“This little man happened to be fighting to keep one little corner of Germany still a part of Christendom.” —G. K. Chesterton, writing in the London Times
Dollfuss: An Austrian Patriotby Johannes Messner, John Zmirak (Introduction), Dr. Alice von Hildebrand (Foreword by)
Introduced in this book is Englebert Dollfuss, the Austrian hero who plotted a course for Austria against Nazism, against Socialism, and against unbridled capitalism until his assassination by the Nazis in 1934. This is the story of the Austrian chancellor who attempted to act as a moral force to bring a divided, bankrupt, and bitter Europe to its senses. It
Introduced in this book is Englebert Dollfuss, the Austrian hero who plotted a course for Austria against Nazism, against Socialism, and against unbridled capitalism until his assassination by the Nazis in 1934. This is the story of the Austrian chancellor who attempted to act as a moral force to bring a divided, bankrupt, and bitter Europe to its senses. It details how he persuaded people of many different political persuasions to follow and support that policy, not through elegant speeches, worthless programs, and empty promises, but through common sense, good humor, overpowering honesty, and tremendous personal sacrifice.
“This little man happened to be fighting to keep one little corner of Germany still a part of Christendom.” —G. K. Chesterton, writing in the London Times
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An Austrian Patriot
By Johannes Messner
IHS PressCopyright © 2004 IHS Press
All rights reserved.
FROM EARLY YEARS TO MANHOOD
If you stand upon the heights above the Danube where the superb monastery of Melk dominates the landscape and look towards the south, you see first an undulating plain, then wide and sweeping hills and wooded heights, and behind them the towering mountains of Mariazell. Nestling among the first of the greater foothills of the Alps, still in Lower Austria, are the communes which were the home of Engelbert Dollfuss.
The house of the Dollfuss family, where he was born on October 4, 1892, belongs to the hamlet of Great Maierhof, which together with a dozen other peasants' dwellings forms part of the commune of St. Gotthard. It stands some distance back from the road leading to Texing – it was in the parish church of Texing that the future Chancellor was baptized – and the little house with its old thatched roof is almost entirely hidden by the surrounding fruit trees, in this neighbourhood an important source of income for the peasants. The property, which has been in the hands of the Dollfuss family for centuries, is now occupied by amaternal uncle of the late Chancellor. On the ground-floor to the left of the main door is the room in which Engelbert Dollfuss was born. It has remained unchanged. In the corner is a great table with the sign IHS inlaid in the middle. Its smoothly polished surface shows that many generations have sat to eat at it.
Not far away is the commune of Kirnberg, and it was here, in his stepfather's house, that the Chancellor spent the days of his youth. On the road itself are only a few houses. As you approach the village the first thing that meets the eye is a massive church tower, already indicating that the church itself is an unusual one. The way to it leads through a pleasure-garden and under the archway of a monastic building which surrounds the sacred edifice. Thus enclosed, yet standing by itself, the little church, which in part dates from the year 1336, towers high above the surrounding building. This latter, once the home of a community of hermits dedicated to St. Jerome, now serves as a country house for the bishops of Vienna. It was one of these who contributed with the parish priest to the expenses of the young Engelbert's education, which his parents were not in a position to bear alone.
The home of the Chancellor's parents is situated at some distance from the road. It is a small detached farm-house, and to reach it you must cross the stream and walk about two miles uphill. The farm is surrounded by pasture and arable land, planted with the fruit trees characteristic of the neighbourhood. From here the little 'Engel,' as he was called at home, had quite a long walk to go to school at Kirnberg. Though he had to be there at an early hour for his various duties, as well as being occupied in the church, he had also to help at home whenever he was available. He would often be out of doors looking after the cattle – only a couple of beasts, it is true, but enough for a little fellow to manage. When on Sundays his stepfather walked round their little estate Engel would often accompany him. Sometimes his father would stop to look intently at the trees or at the ground, and the little boy would ask: "What are you looking at, Father?" And when he received the reply: "To see whether anything is growing, and whether we are going to get anything to eat and drink," then he too would look earnestly with his father, as if he also understood that, in a small farm where there is never anything forthcoming more than the absolutely necessary, the prospects of the harvest are a matter of the greatest importance. Such was the lesson which the young Engelbert learned from his earliest years: that life is work, and that work gives life its meaning and value. To this very day his mother, an elderly but still sturdy peasant woman, refuses to rest in spite of her ailing foot. "I cannot sit and look on," she says, "when I see how much work there is to be done; I feel I must help." And so her ailment is never cured. On Sundays after returning from church she lies in bed to give her foot a rest, so that she may be able to do her share of the work during the week. For if home and farm are to prosper everybody must do his part. This typically peasant attitude towards life Dollfuss retained until his death. As Chancellor he was driving one day in the neighbourhood of his home, and talking with a friend about the new Constitution. He pointed out the roads which had been familiar to him since childhood and upon which he used to accompany his father to market. Then he said:
From my youth upwards I have experienced the economic struggle with poverty. If I have always had a deep interest in economics it is because I learned it here, where there was never anything over and economy was always necessary. That is how I gained an insight into the economic needs of the people and learned to appreciate them.
