Austria’s Diminutive Dictator: Engelbert Dollfuss

A right-wing Catholic who crushed all his rivals, Engelbert Dollfuss fought hard to maintain his young republic’s independence. A.D. Harvey looks at the life of the tiny patriot of peasant stock who stood up to Hitler.

Dollfuss pictured in uniform during 1933.
Dollfuss pictured in uniform during 1933.

July 2009 saw the 75th anniversary of the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss, one of the least-known but most intriguing of Europe's 20th-century dictators. On July 25th, 1934, less than a month after the 'Night of the Long Knives' when Hitler summarily executed the leadership of the stormtroopers who had helped him to power, Nazi groups launched a coup d'état in Austria. In the south of the country fighting continued for almost a week. In Vienna, Nazis who stormed the offices of the chancellor in Ballhausplatz surrendered after a few hours, but not before Dollfuss, shot through the chest in the first minutes of the rising, had been allowed to drown in his own blood.

Engelbert Dollfuss became chancellor of Austria in May 1932, five months short of his 40th birthday, after serving just over a year as minister of agriculture. He had a parliamentary majority of just one and in October 1932 he reactivated the War Economy Enabling Act of 1917 so that he could govern by decree. Always much more interested in social reforms than in democracy, Dollfuss's first decree under the revived 1917 Act was to make the shareholders of the Creditanstalt, Austria's largest bank, liable for the insolvent bank's losses.

In March 1933 the three presidents of Austria's parliament all resigned in order to vote in a division; it was realised only after their resignations that without a president there was no constitutional method of carrying on parliamentary business.

Dollfuss announced immediately that he would govern without parliament and banned public meetings. In May 1933 he amalgamated his Christian Social Party and other nationalist groups with the loosely organised militias of ex-servicemen known as the Heimwehr to create the Vaterländische Front (Patriotic Front). He also banned the Communist Party. In June 1933 he banned the Nazi Party too. At the core of his programme was the maintenance of the independence of the Austrian republic; Austria's Nazis demanded union with Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Perhaps as a kind of rival in symbolism to the Nazi swastika Dollfuss began to promote the use of the Krückenkreuz ('crutch cross', technically known as the Cross of Jerusalem) as a national symbol, a white cross with cross pieces at the end of each arm, outlined in red. Local elections were cancelled and a concordat was signed with the papacy giving more independence to the Catholic hierarchy in Austria. In October 1933 Dollfuss survived an assassination attempt: a pistol bullet that struck him in the chest was deflected by a snuff box in his breast pocket, causing only a graze and a bruise; a second bullet hit his arm.

In February 1934 an uncoordinated rising by socialist militias in Linz, Steyr and Vienna, in response to Dollfuss seizing power, led to workers' flats being bombarded with artillery. Only a couple of small-bore mountain howitzers were employed and around six insurgents were killed by shell fire. Eight were subsequently tried and executed for armed rebellion. But the spectacle of a right-wing politician who governed by decree employing artillery against the homes and families of left-wing workers sent a thrill of horror and excitement throughout the capitals of Europe. Dollfuss's next step was to ban all political parties in Austria except the Vaterländische Front.

Despite this alarming curriculum vitae Dollfuss had little in common with his contemporaries Mussolini and Hitler. He also managed to differ from them in having even more obscure social origins and in the trajectory of his rise to power. Part of the legend of Hitler and Mussolini was the modesty of their backgrounds; respectable but low down in the lower-middle class. Dollfuss was the son of a peasant. Unlike Mussolini and Hitler he was also illegitimate, raised in the household of a man who was not his father. Hardworking rather than gifted as a student, he had been educated in a seminary and eventually went to Vienna University to study theology preparatory to becoming a Catholic priest. Finding himself more interested in social studies, in 1914 Dollfuss switched to law. He also began teaching shorthand in evening classes organised for manual workers. Then came the First World War. Not tall enough for the army, Dollfuss had on two occasions been exempted from any sort of military service on the grounds of his physical frailty but he now became an officer in the Landwehr (something like the Territorial Army, with lower height qualifications than the army proper). He turned out to be an exceptional officer, was decorated eight times and, unusually for an officer with no pre-war service, promoted to Oberleutnant (senior lieutenant).

After the war he completed his law degree (though concentrating mainly on agricultural economics), pursuing his studies for some months in Berlin. There he met the daughter of a north German landowner and took her back to Vienna as his bride. They had three children, the first of whom died in infancy. Dollfuss found employment in the administration of agriculture in his native province of Lower Austria, becoming director of its chamber of agriculture in 1927. He represented the Austrian republic in international agricultural congresses in Rome in 1928 and in Bucharest in 1929. His growing reputation for efficient administration led to his appointment as president of the Federal Railways Board in October 1930 and as minister of agriculture in the federal government five months later. Just as much a professional intellectual as Hitler, the painter and lecturer, and Mussolini the journalist, his climb to prominence from an even less promising background had been distinctly more conventional.

Austria was one of the nations most traumatised by the First World War. In 1914 it had represented the core of a large multi-lingual empire, stretching from within a hundred miles of the French border deep into what is now Ukraine. The dismemberment of the Habsburg Empire cut off the provinces that became the Austrian republic from Bohemia, the main industrial region of the former empire and from Hungary, previously an important source of food. Vienna, a bloated capital city with a population of more than two million, found itself a metropolis without a hinterland, without a role and without sufficient employment for its population.

Initially, the Austrians, being German speakers, expected union with Germany, but this was vetoed by Britain, France and Italy, Europe's victors in the war. An unofficial plebiscite in Vorarlberg, the westernmost province, opted overwhelmingly for union with Switzerland but the Swiss government refused to take notice. Joined only by language, the provinces of Austria had little sense of common identity. The city and province of Salzburg had not even been Habsburg territory until the early 19th century, having previously been an ecclesiastical principality of the Holy Roman Empire.

The new nation settled, or rather subsided, into the unfamiliar constitutional and economic circumstances of the post-First World War era to the periodic accompaniment of sporadic outbreaks of violence and bloodshed. Dollfuss was one of those who struggled to help build it. The achievement of which he was proudest as an agricultural administrator in Lower Austria was the establishment of a unified scheme of social insurance for agricultural labourers but he also masterminded a 60 per cent increase in the number and output of dairies. To a considerable extent he managed to keep clear of the bitterly polarised political life of the capital. Ernst Starhemberg, leader of the right-wing Heimwehr and soon to be a key ally of the chancellor, afterwards claimed that he had only met Dollfuss twice before 1932.

Dollfuss's relationship with Starhemberg may be seen as typical of or even as defining the nature of his dictatorship. Though aristocratic titles had been abolished in the first republican flush of the new Austria, Starhemberg was a prince, of the same family as the Ernst Starhemberg who commanded the defence of Vienna against the Turks in 1683 and was one of the richest and best connected men in the country. Though born only in 1899 he had fought in the final stages of the First World War, serving, like Dollfuss, on the Italian front. In 1930, he was briefly minister of the interior but resigned after the Heimwehr polled only six per cent of the vote in elections that year. Apart from being authoritarian and anti-socialist he had few settled political convictions, had flirted with the idea of union with Germany and, as must have been obvious to Dollfuss, was not particularly bright. Yet the two men were soon on the terms of utmost familiarity, using Christian names and the familiar 'Du' form of address that was normally employed only between family members and school children. Dollfuss undoubtedly saw the Heimwehr as extremely useful to his regime, a counterpart to Mussolini's blackshirts and Hitler's stormtroopers. It was active in putting down the socialist revolt in 1934 and it was partly in recognition of his loyaity that Starhemberg was appointed vice-chancellor of the republic in May of that year. The same month saw the promulgation of a new constitution in which elections would be on the basis of membership of seven 'estates' or economic sectors, e.g. agriculture, industry or public service: in practice, a system that favoured bosses rather than workers. It is easy enough to detect a cynical calculation in Dollfuss's relationship with Starhemberg and in his constitutional gerrymandering and it is true he was very much a practitioner of the 'art of the possible', but contemporaries did not see him as a cynic or as a manipulator or a power addict. Dollfuss was not a magnetic, messianic would-be superman like Mussolini or Hitler. He was an altogether different type of leader: those who who knew him vouched for his being an uncommonly sweet-tempered, generous, affectionate, reasonable, forgiving, sincere and conscientious man who had made his way in life not by exceptional brains or charm but by the transparency of his devotion to his country. He liked Starhemberg because he thought the prince was the same kind of man as himself.

