Interwar Austria

[Excerpted from Austria: A Country Study, Eric Solsten, ed. (Washington, D. C.: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1993).]

The End of the Habsburg Empire and the Birth of the Austrian Republic

The dismantling of the Habsburg Empire had not been an objective of the Allies. Following the collapse of the tsarist government in Russia, however, the Allies increasingly portrayed the war as pitting freedom and democracy against oppression and autocracy. This strategy benefited the representatives of Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, and other nationalist committees-in-exile, which skillfully played on the theme of self-determination expressed in United States president Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. Austria-Hungary was unable to put forward a meaningful program of reform while still preserving the monarchy and so could not successfully resist the centrifugal forces pulling it apart. By mid-1918 the Allies began recognizing the national committees-in-exile and made plans for an independent Poland and Czechoslovakia. By October 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian government was seeking an armistice, control of the empire's constituent lands was passing to national committees, including one representing German Austrians.

On October 21, German Austrian delegates to the Austrian parliament voted to establish an Austrian state incorporating all districts inhabited by ethnic Germans. At the end of the month, the delegates established a coalition provisional government. On November 3, imperial authorities signed an armistice, bringing Austro-Hungarian participation in World War I to an official end. On November 11, Karl renounced any role in the new Austrian state, and the next day the provisional government issued a constitution for the German Austrian Republic.

Overview of the Political Camps

Conditioned to view themselves as the ruling elite of a supranational empire by virtue of what they regarded as their superior German culture, German Austrians (including assimilated Jews and Slavs) were the national group least prepared for a post-Habsburg state. The provisional government formed at the end of the war included representatives from three political groups: the Nationalists/Liberals, the Christian Social Party (Christlichsoziale Partei--CSP), and the Social Democratic Workers' Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei--SDAP). These three groups dominated political life in interwar Austria and reflected the split of Austrian society into three camps: pan-German nationalists, Catholics and Christian Socials, and Marxists and Social Democrats.

The parliamentary bloc represented by the Nationalists/Liberals was the smallest and most internally divided. Seventeen nationalist groups were unified in the Greater German People's Party (Grossdeutsche Volkspartei), commonly called the Nationals, which described itself as a "national-anti- Semitic, social libertarian party." The political heirs of the Liberals, the Nationals drew their support from the urban middle class and retained liberalism's strong anticlerical views. Unification (Anschluss) with Germany was the Nationals' key objective, and they were cool, if not openly hostile, toward restoration of the Habsburg Dynasty to rule in Austria. In rural Austria, another party, the Agrarian League (Landbund), endorsed a nationalist program in conjunction with a corporatist and antiSemitic platform. Radical nationalists were few in number, and some, Adolf Hitler, for example, had emigrated to Germany. The National Socialist German Workers' Party (National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei--NSDAP or Nazi Party) represented this segment of the nationalist movement but was numerically insignificant during the 1920s.

The NSDAP originated in prewar Bohemia, where the German Workers' Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) drew on a virulently racist movement headed by Georg von Schönerer to put together an anti-Semitic, anti-Slav nationalist program hostile toward capitalism, liberalism, Marxism, and clericalism. In 1918 the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party. After World War I, the party split into two wings, one in Czechoslovakia among Sudeten Germans (German Austrians of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia), and one in Austria. A similar party was founded in Germany and eventually came under the leadership of Hitler. Although the Austrian party leader favored parliamentary participation and internal party democracy in contrast to Hitler's antiparliamentarianism and emphasis on the "leadership principle," the Austrian and German parties united in 1926 but maintained separate national organizations.

The original Christian Social Party (Christlichsozial Partei- -CSP) had merged with one of the rural-based clerical parties in 1907 and had become more conservative in outlook. Because the church had lost the political protection of the Habsburg Dynasty with the collapse of the monarchy in 1918, the church was increasingly reliant on the political power of the CSP to protect its interests. Nevertheless, the church hierarchy, which was distrustful of parliamentary democracy, remained cool toward the CSP.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, the CSP was dominated by Ignaz Seipel, a priest and theologian who had served in the last imperial ministry. The party was well disposed toward the Habsburg Dynasty and inclined toward its restoration under a conservative, constitutional monarchy. The CSP gave only conditional support for unification with Germany and emphasized Austria's distinct mission as a Christian German nation. In light of public opinion favoring unification, however, the party was circumspect in voicing its doubts. The CSP inherited an antiSemitic strain from its association with the prewar nationalist movement. In addition, the close identification of Jews with both liberalism and socialism, which were the ideological foes of the CSP, made anti-Semitism an easy way to cultivate a political base.

The Social Democratic Workers' Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei--SDAP) endorsed a revisionist Marxist program. Although it spoke of the dictatorship of the proletariat, it sought to gain power through the ballot box, not through revolution. Karl Renner, who headed the provisional government, was the chief spokesman for this revisionist program after the war, but leadership of the party was held by Otto Bauer, who vocally supported a more radical, left-wing position. Bauer's rhetoric helped the party outflank the Austrian Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Österreichs--KPÖ). But because CSP leader Seipel was given to similarly strong rhetoric, the two contributed to the polarization of Austrian society. The Social Democrats (members of the SDAP), were strong supporters of unification with Germany, their fervor declining only with the rise of the Nazi regime in the early 1930s.

The Foundation of the First Republic

Although the SDAP was the smallest of the three parliamentary blocs, it received a preeminent role in the postwar provisional government because it was perceived as best able to maintain public order in the face of the revolutionary situation created by economic collapse and military defeat. With Bauer's Marxist rhetoric and the party's strong ties to organized labor, the SDAP was able to outmaneuver the KPÖ for control and direction of workers' and soldiers' councils that sprang up in imitation of the revolutionary government in Russia. The SDAP suppressed the old imperial army and founded a new military force, the Volkswehr (People's Defense), under SDAP control, to contain revolutionary agitation and guard against bourgeois counterrevolution.

When parliamentary elections were held in February 1919, the SDAP won 40.8 percent of the vote, compared with 35.9 percent for the CSP and 20.8 percent for the Nationals. As a result, the Nationals withdrew from the coalition and left a SDAP-CSP government headed by Renner to negotiate a settlement to the war and write a constitution. At the peace talks in the Paris suburb of St. Germain, however, the Allies allowed no meaningful negotiations because Austria-Hungary had surrendered unconditionally. The Allies had decided that Austria was a successor state to Austria-Hungary, so the treaty contained a war-guilt and war-reparations clause and limitations on the size of Austria's military. Although the provisional government had declared the Austrian state to be a constituent state of the German republic, the treaty barred Austria from joining Germany without the consent of the League of Nations and compelled the new state to call itself the Republic of Austria rather than the German-Austrian Republic. After Austria's parliament approved these unexpectedly harsh terms, the Treaty of St. Germain was signed on September 10, 1919.

In setting the territorial boundaries of the Austrian state, sometimes referred to as the First Republic, the Allies were faced with the basic problem of carving a nation-state out of an empire in which ethnic groups did not live within compact and distinct boundaries. Austria received the contiguous German or German-dominated territories of Upper Austria, Lower Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Tirol (north of the Brenner Pass), Salzburg, and Vorarlberg, as well as a slice of western Hungary that became the province of Burgenland. Under the empire, however, no specifically "Austrian" identity or nationalism had ever developed among these provinces. Thus, despite a common language and historical ties through the Habsburg Dynasty, pressure from the Allies was necessary to keep even these contiguous areas together.

Although geographically contiguous and ethnically German, South Tirol was transferred to Italy as promised by the Allies when Italy joined the war. The Sudeten Germans were not geographically contiguous and could not be included in the new Austrian state. As a result, the Sudeten Germans were incorporated in the new Czechoslovakia. Austria's population numbered 6.5 million, as against Czechoslovakia's 11.8 million, of whom 3.1 million were ethnic Germans.

The constitution of 1920 established a bicameral parliament, with a lower house, the Nationalrat (National Council) elected directly by universal adult suffrage, and an upper house, the Bundesrat (Federal Council) elected indirectly by the provincial assemblies (see Government Institutions , ch. 4). In accordance with the SDAP desire for a centralized state, real political power was concentrated in the Nationalrat. Significantly, however, none of the three major parties was truly committed to the state and institutions established by the constitution. The SDAP goal was an Austria united with a socialist Germany, and the party's inflammatory Marxist rhetoric caused the other parties to fear that the SDAP could not be trusted to maintain democratic institutions if it ever achieved a parliamentary majority. Although the CSP under Seipel came closest to accepting the idea of an independent Austria, it preferred a monarchy over a republic. Seipel himself voiced increasingly antidemocratic sentiments as the decade advanced. The Nationals were fundamentally opposed to the existence of an independent Austrian state and desired unification with Germany.

Political Life of the 1920s and Early 1930s

With traditional sources of food and coal located across new national borders, Austria suffered extreme economic dislocation, and the country's economic viability was in doubt. Moreover, having settled the immediate questions of the peace treaty and constitution, the SDAP and CSP found it increasingly difficult to cooperate. Unfortunately, the October 1920 parliamentary elections did not provide the basis for a stable government. The CSP increased its share of the vote to 41.8 percent, while the SDAP declined to 36.0 percent and the Nationals to 17.2 percent. Seipel tried to form an antisocialist coalition with the Nationals, but that party was not yet prepared to set aside its own ideological differences with the CSP. Weak, neutral governments guided the country for the next two years.

In 1922 Seipel assumed the office of chancellor (prime minister). By adroitly manipulating the European political situation and accepting renewed prohibitions on union with Germany, he managed to obtain foreign loans to launch an economic stabilization plan. Although the plan stabilized the currency and set state finances on a sound course, it provided no solution to the underlying economic problems and dislocation, and it extracted a high social cost by cutting government social programs and raising taxes.

Otto Bauer, leader of the SDAP, kept the party in self-imposed isolation after the collapse of the initial SDAP-CSP coalition in the belief that the natural role for a socialist party in a bourgeois democracy was opposition. Thus, Seipel remained the key public figure in Austrian national politics throughout the 1920s, even though he did not continuously serve as chancellor. Nevertheless, the CSP was not able to win an outright majority in the Nationalrat, and the SDAP registered steady gains among voters, polling 41 percent of the vote in 1927 against 55 percent of the CSP-National coalition. Vienna, which was given the status of a province under the 1920 constitution, was the SDAP stronghold. Vienna's city government of Social Democrats purposely sought to make health and housing programs and socialist-inspired "workers' culture" of "Red Vienna" a model for the rest of Austria.

Although the CSP had secured the suppression of the SDAPcontrolled Volkswehr in 1922 when a more traditional army was established, the SDAP responded by forming the Republikanischer Schutzbund (Republican Defense League). Well armed and well trained, it numbered some 80,000 members by the early 1930s. Of even greater political significance, however, were the provincial-based homeland militias, variously called the Heimwehr (Home Guard) and the Heimatschutz (Homeland Defense). Independently organized, these militias initially lacked any overarching political ideology except anti-Marxism. Until 1927 they were not an effective political force and were viewed by many, including Seipel, as a military reserve supplementing inadequate military and police forces. In the late 1920s, however, the Heimwehr gained greater ideological coherence from contact with Italian fascism. But with the exception of the Styrian branch, the Heimwehr was unable to bridge differences with Austrian Nazis. For this reason, the Heimwehr leader, Prince Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, founded a Heimwehr political wing, the Heimatbloc (Homeland Bloc), in 1930.

In the parliamentary election of 1930, the CSP experienced a severe setback, winning only sixty-six seats to the SDAP's seventy-two. The Heimatbloc picked up the seven seats lost by the CSP. Although the CSP-National coalition had broken down in the late 1920s, a new government was formed that combined the CSP with the Nationals and the peasant-based Landbund. Eager for a political success to bolster its popular support, the government began negotiations with Germany for a customs union in March 1931. When France learned of the negotiations, however, it immediately denounced the proposal as a violation of the international ban on Austrian-German unification. Under severe diplomatic pressure, Austria and Germany were forced to drop their plans, but not before France's economic retaliation had led to the collapse of Austria's largest bank, the Creditanstalt, in June 1931.

In the wake of this foreign policy and economic disaster, Seipel sought a new coalition between the CSP and the SDAP but was rebuffed. With no other alternative, Seipel resurrected the CSP-National coalition. The growing political strength of the Nazis in Germany and the worsening economic conditions marked by the rise in unemployment from about 280,000 in 1929 to nearly 600,000 in 1933, however, were effecting a political realignment in Austria. In the spring of 1932, the Austrian branch of the Nazi Party registered important gains in local elections. Although the CSP lost important segments of its constituency to the Nazis, the parties in the nationalist camp suffered greater defections, especially after Nazi triumphs in Germany in early 1933. Austrian elections were increasingly three-way contests among the CSP, the SDAP, and the Nazi Party.

The End of Constitutional Rule

In May 1932, a new cabinet was formed under the leadership of Engelbert Dollfuss, a CSP member. Dollfuss's coalition, composed of the CSP, the Landbund, and the Heimatbloc, had a one-vote majority. Both the SDAP and the Nazi Party pressed for new elections, but Dollfuss refused, fearing defeat. Instead, he sought support from fascist Italy and the Heimwehr and increasingly relied on authoritarian measures to maintain his government.

In early March 1933, parliamentary maneuvering by the SDAP, which was trying to block government action against a pro-Nazi labor union, created a procedural crisis in the Nationalrat. Urged on by the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, Dollfuss exploited the confusion in the Nationalrat to end parliamentary government and began governing on the basis of a 1917 emergency law. Dollfuss outlawed the Nazi Party, the politically insignificant KPÖ, and the Republikanischer Schutzbund. All, however, continued to exist underground.

Seeking a firmer political footing than that offered by Italy and the coercive power of the police, military, and Heimwehr, Dollfuss formed the Fatherland Front (Vaterländische Front) in May 1933. The front was intended to displace the existing political parties and rally broad public support for Dollfuss's vision of a specifically Austrian nationalism closely tied to the country's Catholic identity. Dollfuss rejected union with Germany, preferring instead to see Austria resume its historical role as the Central European bulwark of Christian German culture against Nazism and communism. In September 1933, Dollfuss announced plans to organize Austria constitutionally as a Catholic, German, corporatist state.

The opportunity to put the corporatist constitution in place came after a failed socialist uprising in February 1934 triggered by a police search for Schutzbund weapons in Linz. An unsuccessful general strike followed, along with artillery attacks by the army on a Vienna housing project. Within four days, the socialist rebellion was crushed. Both the SDAP and its affiliated trade unions were banned, and key leaders were arrested or fled the country. Dollfuss's constitution was promulgated in May 1934, and the Fatherland Front became the only legal political organization. Austrian society, however, remained divided into three camps: the nationalist bloc that was associated with the Heimwehr and the bloc represented by the CSP struggled for control of the Fatherland Front; the socialist bloc fell back on passive resistance; and the nationalist bloc dominated by the Nazis boldly conspired against the state with support from Germany.

Growing German Pressure on Austria

In June 1934, Hitler and Mussolini had their first meeting. Mussolini defended his support of Dollfuss, while Hitler denied any intent to annex Austria but made clear his desire to see Austria in Germany's sphere of influence. Austrian Nazis, however, were embarked on a more radical course. They conspired to seize top government officials and force the appointment of a Nazi-dominated government.

The Dollfuss government learned of these plans before the putsch began on July 25 but did not make adequate preparations. Although the army and the Heimwehr remained loyal and the coup failed, Dollfuss was killed. Strong international indignation over the putsch forced Hitler to rein in the Austrian Nazis, but Hitler's goal remained the eventual annexation (Anschluss) of Austria.

Dollfuss was succeeded as chancellor by Kurt von Schuschnigg, another of Seipel's CSP protégés. Schuschnigg's political survival directly depended on Italian support for an independent Austria, but by 1935 Mussolini was already moving toward accommodation with Hitler and began to advise Schuschnigg to do the same. Schuschnigg was in fact prepared to make concessions to Germany, if Hitler in turn would make a clear statement recognizing Austrian independence.

Schuschnigg, however, did not understand the degree to which even moderate nationalists, whose support he needed, were already operating as fronts for Hitler and the Nazis. Thus, in the agreement signed with Germany on July 11, 1936, Hitler gave Austria essentially worthless pledges of Austrian independence and sovereignty, while Schuschnigg agreed to bring into his government members of the "National Opposition," who, unbeknownst to him, were taking their orders from Berlin.