When he went to the high school at Hollabrun his brothers and sisters were most unhappy, for they were very fond of him. One of his brothers, as the mother still loves to relate, could hardly be comforted, and towards the end of the school year used to count the days until Engel came home for the holidays. He took it for granted, even as a student, that during his holidays he must help with cutting the corn, binding the sheaves, stacking and loading the hay, or with any other work that the day might bring. When he was free he might be glad sometimes to lie out in the open air with his books, or else to go for a trip into the mountains with the young peasants of the village. Every day he would be at the church down in Kirnberg, and he would often serve the bishop's Mass when he was in residence at his summer house. The boy noticed that his fellow-students were able to do all sorts of things and enjoy many entertainments during the holidays; but he never asked for anything of the kind for himself. He appreciated that even to supply the necessary funds for his education meant already a heavy burden for his parents. Nevertheless, he was thankful during the early years of his time as a student to be able to spend a few weeks of his holidays at Wieselburg near Pöchlarn with the former parish priest of Kirnberg, who had been instrumental in sending him to school. After the death of this priest he lacked even this recreation. In consequence he was thrown more and more into the company of peasant folk; and later in life he was always as much at home with his relations and schoolfellows as if he had never been separated from them. Hence he was able, a few days after the first attempt on his life, to answer the cruel calumnies of his political opponents by an appeal to the peasants of his native place:
Here you may find the competent judges of my life's work. To them I shall always appeal to give testimony that I have always been an upright and honourable fighter for the freedom and progress of my native land, for I am conscious that I have done nothing else but devote the whole of my powers to its service. Here, where my parents and relations live, where the friends and companions of my boyhood live, where everybody has known me for years, they will tell you that I am not an ambitious man, but that throughout my life I have done nothing more than my duty, fulfilling those tasks which have been entrusted to me by the confidence of my fellow-citizens.
On the day after his death his native parish answered his appeal. When prayers were offered after Mass for their best son, nobody could say them aloud for weeping. A general sobbing filled the church; so much did they love him.
At the end of his course at the high school he thought at first that he had a vocation to the priesthood, and began to study theology at the University of Vienna. But after a few months he discovered his mistake. Hard though it must have been, both for himself and for his parents, to change his course of studies, we know now that Providence had chosen him for a great work which as a priest he could never have accomplished. At the beginning of the year 1912 he devoted himself to the study of law, earning a livelihood in the meantime by giving lessons, and even then having often to accept his meals from strangers. A certain family preserves with reverence a small kitchen table at which Engelbert Dollfuss used to take his meals as their guest during the summer of 1914. Coming as he did of hard-working folk, even in the city he felt himself drawn to the working-classes. He enrolled himself in the Students' Social Movement, an association of students who devoted much of their free time to social and charitable work among the workers. It was a great satisfaction to him when at a Patriotic rally of the Christian workers reference was made to the time when as a young student he had taken an intimate part in the social movement on behalf of the workers, and had belonged to that proud generation of students whose life's programme it was to be servants of the people. He warmly thanked the speaker for recalling this fact, and added:
It is true that as a student before the War I was an active member, so far as I was able, of the Students' Social Movement. As a matter of fact I spent many an evening at the Workers' Home of the third District, teaching typewriting to young workers. It is my special happiness to be associated with all that makes for the progress of Austria, and to take part in all ventures whose object is to reconstruct this country according to Christian and German principles. (Graz, November 19, 1933.)
In the summer in which the War broke out he was at Vienna, the guest of a family who gladly welcomed the earnest, modest but happy-tempered student to spend his holiday with them. In an hour so fateful for his country he could not stand aside; he must go to the front. But he was rejected by the inspection officers as being two centimetres below the minimum stature required. Only for a moment was he at a loss. It was characteristic of him that he never allowed himself to be turned from any purpose on which he had set his mind, however great the difficulties in the way might be. On the very same day he took train for St. Pölten where the recruiting commission for his district was sitting. On his way he saw detachments of the Tyrolese militia, later known as the Kaiserschutz, on the point of setting out for the front. Fired with enthusiasm, he presented himself before the Commission. They would have rejected him for the same reason as at Vienna, but he protested that "What others could do he could do also," and so he was accepted. As a volunteer he had the right to choose between three regiments. Decided by his recent encounter, he chose the Tyrolese militia.
