Engelbert Dollfuss and the Tragedy of Interwar Austria


My first contribution to Thermidor Mag is a little stroll down the road of history, to wipe away the dust that covers one country’s particularly interesting Interwar period. Just as I expounded upon the little-known facts of Romania’s rightward shift in the lead-up to WWII, so is it necessary to do the same for Austria. There is more to Austria’s story than Anschluss.

Austria is an unlikely candidate for the state in the 1900s which came closest to realizing a Reactionary system, thanks to the will and benevolence of one man, Engelbert Dollfuss. From farmland to the chancellory, from Papal embrace to the cold and blood-drenched floor, this is the remarkable and untold story of interwar Austria and the efforts made to save it from oblivion.




18 thoughts on “Engelbert Dollfuss and the Tragedy of Interwar Austria

  1. In text you said “overhaul was almost certainly influenced by the economic perspective of Othmar Spann,” but Dolfuss’ economic adviser was none other than Ludwig von Mises who was also the chief economist for the Austrian Chamber of Commerce under Dolfuss. Those “corporations” were simply a replacement of democratic process – instead of direct suffrage, members the National Council were selected for by “corporations” which represented both workers and employers in a given sphere. It didn’t have anything to do with guilds (i.e. there were no monopoly grants, rent-seeking, and stuff). All that was aimed at undermining the socialist movements (by having employers and employees be members of the same organizations, etc.).

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    • It can quite easily be viewed as a move towards such a system, killed in its infancy (only two of these corporations were actually set up before Dollfuss was assassinated, the others remained only in a proto state). Obviously he did not set up a serf system, but the aim was to end class conflict by bringing employee and employer under the same representation, which I would see as a move towards such a system. I doubt it was solely intended to undermine the Socialists, and was far more a direct influence of Catholic economic thought at the time.


      • I dunno, but it doesn’t look anything like guild system. Guild system never served to end class conflicts, it served to cartelize the production of certain things so that guild members can maximize prices and thus live off their monopoly at the expense of the rest of society. It did not start that way, of course, but it certainly ended that way (at the end of their existence, they were hated by the general populace much as big banks are today).


        • Well, they were not initiated with ending class conflict in mind (class conflict is Modern), but this is effectively what they did by being a part of the economic structure of a rigidly defined caste system, for which Marx among others hated them. Guilds did outlive Feudalism by a few centuries in most cases, but creating industry-specific ‘societies’ is in general positive, and while this was only embryonic in Austria (as you say, it was more to do with collective representation of an industry e.g – forestry) it would have likely led to better things.

          In his book on Karl Polanyi, Gareth Dale sates:

          “Seipel’s successor, Dollfuss, adopted Spann’s Catholic corporatism, with its vision of a Medieval inspired Standestaat, as his own frame of reference” and goes on to outline Spann’s neo-guildesque view which was never fully realized. Worth noting: Spann might have become chief economist for Dollfuss, but his well-known Nazi sympathies likely disqualified him.


          • Marx’ theory of history is buncha’ nonsense, who cares what he thought. Guilds were not “part of the economic structure of a rigidly defined caste system,” they were originally just associations, but even as they gained more and more power, they were never a caste – one was not born into a guild, one became a member. Guilds were a bit more than licencing is today, it’s just that they became really, really bad – and numerous, ridiculously so in the age of mercantilism (for example, in France there was a separate button maker’s guild for each material buttons were made from back in the day, and they made only buttons from that particular material, and indeed in 1690s when tailors started illicitly making weaved buttons the guild wardens obtained form the state a right to search people’s houses and to arrest anyone in the street who wore the new, illegal, buttons).


            • The interraction between the guild system (both Medieval and pre-Medieval as expounded upon by Geanakoplos) and caste is debated among scholars beyond just Marx, but I’ll go with the book ‘Indian Caste Customs’ which while acknowledging the differences in approach, particularly with regard to the social implication of guilds, nevertheless noted the broad similarities between trade associations in Medieval Europe and those in India. We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this point, as the original piece was not primarily concerned with this subject, and it’s going off on a tangent especially as the cause for the decline of the guild system in the mercantile era was absent from the original article.


            • Last question if I may. Do you think it wise to look up to India? I got the expression that you like the Indian cast system. If so, why? Is it not antithetic to Christianity which does not believe in destiny, karma, nor reincarnation (while Europe had an entire spectrum of both more and less rigid classes you could be born into, there was never an ontological gap between the classes, nobleman wasn’t considered ontologically different than serf), and is India not, in quite the literal sense, a demon-worshiping mudhole (not that they don’t deserve it, having killed Saint Thomas who went to preach there) because of it?


            • It’s not so much “looking up to” India, but recognizing they had the most obvious and upfront divisions between superior and inferior, hence provide easier analysis than more hidden or implicit class distinctions. Evidently what is appropriate for one race is not in specific appropriate for all others, but rather what concerns us is general implications of similar systems.

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  2. I’m curious – have you come across information regarding the state of Vienna at the time? That is, was it as degenerate as Berlin? It’s difficult as it is to find anything about Berlin; I’ve never come across anything about Vienna.


  3. Three criticisms if I may for an otherwise well written article on Chancellor Dollfuß. Firstly you say it is a misconception that Dollfuß was against union with the Germanies, but it is certain that he was against any kind of Anschluß, or of unifying the countries in a centralized or even close manner. Secondly (and this is a minor matter), you consistently refer to Austria as a “Nation” which it is not in the strict sense. The usage of nation is very much confused and this confusion ought not to be perpetuated. Thirdly, you completely neglect to mention that Dollfuß’ goal during his time as Chancellor was the restoration of his Emperor in Austria, as was reported by his friend and fellow legitimist (for a time) Ernst Karl Winter.
    Would it be possible for you to give the sources you used for the various quotes in your article?

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    • Thank you. I’ll address each point individually.

      1) We know for a fact that Dollfuss was for German unification after WWI, as he joined the student organization ‘Franco-Bavarian’ which was avowedly pro-unification, and in fact Dollfuss was its senior officer. One could suppose that his views on Germans radically changed, but I find the thesis that it was his antipathy towards the obvious rising star of Nazism which caused the shift, to be a more credible explanation.

      2) My bad on using ‘nation’, but I was using it in the very casual sense most historians use it here.

      3) I was unaware of Dollfuss’ activities concerning the monarchy because it was not mentioned in many of the sources I analyzed.

      The quote from the Pope can be found in ‘Catholic Politics in Europe, 1918-1945’ by Martin Conway. The quote from Dollfuss himself is from ‘Dollfuss: An Austrian Patriot’ by Johannes Messner. In addition, a bulk of primary research came from the paper ‘Engelbert Dollfuss and the Destruction of Austrian Democracy’ by Reinhart Kondert.


      • Thank you for the sources. I have read ‘Dollfuss: An Austrian Patriot,’ but that was some time ago. I will look into the paper by Kondert. However, I must say that I think that his views on Pan-Germanism did radically change between 1920 and 1934. The Cartellverbands were infected Pan-Germanic Nationalism from the beginning, and early on both Dollfuß and Schuschnigg supported them, however throughout the thirties culminating in 1933, Austrian members of the CV broke with the Pan-German ideals of the CV, leading to the creation of the ÖCV under the inspiration of Dollfuß (the Katholisch-Österreichischen Landsmannschaften was a strictly Legitimist organization and alternative to the ÖCV). One can hardly look at the brilliant Trabrennplatzrede, and believe that Dollfuss still held his former views;
        “I am convinced that it is the will of a higher power that we preserve our home country Austria with its glorious history, even though today in a smaller form, I am convinced that this Austria will be exemplary in the shaping of public life for other peoples, that in this Austria we must also have a great and valuable service to fulfill, and to fulfill to the whole of Germandom. This Austria remains our and our children’s homeland.”
        (There are of course many other examples from other speeches of the same period.)

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      • Also I should now add that after some research I am no longer surprised at the fact that you did not come across Dollfuß’ plan for the restoration of the Monarchy. Apparently it was a plan he only revealed to von Starhemberg and Ernst Winter, who in turn revealed it only to Kaiser Otto himself.


  4. If you’re interested in a ‘man-on-the-ground’ view of the interwar former Empire, you should perhaps read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts.” As a young man in 1933, Mr. Fermor decided to walk from the Horn of Holland to Constantinople. Much later, (first published in 1986 according to the book jacket), he decided to publish his account of his journey, based on a meticulously-kept travel journal and a very sharp memory.

    The specific book covering the most relevant portion for this post is “Between the Woods and the Water,” the second of the trilogy, which covers his travel from the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates. The first is also well worth reading; I haven’t gotten to the third yet.

    Anyhow, the point is that Mr Fermor’s acount is essentially a-political, but because of his travels he can offer us a view of the people and their thoughts at the time. (He, being an outsider from England and well-read, spends time with all classes, from swineherds and gypsies to Dukes.) I find it a good way to get familiar with the actual day-to-day reality of the place.

    Maybe I should write book reviews for a living.


  5. Fascinating article and quite moving.
    I knew absolutely nothing of Dolfuss and this period in Austria’s history – I feel like I need read up on this now.


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