Austrofascism

Migranti e confini, 12

The historical period in Austria between 1933 and 1938 is called by many historians “Austrian fascism” or “Austrofascism”. The reason of this name comes basically from two main facts: the breakdown of democracy and the establishment of a dictatorship.

austrofascism

First of all, in order to explain the arise of this “unique-party regime” and his development, we must shortly consider the historical context before 1933. The so called “First Austrian Republic” was founded in 1919, after the I World War. A constituent assembly approved in the same year a Federal Constitution which divided the land into 9 regions (Länder) and established a President, a National Council (Nationalrat) and a Federal Council (Bundesrat). Austria suffered a lot from the economic crisis of 1929 and the central government was constantly struggling with some regions which desired an annexation to Germany. In 1929 there was a first constitutional reform which conferred more power to the central government. Two years later, the foreign minister of Austria signed a protocol with the German government in which they planned to establish a customs union. Although this was never realized, it expressed a common feeling at that time: that of people who wished a political union with Germany.

Austrofascism begins conventionally in 1933, when chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, on March 4, taking advantage of the simultaneous resignations of the three presidents of the National Council, suspended the Parliament permanently. In spite of the dangerous situation, the president did not dissolve the Parliament to call a general election. This let the leaders of the Christian Social Party (the chancellor’s party) decide to govern by means of the Enabling Law until the opposition parties would have been persuaded to agree to a revision of the constitution. According to the opinion of some historians, Dollfuss was forced to act this way in order to prevent a political coup of the Austrian Nazis (who wanted a political union with Germany and could have been inspired by the achievements of the German Nazis in the same year) and a political coup of the Social Democrats (who could have wished to move up the Nazis). After suspension, Dollfuss declared that the Parliament had abolished itself and that Austria should be a social Christian German state, on a corporative basis and under strong authoritarian leadership. An additional step towards the totalitarian state was made through the termination imposed to the Nazis party and the following declaration of illegality of the Social Democratic party, which happened after a brief civil war.

On the other hand, it was only with the adoption of the new constitution, on May 1, 1934, that Austria became to all intents and purposes what was defined as “essentially an authoritarian regime in fascist guise, a fascist impersonation; at best it was a semi-fascist authoritarian dictatorship.” In the new constitution the “Republic of Austria” was replaced by the “Federal State of Austria”, which was also defined “Christian”, “German” and on a “corporative basis”. The recent constitutional norms conferred tremendous power to the role of the chancellor which was, according to the former text, relatively weak. Besides, administration was centralized and the preponderance of the executive branch became very strong. Meantime temporary tools in the fight against National Socialist terrorism were set up. These provisions were taken with the support of the Italian government, which thought that the Dollfuss regime could have been a good obstacle to the Austrian annexation to Germany.

On July 25, 1934, as a reaction to the measures of the government, the Nazis organized a political coup. The riots were suppressed with difficulty after some days, but chancellor Dollfuss was killed. Kurt Alois von Schuschnigg became the new chancellor, and his government adopted a series of measures which succeeded to reduce unemployment and to raise economic conditions again. On the other hand, the relationship with Germany remained complicated. In April 1935 Italy, France and Great Britain organized a conference in Stresa and declared that they supported the Austrian integrity and
independence. The so called “Stresa Front” did not have a long life indeed. After the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935, there was a breakage between Italy, on one side, France and Great Britain on the other side. Austria, taking advantage of the situation, did not accept the sanctions imposed on Italy by the League of Nations and signed on March 26, 1936 an agreement with Mussolini’s government and Hungary, establishing a permanent authority of mutual consultation and obliging the states to meet before discussing the “Danubian issue” with third parties. On July 11 of the same year Schuschnigg concluded an important pact with Germany: the two German states undertook not to interfere in the mutual internal affairs and to keep good relationships.

Unfortunately, what should have been a good relationship encountered difficulties when the chancellor evoked, at the beginning of 1937, the possibility for Austria to restore the monarchy. Germany complained, and even the Italian government declared that restoration would have been an outdated and hazardous move. The situation got worse one year later, as a growing number of people hoped for an annexation to Germany and the government acted in the opposite way. This forced the leaders of the two states to meet on February 12, 1938. In that context they took urgent measures necessary to keep confident with the forgoing pact. Schuschnigg undertook to: modify his cabinet and to entrust the role of Minister for the Interior to a delegate of the Nazis, to give amnesty to all political prisoners, and to allow the Austrian Nazis to act legally in the Austrian institutions, respecting the constitution. On the other side, Hitler took the necessary measures to avoid any interference of the German Nazi Party in the internal affairs of Austria. The turning point was on the 9 th of March, as Schuschnigg announced a referendum for an Austria which should have been “free and German”, “independent and social”, “Cristian and unified”. The Austrian Nazis issued the chancellor an ultimatum to modify the text of the referendum and asked the federal president for the replacement of the chancellor. In the evening of March 11, Schuschnigg resigned and the Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who was designated to hold up the government, appointed himself as chancellor. At the beginning of the following day, he asked Germany to send its troops to Austria. In the evening of the same day Hitler was in Linz, and arrived in Vienna on the 14 th . The previous day an Austrian constitutional law officially proclaimed the annexation to the German “Reich”. Italy did not react, probably because of the large approval, which the annexation received by the Austrian citizens and because of the “Axis alliance” with Germany. Consequently, Hitler sent a telegram to Mussolini expressing his thanks and declaring he would never forget. To give further legitimation to the process, on the 10 th of April a plebiscite was organized. More than 99 % of Germans and Austrians expressed in favor of the unified German Empire, although the question was not presented in an impartial way. Luckily, some courageous citizens stood opposite the Nazi regime, such as Franz Jägerstätter, who was the unique citizen of his town who voted “no” at the referendum and was later killed because he refused to serve in the German army.

The vote indicated the end of the “Austrofascism” and, starting from that moment, Austria would have been known as “Ostmark” until the end of the II World War.

Bibliography:

– Austria, in: Enciclopedia Treccani, Roma 2014.
– BAILER-GALANDA, Brigitte, Austrofascismo e Anschluss: Un “doppio passato” e una “duplice riparazione”?, in: Contemporanea: Rivista di Storia dell’800 e del ‘900, lug.2011, Vol.14 Issue 3, p. 519-525
– EMILIANI Clarice, FRANCIOSA Luchino, FISCHETTI Ugo, RATTI Anna Maria, Austria, in: Enciclopedia Treccani: Appendice I, Roma 1938
– HANISCH, Ernst, Der Lange Schatten des Staates: Österreichische Gesellschaftsgeschichte im 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Ueberreuter, Wien 1994, p. 295-323
– KIRK, Tim, Fascism and Austrofascism, in: BISCHOF Günter, PELINKA Anton, LASSNER Alexander (editors), The Dollfuss/Schuschnigg era in Austria: a reassessment, ed. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick 2003, p. 10-31
– WOHNOUT, Helmut, A Chancellorial Dictatorship with a “Corporative” Pretext: the Austrian Constitution between 1934 and 1938, in: BISCHOF Günter, PELINKA Anton, LASSNER Alexander (editors), The Dollfuss/Schuschnigg era in Austria: a reassessment, ed. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick 2003, p. 143-162
– ZAHN, Gordon C., Vocation of Peace, ed. Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene 1992, p. 137

Tommaso Bisoffi