In almost every way Dollfuss provides a contrast to the other dictators. Hitler and Mussolini had been corporals in the war, but their non-commissioned rank was more a matter of a slight supplement to their pay than of responsibility, whereas Dollfuss had spent four years ordering men forward to their deaths and leading the way. While Hitler and Mussolini only liked people they could dominate, Dollfuss was not uncomfortable with equals or those, like Starhemberg, supposedly his superior by birth. Unlike Hitler he was married and unlike Mussolini he was faithful to his wife. In contrast to Hitler, a non-smoker, he got though 40 cigarettes a day. Mussolini, strutting and jutting his chin with ludicrous narcissism, uttering his platitudes with the jerkiness of a stuck gramophone record, was one of the least attractive orators in the history of Italian politics. Hitler spoke with a strong regional accent that made him sound to most Germans like a music-hall comedian and reinforced the effect with body language that seems the direct opposite of what is recommended in every book on the subject. Salazar in Portugal and Franco in Spain both had squeaky voices. Dollfuss sounded perfectly normal. He also had a pleasant, boyish face and a perfectly proportioned body. Therein lay his peculiarity: he was only 5 ft 1 in tall and his physical proportions made him look not like a short man but like a large midget. Photographs survive of pre-pubescent village maidens towering over him as they present him with bunches of flowers. Whereas today it can be deemed an advantage for democratic politicians to look and sound perfectly normal, average and unmemorable, one of the qualifications for dictatorship in the 1930s was evidently that one should either look slightly bizarre or else sound it, or preferably both. Dollfuss's childlike dimensions made him perhaps the most bizarre of them all.

But though slightly ridiculous physically, there was nothing ridiculous about Dollfuss as a political figure. He was as chancellor that which he had been as an army officer, a man resolute to do whatever his duty required. He spoke openly to the British envoy in Vienna of 'the struggle for the independence of Austria in which he was engaged with Hitler's Germany' and in 1934 there seemed every prospect that he would be able to consolidate his grip on Austria and withstand the attempts by the now illegal Austrian Nazi organisation to force a union with Germany. Hitler was still weak. He did not even dare to send his troops into the demilitarised Rhineland district of Germany till 20 months after Dollfuss's death and when eventually he annexed Austria, in 1938, the triumphal advance of the new German army across the border left in its wake a litter of broken-down and, in many cases, out-of-date tanks.

There was about as much anti-semitism in the Austrian republic as there had been in the Habsburg Empire - in other words, quite a lot. Dollfuss had met few Jews but at the seminary and among the peasant leaders of Lower Austria he encountered many ill-informed anti-semites. Though he was probably aware that the ejection of government officials known to be socialists was being used as a pretext to dismiss Jews who had no socialist connections at all, Dollfuss simply wasn't interested in copying Hitler's anti-semitic programme. There was less window-smashing and violence in Austria than in Nazi Germany, even if there were a couple of bigger shoot-outs, and it would be misleading to suggest that Dollfuss's regime might not have become harsher as time passed if he had thought it necessary. It was his devout Catholicism as much as his commitment to an Austria not dominated politically by the mainly Protestant north Germans that was the basis of Dollfuss's determination to keep his country out of Hitler's grasp but his Catholicism was a religion of order, obligation and discipline and was as authoritarian as Hitler's National Socialism. It follows, therefore, that it was precisely because he was Catholic that he could not have countenanced the racial eugenics of Hitler's Third Beich.

His key strategy for maintaining Austria's independence was alliance with other authoritarian regimes that looked with disfavour upon developments in Nazi Germany, specifically Italy and Hungary. The superficial resemblance between the Nazi and the Italian Fascist regimes did not at this stage commend Hitler's activities to Mussolini - rather the opposite - and Austria was the only one of Hungary's neighbours against which the Hungarian government had no exorbitant and insistently voiced territorial claims.

Miklós Horthy, the Regent of Hungary (governor or ruler would be a more accurate translation) had been commander of the Austro-Hungarian battle fleet in the First World War and still appeared regularly in his Austrian admiral's uniform: his house was filled with mementos of the Habsburgs and his children had played with Starhemberg when the latter was a boy. Horthy had a sentimental attachment to Austria that was not altogether shared by many of his countrymen and much preferred speaking German to Hungarian. The populations of Hungary, Austria and Italy were predominantly Catholic though Mussolini was an atheist and loathed the papacy, while Horthy and his virulently antisemitic Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös were (in the tradition of Hungarian national heroes like Gabor Bethlen and Lajos Kossuth) not Catholics but Protestants. It was not so much a case of authoritarian Catholic regimes allying against Nazism as weaker neighbours allying against Germany. The Austro-Hungarian-Italian alliance was finalised at a meeting in Rome in March 1934.

We shall never know how this anti-Hitler coalition would have worked out if Dollfuss had not been killed four months later. The League of Nations' condemnation of Italy's invasion of Ethiopia and the later military support given by both Hitler and Mussolini to Franco in the Spanish Civil War inevitably drew Hitler and Mussolini together. Gömbös's antisemitism (Jews in Hungary did hold something like the dominant position in banking and the legal profession that Nazi propaganda pretended they had in Germany) inclined him increasingly to favour co-operation with the Nazis: Horthy, whom he had helped to power in 1919, regarded him as a dangerous extremist. When Gömbös died of kidney failure in a Munich clinic in October 1936 Hitler followed his bier to the railway station and sent Goring, the number two man in his regime, to represent him at the funeral in Budapest.

Dollfuss was fond of dressing in his Landwehr uniform with all his medals but Austria had only one tenth of the population of Germany and the weakest industrial base of any nation in central Europe and there was no way the country could become strong enough militarily to resist a German invasion. On the other hand, events played into Hitler's hands to a remarkable extent in the years 1934 to 1938 and if Dollfuss had still been in power things might have developed differently after all Dollfuss, despite the disadvantages of his background and his Tom Thumb physique, had been a consistent success in everything he had attempted; Hitler had not.

Hitler had hoped the Nazis would make some advance in Austria through the ballot box and the appointment of Nazi ministers in the government but Mussolini told him to back off when they met in Venice in June 1934. Shortly afterwards Theodor Habicht, who though a German was effectively the leader of the Austrian Nazis, informed Berlin that the army was planning a coup and asked permission for the Austrian Nazis to participate. In fact there was no planned coup but on July 25th, 1934 Austrian Nazis dressed up in military uniform stormed the Chancellery in Vienna. The putchists overtook Dollfuss as he was trying to escape by a back entrance and one of them, Otto Planetta, a former soldier in Dollfuss's Landwehr regiment, shot him twice with a pistol. One bullet passed through the flesh at the side of Dollfuss's throat, the other hit him in the chest, struck his spine, paralysing his legs and exited below the armpit. No one else was shot in the Chancellery and though the putchists ignored his requests for a doctor or a priest, there was no attempt to finish him off. Eventually two captured policemen were allowed to bandage him. Dollfuss's last words were addressed to them: 'Lads, you are so good to me, why aren't the others like you? I only wanted peace. We never attacked; we only had to defend ourselves. May the Lord forgive them. Give my regards to my wife and children.' He died shortly before 4pm, about three hours after being shot. The Nazis occupying the Chancellery surrendered a few hours later.

At Rabenstein in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia Nazi insurgents held out until July 30th when they escaped across the border into Yugoslavia. Eventually they were sent to Germany by sea. Habicht was sacked, with Hitler's approval, though later he became the Oberbürgermeister of Wittenberg in Saxony. He was killed in action while commanding a battalion on the Eastern Front in January 1944.

It is curious to think that Dollfuss, had he finally decided to make an accommodation with Hitler, might have met a similar fate. It is more likely though that he would have resisted Hitler for as long as he was able and the only question is whether it would have made a difference if the Nazis had shot him down like a dog in 1938 rather than, as happened, in July 1934.

A.D. Harvey is the author of Body Politic Political Metaphor and Political Violence (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007).

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