70 years ago the Austrian workers were the first in Europe to undertake an armed struggle against a rising fascist regime. Other than their German sisters and brothers they were the only ones who fought against the fascists.
The Austrian Republic emerged from the Habsburg Empire after the First World War and was more or less a child of the revolution. The break-up of the Austrian Monarchy was a big blow for the Austrian bourgeoisie. Austria found itself cut off from the vast resources of Czecho-Slovakia and Hungary. The Austrian bourgeoisie was historically very weak and still heavily linked to feudal lords, the Church and the Monarchy. For that reason the Austrian proletariat and its main organisation, the Social-Democratic Workers Party (SdAP), were in a strong position.
The Austrian Communist Party never made a break through or gained a base amongst the important layers of the working class, due to particular subjective reasons. The CP was founded in November 1918, at a time when the radicalisation in the SdAP had just began. As a result its base was formed from the working poor and unemployed, while the more advanced layer of workers stayed in the SdAP. Afterwards the Austrian CP was one of the first Communist Parties in Europe to become "Bolshevised". That is to say that its policy was submitted to and synchronised with Moscow under Stalin and the Austrian CP made all the same political zig-zags as the Moscow clique.
The mood of the workers and soldiers against the war was demonstrated in the spontaneous strikes at the end of 1917 and culminated in the "Jaenner-Strike" in January, 1918. Mutinies in the military and strikes of the hungry workers were now on the agenda of the day. The SdAP did not try to link and coordinate the different strikes in the different areas, but attempted to calm down the workers, in order to channel the strikes into "disciplined" action.
When the Republic was announced on November 12, 1918 in Vienna, workers demonstrated in front of Parliament with banners exclaiming "Long live the socialist Republic of Austria!" and cut out the white stripe of the Austrian flag leaving it entirely red.
The state nearly collapsed, and in a lot of cities the workers formed spontaneous worker-committees, which organised day-to-day life. They were inspired by the ideas of the October Revolution in Russia, and wanted to transform Austria into the next workers’ state. For a period of time dual power emerged in Austria. In some cities, it was not possible to do anything without the permission of the workers’ councils, especially in Vienna. It would have been easy for the leaders of the SdAP to carry through a socialist transformation of society in Austria.
The leadership however, did not want to go through with a socialist revolution in Austria. They said that Austria was not yet ripe, and they feared interventions from the powers of the Entente. The leaders of the SdAP were the only ones who had the power to "establish order and democracy", i.e., keep the capitalist system alive in Austria. The bourgeoisie knew this, and therefore they let the SdAP leaders participate in the running of the state.
In the year 1917 the "left" Austro-Marxists attained the position of leadership inside the SdAP. Radical and revolutionary ideas had spread throughout the working class to such an extent that the only way the SdAP could maintain its authority amongst workers was to elect an Austro-Marxist leadership.
With their radical speeches the Austro-Marxists gained the confidence of the workers. When for instance the revolution broke out in Hungary in March 1919, which was warmly welcomed by the Austrian workers, Otto Bauer sent the Hungarian workers a solidarity message and his "best greetings", but stated in the same sentence, that there was no possibility for Austria to help them, because the Entente would intervene. This was the internationalism of the Austro-Marxists. In July 1919 the Hungarian Revolution was defeated thanks to foreign intervention, and the fascist Horty-Regime was established.
Prior to 1934 the SdAP concentrated on building up their "Red Vienna". They financed a mostly unseen programme of social buildings, education and social welfare with progressive taxes on the capitalists. In the period from 1923 to 1933 there were 64,000 flats built with this money. First Otto Bauer developed a plan for socialised buildings, which were to be run by democratic structures of the residents. This plan was however dropped because it went "too far". "Red Vienna" should have been a socialist island in the sea of capitalism, which could have persuaded the more backwards workers from the countryside that the SdAP could gain victory on the electoral front and implement socialism through parliamentary means.
However, the reactionary forces recovered from the shock of the revolutionary developments in Austria of 1918/1919. After the Social Democracy had completed the job for the bourgeoisie and had driven down the demands of “Revolution” to demands for "Democracy", the SdAP came under pressure from the bourgeoisie.
The elections in the last months of 1920 were won by the forces of reaction. The Christian Social Party (know today as the People’s Party) got 41,8 % of the votes, the SdAP received 36 % causing then to drop out of the government. The bourgeoisie was keen to make the working class pay for the restoration of the capitalist system in Austria. Their goal was to "crush the revolutionary rubbish" (as Ignaz Seipel, the priest and leader of the Christian Social Party put it). They demanded 650 million credits at the League of Nations, the interest for which was to be paid by the working class. In this way it was possible, with the help of imperialism, to implement reactionary politics in Austria. The SdAP did not mobilise against this credit, but agreed to the founding of a cabinet council (with representatives of the SdAP), which would "control" the use of the credit.
