The Ongoing Controversy Over Austrofascism, Explained

Not long after designated chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) presented a reshuffle of his cabinet on December 3, a national controversy broke loose. At the heart of the outrage: a small museum dedicated to Engelbert Dollfuß in Texingtal, Lower Austria. Gerhard Karner (ÖVP), who succeeds Nehammer as Minister of the Interior, is under fire for not distancing himself from this project although he is (also) mayor of the town. This quarrel has, in turn, led to a larger debate on public memory, partisan historiography and the legacy of Austrofascism.

Especially for internationals and those who are not versed in Austria’s complex history, the issues at stake in this debate may be difficult to grasp at first. Who is Dollfuß, and why is his memory still so contentious?

The museum dedicated to Engelbert Dollfuß in his native town of Texingtal, recorded in 2009 (CC).

The forgotten history of a rival fascism

Engelbert Dollfuß was born in 1892 to a peasant family near Texingtal. Promoted from a simple volunteer to lieutenant during World War I, he rose through the ranks of the Peasants’ Union as well as the Christian Social Party after the war. In May 1932, he was appointed chancellor of a right-wing government composed of the of Catholic CS, the agrarian Landbund and the nationalist Heimwehr paramilitary.

As the young republic was in crisis, Dollfuß violently dissolved the parliament to create an authoritarian Ständestaat (“corporate state”), inspired by the fascist and corporatist systems in Italy, Portual and Germany. Socialist resistance to this coup was brutally repressed by the regime; political opponents were placed in internment camps or summarily executed.

At the same time, this state found itself threatened by the expansionism of Hitler’s Germany as well as by the ambitions of the National-Socialist movement within Austria. Dollfuß reacted by accentuating its authoritarian character and sought an alliance with Mussolini; historians today qualify this phenomenon as a Konkurrenzfaschismus (“competing fascism”). In July 1934, Dollfuß was shot during a failed coup by the Austrian Nazi Party. He was succeeded by Kurt Schuschnigg, who upheld the regime until Austria’s Anschluss in 1938.

After 1945, Dollfuß was widely rehabilitated as a martyr. While post-war Austria refused to confront its implication in the crimes of the Reich, the assassinated chancellor served as a consensual symbol of national resistance to Nazism. The brutal and authoritarian nature of the Ständestaat was largely ignored. Simultaneously, conservative politicians and intellectuals took great pains to differentiate this regime from its Italian and German counterparts, refusing the label ‘Austrofascism’ as partisan and ideologically charged.

A tenacious personality cult

In 1998, the town of Texingtal inaugurated a museum in the house where Dollfuß had been born, presenting a collection of photos, busts and other memorabilia. The historian Lucile Dreidemy asserted that the exposition paints Dollfuß as a patriotic martyr. Gerhard Karner, in turn, who has served as mayor of Texingtal since 2015, defended the museum as offering a neutral assessment. Yet, a stone plaque displayed at its entry proclaims a less-than-critical perspective: “Dedicated to the great chancellor and renewer of Austria”.

This is not the only example of a certain personality cult enduring well into the 21st century. Since 1945, the assassinated dictator had been commemorated every year with a service celebrated in the chapel of Austria’s chancellery. This tradition was upheld by politicians of all parties since the end of the war – until chancellor Werner Faymann (SPÖ) put an end to it in 2010, drawing sharp criticism from his coalition partners in the ÖVP. In 2016, presidential candidate Andreas Khol (ÖVP) praised Dollfuß as a great patriot while conceding that he was not much of a democrat and had come to power via a coup. (His successor Sebastian Kurz, by contrast, had earlier pronounced himself rather agnostic on this issue.)

Furthermore, the ÖVP honoured the authoritarian chancellor for decades with a portrait displayed at its headquarters in Vienna. After repeated criticism, the party finally removed the painting in 2017 and lent it to a museum. This act, however, was not necessarily symbolic of a critical confrontation with the authoritarian chancellor’s legacy; instead, the party’s executive committee attributed it to a shortage of space during the renovation of the parliament building. The portrait remains in the museum depot until today – an awkward compromise of silence and a textbook example of an österreichische Lösung (“Austrian solution”).

The portrait of Engelbert Dollfuß by the painter Tom von Dreger was displayed at the ÖVP party headquarters until 2017 (CC).

Criticism from all sides

With Karner’s presentation as minister the debate has once again flared up, focusing on the dubious museum in his home district. While the SPÖ and the liberal NEOS as well as the Austrian association of resistance fighters and victims of fascism protested his nomination, even the co-governing Green Party expressed concern. Their human rights spokesperson Ewa Ernst-Dziedzic demanded a statement from Karner: “The position on Austrofascism must always be clear, especially in the case of the Minister of the Interior,” she said via Twitter.

In his first official press conference on December 7, the newly confirmed chancellor Karl Nehammer intervened to assert that the ÖVP had an unequivocal stance regarding the Dollfuß regime which he called a “Kanzlerdiktatur” (chancellor’s dictatorship) – a recent term coined by conservative historians, carefully avoiding the putrid word fascism.

As the controversy refused to die down, Nehammer saw himself compelled to clarify his position: During a TV interview on Sunday, December 12, he condemned the anti-democratic character of the regime and its judicial murders as “intolerable” while also recalling Dollfuß’ assassination at the hands of Nazi putschists in July 1934. Upon questioning, he accepted qualifying Dollfuß as an Austrofascist, making him the first ÖVP party leader to do so. In the same breath, however, Nehammer referred to the historical context, notably emphasising the “great threat” of Austromarxism. Thus, in his words, Austrofascism and Austromarxism merely appear as two sides of the same coin, emanations of a violent and divided society.

The symptom of a larger issue

While Karner himself has not yet reacted to the controversy, the Ministry of the Interior has announced that the exposition will be revised in 2022. In the meantime, the debate has moved on, as Karner now finds himself accused of having used coded anti-semitic speech in the regional election campaign of 2008. Ultimately, it appears that the Texingtal museum is only one symptom of a larger issue – a widespread refusal to confront the country’s dark past.

Nehammer’s acceptance of the term “Austrofascism” is a considerable step, but it will (and can) not be the last word in this matter. To quote the chancellor, it is up to us to learn from history: “Democracy is stronger than any form of dictatorship.” In this spirit, all democratic parties – including, but not limited to the ÖVP – need to achieve something that goes well beyond lip service, whataboutism and other intellectual smoke grenades: a clear, unequivocal condemnation of those who, 87 years ago, drowned Austria’s first republic in blood.