4 March 1933 - The beginning of the end of parliamentarian democracy in Austria

The events on 15 July 1927 already proved fateful for the young Republic but things were to get even worse. Starting on 4 March 1933, parliamentarian democracy in Austria was gradually eliminated and replaced with authoritarian rule. What has been repeatedly called the "self-elimination of Parliament" was in actual fact the beginning of a coup d’etat and the start of a historical era which came to be known as the "Ständestaat" or "Austrofascism". What had happened?

The last session of national parliament until 1945

On 4 March 1933, the National Council held a heated debate about a strike by the railway workers. When it became clear that the vote on the adoption of measures against the striking railway workers would be decided by a razor-thin majority, all three presidents of the lower house - Karl Renner (Social Democrat), Rudolf Ramek (Christian Social Party) and Sepp Straffner (Greater German People's Party) - stepped down in order to take part in the vote. Since their move was not provided for by the parliament’s standing orders, parliament was in effect paralysed by procedural disputes. Their resignation left the house without a speaker and the session couldn’t be closed leaving the National Council incapable of acting. Options offered by the constitution to reinstate parliamentarian democracy were not taken up. Instead, the government under Federal Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß considered the situation as a crisis "not provided for in the constitution". Thus, the session on 4 March 1933, became the last regular session of the National Parliament until after the liberation in 1945. Referring to the events on that day in March, the standing orders of the National Council were changed in 1948 whereby in the event of all three Presidents being prevented from administering their office, the assembly’s oldest member in years would preside the session.

Seizure of power on the basis of a law passed in 1917

On 7 March the federal government proceeded to declare itself in power and that it was not affected by the crisis. Attempts by the Greater Germans and the Social Democrats to reinstate a session of the National Council were prevented by use of force. Police forces were posted outside and inside Parliament and everything was fenced in by barbed wire.

The government under Dollfuß announced it would from now on rule on the basis of the "Wartime Economy Authority Law", an emergency law passed in 1917. Among the direct consequences was the repeal of freedom of assembly and freedom of press. Wilhelm Miklas, the federal president, authorised the government to stay in office and supported the move. The political rivals responded with sharp opposition accusing the government of breach of the constitution.

The political consequences were radical. On 31 March 1933, the government dissolved the Socialist Republikanische Schutzbund which nevertheless carried on illegally. As a response the Viennese mayor Karl Seitz (Social Democrat) banned the (Christian Social) Heimwehr in Vienna. His ban was suspended after objection by the federal government.

1933 - for Austria a year of grave consequences

On 13 April 1933, Engelbert Dollfuß and Benito Mussolini met for the first time in Rome. In August 1933 the fascist dictator declared that "if necessary, Italy would defend Austria’s independence by force of arms." History shows that things were to turn out completely different. In communal elections held in Innsbruck on 23 April 1933, the National Socialists gained 40 per cent of the vote and became the strongest party. Soon afterwards, in May 1933, this would no longer have been possible: the government under Dollfuß banned state and communal elections – for the time being temporarily but eventually for good. The new oath sworn by civil servants was no longer sworn on the "democratic Republic", instead on May 20 the Vaterländische Front (Fatherland Front) was created, a "bipartisan" body of all Austrians "loyal to the government". In the often quoted Trabrennplatzrede on 11 September 1933, Engelbert Dollfuß stated his political programme in no uncertain terms: "The time of the capitalist system, the time of the economic system based upon Liberal and Capitalist principles, is past. The time of Marxian and materialistic government is over. Party domination is no more! We reject enforced political conformity and terror. We want the social, Christian, German state of Austria based on corporative principles with a strong authoritarian leadership! Authority does not mean despotism, authority means orderly power. It means leadership by responsible and unselfish men willing to make sacrifices …"

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