Backwaters of History No.4 – Civil War in Austria

Behind the closed doors of the Hotel Schiff in Linz a group of workers stood holding rifles and light machine guns. Earlier that day they had listened to the measured tread of the armed levies of the fascist Heimwehr marching through the town on their way to the offices of the Landeshauptmann (Prefect) of the Province to demand that all members of the Austrian Social Democratic Party be removed from political office. At the same time the federal police were going from house to house in the working class districts, confiscating any arms they found in the workers’ possession.

In the turmoil of the struggle between Republicans and Monarchists at the end of the 1914-1918 war many workers and peasants who had joined in that struggle, had kept the arms issued to them during the war. In the country districts of Carinthia and Styria the peasants had organised in the Heimwehr for defence against Yugo-Slavs and the possible spread of Bolshevism. In the towns the workers joined the Republikanische Schutzbund to defend and maintain the new republic.

During the years following the 1914-1918 war there were a number of minor armed clashes between the Heimwehr and the Schutzbund with killings in both sides. When legal action was taken after these clashes it was invariably to the detriment of the workers.

The governments of Italy and Germany were striving against one another for a dominating influence over Austrian politics and Austria became the battleground on which these two powers fought out their commercial antagonisms. The Austrian Social Democratic Party had for years favoured association with Germany, while a small Austrian Nazi party stood for a complete union between the two countries. The Heimwehr was supported by Italy.

In 1934 the government of Austria was a coalition between the Catholic Christian Social Party and the Heimwehr with a few smaller parties attached. During the previous few years the Christian Social Party had been getting steadily weaker, losing many members to the Heimwehr, so that, by the beginning of 1934 the Christian Social chancellor, Dr. Dollfuss, was desperately seeking support from other parties. He could have the support of the militarised fascist Heimwehr or of the largest single political party in Austria, the Social Democratic Party. He chose the former, knowing that that party aimed at the complete suppression of the Social Democrats and the trade unions.

Otto Bauer, leader of the Social Democratic Party, Julius Deutsch, leader of the Schutzbund, Karl Seitz, Mayor of Vienna, and other Social Democrat leaders were prepared to make all manner of sacrifices, short of their own suppression, to stave off the clash that was ahead. They also prepared for the clash by arranging for a general strike to take place in the event of any of the following four contingencies.

    If the Government, in defiance of the law and Constitution, introduced a Fascist Constitution.

    If the Government illegally and unconstitutionally deposed the municipal and Provincial authorities of Red Vienna and handed over the administration of Vienna to a Government Commissioner.

    If the Government dissolved the Party.

    If the Trade Unions were dissolved or “brought into line.” (Resolution of the October 1933 Conference of the Austrian Social Democratic Party. quoted by Otto Bauer in “Austrian Democracy Under Fire.”)

The Heimwehr, lead by the vice-chancellor, Major Fey and by Prince Starhemberg, urged on by Mussolini in Italy, was demanding that the municipal councils controlled by the Social Democrats should be “cleaned up,” that Italian should be taught in schools instead of French and that the trade unions should be curbed. The Social Democrats asked Dollfuss to reject these demands and they would be willing to accept “his policy, however bad this might seem to them.” (Quoted by Alexander Schonau in “Civil War in Austria.”)

The Social Democratic leaders were still vacillating when the blow struck.

When the police forced their way into the Hotel Schiff, which was the headquarters of the labour organisations in Linz, the workers inside opened fire with their rifles. They felt that the decisive moment had come. Whilst the armed Heimwehr fascists were free to force their will at the point of a gun, the government authorities were disarming the workers to prevent them from offering resistance. It was a spontaneous decision to die fighting rather than surrender without striking a blow.

The news of the fighting at the Hotel Schiff spread like wildfire through Linz. Troops were called in. Street fighting began. The members of the Schutzbund brought out the weapons that they had managed to conceal from the police and the battle spread all over the town.

The news spread to other industrial towns and fighting started in Steyr, Bruck-on-Mur, Eggenburg, Graz, Kapfenburg, Judenburg, Wilhelmsburg, Worgl, Haring, the Traisental and in the capital, Vienna. The incident in Linz happened on the morning of Monday, February 12th, 1934, the first shots were fired in Vienna at 5 p.m. the same day.

    “The fighting began. On the one side members of the working class, many of them unemployed, armed with an old war-time rifle and a few clips of cartridges. On the other side troops and police, with full modern equipment—armoured cars, artillery and howitzers, minethrowers.”—(“Austrian Democracy Under Fire,” Otto Bauer.)

The general strike did not materialise. Electricity, gas, newspaper, tram and some factory workers came out spontaneously, but the strong railway union, which had been brought to heel some time previously, did not respond. The indecisive policy of the Social Democrats had lost them the confidence of large sections of the working class.

In Vienna the troops isolated different groups of workers and drove them into the residential districts. The government maintained control of the broadcasting stations, the telephones and other means of communication so that each group of workers had no means of knowing what was happening outside its own immediate district. The Schutzbund leaders were arrested at the outset and lying propaganda was broadcast.

Despite all the disadvantages the workers fought on for four days. But,

    “The artillery, the heavy howitzers, won the day . . . Hundreds of workers, women and children have been slaughtered. Thousands of wounded people are writhing in pain. Thousands of lying herded together in the prisons. In blood and slaughter has the new Austria, ‘Christian, German and corporative,’ been founded.” —(“Austrian Democracy Under Fire.”)

Otto Bauer and Julius Deutsch, despite radio reports that they had fled the country, remained in Vienna till all hope was lost, then, with a group of workers, they fought a rearguard action all the way to the Czechoslovak frontier and crossed over fully armed.

Bauer states,

    “The Hungarian Social-Democrats in 1919, and the Italians down to 1922, pursued a ‘Left’ revolutionary policy, closely akin to Communism—and in both countries their policy ended disastrously. Conversely, the German Social-Democrats adopted a very ‘statesmanlike’ nationalist, ‘right’ line of policy—and they, too, have been laid low. We in Austria tried to tread a path midway between the Italo-Hungarian and German extremes—and we, too, have been defeated. The causes of defeat of the working class clearly lie deeper than in the tactics of its parties or than in this or that tactical mistake.”—(“Austrian Democracy Under Fire.”)

How right he is. The Austrian Social Democrats, like similar “labour” parties all over the world, aimed to reform capitalism and tried to make it operate to the benefit of the working class. An impossibility. The discontent bred of the capitalist system drives the workers to support one reformist party after another, hoping to find relief from their oppression.

Housing and welfare schemes seem attractive but they do not remove the workers’ poverty and insecurity. When the workers find that a party that they have put into power does not produce “the goods,” they turn from it to another reform-promising party, then to another and another and, maybe, when their memories dim, back to the first one again.

Any political party, without control of the armed forces of the state, is at the mercy of those who do control the state forces, unless these forces rebel and pass over to the support of the party. Only a socialist understanding—a clear recognition of their class status—by a majority of the workers can be a guarantee of their continued, unwavering support for their political party. With such a majority, the control of the state forces can be achieved and then capitalism will not be reformed, but abolished.

W. Waters

Books to read:

“Austrian Democracy Under Fire,” by Otto Bauer.

“Civil War in Austria. A Reply to Otto Bauer,” by Alexander Schonau.

“The Tragedy of Austria,” by Julius Braunthal.

“Austrian Workers’ Tragic Heroism.” SOCIALIST STANDARD, March, 1934

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