The End of Parliamentarianism – An Authoritarian Regime
Right from the start, Parliament was confronted with the effects of the Great Depression. Parliamentarianism came more and more under fire, and the government led by Federal Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß increasingly shared the view that remedial action had to be taken by authoritarian means.
In November 1930, when Federal Chancellor Johannes Schober had resigned because of a dispute over the appointment of directors of the Federal Railways, Austrians elected a new National Council – the last nation-wide election in the First Republic.
Again, the Social Democrats were the clear winners, with 72 seats the strongest party in the National Council. The middle-class parties had split into separate groups: In Vienna and Lower Austria, the Christian Socials had joined forces with the Heimwehr and suffered a severe defeat, losing votes to the anti-parliamentarian Heimatblock, a coalition of Heimwehr members that ran in the election for the first time and obtained seats in the National Council as an independent political force. Gains were also recorded for the Nationaler Wirtschaftsblock (National Economic Bloc) formed by the Greater Germans and the Landbund, a nationalist-liberal farmers‘ party. The National Socialists obtained just about 112 000 votes, too few to earn them a seat in the National Council.
All in all, the returns could well be interpreted as a popular vote in favour of stable political conditions, since the anti-parliamentarian Heimatblock got far fewer votes than expected while within the Christian Social party more moderate forces appeared to have been strengthened.
The fragmentation of the middle-class vote caused problems for the bourgeois camp in the National Council, and the bourgeois governments had only thin parliamentary majorities to rely on.
Right from the start, Parliament was confronted with the effects of the Great Depression. In early May 1931, Austria’s biggest bank, Credit-Anstalt für Handel und Gewerbe, was saved from total collapse by a governmental rescue scheme to the tune of almost an annual national budget, in consequence of which all parties advocated drastic austerity measures to redress the budget deficit.
Opinions on what austerity measures should be taken to redress the balance were divided. When the Christian Socials offered to enter into a coalition government, the Social Democrats refused, arguing that they did not want to be “the physician at the sick-bed of capitalism”.
In tough negotiations in committee the opposition succeeded in taking the sting out of the government draft in respect of various points such as unemployment insurance, and the Law on Budget Reorganisation was ultimately adopted with the votes of all parties with the exception of the Heimatblock.
The Economic Crisis reached its peak in 1932/33. Unemployment climbed to almost 600 000. Concomitantly, Parliamentarianism came more and more under fire, and the government led by Federal Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß increasingly shared the view that remedial action had to be taken by authoritarian means.
In October 1932 the government took first steps to bypass Parliament: Under the pretense of prosecuting the bank directors responsible for the Credit-Anstalt crisis it passed an emergency decree based on the War Economy Empowering Act of 1917, a law dating back to the time of the Monarchy when it was intended to facilitate the procurement of food for the starving population.
The Social Democratic opposition tried in vain to have the Empowering Act repealed but at least succeeded in putting an Urgent Question concerning its “abusive application“ so that the matter had to be dealt with by the National Council.
As the main speaker, the Social Democrat Karl Seitz accused the government of a breach of the Constitution poorly disguised as an attempt to bring those responsible for the Credit-Anstalt crisis to justice, as had long since been demanded by the Opposition. The underlying question was, however: “Do we want a Republic of Austria, do we want democracy to prevail in Austria, or do we want to be ruled by an individual, or a clique of a few who aspire to rule?” As had been expected, the motion of no confidence against the government put forward by the Social Democrats failed to obtain a majority.
Some four months after this plenary sitting the Social Democrats‘ fear that democracy was in jeopardy became reality. During a special sitting of the National Council on 4 March 1933 in connection with a railwaymen’s strike involving trade unions of all political persuasions, the three Presidents of the National Council resigned after a controversial vote. Federal Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß declared that the National Council had “eliminated itself“ and established authoritarian rule, governing by emergency decrees – based on the War Economy Empowering Act – to the exclusion of Parliament.
When the Third President tried to convene the National Council on 15 March, the government responded violently and police prevented Social Democratic and Greater German Members from entering the Parliament building.
Parliamentary democracy in Austria was at an end. Little did it help that the Federal Council continued in office and that the Constitution remained formally in force. Attempts on the part of the opposition to have the National Council convened via the Federal Council failed.
In a civil war that resulted in bloodshed the Federal government in February 1934 forced the Social Democratic opposition into illegality.
A “rump National Council” without the Social Democratic Members, whose seats had been declared lost by emergency decree, authorised the government on 30 April 1934 to adopt a corporatist authoritarian constitution. The official name of the state now was “Federal State of Austria”.
Governmental power was no longer vested in the people but was defined in the preamble of the new Constitution as follows: “In the name of Almighty God from whom all rights derive, the Austrian people is given the following Constitution for its Christian German Federal State based on the principle of corporatism.” The federal legislative organs established under these rules were those of a mock parliament that had nothing to do with a real one, neither in terms of the way it was established nor with regard to its tasks.
During the four years of authoritarian rule thirteen Social Democrat Members of Parliament faced imprisonment on political grounds while six emigrated to escape persecution. The Member of Parliament and commander of the Republican Protection League of Upper Styria, Koloman Wallisch, was court-martialled and executed after the February unrest. And also two Members who had been elected on behalf of the Christian Socials and the Heimatblock in 1930 were sentenced to prison terms by the authoritarian regime.
The authoritarian rulers failed in their efforts to compete successfully with National Socialist Germany and safeguard Austria’s survival as an independent state. In March 1938 German troops marched into Austria and put a forceful end to Austria’s existence as a state in its own right. The “Anschluss” turned Austria into a part of the National Socialist German Reich.
Neither system was a parliamentary democracy.