The End of Constitutional Rule

Austria Table of Contents

In May 1932, a new cabinet was formed under the leadership of Engelbert Dollfuss, a CSP member. Dollfuss's coalition, composed of the CSP, the Landbund, and the Heimatbloc, had a one-vote majority. Both the SDAP and the Nazi Party pressed for new elections, but Dollfuss refused, fearing defeat. Instead, he sought support from fascist Italy and the Heimwehr and increasingly relied on authoritarian measures to maintain his government.

In early March 1933, parliamentary maneuvering by the SDAP, which was trying to block government action against a pro-Nazi labor union, created a procedural crisis in the Nationalrat. Urged on by the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, Dollfuss exploited the confusion in the Nationalrat to end parliamentary government and began governing on the basis of a 1917 emergency law. Dollfuss outlawed the Nazi Party, the politically insignificant KPÖ, and the Republikanischer Schutzbund. All, however, continued to exist underground.

Seeking a firmer political footing than that offered by Italy and the coercive power of the police, military, and Heimwehr, Dollfuss formed the Fatherland Front (Vaterländische Front) in May 1933. The front was intended to displace the existing political parties and rally broad public support for Dollfuss's vision of a specifically Austrian nationalism closely tied to the country's Catholic identity. Dollfuss rejected union with Germany, preferring instead to see Austria resume its historical role as the Central European bulwark of Christian German culture against Nazism and communism. In September 1933, Dollfuss announced plans to organize Austria constitutionally as a Catholic, German, corporatist state.

The opportunity to put the corporatist constitution in place came after a failed socialist uprising in February 1934 triggered by a police search for Schutzbund weapons in Linz. An unsuccessful general strike followed, along with artillery attacks by the army on a Vienna housing project. Within four days, the socialist rebellion was crushed. Both the SDAP and its affiliated trade unions were banned, and key leaders were arrested or fled the country. Dollfuss's constitution was promulgated in May 1934, and the Fatherland Front became the only legal political organization. Austrian society, however, remained divided into three camps: the nationalist bloc that was associated with the Heimwehr and the bloc represented by the CSP struggled for control of the Fatherland Front; the socialist bloc fell back on passive resistance; and the nationalist bloc dominated by the Nazis boldly conspired against the state with support from Germany.

Although a variety of political labels have been applied to the Dollfuss regime, it eludes simple classification. Its ideology harked back to early religious and romantic political critiques of liberal democracy and socialism. The regime incorporated many elements of European fascism, but it lacked two features widely viewed as essential to fascism: adherence to the "leadership principle," and a mass political base. In any event, the complex corporatist structures of the 1934 constitution, in which citizens participated in society on the basis of occupation and not as individuals, were never fully implemented. And the regime's relations with the Roman Catholic Church were never as straightforward as the regime's ideology suggested. Although the incorporation of a new concordat with the Vatican in the 1934 constitution bespoke harmony between church and state, in practice the concordat became the bulwark on which the church claimed its autonomous rights. Long-standing rivalries between church and state actually intensified as state-affiliated organizations intruded on what the church viewed as its interests in youth, family, and educational policies and organizations.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress