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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.

Engelbert Dollfuss was 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.

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