movement, the dismantling of state benefits and social rights – employers broke hundreds of collective agreements in the first few months – Austrofascism was unable to fulfill the expectations placed in it. Even short-term economic stabilization failed to materialize and the number of unemployed hardly decreased. Large sections of the working class – frustrated by the events and intimidated by the terror – waited to see how things would develop. Nevertheless, relatively strong, illegal structures of the workers’ movement continued to exist. Parts of the working class became radicalized after 1934 and sought revolutionary alternatives to fascism and capitalism. The Austrian Communist Party developed into a relatively significant factor for the first time. The Social Democrats in the underground changed their name to “Revolutionary Socialists”, a sign of the conclusions some were drawing from this defeat, although they were not fully rounded out politically as Marxists. Conversely, the regime’s attempt to gain mass support failed, especially among the workers. Despite the enormous pressure to join, a newly created ‘Unified Trade Union Confederation’ barely achieved more than half the membership figures that the Social Democratic led ‘Free trade unions’ had before 1934. In workplaces where it was possible to elect shop stewards, well-known representatives of the regime suffered heavy defeats.

The advance of the NSdAP

The advance of the Nazis in Austria began in 1930 as a consequence of the continued repression of the workers’ movement. Although the NSdAP was formally banned in 1933, February 12th, 1934 was an enormous boost for the Nazis. As early as July 1934, they dared to revolt, in the course of which Chancellor Dollfuß was assassinated. The so-called “third camp” had grown despite being banned, because of the failure of the leaders of the workers’ movement to show a way forward. However, the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany was not prevented by the Austrofascists – contrary to what the Communist Party had hoped – but by the rivalry of German and Italian fascism for influence in Central Europe. Mussolini even threatened Hitler with war in the event of an “annexation”. From 1935, Italy’s foreign policy ambitions changed – and the Rome-Berlin axis was forged. The “resistance” of Austrofascism ended in 1936, at the latest, when Berlin and Vienna agreed on special relations, representatives of the pan German national camp were admitted to the Austrian government and Austria was henceforth regarded as a “second German state”. In March 1938, in the run-up to the Anschluss (the Nazi merger of Austria with Germany), the still illegal ‘Free Trade Unions’ offered support to the austrofascist government if it opposed the Nazis, in return for some economic concessions. This position was agreed to by the “Floridsdorfer Vertrauensmännerkonferenz”, a conference of some 350 workplace delegates held in the Floridsdorf district of Vienna. But then,four days later, the government resigned and was replaced by one led by an Austrian Nazi leader. Thus the Nazis finally marched into Austria “protected” by Austrian police, wearing swastika armbands and cheered on by hundreds of thousands of people.

After 1934, in particular, the Nazis tried to win over workers by agitating against the allegedly “Jewish capital” and its helpers and servants – the representatives of the corporative state. Austrofascism did not oppose this agitation in principle. On the contrary, it was asserted that Jews would not occupy any leading positions in the state anyway. Despite massive efforts, the Nazis’ attempts to win over workers met with only limited success: before 1938, the proportion of workers in the NSdAP membership grew from a quarter to just under a third. Compared to the proportion of the working class in the population, as a whole (53 percent), workers remained significantly underrepresented.

‘Lesser evilism’ brought to extremes

The Communist Party, in particular, hoped that they could resist the Nazis by supporting the Austrofascist regime, declaring the fight against fascism was a national liberation struggle of the “Austrian nation”. This was a tragic misconception. The illegal Social Democratic and Communist movement had still broad support: in 1937, a memorandum against Hitler addressed to Schuschnigg was signed by 100,000 workers. Politically, however, these appeals by Social Democratic and Communist leaders to Austrofascism proved to be completely wrong. They should not have put their hopes on one fascist regime against the other but worked to build an independent movement to overthrow capitalism in a socialist revolution. Instead, as the Floridsdorf conference showed, the illegal Social Democrats and the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) still set out to resist the Nazis together with representatives of the austrofascists. However the austrofascist representatives and supporters – especially if they believed they had nothing to fear from the Nazis – already saw themselves reconciled with the new regime. Prominent leaders of the Heimatschutz published an appeal on March 8, 1938, three days before the Nazi takeover began, in which they welcomed and demanded the “uniting of all forces to fight against the world danger of Bolshevism” and the promotion of all “efforts to reconcile with the national camp”.

How could all this have been prevented?

The common enemy of all fascist movements is the workers’ movement. For a long time in Austria after 1918, its potential strength stood in dramatic contrast to the weakness of the fascist forces, or rather the entire ruling class, which was never really able to stabilize its rule. Even the rapid invasion of the Nazis in 1938 was largely attributed by contemporary witness Georg Scheuer to the danger of a rapid “revival of the workers’ movement”. The “Anschluss” was welcomed by the most important sections of the Austrian elite, or at least accepted as a necessary evil.

It was only through National Socialism that the “red danger” for the ruling class seemed to be finally eliminated – even if it cost the lives of tens of thousands of Jews, other racially “inferior” people and political dissidents. But it was the defeats of the workers’ movement that made this development possible. How did this come about? At no time were the leaders of the SDAP, in particular, prepared to consistently counter the danger of fascism and play to the full strength of the movement. This would have directly challenged capitalism – and the Social Democratic leaders did not want a socialist revolution. They kept promising general strikes – which never came because this would have meant a battle to overthrow capitalism. In 1918/19, this approach prevented the overthrow of capitalism, and as a result, the retreat from fascism led to a whole series of defeats.

In the resistance, this defensive stance was continued by the Communist Party leaders – despite many heroic actions of the rank and file.  Even the hope that Schuschnigg would do something prevented an independent last stand by the workers’ movement against the impending Anschluss in 1938. This was unlike Spain, where the July 1936 military uprising was met by a rapid response by workers, who stormed military bases, which in many areas prevented the coup immediately succeeding. Even if, in retrospect, there is no guarantee that a mass movement from the left in March 1938 could ultimately have prevented Hitler’s success, resistance would have meant that the conditions for the rapid and comprehensive establishment of the Nazi terror regime would have deteriorated considerably.

Lessons for today

The key to prevent fascism would have been a successful revolution in 1918 –  which the social democratic leaders prevented – and the course of history would have decisively changed. In later years, to defeat the fascists in Austria the workers’ movement would have needed a revolutionary strategy to overthrow capitalism. The heroism of the February battle in the first armed resistance against fascism in Europe was a reminder of the tragedy that unfolded thanks to the policy of the ‘austromarxists’, who spoke socialism but did not implement it in a decisive break with capitalism. It was, in effect, a battle between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution given the depth of the capitalist crisis. To put their faith in one section of the ruling class against another, or even one fascist regime against another, proved to be a fatal mistake by the Communist Party and others.

The right wing populist danger of today does not immediately pose the danger of fascism, but rather elements of bonapartist measures in some countries. But the deep crisis of capitalism is a reminder that we will only be able to successfully fight the far right if capitalism is put into question – with mass workers’ parties armed with a revolutionary programme that fight for a socialist future. We will not be saved by ‘lesser evilism’. Yes, united action against fascism is always needed but this must be used to open the way for united action for socialist change. Only the working class has the power to determine its own future. 


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February 2024