The reaction of the SdAP was in all cases the fiercest resistance in words, but absolute silence in deeds. So-called "Austro-Marxism" was under pressure from ordinary workers who wanted to go the way of revolution like the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin and Trotski had in Russia. For that reason the leaders of the SdAP had to adopt very radical language. Otto Bauer for instance stated that it was not possible at that time to criticise the leaders of the Bolsheviks, because if they had the Austrian workers would have stormed the buildings of the SdAP.
Similar to Germany, the bourgeois in Austria built up paramilitary groups. They were mainly composed of war veterans and peasants, and represented the most backward layers of society. In Austria they were called "Heimwehr"(which literally means ‘Home Guard’), and were funded by the owners of big industry. The "Heimwehr" was well armed and had a clear fascist programme. The clearest formulation of the fascist programme can be found in the "Korneuburger Eid" on 18th of May 1930. It was a clear programmatic statement against parliament and bourgeois democracy and demanded the establishment of a fascist regime based on castes in Austria.
To defend the organisations of the workers in 1923/24 the "Republican Defence Corps" (RDC) was founded. But it was only a defence formation to protect meetings and demonstrations of the SdAP. The highest membership was reached in 1928 with 80,000 members, but in the end its membership was not high enough and it was poorly armed. The conception of the RDC was completely apolitical. It was only formed as a military organisation and in the eyes of the workers it was a substitute for the revolutionary fight of the masses.
15th July 1927
The state-apparatus was prepared to smash the strong Social-democracy and its organisations. There were a lot of incidents of clear "class justice" against workers.
Early January 1927 there was a clash - as often at this time - between the Republican Defence Corps and the Heimwehr in Schattendorf (Burgenland). One old man and a child were killed. This type of incident happened very often, and troubles were often provoked by the reactionaries.
The murderers from the ranks of the Heimwehr were brought to trial, but none of them were sentenced. When the results of the trial were printed in the papers in several factories in Vienna the workers went on strike and marched to the Palace of Justice to protest against the results of the trials. When a fire started inside the building, the police opened fire on the demonstrators. Some parts of the demonstration dispersed, some fought back. In all eighty-five demonstrators were killed, nearly five hundred were injured.
Eye-witnesses say, that workers who fled through the streets cried and demanded weapons to defend themselves.
The leadership of the SdAP called for a one day general strike, in order to calm down the workers, who where upset by the events of July 27.
Although the reactionaries attacked the working class more and more, the only thing the Social-Democracy did was try to calm down the workers. At the Party Conference of the SdAP in Linz they pushed forward the "Programme of Linz", which was regarded as one of the main documents of Austro-Marxism. The capitalists attacked the SdAP for this programme, because it was too "radical". In reality it was typical Austro-Marxism. The Programme said, that the SdAP should change society through parliamentary measures, in a "peaceful" way ("50 per cent plus one vote"). Only when the capitalists attempted to establish a fascist system, would the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat be necessary. In reality this was an open capitulation to the reactionaries.
Every time the capitalists attacked, the SdAP answered with a step back and the threat that "next time" they won't retreat that easily. When open reactionary company unions were established, the SdAP did not react. Everything they did was in order to prevent provocations and restore "peace". In reality they were already at war, but did not fight back.
In October 1933 Otto Bauer stated at the Party conference of the SdAP:
Die Auflösung der Partei - wir werden uns doch nicht eine so gewaltige, so große, so ruhmreiche Partei einfach auflösen lassen: das würde der Moment sein, da mit dem Kampfe auf der ganzen Front eingesetzt werden müßte. Oder wenn die Herren eine faschistische Verfassung, die das gleiche Wahlrecht aufheben will, die Souveränität des Volkswillens aufhebt und von oben her oktroyieren sollte, so wäre dies der Fall, in dem die Arbeiterschaft sich zur Wehr setzen muß.
The dissolution of the Party - we will not let such a tremendous, big, and glorious party be so easily crashed: this would then be the moment, when we would begin to fight on all fronts. If these "gentlemen" want to implement a fascist constitution, which would abolish the equal right to vote, abandon the sovereignty of the people and reign from above, then this would be the moment, in which the workers have to resist.
