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The Counter-Reformation of 1933-34 and the Dollfuss concordat

Dollfuss destroyed Austrian democracy, thus unwittingly helping to pave the way for Hitler. During the misery of the Great Depression he suspended Parliament, banned the political parties that opposed him and relied instead upon Church support. The price was a concordat, which still remains partly valid today.

The original Counter-Reformation of the 16th-17th centuries was the reaction of the Roman Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation. The Church reaffirmed the veneration of saints and the authority of the Pope, deployed the Jesuits for teaching and missionising and used the Inquisition to make it stick. (In fact, a phrase recalling these forced conversions is still used by the now overwhelmingly Catholic population as a threat to naughty children “We’ll make you Catholic yet!”) [1]

By contrast, the Counter-Reformation in Austria hailed by Cardinal Innitzer in 1933 was a Church reaction against Nazism, socialism and democracy which used a dictator to make it stick. (However, when the Nazis marched in, the Cardinal became such an enthusiastic supporter that he was known as the “Heil-Hitler Kardinal”.)

 The Counter-Reformation of 1933/34*

By Wolfgang Huber   

The actors

The Roman Catholic Church was extremely dissatisfied with the situation in Austria. Many measures giving it control over education and marriage had been weakened or even abolished. And because of the situation in Germany there was also a threat of increasing Nazi influence in Austria. Not that the Church doubted the reliability of the Nazis as allies against “Jewish atheism” (aka “Bolshevism”), quite the contrary. However, for the time being the Church preferred to placed its trust in its traditional allies, the conservative, clerical Christian Social Party and the nationalist Home Guard (Heimwehr).

 The Austrian Chancellor, Englebert Dollfuss, was also having difficulties. He was trying to maintain a fragile coalition government in the remnant of a country which had lost its most industrialised parts after the last war. (After the breakup of Austria-Hungary what was left of his country was said to be “four-fifths pure scenery”. and all this in the midst of the Great Depression. His coalition was made up of his own Christian Social Party, the Home Guard and a third party, the Protestant, pro-Nazi Rural Federation (Landbund ) which was opposed to the first two. And even this strained coalition possessed only a razor-thin majority, with just 83 of the 165 parliamentarians. As if that were not enough, the April 1932 election for the Vienna State Parliament (Landtag) indicated that in the next national election Dollfuss’s coalition could expect to lose its majority. Mussolini, the Italian dictator, was encouraging the paramilitary National Guard and had long wanted Fascism in Austria. It was therefore just a matter of time.

In the face of this hopeless situation, a legal advisor showed Dollfuss the way out. He pointed out the possibilites of the old Wartime Economic Enabling Act (Kriegswirtschaftliches Ermächtigungsgesetz). That would do the job! It had been passed in 1917 during the First World War and its terms were so broad that it provided a golden opportunity for any dictator. It had originally been intended merely to help the wartime economy. It enabled the government “during the exceptional circumstances created by war to provide for the issuing of directives to encourage and restore economic life, to defend against economic damage and to supply the population with food and other necessities.”  This law had never been repealed.

The Counter-Reformation begins

On 4 March 1933 the National Council (Nationalrat) of Austria, the more powerful of the two chambers of Parliament, held a special sitting. The tumult that broke out at this sitting led to the resignation, one after another of the National Council’s presidents. There was no provision for this turn of events and the procedural crisis that followed proved very convenient for Dollfuss. Three days later, on 7 March, the cabinet issued a (temporary) ban on assembly or demonstrations and — the beginning of the end — used the Enabling Act to bring in “special measures” for the press, which allowed the government to censor newspapers before they were published.

Only five days after that, during his inauguration as cardinal on 12 March 1933, the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Innitzer greeted the “start of a new era”. “This makes Eucharistic and Marian thoughts raise faith and hope, as in the time of the Counter-Reformation”. …Perhaps so, but it didn’t do much to raise either democracy or human rights.

In order to overcome the crisis, a sitting of the National Council was called for 15 March 1933. The federal government, posing as the guardian of the constitution, announced that it wanted to “oppose a threatened violation of the constitution”. On this pretext Dollfuss had some 200 criminal police sent to Parliament to prevent the elected representatives from entering the parliamentary chamber. 

With this, Parliament was suspended indefinitely and Dollfuss was free to govern by decree.

One of his next measures was a decree that cancelled the “Glöckel waiver” (Glöckel-Erlass) which had given pupils a measure of religious freedom. This was named after Otto Glöckel, a Social Democrat who had carried through school reforms to end the authoritarian system. As part of this, he abolished in state schools both daily prayers and the compulsory attendance of religion classes. The “Glöckel waiver” aroused the ire of the Catholic party which was apparently not averse to religious compulsion. On 10 April 1933, to applause from Cardinal Innitzer, the “Glöckel waiver” was rescinded.  Otto Glöckel was to pay dearly with his own freedom for his determination to give it to others. The following year the government sent him to the Wöllersdorf Detention Centre. (A “detention camp” or “Anhaltelager” was the Austrian euphemism for the contemprorary German “concentration camp” or Konzentrationslager.) Glöckel emerged from this a broken man and died  in 1935 a few months later. 

