Austria: The 1934 February Uprising

Eighty years ago today [February 12], Austrian workers rose in a heroic armed struggle against the rise of fascism. A recently found historical document sheds light on the barbarism of the so-called “Christian-Social” fascists in 1934.

The Marxist historian Fritz Keller discovered a document which proved that Engelbert Dollfuß, the Austrian Chancellor in 1934, had considered gassing (!!) the electricity workers in Vienna who had come out on strike on February 12 in support of the armed resistance against fascism. [The picture of Engelbert Dollfuß still hangs to this day in the parliamentary rooms of the conservative ÖVP which is today in government!] His intention was to prevent the workers from destroying the machines when the plant was occupied by the forces of the state. But let’s start from the beginning…

It was a Sunday evening, the end of the carnival season, and up and down the country the different Social Democratic organisations were, as usual, organising cultural events. On February 11 the “Workers’ Symphonic Orchestra” held a big concert in Vienna where hundreds of party members took part. At the end of the performance the conductor started to play the famous “Solidarity Song” by Brecht and Eisler. Spontaneously, the young comrades of the Socialist Youth organisations stood up and started singing the lyrics of this song. An electrifying mood filled the concert hall. When the orchestra started to play the song once again, the whole auditorium rose to its feet and started to chant. Suddenly, a man in the first row stood up and started to talk to his comrades. It was Max Adler, the leader of the left wing within the Social Democratic Party (SDAP): “Can’t we just listen to the concert? Why do you have to turn everything into a political demonstration?” This event graphically depicts how out of touch the leaders, even the left leaders, were.

On the same day Emil Fey, the leader of the Heimwehr, the most important fascist paramilitary force at that time, issued a statement where he declared that, “Tomorrow we will get to work and we will make a good job of it.” For days the police, together with the fascist troops, had been provoking members of the Schutzbund, the armed wing of the SDAP, by “searching” for weapons in the People’s Houses or in the regional party headquarters. More and more activists were calling for a determined response on the part of the leadership, i.e. armed resistance. On the same evening a young full-timer of the SDAP from Carinthia, Josef Buttinger, came to Vienna in the hope of finally convincing the party leaders to send the requested dynamite for his region. However, once again, he had to travel back home without any concrete answer.

Demonstration in front of Parliament in 1918Demonstration in front of Parliament in 1918Everybody knew that it was only a question of days, if not hours, before the fascists would strike a final blow against the labour movement. There was a heavy atmosphere that day, as many comrades described this last day before the uprising.

In reality the war had been lost long ago. The balance of forces had shifted to the right step by step in the previous years. The real turning point after the revolutionary events following the First World War was the spontaneous uprising of the workers in Vienna in July 1927 when the leaders of the Social Democracy once again hesitated to lead the masses and used their authority to stall the street protests and strikes which erupted after the release of two fascist murderers (heralded as “heroes” by the bourgeois press). After 1927, for the first time since the end of that revolutionary period, a left wing had arisen within the party.

After the crash of 1929 the labour movement was greatly weakened. In many industrial towns unemployment had risen to record levels. In Steyr, for example, more than 60 percent of the workers organised by the Social Democracy were unemployed. The effects of unemployment were researched by a group of young Marxist social scientists (Paul Lazarsfeld, Marie Jahoda…) in Marienthal, a small village near Vienna, where everybody was dependent on working in the only factory in the area. When the factory closed down all the workers lost their jobs, but this did not lead to revolutionary upheaval but to a complete breakdown of social life and also of the very highly developed proletarian culture of the labour movement in this village.

The “Austro-Marxist” leadership drew the wrong conclusion that under these conditions it would be impossible to lead the workers into struggle. As a consequence, they retreated on every occasion. This, of course, caused a lot of discontent among the rank and file. Everybody could see that the labour movement had been weakened by the crisis, but at the same time its organisations were more or less still intact.

The Austro-Marxists, first among them Otto Bauer, its charismatic leader, tried to orientate the whole movement away from mass struggles and towards an electoral victory. His goal was to reach 50 percent plus one vote in the next parliamentary elections. However, this perspective was completely out of touch with the real tasks of the period. The bourgeoisie began to support openly pro-fascist organisations. The conservatives were clearly following the example of Mussolini in Italy aiming to put an end to bourgeois democracy.

In March 1933 the government of Engelbert Dollfuß saw the opportunity to close down parliament. The Social Democratic rank and file called for action against this coup. Ever since the 1926 party congress the Austro-Marxists had told the workers that the SDAP and its armed wing would fight with any means necessary if the bourgeoisie tried to destroy the republic. Under the conditions of a fascist or monarchic coup the labour movement would have to be armed, smash reaction and “build the dictatorship of the proletariat”. This was the official party line. This radical rhetoric was a cornerstone that held the party together and avoided a mass split to the left. In 1933, when the bourgeois put an end to democracy, the workers demanded that those words should become deeds. One district organisation after another voted for a general strike and armed struggle.

Under these conditions the left wing gained more and more support. An important role was played by the leaders of the “Jungfront” (Youth Front) in Graz. Under the threat of fascism and the rise of the Nazis, the regional SDAP was prepared to launch this new organisation, the Jungfront, which would conduct antifascist mass campaigns. The Jungfront did not only agitate but also broke up Nazi meetings and mobilised armed demonstrations together with the Schutzbund.

In the beginning this organisation was still under the control of the party apparatus, but this changed quite rapidly. Its most prominent figure was Ernst Fischer, a young journalist of the party press. His book The Crisis of the Youth had an important influence on the thinking of the activists in the Socialist Youth organisations. More and more the Jungfront radicalised and became the embryo of an organised left wing within Social Democracy.

In reality, Ernst Fischer and his comrades only argued that the SDAP has to take its own programme seriously. They did not call for a clear break with Austro –Marxism, but they did become more and more open to revolutionary ideas. During this time a small group of socialist students also started to distribute Trotsky’s article on the Austrian crisis and Communism which was circulated in the movement.

In the course of 1933 the left wing gained a majority within the party, although the party leadership did its best to stop them. Otto Bauer openly argued against his own line and shifted to the right. The right wing within the party leadership moved even more to the right and not only defended the passive stance of the Social Democracy but went one step further. They wanted to make a deal with the regime! They maintained that the Social Democracy should support a new authoritarian constitution for a corporative state (Ständestaat) – as the fascists called their system – in exchange for maintaining a legal status for its organisations.

At the special congress of the SDAP in October 1933 the left wing could have won a majority, but did not want to take over the party executive. Max Adler, who had been the intellectual mind of the left within Austro-Marxism for the previous 20 years, withdrew from an open conflict with the rest of the party leadership, so it all ended up in a compromise which prolonged the passive policy of the SDAP. As a consequence, in the following months thousands of activists left the party. Frustration was widespread. In reality, the Social Democracy had already lost its unity, its strength, to act as one single party.

In the days prior to the February uprising several Schutzbund commanders sold out. The leader of the Schutzbund of the western districts of Vienna betrayed the movement and informed the regime of the plans in case there was an armed struggle. In Wr.Neustadt, the town where the SDAP had its origins and where the revolutionary general strike in 1918 had started, the leader of the Schutzbund deliberately ran into a police control point so they could arrest him.

Nevertheless, there was a small minority of several thousand workers and youth who were prepared to defend their organisations against fascism with guns and dynamite. One of them was the party secretary in Linz, Richard Bernaschek. On February 11 he put pressure on Otto Bauer to react. He issued an ultimatum saying that in the case of further provocations by the fascist Heimwehr or the police he would launch the armed struggle in Linz and Upper Austria. Otto Bauer was against this line, but in the early hours of February 12 the time had come. Police advanced on the “Hotel Schiff”, the headquarters of the SDAP in Linz, with the aim of searching for the weapons of the illegal Schutzbund, but the workers responded with machinegun fire. This marked the start of the uprising.

In the hours that followed in the industrial towns of Austria workers started to fight. The party executive met in Vienna in a flat and issued the call for a general strike. Otto Bauer and Julius Deutsch, the leader of the Schutzbund, formed a provisional leadership of the armed struggle, but they soon accepted that the regime had established control over the capital and was able to isolate those workers who offered resistance. So there was no central leadership to coordinate the struggle.

In many workplaces the workers went on strike spontaneously. An important role in this situation was played by the electricity workers in Vienna who cut off electricity so that the trams could not operate. However, the railway workers, who had been heavily defeated in the previous period, refused to follow the call for the general strike. This in the end made it much easier for the regime because the army could rely on the transport of munitions and troops (as well as fascist gangs). Bauer and Deutsch soon saw that the struggle was lost and on the second day of the uprising fled to Czechoslovakia.

In some places the resistance continued. But only in a few towns or districts did they have the means to conduct a real fight against the army troops, the police and the fascist gangs. In Vienna workers and youth hid in several of the big blocks of council house buildings of Red Vienna (Karl Marx-Hof, Schlingerhof, Sandleiten, Goethehof and so on) and defended them against artillery attacks by the army.

In Bruck/Mur, where the metal industry of Styria is located, the workers took over the town. Here Koloman Wallisch, the regional party secretary, played a decisive role. He had been active in the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, and had then escaped to Austria, where he became a prominent figure of the Left. Although he argued against the above mentioned Jungfront and their radical slogans (“Build Soviets!”) in 1933/4, as soon as he heard of the fighting in Linz, he immediately went to Bruck/Mur to fight side by side with his comrades. After the defeat of the uprising he was hanged in a very brutal manner, and his last word before dying was “Freedom!”

Wallisch was not the only one to be hanged. Eleven other socialist workers were executed. Karl Münichreiter, sympathizer of Ernst Fischer, who was heavily injured in the fighting, was carried on a stretcher to the gallows. Another hero of those days was Georg Weissel. He was a leading figure of the socialist student movement and the Academic Legion (the student wing of the Schutzbund) in Vienna. Frustrated by Austro-Marxist passivism he turned away from the SDAP. But on February 12 he organised the fire-fighters in Vienna-Floridsdorf.

Most of the right-wing leaders capitulated without fighting. Some even appeared in the newspapers during the 4 days of the uprising as new supporters of the regime. However, the big majority of the working class remained “red”. Most workers were sympathetic with the freedom fighters. The events in Schrems, a small town near the Czech border, are a good example. There the local police arrested the Social Democratic MP of this district. When the workers (most of them female) in the nearby factory heard of this, they went on strike and marched to the police station. Within minutes they had freed their leader and brought him to the newly built Workers’ House where they put up barricades. In the end they remained isolated because there was no leadership willing to fight in the other towns of the region.

Tens of thousands would have been prepared to fight during those days, but only a small minority had access to arms, some only a pistol or home-made bombs. The author of this article once met an old comrade who described how he and others were desperately digging for weapons in the frozen garden of the party headquarters in his village. In such conditions, this was a struggle they could not win.

After four days the last groups of armed workers had to surrender in face of the greater and better armed forces of the fascists and the state apparatus. Thousands were arrested and put on trial. Hundreds of Schutzbund fighters had to flee the country. Later, many of them fought in the Spanish Civil War in defence of the Republic.

The old Social Democratic Party was destroyed, but the party lived on in every factory, in every working class neighbourhood. Within weeks the most left-wing forces of the Social Democracy (or at least those who did not join the Communist Party, which for the first time became a sizeable mass party) reorganised and formed the Revolutionary Socialists which conducted illegal work against the fascist regime. The new leadership of the illegal party took important steps to break with the Austro-Marxist tradition and moved in the direction of genuine Marxism, a fact that is completely “forgotten” by the official historiography.

The uprising in February 1934 is one of the most important chapters in the history of the Austrian and indeed of the European labour movement. The martyrs of those days still remain in the memory of the movement. The political lessons of that historic defeat must be studied by the new generation of socialists who are today continuing the fight of Koloman Wallisch, Karl Münichreiter and Georg Weissel.