Emhart, Maria (1901–1981)

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Emhart, Maria (1901–1981)

Austrian Socialist activist and leader of the anti-Fascist underground, 1934–1938, who was honored as one of the most respected veteran survivors of a heroic period of Austrian Social Democracy. Name variations: name while in the anti-Fascist underground, 1934–1936: Gretl Meyer. Born in Pyhra, Lower Austria, on May 27, 1901; died in Bischofshofen, Austria, on October 9, 1981; daughter of Johann Raps and Maria Kreutzer Raps; married Karl Emhart.

A militant Social Democrat from earliest years, embodied the militant beliefs of the Austrian working class (1920s and 1930s); became internationally celebrated during the trial of captured leaders of the underground Social Democratic movement (March 1936).

Born among an exploited working class in the 1880s in the multinational Habsburg monarchy, Austrian Socialism came of age in the model social experiment of "Red Vienna" during a tumultuous 1920s and 1930s. After 1945, it served as a major participant in the process that has made the contemporary Republic of Austria one of the most stable and prosperous nations in Europe. The well-known careers of the leaders of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, almost exclusively male professional politicians like Otto Bauer, Karl Renner, and Bruno Kreisky, have obscured the lives and achievements of a large number of women without whose dedication the movement would not have succeeded in changing the course of Central European history. Maria Emhart is one such woman.

She was born Maria Raps in the village of Pyhra near the city St. Pölten, Lower Austria, three months before her mother Maria Kreutzer married Johann Raps. After their marriage, Maria and Johann lived in St. Pölten where he worked for the railroad, and Maria, who had been a poor agricultural laborer, began to raise a family that in time included four daughters and a son. Typical for working-class households of the day, the large family lived in a cramped apartment consisting of one room and a kitchen. Later, when the Raps family took in two additional children whom Johann's sister was unable to raise, the family was squeezed into a slightly larger apartment which was totally inadequate for its nine inhabitants.

Life for her family in St. Pölten was often stressful, in part because of the constant specter of malnutrition and also because father Johann took out his frustrations through violent outbursts against his wife and children. Maria's mother suffered greatly under these constant pressures, which likely contributed to her premature death at age 49. Maria became pregnant at age 18 by her future husband, Karl Emhart. Forced to sell a watch and a revolver to help pay for an illegal abortion in Vienna, Maria came to believe that this procedure had made it impossible for her and her husband to have children in later years. Countless Austrian working-class women died as a result of illegal abortions performed under medically inadequate conditions.

At age 14, Maria had begun working in one of St. Pölten's textile mills to help support her family, increasingly impoverished by World War I which was disproportionately burdening the poor and working classes of Austria. She was expected to place her entire wage packet at her father's disposal. At work, the lack of laws protecting the rights of workers (and nonenforcement of those on the books) meant that Maria often performed physically demanding tasks meant for adult males, who were now at the front. She often worked night shifts for the same low wages. By late 1917, a revolutionary spirit had taken hold of many of the workers of St. Pölten, who had heard stories about a workers' state being created in Russia, and of strikes in Vienna, Berlin, and elsewhere. A revulsion toward the war and a burning desire for social justice, expressed in the phrase "bread and peace," became a slogan that Maria and her fellow workers repeated as they went on strike. She became a militant trade unionist and developed a vision of a world free of both war and the kind of economic injustices she and her fellow workers were forced to experience.

In 1918, a rebellious and politically aware Maria joined the Austrian Social Democratic Party. She would remain a loyal Social Democrat to the end of her life, believing strongly in democratic Socialism rather than in the dictatorial version of Marxism that began to emerge in Soviet Russia after 1917. Staying in St. Pölten as a textile worker, in 1921 she married Karl Emhart, who like her father worked for the railroad. Even with a combined income, the newlyweds remained impoverished, living in a modest apartment in one of St. Pölten's proletarian neighborhoods. St. Pölten grew dramatically in population after World War I, registering an increase from 23,000 inhabitants in 1920 to 37,000 in 1932. The city's militant working class guaranteed that the Social Democrats always won the great majority of votes in both local and national elections. Despite Austria's grinding poverty after its military defeat and its dissolution as a multinational state in 1918, in St. Pölten the new political climate resulted in impressive social improvements, including improved working conditions and more assistance to mothers and children, as well as pensioners, and major educational reforms.

