On 25 July 1934, the leader of the Austrian Nazi Party approached Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, and without saying a word fired two shots.
As Dollfuss lay dying on the floor of the Austrian chancellery, he realised that his dream of steering Austria on an independent course, free of Nazism, had been shattered – instead he had become Hitler’s first foreign victim.
Born on a farm in the south of Austria, Dollfuss came from an unassuming background. Brought up by his mother and stepfather, he – like Hitler – never knew his father. These humble beginnings made his rise to the top of Austrian politics all the more remarkable.
But it was this humble farm upbringing that helped him make his name: first as an agrarian expert on the Economic Committee of the League of Nations, then as the Austrian Minister of Agriculture. Few were surprised when he was named Chancellor in 1932.
As Dollfuss came to power, Hitler was eighteen months into his own regime. After securing authoritarian control in Germany, Hitler had begun looking at expansion abroad, his priority Austria, the country of his birth.
Regardless of democracy, it was Hitler’s vision to unite the German-speaking nations, but Dollfuss stood in his way.
To assert his power in Austria, Dollfuss dissolved parliament, jailed rivals, banned opposition parties, and won a short but violent civil war, assuming complete political control. As one commentator wrote: “Despite high-sounding phrases in the new constitution, his government was a fascist regime”, or what Dollfuss called “Austrofascism”.
Next, he made peace with Mussolini’s Italy – a regime more sympathetic to his own Catholic ideals than Nazi Germany – agreeing on a pact of trade and military support. Mussolini, who – unlike Hitler – had more limited imperial ambitions within Europe, also assured him of Austrian independence, a key to the deal.
To further diminish the threat of Nazism, Dollfuss banned the Nazi Party in Austria, provoking Hitler into embarking on his first act of international aggression.
On 22 July 1934, Goebbels wrote: “Sunday: at the Fuehrer’s ... Austrian question. Whether it will work? I'm very sceptical.”
What exactly he meant by the “Austrian question” then became clear: “At the Fuehrer’s: alarm from Austria. Chancellery occupied ... great suspense. Horrible waiting.”
Goebbels went on: “Dollfuss dead. Then an honourable retreat by the insurgents. Then victory for the government. Lost!”
Dollfuss was murdered, but the Nazi Party had failed in their attempt to take power.
Threatening to blow up the Chancellery, Austrian police and military units loyal to the government were able to quell the attempted coup d’état and take back control. Thirteen Nazis present at the coup were arrested and put on trial – all were subsequently hanged in the streets of Vienna.
"More active intervention from outside would be of little advantage, and there is so far no justification for it.”
Of these events the Spectator wrote: “It is much too soon to assume that the danger in Austria is over. The situation is still critical and must remain so for weeks if not months.”
After his death Dollfuss was replaced by Kurt Schuschnigg, a less fanatical leader. He bravely stood up against Hitler but was able to postpone the latter’s dark vision of annexation (Anschluss) only until 1938, when he was removed from power.
Dollfuss’s murder had indeed been a sign of things to come; Hitler’s murderous campaign proved unstoppable. He was prepared to assassinate a foreign leader in his own chancellery, and he had the manpower to impose Anschluss.
The Spectator article, however, continued: “What is essential is to set the wheels of ordered administration moving again ... More active intervention from outside would be of little advantage, and there is so far no justification for it,” events in Europe in the following years were to prove just how wrong-headed this opinion was.