With his warm-hearted temper, his readiness to serve, and his pleasant familiarity, the little volunteer soon made friends of all his comrades. His zeal, trustworthiness and quickness of thought attracted the attention of his superiors and he rose quickly to the rank of corporal. At the end of the War he was a first lieutenant, having served in the front line on the Tyrolese southern front for thirty-seven months. Soldiering for him meant to carry out orders promptly, simply and without fuss. When in 1915 he was at Enns with a recruiting Commission he knew no peace; he wanted to be back at the front with his comrades, sharing their joys and their sorrows, their needs and their dangers. Suddenly he disappeared and nobody knew where he had gone. Information came subsequently from his regiment at the front that he had rejoined it. His courage and fearlessness showed themselves in every contingency. In October, 1916, as lieutenant he had to hold a mountain pass which for hours had been under heavy shell-fire. The Alpini were attacking in force, and by evening there were only forty men left fit for service. Yet the position had to be held at all costs; and held it was. It has been called the "Dollfuss pass" ever since. Relief came at last. Dead tired, Lieutenant Dollfuss led his men behind the lines. It was then that they were met by that young man of whom the story has so often been told. He was to be court-martialled for an attempt at desertion. When he saw Lieutenant Dollfuss he wrenched himself away from his escort and begged and implored him to help. If he were convicted his mother would never survive it. Lieutenant Dollfuss did not hesitate. In spite of his fatigue he trudged the five hours' journey back with the deserter to intercede with the captain on his behalf and to obtain a postponement of the trial. It was granted. Contented, he set out one more upon the journey to rejoin his men. It was always his greatest joy to be able to help anybody, his comrades or his country. And just as during his military service his one aim was to do his duty simply and promptly, without fuss and without talk, so it was also when he was again called to fight for his country as Chancellor: "Believe me," he said in reply to an address at a Tyrolese rally,
your cordial greeting gives great joy to one who over fourteen years ago fought for more than three years on your frontiers in defence of Austria, and especially of the Tyrol. My friends, who during those days were either my comrades or my leaders, we have none of us forgotten that great experience, during which at the risk of health and life, without false pathos or false conceit, we did our duty to our country as men and comrades. However hard those times may have been, we look back upon them with pride and with satisfaction. The duties and the tasks which are mine today I regard in the same light as I did those which I had during the War. Just as we did our duty then without asking whether it was for the good of our health or not, so now my life is lived in a sphere of duties and obligations, in which all respect of persons and personal pride count for nothing; and I will do my duty. (Innsbruck, April 22, 1933.)
Dollfuss was always fond of good company and joviality, both as a student and during his military service. When he was Chancellor his favourite recreation was a cosy chat with his friends. Grave subjects alternated with gay in these conversations, and the atmosphere was always one of brightness and cordiality. But the full richness and generosity of his temperament became manifest when he spoke of home, family and peasant-folk, when he acknowledged the debt which he owed to these, saying what such things could do for Austria. Games, which after the manner of peasant-folk he had loved from his youth, were also a favourite pastime with him. Even as Chancellor he would join his friends regularly on a fixed day every week to play ninepins, if it was only for a quarter of an hour long after midnight, when he had finished with affairs of State. His hours of recreation became gradually shorter and shorter. But his sense of humour remained with him to the last in spite of the heavy responsibilities which weighed upon him. One of his friends had always to collect the latest "Dollfuss stories," and relate them to him on a journey by train or car. Like all great men who are sure of themselves, he did not mind being the victim of the people's wit, though it was not always as delicate as it might be. He would be delighted and laugh heartily when, having inquired outside Vienna for new Dollfuss stories, he was regaled with "stale" ones. "So there's nothing new here in the South," he would say; "then I shall have to tell you some myself."
The outcome of the War was a great grief to him. He saw in it the collapse of the existing order of things. But he was not one to remain despondent. He was soon ready to work with unremitting energy for the reconstruction of his country in the sphere in which he now found himself. This was the University. In close cooperation with some friends he worked after the War to form Catholic students into the German Students' organization. Moreover, he saw clearly where the fundamental principles lay for the reconstruction which must follow a collapse of civilization. Soon after the War his acquaintances found him making a retreat. As in all vital respects so in religion, too, Dollfuss remained always a true son of the soil. He was as fundamentally and naïvely religious as the peasants of his native village, who grew up, lived and died with their Church and their God. This intimate religions conviction, whenever it showed itself publicly, always moved his hearers even though they themselves might have lost it. Everybody listened with rapt attention when in his famous speech in the Trabrennplatz he illustrated the new social community which was to be established in Austria by a picture of the peasant's home, where farmer, wife and children sat at a common table with servants and maids, and then in the evening said the rosary together. To his friends who accompanied him to his native village he would show the roads by which he used to go with his mother on pilgrimage to Maria-Taferl or Mariazell. Of this latter sanctuary he was especially fond, and when in 1933 he accompanied the men's pilgrimage to Mariazell he was able to say to his thousands of fellow-pilgrims: "My presence among you today is not an act of courtesy or of political scheming. Making pilgrimages is one of my lifelong habits." And a year later:
For centuries our fathers have made this pilgrimage to refresh their souls and to make up for their failings during the course of the year. We too must keep these pilgrimages alive, we too must make pilgrimages to foster our piety and to make ourselves better men. So will this shrine bring grace upon our homes and upon our country. (Mariazell, July 7, 1934.)
Excerpted from Dollfuss by Johannes Messner. Copyright © 2004 IHS Press. Excerpted by permission of IHS Press.
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Meet the Author
Johannes Messner was a close colleague and friend of Chancellor Dollfuss. Dr. Alice von Hildebrand is the widow of the man who ran The Christian Corporative State, the newspaper officially commissioned by Dollfuss's publicity chief. Dr. John Zmirak is the author of Wilhelm Roepke. He contributes to such publications as Success, The Baton Rouge Business Report, Investor's Business Daily, and Faith and Family.
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