Maria Emhart invested virtually every spare minute in the 1920s in her activities for the Social Democrats of St. Pölten. Chosen by her fellow workers in her factory to represent them, she was a conscientious works councillor (Betriebsrätin) who took every opportunity to try to improve labor conditions for both men and women. Aware of the inadequacies of her formal education, Emhart took the train twice a week to Vienna for classes at the Social Democratic Workers' University (Arbeiterhochschule) where night students, most of them from deprived working-class backgrounds, absorbed new ideas and insights from such prominent members of the Social Democratic leadership as Otto Bauer, Emmy Freundlich, Adelheid Popp , and Karl Renner. A close friendship developed during these years between Emhart and Rosa Jochmann , one of the party's most energetic and idealistic young women.

Astute party leaders could see in women like Emhart and Jochmann the leadership qualities that an increasingly beleaguered working class would need as the promise of Central European democracy disintegrated in the late 1920s. Nonetheless, the full potential of women was never to be realized within Austrian Socialism despite its theoretical ideological commitment to gender equality. Party inner circles remained male-dominated. In provincial towns like St. Pölten, Socialist stalwarts including Maria Emhart often despaired about the future. The mass appeals of Austrian-born Adolf Hitler's Nazi movement in Germany now spilled over into his native land, and mass unemployment in industrial areas including St. Pölten demoralized workers, making some susceptible to National Socialist propaganda.

In 1932, Emhart was elected to the St. Pölten city council, where she served as one of three women among the total of 43 representatives. Trusted by her constituents, many of whom had become unemployed because of the world economic depression, she worked tirelessly on their behalf. Not only local but national and world issues concerned Emhart during these years. In January 1933, Adolf Hitler became German chancellor, quickly transforming the Reich into a brutal dictatorship. Led by its own anti-democratic chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, Austria too abandoned democracy in 1933, albeit first at a slower pace and with somewhat less bloody methods. As the Austrian Socialist movement found itself being inexorably strangled throughout 1933 and early 1934, Emhart and her colleagues planned for the inevitable suppression of the Social Democratic Party and with it the organized working class. A stirring orator, she spoke not only at city council sessions but at public rallies of the Republican Guard, the armed workers' formation which hoped to defend democracy and the achievements of Austria's proletariat.

But hopes alone did not save Austrian Socialism, which was crushed in a bloody civil war in February 1934. Most workers were caught off guard. Although there was bitter fighting in Vienna and elsewhere, given the immense advantages possessed by the Dollfuss regime the ultimate outcome of the conflict was never in doubt. In St. Pölten, many leaders excused themselves from the conflict, but Emhart convinced some militants of the need to fight. She oversaw countless details of the battle with government forces including the recruitment of women who were able to transport ammunition in baby carriages across enemy-held territory to the workers' strongpoints where it was desperately needed.

While many men had fought bravely, some of the most remarkable deeds of the doomed workers' struggle in St. Pölten were carried out by women. For her fearless and uncompromising leadership, Emhart quickly became a legend throughout Socialist circles both within Austria and among exiles. She was known simply as the St. Pölten's Flintenweib (Musket Moll) as well as its Schutzbund-Mizzi (Workers' Militia Mizzi). Other women, including local militant youth leader Herma Paschinger , saved many Socialists from future arrest and imprisonment. Paschinger nonchalantly spirited away from under the noses of forces already occupying Socialist party headquarters the complete local membership list, which she then proceeded to burn.

With the suppression of the conflict, Maria Emhart and many others were arrested. The police dressed her in a Schutzbund uniform before she was photographed. Although she showed no fear to her captors, Emhart later admitted that while in her cell secret tears were shed, in the belief that she would be shot under the regime of martial law still in force. At the time of her arrest, she had over-heard a conversation of some pro-regime militia in which one had voiced his satisfaction that as "a dangerous Red," Maria Emhart would most likely be the first woman to be hanged in Austria in many years. She expected to receive a sentence of at least 10 to 15 years in prison for high treason. As it turned out, she was in fact released after a relatively brief incarceration of 17 weeks. A cheering crowd met Emhart on her release from prison, and they accompanied her to her home. Annoyed local authorities did not want to turn her into more of a popular heroine, but they did decide to fine her a relatively modest 70 schillings for being the leader of a banned demonstration.

Ostensibly the reason given for her release was one of "insufficient evidence," but in reality the unpopular Dollfuss government found itself under domestic pressure from both Right and Left, as well as under sharp international scrutiny. Political observers of the time noted that a beleaguered Vienna Fascist regime, hated by both Austrian Nazis and Social Democrats, hoped that by initiating a policy of relatively mild treatment toward the rebels of the Left (some men were in fact executed) it might perhaps be able to initiate a process of national reconciliation and thus more effectively strengthen Austria against the threat of Adolf Hitler's Reich.

