Original Sin: The Dollfuss Legacy

The Christian-conservative ÖVP seeks absolution for its historical failures, but refuses to name them

Top Stories | Marc Neururer | May 2012

Finally, Austria seems to be clearing out the skeletons in its closet: In 2009, court convictions of soldiers who deserted the National Socialist Wehrmacht During World War II were formally annulled. And a memorial in Vienna, planned for 2013, will finally honour the conscientious deserters, seeking to redress having been disowned so long ago by the Austrian state.

But the government’s ambivalent treatment of a period that is intimately linked to the National Socialist regime, casts doubt on its commitment to seriously re-appraise the country’s political past.

In January, the Parliament passed a "Rehabilitation Act" (Aufhebungs- und Rehabilitierungsgesetz) declaring convictions of treason handed down during the Austro-Fascist regime of 1933 – 1938 as unlawful. But the new law stops short of condemning the regime outright: That would have meant a fall from grace for the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), whose honoured former leader, Engelbert Dollfuss, was the chancellor presiding over many of the atrocities of the 1930s. Instead, the ÖVP holds on to the myth of Dollfuss as the martyr who defended Austria against the encroachments of Nazi Germany.

In 1934, Dollfuss dissolved parliament, banned oppositional parties, and introduced authoritarian rule based on a hierarchy of professions. While this ostensibly served to protect Austria from subversion by the National Socialist Party, NSDAP, the regime mainly targeted socialists, communists, and liberals. The socialists’ February Uprising of 1934 was brutally crushed and the internment and execution of some 140 of the regime’s opponents followed.

Far from repelling the Nazi threat, the Austro-fascist government helped lay the ground for the Anschluss in 1938, by eliminating fascism’s opponents on the left.

Against this background, the Rehabilitation Law is little more than a half-hearted compromise. Most striking is the absence of any political classification of the era in question: Neither Ständestaat – the propaganda term used by the regime – nor any of the more recent historiographical terms, either proto-fascist, Austro-fascist, or clerical-fascist, are mentioned. The true "nature of the beast" is only alluded to.

While the law grants a reprieve to those who "fought between the 6 Mar. 1933 and the 12 Mar. 1938 for an independent, democratic Austria, aware of its historical duty" and who were subsequently prosecuted for their actions, the reasons for their protest are meticulously avoided. No word of the dissolution of Parliament, the internment camps, or the executions. Moreover, the law clearly rules out compensation payments to the victims’ descendants.

A thorough re-evaluation of the era would look very different.

The law finally recognises people who suffered at the hands of an unjust system seventy years ago as victims. Yet any evidence of the regime’s crimes is painstakingly sidestepped, as that would raise questions that the modern ÖVP would be hard pressed to explain.

If the conservative party confessed to the character of the Austro-fascist Ständestaat, many of the party’s forefathers and their involvement in that very regime would come under renewed scrutiny. Prominent figures of the ÖVP’s post-1945 founding generation, who went on to hold high offices in the Austrian Second Republic, would suddenly appear in a very questionable light.

By hesitantly endorsing the law, the ÖVP is stuck in a paradoxical situation: One the one hand, the law recognises the regime opponents’ democratic justification; on the other, the ÖVP continues to defend the honourable intentions of the chancellor who crushed those very opponents. How long can the ÖVP maintain this historical schizophrenia?

The willingness to support a long over-due law is not the same as grasping the necessity to re-assess the era in question. Nothing illustrates the ÖVP’s continued denial better than the prominent display of Dollfuss’s portrait in the party’s clubroom in the parliament. There, he continues to look down on visitors to the very democratic institution he eliminated 78 years ago.

Marc Neururer holds a Master’s degree in history from the University of Vienna where he is currently studying political science.

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