Otto Bauer put the resistance against fascism somewhere in the future, when the bourgeois government would try to implement a fascist regime. But he did not understand that the bourgeois do not implement fascist methods that easy. The bourgeoisie shift things in their favour in the balance of power. When the labour movement was weakened with "legal" methods, and it was easier to crush them, they did it.
Leon Trotsky in his article "The Austrian crisis and communism" (November 13, 1929) put it as follows:
"It is hard to imagine more concentrated nonsense than Otto Bauer's arguments on the impermissibility of violence except for the defense of the existing democracy. Translated into the language of classes, this argument means: violence is permissible to guarantee the interests of the bourgeoisie, organized as the state, but it is impossible for the establishment of a proletarian state.
A juridical formula is appended to this theory. Bauer chews over again the old formulations of Lassale on law and revolution. But Lassale was speaking while on trial. There his arguments were petinent. But the attempt to turn a juridical duel with the persecutor into a philosophy of historical development is nothing but a subterfuge of cowardice. As Bauer would have it, the use of violence is permissible only in response to an already accomplished coup d'etat, when "law" no longer has any foundation, but it is impermissible twenty-four hours before the coup, in order to prevent it. Along this line, Bauer draws the demarcation between Austro-Marxism and Bolshevism as if it were a question of two schools of criminal law. In reality the difference lies in the fact that Bolshevism seeks to overthrow bourgeois rule while social democracy seeks to eternalise it. There can be no doubt that if a coup were made, Bauer would declare: "We did not call upon the workers to take arms against the fascists when we had powerful organization, a legal press, 43 percent of the deputies, and the Vienna municipality; when the fascists were anticonstitutional bands attacking law and order. How could we do so now, when the fascists control the state apparatus and base themselves on the new laws they have created; when we have been deprived of everything, have been outlawed, and have no legal communication with the masses (who are, moreover, obviously disillusioned and discouraged, and have gone over to fascism in large numbers)? A call for armed uprising now could only be the work of criminal adventurists or Bolsheviks." In making such a 180-degree turn in their philosophy, the Austro-Marxists would simply remain one hundred percent true to themselves."
What Trotsky said in 1929 came one hundred percent true in the following years, especially in the fights in February 1934.
In March 1933 the Dollfuss governement shut down parliament (after a provocation) and ruled with emergency powers for over one year. 471 emergency laws were passed in this time. The ordinary workers and ranks of the SdAP put pressure on the leadership to call for a general strike, after the blows against Austrian democracy. But nothing happened, the SdAP was still in permanent retreat. The Republican Defence Corps was illegalised, in April strikes were forbidden, and in the summer of 1933 the Communist Party was closed down. More laws against the working class were pushed forward (for example the law over the working-hours was abolished, the money for unemployed was shortened, strikes were more or less forbidden). The only reaction of the SdAP was to call the courts of justice.
12th February 1934
The police tried to seize the weapons of the Republican Defence Corps in the months before February. The leadership of the SdAP advised their members that they should not resist in order to prevent a civil war.
But the mood of the working class was still to fight, although the balance of power was now very unfortunate after all the retreats in the past. One letter, which was written from Richard Bernaschek, Party Secretary and leader of the RDC in Upper Austria, to Otto Bauer on February 11, 1934 shows this very clearly:
"Ich habe mich heute vormittag mit fünf gewissenschaften, der Partei treu ergebenen Genossen besprochen und mit ihnen nach wirklich reiflicher Überlegung einen Beschluß gefaßt, der nicht mehr rückgängig gemacht werden kann. [..] In Durchführung dieses Beschlusses werden wir heute nachmittag und diese Nacht sämtliche uns zur Verfügung stehenden Waffen, und zwar in ganz Oberösterreich soweit bereitstellen, daß die heute noch zum Widerstand entschlossene Arbeiterschaft sie sofort greifbar hat. Wenn morgen, Montag, in einer oberösterreichischen Stadt mit einer Waffensuche begonnen wird, oder wenn Vertrauensmänner der Partei bzw. des Schutzbundes verhaftet werden sollten, wird gewaltsamer Widerstand geleistet und in Fortsetzung dieses Widerstandes zum Angriff übergegangen werden. Dieser Beschluß sowie die Durchführung ist unabänderlich. Wir erwarten, daß auf unsere telefonische Mitteilung nach Wien, "Waffensuche hat begonnen, Verhaftungen werden vorgenommen", Du der Wiener Arbeiterschaft und darüber hinaus der gesamten Arbeiterschaft das Zeichen zum Lossschlagen gibst. Wir gehen nicht mehr zurück. [..] Wenn die Wiener Arbeiterschaft uns im Stiche läßt, Schmach und Schande über sie. [..]
