Austrian Civil War

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Austrian Civil War
Part of the interwar period
Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00805, Wien, Februarkämpfe, Bundesheer 2.jpg
Soldiers of the Austrian Federal Army in Vienna, 12 February 1934
Date12 February 1934 – 16 February 1934
(4 days)
Various cities in Austria
Result Fatherland Front victory
Demise of multi-party system
Creation of the Federal State of Austria

SDAPOe logo.svg SDAPÖ


First Austrian Republic

Commanders and leaders
Richard Bernaschek
Ludwig Bernaschek
Engelbert Dollfuss
Emil Fey
80,000 in all of Austria,[1]
thereof 17,500 soldiers in Vienna[2]
Floridsdorf cache:
over 2,500 rifles
250 revolvers
1,500 grenades
10,000 rounds of ammunition[3]
Entire Federal Army, police, gendarmeries, and paramilitary Heimwehr forces
Casualties and losses
Estimated 137[2]
196[4] to 1,000 possibly killed[5]
399 wounded[2]
10 executed later[4]
Estimated between 105[2] to 118 killed in action[4]
319 wounded[2]

The Austrian Civil War (German: Österreichischer Bürgerkrieg), also known as the February Uprising (German: Februarkämpfe), was a few days of skirmishes between Austrian government and socialist forces between 12 and 16 February 1934, in Austria. The clashes started in Linz and took place principally in the cities of Vienna, Graz, Bruck an der Mur, Judenburg, Wiener Neustadt, and Steyr, but also in some other industrial cities of eastern and central Austria.[6]

Origins of the conflict[edit]

The Schlingerhof in Floridsdorf, where a large cache of weapons was based, used in 1934 by the Republikanischer Schutzbund

After the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October 1918, the state of Austria was eventually formed as a parliamentary democracy. Two major factions dominated politics in the new country: socialists (represented politically by the Social Democratic Workers' Party) and conservatives (politically represented by the Christian Social Party). The socialists found their strongholds in the working-class districts of the cities, while the conservatives could build on the support of the rural population and of most of the upper classes. The conservatives also maintained close alliances with the Catholic Church, and could count among their ranks some leading clerics.

As in most of the nascent European democracies of the time, politics in Austria took on a highly ideological flavour. Both the socialist and the conservative camp did not merely consist of political parties, but possessed far-ranging power structures, including their own associated paramilitary forces. The conservatives began organising the Home Guard (German: Heimwehr) in 1921–23; in response, the Social Democrats organised paramilitaries called the Republican Protection Association (German: Republikanischer Schutzbund) from 1923. Altercations and clashes between these forces (at political rallies, etc.) occurred frequently.

A major incident ensued early in 1927, when members of Hermann Hiltl's Frontkämpfervereinigung ("Front Fighters Union" — a paramilitary association likewise affiliated with the conservative camp) shot and killed an eight-year-old boy and a war veteran marching with the Schutzbund in a counter-demonstration in Schattendorf (Burgenland).[7] In July, three defendants in the case were acquitted, which led to outrage in the left-wing camp. On 15 July 1927, a general strike occurred, and demonstrations took place in the capital, Vienna. After the storming of a police station, security forces started shooting at demonstrators. An angry group of people then set fire to the Palace of Justice (Justizpalast), seen as a symbol of a flawed and partial judicial system. Altogether, 89 people (85 of them demonstrators) lost their lives in this July revolt, and many hundreds suffered injury. Surprisingly, the violence soon died down and the factions took their battle from the streets back into the political institutions.

However, the travails of the First Republic only got worse in the following years. The Great Depression also affected Austria, resulting in high unemployment and massive inflation. In addition, from 1933 — the year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany National Socialist sympathisers (who wanted a unification of Austria with Hitler's Germany) threatened the Austrian state from within.


On 4 March 1933, Christian Social Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss suspended the Austrian Parliament. In a close vote (on railway workers' wages) in the National Council, each of the three presidents of parliament resigned their position in order to cast a ballot, leaving nobody to preside over the meeting. Even though the bylaws could have resolved this situation, Dollfuss used this opportunity to declare that parliament had ceased to function, and blocked all attempts to reconvene it, also threatening to use military force against the parliamentarians, should they try to reconvene. The Social Democratic Party had thus lost its major platform for political action. The conservatives, facing pressure and violence not only from the left but also from Nazis infiltrating from Germany, could now rule by decree on the basis of a 1917 emergency law, without checks on their power, and began to suspend civil liberties. They banned the Schutzbund and imprisoned many of its members.

