Consolidation of Democracy

Austria Table of Contents

The experience of the Anschluss and Nazi rule--which for many Austrian politicians had included imprisonment at Dachau-- deepened the commitment of the ÍVP and SPÍ to parliamentary democracy and Austrian statehood. The electorate remained divided into three political camps--socialist/Marxist, Catholic, and nationalist/liberal--but cooperation replaced extreme political polarization.

The SPÍ ratified the moderate social democratic and anticommunist outlook of Renner, while downplaying the legacy of Austro-Marxism associated with Otto Bauer, the party's leader after World War I. Over the objections of the left wing, the party rejected an alliance with the KPÍ, endorsed cooperation with the ÍVP, and sanctioned the rebuilding of a capitalist economy tied to the West. It also decided to seek broad support beyond its working-class base.

The ÍVP underwent a similar transformation. Many of its postwar leaders, drawn largely from people associated with the prewar CSP trade unions and peasant organizations, had developed personal relationships with socialist leaders during their time at Dachau. After the war, they advanced a program emphasizing freedom and social welfare. Although essentially a Christian democratic party, the ÍVP sought to broaden its constituency and downplayed its confessional identification. No formal organizational ties were established with the Roman Catholic Church, and clerics were barred from running for office on the party's ticket.

Denazification posed a special problem for the emerging democratic society, often referred to as the Second Republic. Favorable Allied treatment of Austria was based in part on the premise that it was a liberated victim of Nazi aggression and not a Nazi ally. Thus, the government wanted to avoid any suggestion of collective guilt while at the same time prosecuting individual Nazis. The party and its affiliates were banned, and ex-members were required to register. Approximately 536,000 did so by September 1946. The government attempted to draw a distinction between committed Nazis and those who had joined because of economic, social, or personal coercion. Thus, the presumably more committed pre-1938 Nazis were dismissed from the civil service and a variety of other professions. Special tribunals were created to try war crimes.

Following the 1945 parliamentary election, the Allies sought more extensive denazification. In February 1947, the Figl government enacted the National Socialist Act. The law distinguished between "more implicated" persons, such as high party officials, and "less implicated" persons, such as simple party members. Individuals in both categories were subject to fines and employment restrictions, but with different levels of severity. By 1948, however, political and popular support for what was perceived as indiscriminate denazification was waning. Ex-Nazis and their families accounted for nearly one-third of the population, and both major parties feared that the stability of Austrian political and civil society would be undermined if they were not eventually reintegrated. In June 1948, the government promulgated the Amnesty Act, which restored full citizenship rights to the less implicated ex-Nazis before the 1949 election. Some 42,000 people, however, those categorized as more implicated, remained excluded from full participation in the nation's life.

Both the SPÍ and the ÍVP actively solicited the electoral support of ex-Nazis, but this new bloc of voters also enabled the formation of a successor party to the prewar parties in the nationalist-liberal camp. The SPÍ encouraged the formation of the new party, known as the League of Independents (Verband der Unabhńngigen--VdU), expecting that it would split the antisocialist vote and thus weaken the ÍVP. In the October 1949 parliamentary election, however, the SPÍ lost nine seats, compared with the eight lost by the ÍVP. The VdU, with nearly 12 percent of the vote, won sixteen of these seventeen seats. The KPÍ, with 5 percent of the vote, increased its representation from four to five seats. Although the ÍVP thus lost its absolute majority in the Nationalrat, it was still the largest party, with seventy-seven seats and 44 percent of the vote. The SPÍ held sixty-seven seats, having won nearly 39 percent of the vote. The ÍVP and the SPÍ formed another coalition government with Figl as chancellor, continuing what was to become known as the "grand coalition."

To limit conflict between themselves, the coalition partners devised a system to divide not only cabinet ministries but also the entire range of political patronage jobs in the government and nationalized industries based upon each party's electoral strength. This proportional division of jobs, called the "Proporz" system, became an enduring feature of coalition governments.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress