The Road to the Alpine Dictatorship: The Lessons of Interwar Austria for our Current America

By Alec Medine

The year is 1933. There is commotion in the capital city of one Central Europe’s once-great empires which was defeated in the Great War. The leader of a far-right party, reigning as a democratically-elected Prime Minister, proclaims that the national parliament is to permanently adjourn, and that he shall rule as the sole leader of the country. This leader promises that his rule will be an end to the chaotic infighting and governmental deadlock caused by out-of-control political strife. This leader will soon begin to implement fascist policies, repainting the country in a totalitarian image. To enable his autocracy, he will first abolish all oppositional parties before then executing a bloody purge of his political rivals, leading his nation down a road of ruin, tragedy, and world war. 

The reader may think of Hitler taking over Germany—but this story is not about Germany, but actually Austria. 

Undoubtedly, the history of Weimar Germany and its descent into Nazism has captured the American public’s imagination. Historians and political scientists have frequently tried to liken the fall of Weimar to our current situation in the United States. Commentators seem capriciously eager to declare every latest political scandal as “America’s Weimar moment,” referencing when Hitler used an attempted arson attack on the German parliament building in Berlin as a pretext to initiate the Nazi dictatorship over Germany. 

At the same time, the fate of Austria during this same time period is often overlooked, although it offers several relevant warnings for the state of American politics today which may yet be more relevant for us than the tragedy of Weimar. 

The young Austrian Republic was blighted by an issue many Americans are growing increasingly familiar with: political polarization. Like the United States, Austria was a two-party system centered around two major political factions: the Social Democrats (referred to by historians as “Austromarxists”) and the coalition of ultraconservatives established among rural farmers, former aristocrats, and the Catholic Church. On the side, there was also a relatively sizable Communist faction, as well as an ever-growing and increasingly dangerous group of pan-Germanists which morphed into full-on National Socialists by 1933. Overall, however, the Austrian political system was a dual-party arrangement which bred ever-increasing political polarization. This was not Weimar’s problem; theirs was the fact there was an excessive multitude of parties and interest groups, which the Nazis then abused to hack their way to the top of national politics. 

The small Austrian Republic’s political life became characterized by a rural-urban/conservative-progressive divide, similar to what we see in the United States. What is more, like the United States, political partisanship was constantly intensified by a growing loathing and mistrust of people from the opposite ideology. Austrian conservatives at the time felt that the Socialists were making repeated impositions on the rural population in the form of food requisitions and taxes while the Socialists threatened radical revolution, in a process that started during the years of famine which Austria suffered during the Great War. The Socialists, for their part, believed that the conservatives were inhibiting the nation’s progress towards workers’ liberation. 

We can see this intense political partisanship in modern America. The radical Tea Party movement on the right is based almost solely on the feeling that Americans are overtaxed and that the policies enacted by the Democratic Party are intrusive on the daily lives of Americans. Now the Tea Party’s ideas (and attitudes) have become deeply influential in the Republican Party and the Trump Presidency. 

Furthermore, many conservatives have reacted with alarm at the growing progressive social-democratic wing of the Democratic Party as championed by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and have attributed the progressive movement to the Democratic Party as a whole; conservative pundits and politicians alike have labelled Democrat opponents as part of the “radical left,” regardless of their actual political stances. At the same time, there is growing support for extreme political alternatives especially among youth voters; a YouGov poll found that over a third of millennial Americans have a favorable view towards communism. 

The Democrats have meanwhile also come to resent the Republican Party, seeing them as being politically backwards for their initiatives to erase liberal reforms such as the Affordable Care Act and legalized aboriton. In fact, it often seems like the current existence of the Republican Party is to give bald-faced opposition to everything and anything the Democrats represent. Regardless of whatever stance you hold, if you demonize the opposing party and see them only as the enemy that must be conquered or erased, you are contributing to polarizing our national politics and have forgotten the core idea of democracy: cooperation with others you may not necessarily entirely agree with for the sake of creating a better country for all.  

The situation of polarization within America’s two-party system is grim. So, it might be illuminating to ask: what was the end result of political polarization in Austria’s case? 

First, Austria saw an increasing militarization of the two political factions as the conservatives and socialists both formed their own paramilitary groups: the Heimwehr (Home Guard) and Republikanischer Schutzbund (Republican Defence League) respectively. Naturally, these paramilitary groups increasingly clashed with each other in violent street battles as hostilities between the political parties intensified, which yet worsened the divide between Austria’s left and right. America may be heading down a similar path in this respect as well; in particular, a deep-seated mistrust of the government among some conservative circles has led to the formulation of militias and paramilitary groups like the “Three-Percenters,” who openly brandish firearms while training for battle in anticipation of an upcoming civil war or general uprising. Meanwhile, certain groups on the left have also taken up arms to ostensibly defend themselves from hostile groups on the far-right. 

But Austria’s political divisions ultimately did not culminate, however, in an explosion, but rather a silent whimper. In 1933, a procedural crisis erupted in the Austrian parliament from a political deadlock on the passage of a bill against a railway strike. The president of the parliament, a Social Democrat, resigned his seat to vote with his party to pass the bill. The vice-president of the parliament, a conservative, then resigned his seat to counter that vote with his own. According to the protocol, the parliament could no longer proceed without anyone presiding over it. The Christian Social prime minister Engelbert Dollfuss seized the situation to send all the parliamentary deputies home, officially ending twelve years of democracy in Austria in what he described as “the self-elimination of parliament.” Dollfuss then started to rule by decree while consulting with Benito Mussolini about forming Austria into a fascist state. 

In February 1934, Dollfuss, now styling himself as the Führer of Austria, sought to complete Austria’s transformation to a fully-fledged fascist dictatorship by forcibly dismantling the socialist underground and their paramilitary forces, starting a civil war in the process. In the week-long conflict that ravaged several of Austria’s cities, the Austrian Army and Heimwehr battled against the Socialist Schutzbund, soundly defeating the resistance movement. Many of the socialists either fled abroad as exiles, while most others were captured and sent to concentration camps (DE) as political prisoners of the emerging fascist state. Again here we must heed history’s warning: with recent rhetoric surrounding the possibility of another American Civil War if Trump loses the election, we can see how the political leadership and their followers are willing to entertain the possibility of violence rather than share a country with people they see as enemies. 

Dollfuss’s violent political purge failed to unify the country, and if anything caused a yet even deeper weakening of national unity, which the Nazis exploited by launching their own brazen coup against Dollfuss; although they failed to achieve their ultimate goal of taking over the Austrian government in order to hand the country over to Germany, the Austrian Nazis did succeed in killing Dollfuss. After four more years of lingering dictatorship, Austria, weakened and divided by its own authoritarianism, collapsed under the pressure of Nazi annexation in 1938. 

Austria’s road to fascism is a cautionary tale of how a democracy can collapse into dictatorship and state violence when political cooperation crumbles under the weight of intense polarization. It shows what happens in a two-party system when the two leading political parties seek to destroy one another, rather than working together to build a better country. Dictatorship and strongmen politics are not a solution to national disunity and they are inadequate at guaranteeing a sufficient national defense against foreign danger; you cannot end the opposition by first alienating them, then outlawing them, and finally killing them. If Americans want to keep their country a free and safe republic, we must seek a different path towards consensus, cooperation, and compromise. 

 

Bibliography:

Julius Braunthal, The Tragedy of Austria (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1948). 

David Clay Large, Between Two Fires: Europe’s Path in the 1930s (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991). 

 

Title Image Credit: Wikipedia