The 1936 agreement furthered Germany's desire to isolate Austria diplomatically and encouraged other European countries to view Austrian-German relations as a purely internal affair of the German people. Bereft of external support and in no position to resist German pressure, Schuschnigg agreed to meet Hitler in Berchtesgaden on February 12, 1938. Hitler used the meeting to intimidate the Austrians with an implicit threat of military invasion, and Schuschnigg accepted a list of demands designed to strengthen the political position of the Austrian Nazis. Although the list did not include the legalization of Austria's Nazi Party, the Nazis and their sympathizers began to come into the open.

On his return to Vienna, Schuschnigg began secret plans for one last desperate bid to preserve Austrian sovereignty: a plebiscite designed to secure a yes vote "for a free and German, independent and social, for a Christian and united Austria, for peace and work and equality of all who declare themselves for Nation and Fatherland." Representatives of the SDAP agreed to call a plebiscite in exchange for various concessions.

Hitler recognized that the plebiscite would be a new obstacle to Anschluss and symbolic defeat for Nazi Germany, so he quickly moved against it. The German army began preparing for an invasion on March 10, and Nazi sympathizers in the Austrian cabinet demanded that the plebiscite be postponed. Schuschnigg agreed to cancel it altogether and then acceded to demands for his resignation. Nonetheless, on March 12, Hitler sent the German army into Austria.

Absorption of Austria into the Third Reich

Most Austrian proponents of the Anschluss had foreseen a gradual coordination and merger of the two German states that would preserve some semblance of Austrian identity. But, influenced by the tumultuous welcome he received on his arrival, Hitler made an impromptu decision for quick and total absorption of Austria into the Third Reich.

The Anschluss violated various international agreements, but the European powers offered only perfunctory opposition. Italy had acquiesced to the invasion beforehand, and in return Hitler later agreed to allow Italy to retain the South Tirol despite his aggressive policies elsewhere to bring all German populations into the Third Reich. Britain was following a policy of appeasement in 1938 and was unwilling to risk war over Austria's independence, while France, traditionally the strongest foe of German unification, was incapable of unilateral military action.

To provide a legal facade for the Anschluss, Hitler arranged a plebiscite for April 10, 1938. The Nazis portrayed the plebiscite as a vote on pan-Germanism and claimed a 99.7 percent vote in favor of the Anschluss. Although the outcome was undoubtedly influenced by Nazi intimidation, the Anschluss enjoyed broad popular support. Nevertheless, the positive vote reflected the Austrians' desire for change far more than it did widespread support for Hitler and Nazism. Unification offered a way out of the political turmoil of the First Republic, and ties with the larger German economy promised economic revitalization. Many Austrians probably also harbored unrealistic notions of Austria's position within the Third Reich, expecting an arrangement similar to the Dual Monarchy in which Austria and Germany would be equal partners. And the full dimensions of Nazi barbarism were not yet apparent. Underlying these factors, however, was the widespread appeal of pan-Germanism that cut across political lines. Austrians had traditionally thought of themselves as Germans, and the Austrian nationalism cultivated by Dollfuss and Schuschnigg had not taken root. Although the SDAP had moderated its long-standing support for unification when Hitler came to power in Germany, Karl Renner urged a yes vote in the Nazi-organized plebiscite. Once unification was a fact, other Socialist leaders felt that the Nazi regime was not sufficient reason to reject the fulfillment of what they viewed as a progressive goal of German nationalism.

Hitler moved quickly to suppress what little independent identity and national unity Austria had. The name Austria was banned, provinces were freed of central administration from Vienna, and provincial loyalty and identification were cultivated. In addition, Austrian Nazis and Nazi sympathizers who might have become effective national leaders were transferred to relatively unimportant jobs in the administration of the Third Reich or, after World War II began, were sent to administer the occupied territories. Thus, a disproportionate number of Austrians came to be in charge of the bureaucracy overseeing the implementation of the Nazis' extermination of the Jews and other peoples and groups deemed undesirable.