In February 1934, virtually all of the Social Democratic leadership had fled to nearby Czechoslovakia. Calling themselves "Revolutionary Socialists" to distinguish themselves from the old, crushed and discredited party, an underground organization was built up in the next months in both Vienna and the Austrian provinces. After her release from prison, Emhart remained as dedicated as before to the ideals of Socialism and democracy. She now became a leading personality of the underground Revolutionary Socialists in Lower Austria, living at times in Vienna illegally under the alias "Gretl Meyer."

Despite her poor health—she had to spend some time in a Swiss sanitarium during this period because of an active case of tuberculosis—Emhart worked to build up the Revolutionary Socialist organization in Vienna and Lower Austria. She was one of the few women in the underground leadership and attended many important illegal conferences, each time taking considerable risks. On January 26, 1935, she was arrested along with her sister Anna Emhart . Anna was soon released for lack of evidence, but Maria was interrogated for many weeks, deprived of sleep and denied changes of clothing in order to break her down both physically and psychologically. As a result, her latent tuberculosis became active again and her health deteriorated rapidly. Soon after her arrest, she discovered that her husband Karl had been arrested after she was.

The Fascist Austrian regime, which claimed to be Christian in inspiration and had promulgated a constitution in which state power was defined as deriving from God rather than the people, carried on a relentless war against the majority of its population. While many in the impoverished middle class sympathized with Nazi Germany, and the peasantry passively supported the authoritarian government in Vienna, the majority of the working classes remained loyal to the ideals of democratic Socialism, as did Emhart. In the police's attempt to break her spirit, they threatened her husband with the loss of his railway job unless he agreed to divorce his wife. Bowing to economic necessity and vowing to remain faithful to each other, Karl Emhart divorced his wife of 14 years on April 3, 1936. An even more dramatic event, however, had taken place before this.

Determined to break the organization of the underground Revolutionary Socialist movement, Austrian authorities decided in January 1936 to mount a massive political trial against captured leaders of the Leftist opposition. Among the 27 accused, of which 25 were Revolutionary Socialists and two Communists, there were four women. Of these, Maria Emhart was soon to emerge as not only the most courageous and eloquent among the women defendants, but indeed also among the entire group of political prisoners. The trial, which began in Vienna on March 16, 1936, quickly became a news story not only in Austria (where it was reported in a heavily censored press) but throughout much of the world. The confidence and defiance of the defendants made it clear that Austrian Socialism, which had ruled the city of Vienna as a model of social progress from 1920 through 1933, was down but by no means out. A number of the prisoners made eloquent speeches in court. One of these was a young law student, Bruno Kreisky, who four decades later would serve as Austria's chancellor.

Emhart's speech to the court was powerful and moving in its unadorned sincerity. She began by declining the judge's offer to sit while she spoke, noting that her tuberculosis had not been taken into account during her 14 months of incarceration and would not now play any role in her decisions. She began the body of her address by declaring, "Yes, I am an enthusiastic Socialist!" Emhart then went on to recount the impact of a harsh and poverty-stricken childhood and adolescence on the emergence of her later political ideals. "As a child I came to know all about the poverty, misery and deprivations, as well as the humiliations, that one can expect to experience if one comes into the world on the bottom rungs of the social system." She went on to explain that early in her life she had learned from daily experiences that "as an individual one is powerless" but that as a member of a trade union, or a powerfully organized working-class political party such as the Austrian Social Democrats, many individuals working in concert could in fact seek to banish from the world such ancient evils as poverty, exploitation, injustice, and war.

Emhart ended her address to the court with an eloquent defense of her faith in the ideals of Socialism, a faith she felt as deeply as possible and which, she said, "unites me with millions in the world." Showing no fear of a court that she fully expected would sentence her to a long prison term, she went on to defend her Socialist ideals, which for her represented the only global prescription for widespread poverty and misery that troubled the world of 1936. For Emhart, only a new social system would be able to build the justice and permanent peace that would banish the universal fear of Fascism and imminent war that now gripped the world.

