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There’s a history of fighting back

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Issue 1683

Austrian anti-fascists on the streets

There’s a history of fighting back

By Kevin Ovenden

THE ENTRY of the far right Freedom Party into the Austrian government has rightly ignited anti-fascist protests across Europe. Freedom Party leader Jrg Haider is an admirer of Hitler. He defends his parents’ records as loyal members of the Nazi Party and maintains links with Nazis. In 1991 he praised the “orderly employment policies” of Nazi Germany. Haider has made several speeches to gatherings of former members of Hitler’s Waffen SS, which played the key role in the Holocaust. He describes them as men of “decent character”, and on one occasion told them, “Without your self sacrifice there would be no freedom in Western Europe today.”

Over the last 15 years the Freedom Party has promoted Holocaust deniers and Nazis to leading positions. They include:

  • Robert Drr, the leading Freedom Party candidate in the Burgenland region in 1987. He worked on Nazi newspapers and denies the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz.
  • Helmut Weiss, a parliamentary candidate, who calls the Germans who tried to assassinate Hitler “Germany’s greatest traitors”. He is also a Holocaust denier.
  • Peter Mller, a mayoral candidate, who told a journalist in 1989, “We are building ovens again, but not for Mr Wiesenthal [an internationally renowned Holocaust survivor]-there’s room in Jrg’s pipe for him.”

The Freedom Party was set up in 1956. Its precursor, the League of Independents, had been founded after the Second World War-uniting extreme nationalists and former Nazis. The first leader of the Freedom Party, Anton Reinthaller, had been a member of Austria’s Nazi administration during the war. On his death, former SS officer Friedrich Peter took over.

Some in the Freedom Party tried to distance it from its pro-Nazi wing in the late 1960s and 1970s. But Austrian nationalism continued to be a key part of its platform, and anti-immigrant and Nazi forces remained inside it. Such forces helped Haider seize the leadership of the party in 1986 and he then swung the party sharply to the right. He held meetings with leaders of extra-parliamentary Nazi groups, including former Freedom Party politician Otto Scrinzi, who says, “I have always been on the right, even in the Nazi Party.”

Since then Haider’s support has grown out of the failure of the Social Democrat led coalition government to improve people’s lives in Austria. He has pulled a coalition of forces into the party, ranging from Nazi sympathisers to Thatcherite businessmen. The Freedom Party has not built the equivalent of Hitler’s 400,000 Storm troopers, who were central to smashing the organised working class when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933.

But elements within the Freedom Party can move in that direction. Haider’s party represents one strand of Austrian history-extreme nationalist, pro-Nazi, racist and virulently anti-socialist. But it is not the only strand.

AT THE beginning of this century Vienna, the Austrian capital, was the fourth biggest city in Europe. It was a modern industrial island surrounded by the economically backward Austro-Hungarian Empire. Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Poland were drawn to the city in large numbers. So too were Czechs, Slovenes, Hungarians and other Eastern European peoples. Their languages were common in the working class quarters of a city which was officially German speaking. Socialist ideas and organisation grew. So too did innovative artistic movements. Revolution erupted in Vienna in November 1918. Mass strikes and mutiny in the army brought all the bitterness at the suffering caused by the First World War to a head.

The revolution forced the abdication of the monarchy, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the proclamation of an Austrian republic. This was enough for the mainstream socialist leaders. They prevented the movement from developing into a full-blown workers’ revolution like in Russia the year before. But the revolution left a legacy. The working class of “Red Vienna” in the 1920s had the best level of socialist and trade union organisation in the world. Almost two in three voters supported Austria’s Social Democratic Workers Party. It was similar to the Labour Party in Britain and had several Jewish or “non-German” leaders.

One in three Viennese people was a card-carrying member of the Social Democratic Workers Party at some point in the 1920s. Austria’s capitalists and middle class establishment, including the Catholic church, wanted to crush this socialist opposition. They became especially desperate to break working class organisation as the Great Depression set in during the early 1930s. They backed the authoritarian rule of Chancellor Dollfuss, an admirer of Italian Fascist leader Mussolini.

After Hitler took power in Germany in January 1933 Dollfuss tried to set up a more extreme dictatorship on the Nazi model. On 12 February 1934 he set out to destroy Austria’s working class organisations. The army and police sealed off working class districts while the Heimwehr-the fascist military organisation-was unleashed to kill and destroy. Guns pounded working class housing estates. Workers responded with a heroic rising, taking up arms to defend themselves. The Schutzbund, the Social Democrats’ military force, fought street by street, flat by flat.

Some 2,000 working people-men, women and children-were killed. Tragically, the leaders of the labour movement had argued to “keep your powder dry” right up to the last minute. By the time they proclaimed a general strike and called for armed resistance, Dollfuss had the upper hand and many workers had become demoralised. The fascists triumphed. But the workers’ heroism was not in vain. They had fought, unlike in Germany where the labour movement leaders had completely capitulated to Hitler.

In workers’ quarters across the world the cry went up, “Better to die in Vienna than to surrender in Berlin.” The resistance in Vienna inspired French workers to halt the seemingly unstoppable rise of fascism across Europe. But Dollfuss’s victory shifted Austria sharply to the right. Independent organisations, from the trade unions to the League of Women’s and Men’s Musical Societies, were destroyed.

Austria’s capitalists and German-speaking middle classes embraced the Nazis and welcomed the unification of Austria with Hitler’s Germany in 1938. They saw in Hitler (himself an Austrian) a return to Austria playing a major role in European affairs, as it had before the First World War. By 1945 some 600,000 Austrians had joined the Nazi Party. But even throughout these years there was a different tradition. Significant numbers of workers opposed unification with Nazi Germany. Some even demonstrated despite the 1934 defeat. And German intelligence reports from 1938 to 1944 were full of fears that Red Vienna would rise again.

WHEN THE war ended the victorious Allied powers wanted a stable capitalist government in Austria. They turned a blind eye to the Nazi past of Austria’s establishment. Even more ex-Nazis returned to positions of power in Austria than in Western Germany. Disgracefully Austria’s Social Democratic leaders joined the official amnesia over what happened during the war. They encouraged ex-Nazis to join their party, just as the Austrian Tories did.

There was little discussion in respectable circles about the Nazi past of prominent people until 1986. In that year an international campaign, including anti-racists in Austria, exposed Austrian president Kurt Waldheim’s role in Nazi mass murder in the Balkans in the 1940s. Austria experienced sustained economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s.

But it has suffered from repeated crises since then. As in other parts of Europe these conditions, and the failure of Labour-type governments to protect workers, have allowed right wing forces to scapegoat immigrants and grow. The far right has been more successful in Austria than elsewhere. That is partly because no mainstream force in Austrian politics has systematically exposed the extreme nationalism and racism the country’s elite welcomed in the 1930s and 1940s.

But the internationalist and socialist side of Austria has not died. Haider has built some support among disillusioned workers. However, his support among trade unionists is lower than in the population in general. Austria’s working class has not suffered defeats on the scale of the 1930s or even of the kind British workers went through in the 1980s. The working class estates Dollfuss opened fire on in 1934 were patched up and stand today.

Many people living there know first or second hand what happened two generations ago. Vienna, home to a fifth of Austria’s eight million people, is as multicultural as it was a century ago. Austria was the model of stable capitalist development and of moderate Labour rule in the 1960s and 1970s. Both have failed. The choice now is between those who draw inspiration from Dollfuss and the Nazis, and the legacy of the workers who rose in 1934. The fighting capacity of Austrian workers is there. If they learn from their own history they can ensure Haider is stopped today.

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