The General German Catholic Day

At Easter, in mid-April, Dollfuss went to Rome where he found approval and allies. Mussolini promised to defend Austrian independence against Germany if Dollfuss tailored his state to the Italian model of Fascism. The Vatican also expressed its support and followed it up early the next year with a papal blessing.

As soon as Dollfuss returned home he concluded the concordat, which had been in negotiation since 1931. On 10 May 1933 he had his Justice Minister initial the concordat and on 5 June he held a ceremony to sign it himself. However, it wasn’t ratified right away and the rest of the summer was devoted to preparations for the General German Catholic Day (Allgemeiner deutscher Katholikentag). These included a decree which forced everyone who wished to formally leave a church to wait three months and undergo a long and detailed examination by officials, ostensibly to make sure of their continued resolve to do so.

The next problem facing Dollfuss was that the Constitutional Court was bound to strike down the repressive measures that he had brought in through the Enabling Act. However, the solution to that was simple — a pre-emptive strike. On 24 May Dollfuss used the Enabling Act to get rid of the Constitutional Court itself before it could meet to pronounce on the legality of his laws.

A few days later, on 20 May, he replaced the political parties who were “faithful to the government” with an organisation called the Fatherland Front (Vaterländische Front). (The other parties he banned, one by one.) The politically correct greeting now became “Front heil”. The symbol of the Fatherland Front was the crutch cross, the emblem of the crusaders.  This, too, was part of the preparations for the Catholic Day, since it was being held to celebrate Austria's “liberation from the Turks” in 1683 and its return to Christian rule.

By the autumn of 1933 Dollfuss badly needed Church support. The Depression had thrown half a million Austrians out of work. In the factory towns of Upper Styria and Lower Austria a third of the workers had lost their jobs. The desperation led to a wave of suicides, more than a thousand per year in Vienna alone. Dollfuss could use the festivities of the “Catholic Day”, and the phalanx of four Cardinals and thirty bishops who attended it, in order to bolster the faith of the hungry people in God and the state.

The General German Catholic “Day” actually took almost a week, from 7-12 September 1933. In a commemorative government publication, the Justice Minister called Austria “a Catholic country”. At the event itself much was made of the crusader monk, Marco d'Aviano, claimed to have shouted to the Turks, “Behold the cross of the Lord: Flee, enemy bands!” Dollfuss himself held a speech which concluded with the ringing words: “As the Crusaders were imbued with the same faith, and as here before Vienna Marco dAviano preached “God wills it” — so we, too, look confidently to the future with the conviction, 'God wills it' ”

 On 23 September, a few days after this prayerful event, Dollfuss introduced concentration camps and on 10 November, the death penalty. 


All that remained now was to tidy up things legally so that the concordat could be ratified without parliamentary approval. For this it was necessary to recall Parliament — what was left of it, after banning numerous political parties. Dollfuss arranged a short sitting of this “rump parliament”, once again using the Enabling Act. There weren’t enough representatives left — only 76 instead of the 83 required by Article 30.2 of the Constitution  —  but no matter. In a sitting which began on 30 April the rump parliament passed a law which transferred the powers of the dissolved chambers of parliament to the government. This gave the President the right to unilaterally ratify international treaties, but it didn't come into effect until the next day, 1 May. However, that was the day that the new constitution (Maiverfassung) came into effect whose Article 68 would prevent the President from doing so. Therefore, as close to the stroke of midnight as possible the President used his new powers to ratify the Vatican concordat. 

The Christmas letter from the Austrian bishops conference summed up events from their perspective: “The year 1933 has brought rich blessings of mercy to all of Christendom, and great joy to our fatherland Austria. [...The Government] can already point to many blessed deeds which secure and further the true welfare of the people.”[2] That was their verdict on the year Dollfuss signed the concordat and then went on to destroy democracy in Austria.


* This is a translation of an abbreviated version of Wolfgang Huber, “Die Gegenreformation 1933/34”, MIZ 1/06. The original article — with 18 footnotes — can be found at This also appeared in Stephan Neuhäuser, ed., „Wir werden ganze Arbeit leisten...“: Der austrofaschistische Staatsstreich 1934, (2004).  

1. In German: “Wir werden euch/dich noch katholisch machen!” In addition to Austria, this threat was also used throughout Bavaria.

2. In German: “Das Jahr 1933 hat der ganzen Christenheit reichen Gnadensegen, unserem Vaterland Österreich überdies viele Freuden gebracht [...] Sie [die Regierung] kann schon jetzt auf eine Reihe von segensreichen Taten hinweisen, die das wahre Wohl sichern und fördern.”

Further reading in the Country Studies Series by the US Library of Congress:

“Austria: The End of Constitutional Rule” [1932-1934]
“Austria: Growing German Pressure on Austria” [1934-1938]


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