The court rendered its judgments and pronounced its sentences on March 24, 1936. Clearly bowing to the pressures of international public opinion and the unstable domestic political environment, it was extraordinarily lenient in its sentencing. Thirteen defendants were found not guilty. Of those found guilty, the longest jail sentence, 20 months, was for Karl Hans Sailer. Maria Emhart received a sentence of 18 months, with the other remaining defendants receiving sentences of from 16 months to only six weeks. For all those sentenced to prison, the time already served in jail would be counted as part of their incarceration.

As the result of a general political amnesty issued in July 1936, Emhart was released from prison. Although she was legally now divorced, she returned immediately to St. Pölten to continue to live with Karl Emhart. Among the petty harassments she had to endure was a requirement to appear personally at the police station on a daily basis. This form of bureaucratic humiliation, however, was not sufficient punishment as far as some officials were concerned. Determined to continue their campaign against a woman who showed no sign of fear or compromise in her political views, local railroad officials—doubtless authorized to do so by their Viennese superiors—transferred Karl Emhart to the small town of Bischofshofen in Salzburg province. It is likely that the idea behind this was to isolate Maria Emhart, who was allowed to follow Karl to this remote place, thus eliminating once and for all the political influence she had continued to enjoy in St. Pölten.

In December 1937, Austrian police managed to arrest the top leadership of the Revolutionary Socialists. By this time, Maria Emhart was resigned to her new role as a party member, rather than a leader. Life in Bischofshofen was often tense and difficult for her; she and Karl lived in a small apartment with a Nazi as their landlord, and they had to be extremely cautious in their political activities. With the Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938, Maria Emhart hated Fascism more than ever now that she was forced to live in Hitler's Third Reich. Through the anti-Nazi grapevine, she heard that some of her old comrades had escaped into foreign exile, while others—many of them Jewish—were taken to death camps where they were murdered. During World War II, Maria regularly sent food packages to comrades imprisoned in concentration camps, including her good friend Rosa Jochmann in Ravensbrück.

In 1943, Emhart was accused of listening to enemy radio broadcasts. A visit to her home by the Gestapo followed, but fortunately a case against her was never made. When another member of the underground was arrested, the name "Emmy" came up during an interrogation but this was not connected with Maria's last name and there were no further investigations.

In early May 1945, she and several other veteran anti-Nazis took over the municipal government of Bischofshofen even though it would be several days before American troops arrived in the town. Emhart feared that, as had taken place elsewhere, she and the others might be killed at the last minute by Nazi fanatics. But Emhart lived and began to busy herself with the immediate tasks of reconstruction. She was somewhat shocked when early in the occupation an American officer found her working in the mayor's office and said, "Can you cook, are you married? Then go home and cook, this work of local politics is a man's business."

By the end of 1945, Emhart had reestablished her political career. She made countless speeches on behalf of the newly founded Socialist Party of Austria, helping to build up its organization in Salzburg province. In November 1945, she was elected as the only woman to serve in the Provincial Diet of Salzburg. She also spent many periods in Vienna as a member of the Socialist Party's women's committee. Much of her time went into finding creative ways of providing Austrians of all ages with at least a minimum of food, clothing and shelter during a difficult period of physical and moral reconstruction.

In April 1946, Emhart was elected vice-mayor of Bischofshofen, the first woman in the history of Austria to be elected to such a high municipal office. She held this post for a full two decades, retiring in August 1966. In 1953, while still serving in her Bischofshofen post, she was elected to the Austrian National Assembly, where her speeches were generally regarded as of a very high caliber. On issues relating to women's welfare, few could argue that her opinions were based not only on a conscientious study of facts but also on long and painful personal experiences.

Because of her husband's declining health, Emhart chose to not stand for re-election to her National Assembly seat in 1964. Both her withdrawal from national political life and her husband's death were painful and difficult for her to accept. For a time, she was so depressed that she thought of suicide as a way out of her suffering. But friendships and her continuing interest in the larger issues of the world reawakened her zest for living, and she came to enjoy her final years as one of Austrian Socialism's most respected veterans. At times, she wondered whether or not her generation's sacrifices would be remembered by young men and women more interested in personal happiness and consumption than memories of war and Fascism.

In her final decades, Maria Emhart was often concerned by what she saw to be a lack of idealism in her party, noting that one "can only hope that above all else young Socialist functionaries get the picture of a time when what mattered most to people was not jobs and promotions but instead only the attainment of democracy and freedom." In her unpublished memoirs, she asks with concern if "Our descendants will one day be pleased by the fact that we went to the bastions on their behalf?" Maria Emhart died in Bischofshofen on October 9, 1981.


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