Mit Parteigruß R. B."
"I had a meeting with five faithful and loyal comrades today and we made the decision after careful deliberations, which can not be cancelled. […] To carry out this decision we will today in the afternoon and the evening seize all the weapons we have, so that they are available for workers, who want to fight back. If tomorrow, Monday, a search for weapons is started, or any members of the Party or the Republican Defence Corps should be jailed, we will resist and in continuation of that start to attack. This decision can not be cancelled. We demand, that in the case, when we give you a call in Vienna, which says "The search has started, imprisonment is a foregone conclusion", that you will give the signal for the Viennese workers and also the other workers in Austria to strike out. We do not retreat anymore. […] If the Viennese labour movement does not give us a hand, then shame and disgrace on them. […]
Comradely Greetings R.B."
When the police tried to break into an office of the SdAP in Linz at 7 am, the workers in the office resisted and started to fight back. After a few minutes the news of the fights in Linz came to Vienna. Workers in some factories spontaneously went on strike, but the Social Democracy tried to calm down the workers once more, only after some hours did they actually call a general strike.
The leadership tried to prevent such incidents, but now the workers in the other industrial cities in Austria realised that if they did not help their comrades now, all would be lost. Battles in the major cities of Austria began, but it was not well organised, as a lot of the RDP’s weapons had already been seized. In some parts of Vienna the workers fought for three days. The main center of resistance was in the socialised buildings of Vienna (they were called "fortresses" by the bourgeois papers). The Karl-Marx-Hof in district 21of Vienna (Floridsdorf) was bombed by the soldiers of the Austrian army. The general strike was not solid, because some import sections of the working class such as the railway workers did not go on strike.
The workers were defeated on February 15 after 4 days of fighting. Otto Bauer fled to Bratislava. Three hundred workers were dead and thousands injured. The leaders of the insurrection were executed. The organisations of the Social Democracy were banned. A lot of the leaders of the SdAP and its organisations were sent to concentration camps (for instance in Woellersdorf).
The time of Austro-Fascism had begun. In March, 1938 Austria was annexed by the "Third Reich" in Germany.
Some recent events in this country demonstrate that the February 12, 1934 is not just some piece of "history" in Austria. The President of the Parliament, Andreas Khol, stated recently that Dictator Dollfuss was a "victim" of the Nazis and that he had defended Austria from the fascist regime. The picture of Dictator Dollfuss still has its place in the office of the People’s Party in Parliament.
The events in Austria 1934 and the prior period show quite clearly that there is no “peaceful” and “democratic” way to socialism on the basis of a bourgeois parliament. The only reason the SdAP had such possibilities to reform the state for a certain period was because the bourgeoisie was in a weak position, and the SdAP was the only party in Austria capable of setting Austrian capitalism back on track. When the bourgeoisie felt strong enough they smashed the labour movement and established a system which guaranteed their profits.
What would have been needed was a revolutionary leadership with a clear strategy and Marxist programme. Given these conditions, the Austrian revolution would have been quite an easy and bloodless process.
February 12, 2004
See also in German:
Jahre Februar 1934 by Peter Haumer
Der Weg zum Februar 1934
Die österreichische Krise, die Sozialdemokratie und der Kommunismus by Leo Trotzki, 1929
- The Austrian Crisis and Communism by Leon Trotsky (November, 1929)
- The strike of the Austrian railway workers – a taste of things to come By Michael Pils (November 24, 2003).
- Railway workers strike in Austria By Gernot Trausmuth (November 4, 2003).
- Austria: A new stage in the class struggle By Gernot Trausmuth (September 15, 2003).
- Strikes all over Austria - "All wheels stand still..." By Gernot Trausmuth, Vienna (June 3, 2003).
- Austria: rain, hail and a wave of protest - 200,000 workers march against the pensions reform By Gernot Trausmuth, (May 13, 2003)
- The working class is entering the arena By Emanuel Tomaselli in Austria (May 11, 2003).
- The protests against the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Salzburg - A first balance-sheet Der Funke Editorial Board (September 17, 2002)
- Austria: Unions bring down coalition between SP and PP By Gernot Trausmuth (January 25, 2000)
- Hot Autumn in Austria? (July 19, 2001)
- Austria one year after Haider (February 2001)
- Austria: "Resistance! Resistance!" (February 24, 2000)