1920-1938. NATIONAL LIBERALS IN THE 1ST REPUBLIC
From the Founding of the Republic to the “Anschluss”
The National-Liberals in the First Republic
The Republic of German-Austria was founded in 1918 and never achieved equilibrium. One challenge it had to endure was the 1919 Peace Treaty of Saint-Germain, signed with the victorious powers of the First World War. In accordance with the Treaty’s terms, German-speaking areas of the former Monarchy, such as South Tyrol, were ceded, the name of the new state (“German-Austria”) was prohibited and an “annexation” to Germany was forbidden.
The latter had in 1918 been demanded by both the national-liberal parties and the Social Democrats. The coalition of Christian Socials and Social Democrats that was formed in 1919 soon broke up. The national-liberal parties, which were now the “Third Force” in Parliament, included the Greater German People’s Party and the Agrarian League, which until 1933 governed in alternating coalition configurations together with the Christian Socials. Leading national-liberal personalities included Federal Chancellor Johannes Schober and the first Federal President of the Republic of Austria, Michael Hainisch, who was a formally non-partisan national economist.
After the hyperinflation of the 1920s, it proved possible to stabilise the currency through the introduction of the schilling.
At the same time, however, there was a militarisation of domestic politics, with both the Christian Socials and the Social Democrats creating paramilitary organisations.
This resulted in conditions akin to a civil war, which peaked in the 1927 burning of the Palace of Justice in Vienna, during which almost 100 people died. Coupled with the consequences of the world economic crisis, the final outcome was a disavowal of democracy. The Christian Socials increasingly looked to Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, from whom they hoped to receive support against the aggressive policies of Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
The Social Democrats’ direction of travel also became more authoritarian, while the supporters of the Third Lager increasingly shifted their allegiance to the Austrian National Socialists.
In view of the strength of the National Socialists and the conflict with the Social Democrats, the Christian Social Federal Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuß, used a March 1933 procedural crisis in the National Council to eliminate parliamentary democracy and pave the way towards the authoritarian Ständestaat. Protests by the national-liberals were suppressed.
The Austrian National Socialists were banned in 1933 and following a short, bloody civil war in February 1934, the Social Democrats were also proscribed. The pressure which National Socialist Germany exerted on Austria increased. In July 1934, Dollfuß was assassinated during an unsuccessful National Socialist coup and his successor, Kurt Schuschnigg, intended to continue the authoritarian course. However, the loss of Mussolini’s support and growing pressure from illegal Nazis within Austria eventually resulted in Hitler’s imposition of the “Anschluss”. On 12 March 1938, the German Wehrmacht rolled into Austria. This move was supported by persons within all political parties, including the traditionally pro-German Third Lager.
But the Archbishop of Vienna, Theodor Innitzer, and the Social Democrat, Karl Renner, also welcomed the ”Anschluss”. In this way, the unloved First Republic – a state that no one wanted – came to a tragic end and as part of the German Reich, Austria was drawn into the horrors of the Second World War.