BOOK REVIEW: Dollfuss: An Austrian Patriot
Author: Fr. Johannes Messner; Publisher: Gates of Vienna Books; Reviewer: Dr. Peter Chojnowski
"Austria? That's what's left." These famous cynical words of Georges Clemenceau, French premier during the last part of the First World War and participant in the Versailles Conference of 1919, portray perfectly the situation that the "Austrians" found themselves in during the post-war years. "Austria" was not so much the name of an ethnically identifiable people as the designation of a single family, namely the Imperial House of Habsburg-Lorraine. The German peoples of the Alpine region, Tyrol, and Vienna, had been historically the heart of a multi-ethnic realm, a Reich, which grew slowly through the centuries to include peoples as diverse as the Poles, the Italians, the Croats, Slovaks, Czechs, and Hungarians. The Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, becoming a dual kingdom under a single monarch after the Hungarian Uprising of 1866 under Kossuth, was the second largest nation-state in Europe with its historical roots in the pre-Napoleonic Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
That the Germans of Austria should find themselves, in 1918, suddenly bereft of most of the parts of their ancient nation-state was nothing short of catastrophic. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn compared the situation of Austria, after World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy, to a situation in which Americans would wake up one day and find that their nation had been reduced to the combined area of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. Added to the geopolitical collapse of his homeland (reducing a nation which once had "the emperor" and a fully functioning naval fleet, into a landlocked alpine republic), was what Dollfuss saw as the leveling of a civilization that had stood for over a millennium.
To protect his homeland from disintegration at the hands of either Liberalism or Marxian Socialism, Dollfuss returned to many of the principles and institutions that had always sustained his nation and people. When he gave a much-publicized speech in Trabrennplatz, everyone listened with rapt attention when he illustrated the new social community which was to be established in Austria during his chancellorship, by presenting a picture of the peasant's house where farmer, wife, and children sat at a common table with servants and maids, all joining in the recitation of the rosary together in the evening.
From his early years in the University, Engelbert Dollfuss was attempting to salvage what he could of the national heritage by uniting in a common cause what he considered to be the best elements in his nation, young Catholic intellectuals in the universities, farmers, and common workers in the trades. During his university years, he devoted special attention to "the German and Christian principles of economics." By these were meant all the Social Catholic doctrine and theory that had been prepared and articulated by such men as Bishop von Ketteler, Franz Hitze, Heinrich Pesch, and, especially Pope Leo XIII in his seminal social encyclical Rerum Novarum.
Having not yet completed his studies at the University, Dollfuss obtained his first significant post in the Lower Austrian Peasants' Union, in which he attempted to organize the peasants to protect them against the inroads of Marxism and to begin a corporative reconstruction of Austrian rural life. As he slowly became accepted as the leader of the peasantry, he was able to apply his economic and managerial skills, in 1930, to his new position as President of the Federal Railways, the greatest industrial corporation in Austria. In the short months of his work with the Federal Railways he was able to work out the principles upon which they could become once more a concern serviceable to the economic life of the State. His rise through the Federal Government of Austria culminated in his accepting of the Federal Chancellorship in 1932.
What strikes one when reading this text is the fact that such an intelligent, courageous, and religiously refined man as Dollfuss should assume power in circumstances that where so restrictive and perilous as to render his chances of success practically negligible. His first obstacle was the near farcical Austrian parliamentary situation in which Dollfuss's cabinet survived with a majority of one vote in parliament. It was therefore the prey of any chance; the illness of only two members of the government supporters would cripple the administration. Within this untenable parliamentary situation, Dollfuss faced the need to salvage the national currency from collapse, balance the budget, and negotiate a loan from the triumphant Allied Powers. That he accomplished these tasks is testimony to his own leadership skills and to efficacy of the principles, Christian and Corporatist, upon which he based his action.
This book is full of illustrative quotes coming from Dollfuss's speeches (1930-34), which give us a sense of the expectation and hope which not only filled Dollfuss's mind during these years of exuberance and struggle, but filled the minds of most of the Austrian people. Central to Dollfuss's conception of the historical role of his own people was their office as champion of the Christian political ideal among the Germanic peoples as a whole:
Moreover, I am convinced that in this German land of ours it is our duty to refashion social and economic life according to truly German forms, and to give an example to the German people as a whole. It is my conviction that it is our task to give an example of the Christian State. We believe that we are thus doing a service to the Germanic people as a whole. (Retz, Nov. 15, 1933)
Dollfuss's identification of the German idea with the Christian historical reality was in marked contrast to the neo-pagan dalliances of National Socialism. In this regard, Dollfuss stated,
With us, to be Germans means also to be Christians at the same time. As the German people were once brought by Christianity out of paganism to the highest pitch of civilization, so it is our ambition now once more to realize in our German land a devote, humble, and truly practical Christianity. (Feldkirch, June 29, 1934)
What Engelbert Dollfuss realized was that the only way that you can confront and, finally, overcome militant ideologies, which present a systematic and comprehensive view of the world for their adherence (e.g., National Socialism and Marxism), is to formulate an equally coherent and systematic system of thought, which would be both comprehensive and practical. This truly Austrian world view, inspired by the encyclical Quadragesima Anno by Pope Pius XI, included such elements as a government not beholden to shifting parliamentary majorities, a corporate economic system in which "estates" or "guilds" would regulate and supervise the economy of a nation that had formally renounced liberal capitalism, socialism, and class warfare, conformity of national legislation to the divine and natural laws which both have their source in God Himself, along with an official and pragmatic recognition that agriculture was the foundation upon which any stable and long lasting society must be based.
Having refused even the rudiments of personal security, trusting himself to both his own people and to God, Dollfuss died in 1934 at the hands of National Socialist assassins, after having endured long hours of uncertainty concerning the fate of his nation, his government, and his Christian Corporatist constitution. The "Nazis" clearly knew he was not a "Nazi." The death of Dollfuss must put to rest forever the idea that the truths of the Catholic Faith and their derivative Social Teachings have no practical relevance; that the truths bearing on our redemption cannot also serve as a wholesome and invigorating solution to our own doldrums and to the obstinately inhuman stupidity of modern man out of control.
Dr. Peter E. Chojnowski has an undergraduate degree in Political Science and another in Philosophy from Christendom College. He also received his master's degree and doctorate in Philosophy from Fordham University. He and his wife, Kathleen, are the parents of five children. He teaches for the Society of Saint Pius X at Immaculate Conception Academy, Post Falls, ID.