This month sees the 75th anniversary of the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss, one of the least-known but most intriguing of Europe's 20th-century dictators. On July 25th, 1934, less than a month after the 'Night of the Long Knives' when Hitler summarily executed the leadership of the stormtroopers who had helped him to power, Nazi groups launched a coup d'etat in Austria. In the south of the country fighting continued for almost a week. In Vienna, Nazis who stormed the offices of the chancellor in Ballhausplatz surrendered after a few hours, but not before Dollfuss, shot through the chest in the first minutes of the rising, had been allowed to drown in his own blood.
Engelbert Dollfuss became chancellor of Austria in May 1932, five months short of his 40th birthday, after serving just over a year as minister of agriculture. He had a parliamentary majority of just one and in October 1932 he reactivated the War Economy Enabling Act of 1917 so that he could govern by decree. Always much more interested in social reforms than in democracy, Dollfuss's first decree under the revived 1917 Act was to make the shareholders of the Creditanstalt, Austria's largest bank, liable for the insolvent bank's losses.
In March 1933 the three presidents of Austria's parliament all resigned in order to vote in a division; it was realised only after their resignations that without a president there was no constitutional method of carrying on parliamentary business.
Dollfuss announced immediately that he would govern without parliament and banned public meetings. In May 1933 he amalgamated his Christian Social Party and other nationalist groups with the loosely organised militias of ex-servicemen known as the Heimwehr to create the Vaterlandische Front (Patriotic Front). He also banned the Communist Party. In June 1933 he banned the Nazi Party too. At the core of his programme was the maintenance of the independence of the Austrian republic; Austria's Nazis demanded union with Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Perhaps as a kind of rival in symbolism to the Nazi swastika Dollfuss began to promote the use of the Kruckenkreuz ('crutch cross', technically known as the Cross of Jerusalem) as a national symbol, a white cross with cross pieces at the end of each arm, outlined in red. Local elections were cancelled and a concordat was signed with the papacy giving more independence to the Catholic hierarchy in Austria. In October 1933 Dollfuss survived an assassination attempt: a pistol bullet that struck him in the chest was deflected by a snuff box in his breast pocket, causing only a graze and a bruise; a second bullet hit his arm.
In February 1934 an uncoordinated rising by socialist militias in Linz, Steyr and Vienna, in response to Dollfuss seizing power, led to workers' flats being bombarded with artillery. Only a couple of small-bore mountain howitzers were employed and around six insurgents were killed by shell fire. Eight were subsequently tried and executed for armed rebellion. But the spectacle of a right-wing politician who governed by decree employing artillery against the homes and families of left-wing workers sent a thrill of horror and excitement throughout the capitals of Europe. Dollfuss's next step was to ban all political parties in Austria except the Vaterlandische Front
Despite this alarming curriculum vitae Dollfuss had little in common with his contemporaries Mussolini and Hitler. He also managed to differ from them in having even more obscure social origins and in the trajectory of his rise to power. Part of the legend of Hitler and Mussolini was the modesty of their backgrounds; respectable but low down in the lower-middle class. Dollfuss was the son of a peasant. Unlike Mussolini and Hitler he was also illegitimate, raised in the household of a man who was not his father. Hardworking rather than gifted as a student, he had been educated in a seminary and eventually went to Vienna University to study theology preparatory to becoming a Catholic priest. …