Austrian workers’ heroic anti-fascist past

COMMENTARIES ON Haider’s rise make much of ‘Austria’s failure to come to terms with its Nazi past’. While this is true in regard to Austria’s ruling class, such statements ignore the heroic attempt in 1934 by Austrian workers to defeat fascism. It was the brutal crushing of this resistance which paved the way for Hitler’s unopposed take-over four years later.

DURING THE first half of the twentieth century Europe was convulsed by wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions.

Inspired by the socialist revolution in tsarist Russia, on 29 October 1918 the Austrian working class brought down the old reactionary Hapsburg monarchy. Democratic workers’ councils – soviets – were formed and armed workers’ militias established. The army collapsed and a situation of ‘dual power’ developed in which the ruling class were paralysed, while effective power lay in the hands of the working class.

Only one thing stood in the way of the working class – their own Social Democratic leaders. These ‘leaders’, who were tied to capitalism, did everything to confuse, demoralise and derail the revolution. This allowed the ruling capitalists to rebuild its forces which included fashioning the Heimwehr (Home Guard) – led by monarchist officers and financed by the capitalists, the bankers, and the Catholic church – into a fascist auxiliary force.

However, the Social Democratic Party (SDAP) remained potentially more powerful. They had a mass membership (800,000 members, accounting for 25% of the male and 10% of the female population) and they controlled municipal Vienna and many other councils. Furthermore, they had a military organisation – the Schutzbund – which at its peak numbered 70,000 armed workers.

In the last pre-war parliamentary election to be held in Austria in 1930, the fascist Heimwehr gained only eight seats out of 165 and the pan-German Nazis, who stood separately, failed to win one. The SDAP on the other hand won 72 seats.

Even in the 1932 council elections, where the fascists gained ground, this was largely at the expense of capitalist parties.

However, the fascists were determined to achieve power whereas the leaders of the SDAP, despite their radical rhetoric, had no clear understanding of the nature of fascism and were terrified of taking power into their own hands.


IN JULY 1927 fascists attacked a peaceful SDAP demonstration, killing a child and a war invalid. The killers were acquitted leading to mass protests which were brutally attacked by police who fired into the crowds.

Street fighting raged and a general strike was called. Austria was gripped by a revolutionary crisis.

Once again leadership proved decisive. Without the arming of the workers and mobilising for power the general strike became a ‘demonstration with folded arms’. Within three days it was defeated.

In May 1931, the developing world economic crisis was deepened by the collapse of the main Austrian bank – Credit Anstalt. With the economy in ruins, with mass unemployment and increasing poverty, the social basis of the capitalists began to evaporate.

The government was led by the Christian Social Party, forerunners of today’s People’s Party, which sought to prevent absorption into Germany by leaning on Mussolini’s Italian fascist regime and repressing the pro-German Nazis.

As the capitalist crisis intensified the ruling class, increasingly, used their military/police apparatus against the workers’ organisations and prepared to drown the workers movement in blood.

Yet, the SDAP leaders clung to the argument that they couldn’t assume power until they won 51% of the vote. While they waited the fascists attempted two abortive coups.

In March 1933, the ‘bonapartist’ Austrian chancellor Dollfuss dissolved parliament and command of the army and police was placed in the hands of Fey – the Heimwehr leader.

The inaction of the SDAP leaders only emboldened the fascists. In January 1934 the Heimwehr occupied four regional government buildings, demanding the SADP’s suppression.

Fearing a repeat of Hitler’s victory in Germany the workers, starting in Linz and against the opposition of the SADP leaders, took up armed resistance.

The army, police and fascists surrounded the workers’ districts. The Times correspondent in Vienna described the scenes: “Outside the Larer Hill, the Schutzbund erected a formidable defence system with barricades and proper bunkers… These ‘graves’ held 2,000 armed Schutzbund scantily clothed, in bad shoes and almost completely without nutrition or drinking water. These 2,000 lasted three ice-cold February days and nights.”

An estimated 2,000 were slaughtered and 5,000 wounded. Tens of thousands were rounded up and put into concentration camps.

The socialist revolutionary Leon Trotsky summarised the lessons of the Austrian defeat when he wrote in 1934: “Only a leadership that recognises in advance that the revolution is unavoidable, that makes this the fundamental principle guiding its actions and draws all the practical conclusions flowing from this can measure up to the situation at the critical hour.”

The above article is based on an article that appeared in the Militant International Review (forerunner of Socialism Today) in Autumn 1985.

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