The Battle for Red Vienna

Few remember the struggle of Vienna’s workers to hold on to their dreams of of autonomy and fairness against the fascists

Above and below: Soldiers in front of the Staatsoper in Vienna during the February Uprising of the workers in 1934 | Photos: Deutsche Bundesarchiv Berlin

The month of February is slowly coming to an end in Vienna. Standing below the dusty gold canopy of the Staatsoper, I can see pools of sunlight escaping through sharp slits in the sky marking the end of weeks of snow. Closing my eyes, I try to imagine what this spot was like during the uprising in February 1934. This leap through time is hard to make, but as I am struggling, there is a flash of fire-engine red, a few seconds of buzzing noise, and movement like that of a slow reel winding over a still background… I see a tram stopping nearby. Suddenly I am able to re-create the scene. It is movement, not stillness, and the confluence of senses that takes me back in time as I try to piece together the events of the February Uprising of 1934: the moment in history when Austria chose to fight the Fascists, an act unprecedented by anyone else in Europe.

After World War I the Habsburg Empire was dissolved and the Republic of Austria, stripped of the wealth and internationalism of its former lands to the East, was created. The break up weakened the Austrian bourgeoisie, and the Social-Democratic Workers Party (SDAP) attained an ever stronger hold on Austria. Before 1934, the SDAP focused on building up their ‘Red Vienna’ – financing education and social welfare projects thorough heavier taxation. Gathering their last resources, the bourgeoisie created the Heimwehr (home guard), paramilitary groups composed of war veterans and peasants, and demanded a military-fascist regime. Their rise quickly became a threat to the working class, who wanted to keep the scarlet cloak of social democracy in Austria.

I taste the phrase “Red Vienna” on my tongue; roll it around as another red tram trundles past. What does it mean to me and to those of my generation? I can clearly see the socialists marching down the street. Today, it is a busy walkway for people coming and going, living their lives in the bustle of shopping bags and the fever of always being late … at the same time, despite being a home to small dogs and homeless people, the corner in front of the opera is lively and wealthy. Red Vienna is very far away. But during the turbulent recession and inevitable inflation of 1933, this street must have appeared much darker.

From 1933, when Hitler became German Chancellor, Austrian National Socialist sympathizers (who wanted Austria to merge with Hitler’s Germany) began to threaten the state from within. On March 4 of the same year, Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß of the right-wing Christian Social Party suspended the Austrian Parliament. The Social Democratic Party thus suddenly lost its major platform for political action. Dollfuß’s party, facing pressure and violence not only from the left but also from Nazis infiltrating from Germany, began to suspend civil liberties. They banned the Schutzbund (Social Democrat paramilitary force) and imprisoned many of its members.

I imagine it being a frost-bitten January morning in 1934, not like today with the sunlight peeking through, when a coup d’état began its swift takeover. The Heimwehr – starting in Linz and spreading through the country – stormed into the offices of the SDAP, confiscating weapons and arresting officials. The leadership of the social democrats remained subdued. Regional party officials attempted to arrange armed resistance and sent requests to the party leadership for help on a larger scale. On Feb. 12 fighting between the workers’ group and the fascists broke out in Vienna. The workers lacked preparation and they fought directly from their homes in the Gemeindebau (public housing). The fascist party had high-level weapons that were no match for the workers offensive, thus, theirs was a battle of defense. Simply put, the workers were fighting for their lives, and indeed, more than 1600 people died on both sides.

The last few shots were fired on Feb. 15, the fourth day of the struggle. The working class, along with their dreams of a “Red Vienna” of autonomy and fairness were defeated.

I take a sip of my dark espresso and stare out the window of Café Oper Wien, thinking of the melting watches in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Are our memories melting away too? And how does Vienna remember the people it lost in February 1934? The number of people who died is more than insignificant. The authorities executed nine Schutzbund leaders under the provisions of martial law. Over 1,500 arrests were made. Leading socialist politicians, such as Otto Bauer, were forced into exile.

However, today, Feb. 14, no red flags adorn any of the lampposts, and the red trams certainly don’t represent the buried dreams of “Red Vienna.” The only memorial is far from the center of town, at the Karl Marx Hof in Heiligenstadt. Although the people whose lives were lost have become thought of as the victims of Engelbert Dollfuß, no one remembers their names: the people themselves have been lost in anonymity, collectively dealt with, and dismissed.

Austrian political parties are often accused of having done little to come to terms with the past. Even in today’s Austria, the society is still sharply divided into the “red” (socialist) and “black” (conservative) areas of influence, a division that can be traced back to the February uprising. This continues to cause rifts in areas such as first aid services, automotive organizations and scientific research.

Memory cannot persist without its conservation: seventy years ago the Austrian workers were the first in Europe to undertake an armed struggle against a rising fascist regime. In the absence of other forms of commemoration for the victims of the February Uprising, maybe the bright red trams rolling past should be the banners for all those who died – and whose dreams live on.

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