Anna Seghers, Friedrich Wolf, and the Austrian Civil War of 1934

By Barker, Andrew | The Modern Language Review, January 2000 | Go to article overview

Anna Seghers, Friedrich Wolf, and the Austrian Civil War of 1934


Barker, Andrew, The Modern Language Review


Unlike the Anschluss of March 1938, which moved many prominent writers to an almost immediate reaction, Chancellor Dollfuss's crushing of the short but bloody Socialist counter-revolution of February 1934 went virtually unrecorded in Austrian literature. One reason may be that the assassination of Dollfuss himself followed so soon afterwards; equally, however, the Right-wing politics of such authors as Heimito von Doderer, Joseph Roth, and Franz Werfel may explain their silence at the savage end to constitutional government in Austria. Even Karl Kraus, from whom much might have been expected, had lent his support to Dollfuss's clerical-fascist regime, believing it the only hope of stopping the Nazis. (1) On the Left, the young, highly politicized writer Jura Soyfer found himself in a much harsher environment after the defeat of February 1934, and he never completed his novel So stirbt eine Partei, which deals with events in the years 1932-34 from a Socialist perspective. Soyfer's narrative breaks off shortly before the fighting began, yet incomplete though it is, this searching analysis of the tensions within the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SDAPO) renders Soyfer's work unique in Austrian literary production of the 1930s ('Everyday Life', pp. 170-71). Writing in Der Spiegel, Rolf Schneider remarked in 1981: 'Hatten wir dieses Buch zur Ganze, es ware der wichtigste politische Roman, den wir in deutscher Sprache besitzen.' (2)

An Austrian writer who did eventually respond to February 1934, albeit not in imaginative terms, was the conservative poet-politician Guido Zernatto, secretary of the 'Vaterlandische Front', the sole political body sanctioned in Austria until the Nazi take-over in March 1938 completed the chain of events initiated by the murder of Dollfuss on 25 July 1934. In Die Wahrheit uber Osterreich, published in exile in 1938, Zernatto continued to blame the intransigence of the Social Democrats for the plight of Austria. Yet even he did not conceal his admiration for the gallantry shown by the Viennese workers in 1934:

Unvergessen bleibe der Idealismus und der Heldenmut, mit dem die Arbeiter auf die Barrikaden stiegen. Die Differenzen, die zwischen den beiden Kampfparteien des Februar lagen, waren aber kleiner als die Gegensatze, die sie beide von jenen trennten, die unter dem Zeichen des Hakenkreuzes mit Befriedigung zusahen, wie sich ihre Gegner zerfleischten. (3)

Nevertheless, by discounting the differences between the two sides, Zernatto proves oblivious of the depth of the resentment the actions of the government forces had evoked in ordinary working people, the last defenders of constitutional government in Austria. Although they were full of women and children, their model homes, the pride of 'Red Vienna', had been pounded by heavy government artillery, their leaders had been executed, their social and political organizations proscribed. In a sense, though, Zernatto is also tragically correct, because it was indeed the case, in 1934 at least, that the leaders of both workers and government forces shared a desire to protect the integrity of the Austrian state against the inroads of National Socialism. However, writing shortly before the Anschluss, Zernatto's political boss Kurt von Schuschnigg remained petulant and intransigent about February 1934:

The government could not be held responsible for the February outbreak of 1934, which they neither caused nor, still less, desired, but which must rather be regarded as a natural calamity, brought about by a number of fanatics who, actuated by party spirit and obstinately determined to seize supreme power in a state which they were not otherwise prepared to serve, gave the signal for revolt. (4)

With such a divide between forces opposed to Hitler, it is no surprise that the Nazis found the country such easy prey.

Whereas specifically Austrian writers had little to say about the events of February 1934, there was a notable response from exiled German Socialist authors, among them Johannes R. …

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