February fights: Federal Army soldiers take position in front of the Vienna State Opera

On 12 February 1934, a force, led by Heimwehr commander in Vienna Emil Fey, searched Hotel Schiff in Linz, a property belonging to the Social Democratic Party. Linz Schutzbund commander Richard Bernaschek was the first to actively resist, sparking off armed conflict between a conglomeration of the Heimwehr, the police, the gendarmerie and the regular Federal Army against the outlawed, but still existent, socialist Schutzbund.[8] Skirmishes between the two camps spread to other cities and towns in Austria, with the heat of the action occurring in Vienna. There, members of the Schutzbund barricaded themselves in city council housing estates (Gemeindebauten), the symbols and strongholds for the socialist movement in Austria, such as Karl-Marx-Hof. Police and paramilitaries took up positions outside these fortified complexes and the parties exchanged fire, initially only with small arms. Fighting also occurred in industrial towns such as Steyr, Sankt Pölten, Weiz, Eggenberg (Graz), Kapfenberg, Bruck an der Mur, Graz, Ebensee, and Wörgl.

An apparently decisive moment in the events came with the entry of the Austrian armed forces into the conflict. Though the army remained still a comparatively independent institution, chancellor Dollfuß ordered Karl-Marx-Hof shelled with light artillery, endangering the lives of thousands of civilians and destroying many flats before forcing the socialist fighters to surrender.[9] The fighting ended in Vienna and Upper Austria by 13 February, but continued heavily in Styrian cities, especially in Bruck an der Mur and Judenburg, until 14 or 15 February. After that, there were only small groups of socialists fighting against the armed forces, or fleeing from them. By 16 February 1934, the Austrian Civil War had ended.


Memorial stone for a police officer killed on 12 February 1934 in Linz during the war

Several hundred people (including paramilitaries, members of the security forces and civilians) died in the armed conflict; more than a thousand suffered wounds. The authorities tried and executed nine Schutzbund leaders under the provisions of martial law. In addition, over 1,500 arrests were made. Leading socialist politicians, such as Otto Bauer, were forced into exile.[10] John Gunther reported that Schutzbund members received "mercilessly severe" sentences.[11]

The incidents of February 1934 were taken as a pretext by the government to prohibit the Social Democratic Party and its affiliated trade unions altogether. In May, the conservatives replaced the democratic constitution by a corporatist constitution modelled along the lines of Benito Mussolini's fascist Italy; therefore the socialists coined the term 'Austrofascism' although the underlying ideology was essentially that of the most conservative elements in the Austrian Catholic clergy, a feature inconsistent with both Italian Fascism and Nazism. The Patriotic Front (Vaterländische Front), into which the Heimwehr and the Christian Social Party were merged, became the only legal political party in the resulting authoritarian regime, the Ständestaat.

Long-term effects[edit]

Memorial to the victims and fighters at the place where the civil war started, in the courtyard of the Hotel Schiff in Linz.

Though small in scale in an international comparison, and small in scale indeed in the light of the events of the Second World War which soon followed, the Austrian Civil War nevertheless proved a decisive moment in the history of the Republic. After the Second World War, when Austria re-emerged on the political landscape as a sovereign nation, politics again fell under the domination of the Social Democrats and the conservatives, who now formed a party called the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP).

As a way to avoid a repeat of the bitter divisions of the First Republic, the leaders of the Second Republic were determined to put the idea of broad consensus at the heart of the new political system. The concept of the 'Grand Coalition' was introduced, in which the two major parties (Social Democrats and People's Party) shared in the government and avoided open confrontation. This system brought with it stability and continuity but ultimately led to other political repercussions, such as Proporz.

The events of the Austrian Civil War had persuaded many in the political establishment, and the population at large, that a slow pace of political reform was a small price to pay for social stability.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jelavich 183.
  2. ^ a b c d e Brook-Shepherd 281.
  3. ^ Brook-Shepherd 282.
  4. ^ a b c Jelavich 202.
  5. ^ Lehne 136.
  6. ^ Frederick L. Schuman, Europe On The Eve 1933-1939 (1939) pp 55-92 online.
  7. ^ Organisationen, Institutionen, Bewegungen, page 269 - "Januar 1927 waren es drei Mitglieder der Frontkämpfer-Ortsgruppe Schattendorf im Burgenland, die auf eine die Präsenz der Frontkampfer in Burgenland protestierende Menge von Mitgliedern des sozialdemokratischen Republikanisheen Schutzbandes shossen und dabei den Kriegsinvaliden Matthias Zmarisch und den achtjahrigen Josef Grossing toteten."
  8. ^ Brook-Shepherd 280–81.
  9. ^ Reppe 79.
  10. ^ Brook-Shepherd 283.
  11. ^ Gunther, John (1940). Inside Europe. New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 416.

Further reading[edit]

This article includes information translated from the German-language Wikipedia article de:Österreichischer Bürgerkrieg.