Dollfuss, Engelbert (1892–1934)

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Austrian politician and chancellor (1932–1934).

A member of Austria's Catholic and conservative Christian Social Party, Engelbert Dollfuss rose through the ranks of agrarian politics, serving in the 1920s as secretary of the Lower Austrian Peasant Federation, as director of the Lower Austrian Chamber of Agriculture in 1927, as minister of agriculture and forestry in 1931, and finally becoming chancellor of Austria in 1932. Dollfuss's conservative coalition government brought an end to interwar parliamentary politics by suspending the parliament in March 1933 and banning competing parties from the left and right. Dollfuss and his sympathizers maintained that the politically polarized parliament had "dissolved itself."

Dollfuss's political philosophy had roots in the Catholic Church's Rerum Novarum (1891), whose vision of a return to a corporate society was reaffirmed by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. It shared with other nationalist Catholic movements in Europe a suspicion of the forces of modernity: industrialization, secularization, urbanization, and the individualism of liberal democracy. In Austria, support for the Catholic corporate state was strong in the countryside and in the farming milieu from which Dollfuss came. With the post-Habsburg Republic of Austria (founded in 1918) lacking a strong "national" identity, political Catholicism became a central feature for German-speaking Austrian patriots looking to differentiate themselves from pan-German nationalists and from the socialists who dominated Viennese municipal politics. Upon assuming the chancellorship, Dollfuss quickly put together an antisocialist cabinet. In 1933 the Dollfuss government banned the Communist Party and the Austrian branch of the National Socialist Party. The same year, Dollfuss formed the Fatherland Front, a political organization that sought to replace political parties with a new social order built on seven overarching, harmoniously integrated professional and occupational bodies.

After Austria's brief civil war in February 1934, in which Socialists and their Republican Guard battled Christian Socials and the conservative Heimwehr (home guard) militia, Dollfuss banned the Social Democratic Party and labor unions. In May of that year he established an authoritarian corporate state (Ständestaat) backed by the Catholic Church and billed as a "patriotic" alternative to the class-fragmented politics of the republic. The tenets of the corporate state were spelled out in a new Austrian constitution of May 1934. Under the new constitution, the church regained influence over marriage law and the administration of schools. To relieve Austria's struggling economy, Dollfuss accepted a large loan from the League of Nations on condition that Austria not join a customs union with Nazi Germany.

In foreign relations, Dollfuss tried to navigate a position for an independent Austria by securing support from Benito Mussolini. In August 1933 he met with Mussolini in Riccione, Italy, to form an alliance. Mussolini urged Dollfuss to create a fascist state modeled on his own; Dollfuss himself never adopted the term fascist. He also reached a concordat with the Vatican, and through the Protocols of Rome entered into closer economic cooperation with Italy and Hungary. Despite these measures intended to protect Austria from German aggression, members of the banned National Socialist Party disguised themselves in army and police uniforms and stormed the federal chancellery in Vienna on 25 July 1934. In the putsch attempt, supported by the Reich government in Berlin, Dollfuss was fatally shot. Putschists took over state radio in Vienna and announced the false news that Dollfuss had handed over the government. The Nazi putsch was defeated, and the Austrian corporate state outlasted Dollfuss. Kurt Schuschnigg, also of the Christian Social Party, succeeded him as chancellor and ruled until March 1938, when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany.

Dollfuss occupies an ambiguous position in Austrian history. On one hand, he dismantled the postwar parliamentary system in favor of an authoritarian state ruled by his Fatherland Front. On the other hand, sympathizers credit him with standing up to German nationalists by banning the Austrian Nazi Party and refusing to enter into coalition with Hitler's Germany. In this version of history, Dollfuss was a patriot who tried to preserve the independence of Catholic Austria. To understand Dollfuss's position on the political right, historians have usefully noted that there were indeed two forms of fascism in Austria: the fascism of the pan-Germanists and the "Austrofascism" of Dollfuss and conservative Catholics. In the polarized politics of interwar central Europe, some have argued that Dollfuss tried to steer an Austrian "third way" that rejected both Marxism and pan-Germanism.

See alsoAustria; Vienna.


Bischof, Günter, Anton Pelinka, and Alexander Lassner, eds. The Dollfuss/Schuschnigg Era in Austria: A Reassessment. New Brunswick, N.J., and London, 2003.

Kitchen, Martin. The Coming of Austrian Fascism. London, 1980.

Rath, R. John. "The Dollfuss Ministry: The Demise of the Nationalrat." Austrian History Yearbook 32 (2001): 125–147. Last in the author's series of five noted articles in the Austrian History Yearbook that seek to reassess the Dollfuss legacy.

Maureen Healy