February 1934 - History of Vienna

On 12 February 1934 at 11.46 am, the trams in Vienna stood still. This signalled the start of the uprising of the last remaining active members of the Republikanischer Schutzbund (Republican Defence League), the paramilitary wing of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, against the authoritarian regime of the corporatist "Ständestaat".

Clashes in Linz

In the early morning hours of that day, shots had been fired in Linz (Upper Austria) during a raid on a building owned by the Social Democrats. Searches for weapons caches had become regular occurrences by then. The Viennese Social Democrats responded by calling a general strike, but the workers, demoralised by years of unemployment and abject poverty, were not able to maintain it for long, and the strike was broken after only a few hours.

There were many reasons for the defeat of the uprising: the Schutzbund fighters were outnumbered, their military leader Alexander Eifler and several district commanders had been arrested some weeks earlier, and their military strategy was problematic (something Theodor Körner, one of the leaders of the party, had criticised as well), but what weighed heaviest was that the workers failed to rise in significant numbers. The Great Depression of 1929 and the ensuing mass unemployment had weakened the social and political power of the workers and their organisations. Part of the government’s strategy for resolving the economic crisis was to reduce the political power of workers’ organisations and gain influence over the trade unions, combined with enormous cuts in social spending.

The Dollfuss regime

Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss had formed a coalition with two right-wing parties, one of which was the parliamentary wing of the ultra-nationalist Heimwehr (Home Defence) militia, and cooperated with Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. On 5 March 1933, Dollfuss executed a coup: he took advantage of an irregularity in the voting procedure of the Austrian Parliament to suspend it. From then on, he used the 1917 Wartime Economy Enabling Act to govern without any interference from the parliament or the Austrian president. The result was a state of permanent breach of constitution and the abolition of civil liberties: the freedom of the press was abolished, the freedom of assembly restricted, jury courts were de-facto abolished, strikes were prohibited in many branches of industry under threat of punishment, employment protection legislation was weakened, existing collective bargaining agreements were modified, wages and unemployment benefits were reduced via decree, the police were given jurisdiction over political offenses.

Finally, in January 1934, the chambers of labour were abolished and works committees in state-owned enterprises were shut down. Left-wing Social Democrat Otto Bauer responded with an offer of far-reaching concessions in January 1934, and the Social Democrats of Lower Austria, led by moderate Karl Renner, tried to negotiate with the government until the last moment. The left wing of the party, however, was no longer willing to wait.

Armed conflict

The calling of a general strike was followed by the Austrian Civil War. In the parts of Vienna where there were clashes, the fighting was violent and uncompromising. Military experts consider it "the pinnacle of urban warfare for the time". The battles were mainly fought for the large municipal housing estates that were the legacy of the Social Democratic city government of the 1920s, including Karl-Marx-Hof (where artillery was used), Reumannhof and Sandleiten, as well as the Ottakring workers’ hostel. The most violent and prolonged clashes took place in the districts of Simmering, Meidling (in the housing estates Haydnhof, Indianerhof and Reismannhof) and Floridsdorf, which remained contested for three days (Schlingerhof and Goethehof, the latter of which saw the only attack by a military plane).

On 12 February, martial law was declared in Vienna, Styria and Upper Austria. The Social Democratic Workers’ Party, the free trade unions and, soon after, all cultural and other organisations of the Social Democrats were dismantled. High-ranking Social Democrats Otto Bauer and Julius Deutsch fled to Czechoslovakia on 13 February. Member of Parliament Johann Schorsch, who had been with them at the military command centre at Ahornhof, fled to Switzerland. On 14 February, a court-martial was held; two people were executed on the same day (heavily wounded Schutzbund member Karl Münichreiter and fire department officer Georg Weissel), and seven more people in the following days. On 15 February, the government announced that 118 government troops had been killed and 486 wounded, while the corresponding numbers for the Schutzbund were 196 and 319 (British journalist George Eric Rowe Gedye, who was in Vienna at the time, estimated that 1,500 to 2,000 people had fallen and 5,000 had been wounded).

The trial

Vienna’s City Archives contain a file from the Provincial Criminal Court titled "Otto Bauer and comrades", which includes six boxes of interrogations, witness statements and seized documents that paint a clear picture of the situation of all arrested leaders of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party immediately before and during the battles in February 1934. After the wave of court-martials had died down on 21 February 1934 – 140 Schutzbund members had been convicted and eight of them hanged – the politically controlled courts focused their efforts on holding a large show trial against the leaders of the Austrian Social Democrats. The party was to be publicly denounced as the ideological puppet master behind the uprising. However, the trial was not held, as all the investigations and interrogations failed to turn up enough evidence to show that the party had been involved in preparing a "treasonous coup".

On the contrary, the investigations showed that the "right" wing of the party leadership had attempted to negotiate a compromise with the government camp until the very last moment to the extent of nearly giving up all their ideals. Nevertheless, the arrested men and women who had played such an important role in the development of the Austrian Republic and the City of Vienna remained incarcerated for months, and when they were released, they were banned from leaving the country. Karl Renner, Karl Seitz, Albert Sever and Oskar Helmer had spent days in police custody at Rossauer Lände and several months in prison. Robert Danneberg, Theodor Körner and Helene Postranecky were not released from prison until 1935. Others, such as Anton Weber, Paul Speiser, Paul Richter and Heinrich Schneidmadl, who were members of the city council, provincial council, or parliament, were taken to the temporary detention camp Wöllersdorf after their pre-trial custody. Although they were never convicted or, indeed, even officially prosecuted due to the lack of evidence, all their applications for compensation for wrongful imprisonment were denied. Rosa Jochmann, who had been an active member of the resistance, was sentenced to one year in prison in a separate trial.

Sources

Contact for this page:
Municipal and provincial archives of Vienna (Municipal Department 8)
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