The Austrian Success Story

By Berdichevsky, Norman | The World and I, January 2007 | Go to article overview

The Austrian Success Story


Berdichevsky, Norman, The World and I


When the Austro-Hungarian Empire was shattered as a result of World War I and the Versailles Peace Treaty, most observers believed that the tiny new Austrian Republic could hardly survive. With the establishment of Austrian independence in 1919, it was often referred to as "the state nobody wants" and expressly forbidden by treaty to unite with Germany.

Adolf Hitler, born in Austria, was a "stranger" in Germany. Like Napoleon, who was born in Corsica and regarded as a rough "foreigner," Hitler had to prove himself as a pan-German nationalist. On the very first page of Mein Kampf he proclaimed the necessity of union (Anschluss) between Germany and Austria, and immediately before and after his election as Chancellor in 1933, listed the annexation of the land of his birth as his number one priority in foreign policy.

The world economic crisis of the 1930s convinced many Austrians that the country was doomed to financial ruin unless it became part of a larger German state. Nevertheless, a minority of dedicated patriotic Austrians became aware that the nationalist mirage and siren call of a Greater Germany would only plunge Austria into another disastrous world war. Today, many people are unaware that Austria's conservative leaders, often labeled as "fascists" in the 1930s, opposed the local Nazi attempts at a coup and more actively combated the threat of German expansionism than anywhere else in Europe--especially at a time when both Britain and France had already decided on following a policy of appeasement.

The Nazis were handed their first major political defeat by the resistance of Austrian Christian and social democrats, who together accounted for 77 percent of the popular vote in the national elections of 1930. Both parties stood unequivocally for national independence and against Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism. Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss outlawed the Austrian Nazi Party and confiscated all its assets in June 1933. This is all the more remarkable since Dollfuss was a close ally of Italy's fascist leader Benito Mussolini, and imitated various aspects of the Italian fascist system. Yet both these fascist countries were those who initially refused to be bullied by Hitler and the Nazis.

It was Mussolini who most clearly recognized the value of Austrian independence, its important economic and cultural links with the Mediterranean and Catholic Church, and correctly predicted that "Austria is politically essential to the preservation of Europe. The day Austria perishes and is swallowed up by Germany, the break-up of Europe begins. Austria must survive culturally too, because it is a bastion of Mediterranean culture."

By this, he meant that Austria's Catholic traditions and strong links with the Vatican had made it a more humanized Germanic state than the Prussian militarist heritage which Hitler appealed to in fomenting his nationalist doctrines. Mussolini originally considered Nazi racism and anti-Semitism both repugnant and primitive.

Unfortunately, extremist elements on the political left among the Austrian socialists forced Dollfuss to put down an armed insurrection in Vienna's working class housing projects that critically weakened the ability of the defenders of the country's independence to later stand united against the Nazis. Although Dollfuss successfully employed Austrian troops against militant Nazis in several putsch attempts, the country eventually lost the promise of Italian support with the growing appeasement policies of the British and French, who also felt it necessary to condemn Italy's invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 and expel it from the League of Nations.

Dollfuss was killed in an attempted Nazi putsch in July 1934, an event that horrified Mussolini. Italian troops were rushed to the border and full support given to the Heimwehr, a national militia more reliable than the tiny Austrian army and led by the patriotic Prince Starhemberg. The Nazis were crushed and Hitler totally abandoned his proclaimed "Anschluss" policy for a time until Austrian resistance and Italian backing could be worn down and outmaneuvered. …

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