Austrian Civil War

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Austrian Civil War
Part of First Austrian Republic, Interwar Period
Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00805, Wien, Februarkämpfe, Bundesheer 2.jpg
Soldiers of the Austrian Federal Army in Vienna, February 12, 1934
Date February 12, 1934 – February 16, 1934
Location Various cities in Austria
Result Austrofascist victory
Demise of Multi-party system
Consolidation of power by Patriotic Front
SDAPÖ logo.PNG Republikanischer Schutzbund (Social Democratic Party of Austria) Fatherland Front of Austria.svg Fatherland's Front
Commanders and leaders
Richard Bernaschek
Engelbert Dollfuß
Emil Fey
80,000 in all of Austria[1]
17,500 soldiers in Vienna[2]
Floridsdorf cache:
over 2,500 rifles
250 revolvers
1,500 hand 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, is a term sometimes used for a few days of skirmishes between socialist and conservative-fascist forces between February 12 and February 16, 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.

Origins of the conflict

After the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (following World War I), the state of Austria - comprising, by and large, the German-speaking parts of the former empire - became constituted as a parliamentary democracy. Two major factions dominated politics in the new nation: socialists (represented politically by the Social Democratic Party of Austria) 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 Roman 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 paramilitary forces. The conservatives began organizing the Heimwehr (home guard) in 1921-1923; the Social Democrats organized paramilitaries called the Schutzbund (defense league) after 1923. Altercations and clashes between these forces (at political rallies, etc.) occurred frequently.

A first major incident ensued early in 1927, when members of the Frontkämpfervereinigung ("Front Combat 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). In July, three defendants in the case were acquitted, which led to outrage in the leftist camp although the acquittal had been issued by one of the first Austrian courts to operate under an independent jury system, the introduction of which had been a long-standing socialist demand. On 15 July 1927, a general strike occurred, and demonstrations took place in the capital. After the storming of a police station, security forces started shooting at demonstrators. An angry mob 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 of 1927, 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 showed its effects in Austria, resulting in high unemployment and massive inflation. In addition, from 1933 - the year Hitler became Chancellor of Germany - National Socialist sympathizers threatened the Austrian state from within.

The conflict

On March 4, 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. 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 the National Socialists 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.

On February 12, 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[6]. 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 bei Graz, Kapfenberg, Bruck an der Mur, Graz, Ebensee and Wörgl.

An apparently decisive moment in the events came with the entry of the Austrian military into the conflict. Though the army remained still a comparatively independent institution, chancellor Dollfuß reluctantly shelled Karl-Marx-Hof with light artillery, endangering the lives of thousands of civilians and destroying many apartments before forcing the socialist fighters to surrender[7]. Viennese and Upper Austrian fighting ended by February 13, but continued heavily in Styrian cities, especially in Bruck an der Mur and Judenburg, until February 14 or 15. After that, there were only small groups of socialists fighting against the military, or fleeing from it. By 16 February 1934, the Austrian Civil War had ended.

The fallout

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 [8]. 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 modeled along the lines of 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. 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.


  1. Jelavich 183.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Brook-Shepherd 281.
  3. Brook-Shepherd 282.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Jelavich 202.
  5. Lehne 136.
  6. Brook-Shepherd 280-281.
  7. Reppe 79.
  8. Brook-Shepherd 283.