A History of Austria - Part XI

Austria 1919: Gluing pieces together

The conditions under which Austria had to re-build its economy were extremely tough. The Völkerbund, the organisation that preceded the United Nations, granted large sums of money to back up Austria. Nevertheless, the inflation was very high, so was unemployment (more than 30 percent in 1933) and there were thousands of traumatised, job-seeking soldiers in Vienna (including a former private named Adolf Hitler).

Sigmund Freud was one of Vienna's most influential intellectuals in the early 20th century

The city had grown into a capital for an empire with a population of 60 millions - now Austria was down to about one tenth of that size. Vienna was therefore often called the "hydrocephalon of Austria": ways to big for a tiny nation. All in all, pretty much the worst conditions for establishing a democratic tradition. Not surprisingly, the political environment got increasingly polarised between the social democrats and conservatives.

Both blocks got increasingly well organised in the 1920ies and had a paramilitary wing. Tensions also increased between the left-wing Vienna and the conservative provinces. Surprisingly, the intellectual and cultural life bloomed again in the 1920ies and 1930ies. Vienna had drawn German-speaking intellectuals from all parts of the former empire.

The doctors Karl Landsteiner and Ignaz Semmelweis, the physicists Wolfgang Pauli and Erwin Schrödinger, the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Friedrich von Hayek, pretty much every single respectable psychiatrist of this time, writers like Stefan Zweig and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, composers like Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenborn and artists and architects of the Wiener Werkstätten and other institutions - all Austrians of this period.

The writer Stefan Zweig referred to himself as a 'Jew by Chance'; nevertheless, he was forced into emigration in 1938 by the Nazis

Vienna was left-wing, recovering and whoever had survived the war and could afford it enjoyed life. The Salzburg festival was founded, the Staatsoper (National Opera) in Vienna was a cultural highlight on a global scale and Vienna University seemed to have a a good time winning Nobel-prizes.

However, on the scale of ordinary people (including the high numbers of unemployed labourers and former soldiers), life got increasingly difficult. Social democrats and conservatives eventually engaged in open fighting in 1927 and again in 1934. This is often dramatised as the "Austrian Civil War" by both left- and rightwing parties in modern Austria; in fact, it consisted of few loose fights rather than a war.

1933 to 1938: Austro-fascism & Nazi-interference

In 1933, the conservative chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss eliminated the powers of the parliament, banned all parties except his own and arrested social democrats and Nazis. He shaped Austria following the model of Mussolini and fascist Italy, introduced censorship to the media, prohibited public gatherings, and introduced fascist symbolism. In 1934, a revolt of social democrats was crushed and the last bits of the legislation remaining with the parliament transferred to the government. A few months later, the Nazis tried their luck with another revolt. Dollfuss was shot, but the revolt was crushed much like the previous one of the social democrats.

Austria's official Coat of Arms during the time of Austro-Fascism

It is funny to talk about this time with Austrians that have either a social-democrat or conservative background. To the social-democrats, Dollfuss was a criminal worse than Stalin; to conservatives, he just heroically tried to preserve the sovereignty of Austria, which was threatened by an invasion of Nazi-Germany and backed only by Italy. In any case, Dollfuss was shot and is still worshipped as a martyr by conservatives today. The next "chancellor" was Kurt Schuschnigg. He became increasingly a puppet with his strings being pulled by Nazi-Germany and Italy.

Germany had made it very clear that it considered Austria to be rightfully part of its idea of a "Großdeutschland" (Grand Germany). Germany supported the illegal Nazi-underground activities (which included terror attacks using bombs and other guerrilla means), enforced embargoes on Austria that severely harmed the country′s economy and demanded the legalisation of the Nazi-party NSDAP in Austria. Italy had a keen interest in Austria′s sovereignty, but in 1936 Hitler and Mussolini agreed on a friendship treaty that left Austria exposed to German interests.

In response, Schuschnigg granted amnesty to 17,000 arrested Austrian Nazis. Arthur Seyß-Inquart joined the government as Hitler′s man in Vienna (he later transferred to the Netherlands and participated in the deportation of the Dutch Jews, for which he was sentenced to death and executed in the Nuremberg trials after the war). If you want to read more about this period, I recommend the very entertaining novel "Setting Free the Bears" by the American John Irving.

1938: Anschluss to Nazi-Germany

In 1938, Schuschnigg had to legalise the NSDAP, but at the same time planned a referendum about the independence of Austria. This was the time to act for Hitler: the Wehrmacht "invaded" Austria and was welcomed by cheering crowds (probably hoping for political stability and improvements for the economy). The referendum was held about the "Anschluss" after political opponents had been arrested and Jews were excluded from the suffrage.

A native to Austria himself, Adolf Hitler became the leader of the country in 1938

In front of many voting booths, armed SS men waited and checked the voters. The Wehrmacht had occupied all major cities in Austria and the Nazis had taken control over the media. The official result was 99.73 percent in support of the Anschluss - Austria got extinguished, even its German name "Österreich" was banned and replaced by Ostmark or "Donau- and Alpenreichsgau" referring to medieval names. Only Mexico protested against the Anschluss, all European powers accepted it with no open objections, following their appeasement policy.

Immediately after the Anschluss in 1938, Jews (as well as conservatives) were mocked and humiliated by Nazis and crowds in the public. About 100,000 of Austria′s 180,000 Jews fled the country, often leaving all their possessions back. You can read more about their situation and how many Jews felt betrayed as patriotic Austrians in Peter Singer′s very personal account of his family′s fate in "Pushing Time Away - My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna".

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Further Reading

"Austrian History in less than 1000 words"

"A Jewish History of Austria"

A Complete List of all Austrian Monarchs