Covidistan Annals XXV: Foreign Policy Blunders, or: the Lessons of Fake History, and will Austria now join NATO?
FM Schallenberg compares the Anschluss of Austria 1938 with Russian 'aggression' against Ukraine today. History fact: there was betrayal in 1938, but it was Czechoslovakia who was 'left alone'
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Covid putschists in Vienna: they are so far gone by now, both in terms of politics as well as policy failures, that there’s little runway left. As you know, I’ve been mainly reporting on the régime’s domestic travails, but guess what happened now: a major idiocy with foreign policy implications has occurred, which betrays the overwhelming insularity of Covidistan politics.
The Lessons of (Fake) ‘History’
Last Sunday evening, Foreign Minister Schallenberg (yes, he of short-term chancellor-with-tyrant aspirations) went on national TV and all but inaugurated a major policy shift. Asked about the unfolding drama in Eastern Ukraine by ORF newscaster Martin Thür (MT), Schallenberg (AS) had this to say (interview here, automated transcript here; my emphases):
MT: Mr. Secretary, US president Biden intimated that a [Russian] invasion is a matter of days…is this the end of diplomacy? Will there be war?
AS: I must, by God, admit that there is a storm coming. I’ve been in Munich, attending the Security Conference, and the tension was literally palpable. The window of diplomacy is closing, but it isn’t closed yet…
MT: Do you still trust whatever the Russians are saying, after these past days?
AS: I want to be frank about this…we are suffering under a disinformation campaign unlike any the world has ever seen. What the Americans are doing is, well, precisely pulling this [disinformation] into the open. They said from the start that this is an extraordinary situation, by which is meant the sheer amount of intelligence that is shared with the public—in order to chip away at the Russian narrative…
MT: The EU has agreed on sanctions, has threatened [more] sanctions, but these haven’t had any influence on Vladimir Putin. Why would this change in the coming days? Are threats and the offer of negotiations a way to prevent the war?
AS: Well, I believe that deterrence and dialogue are the right way forward. We’re in 21st-century Europe…we cannot look on doing nothing when [Russia] believes it’s time to unilaterally dismantle the rules of the game…we shall not stand idly by when one country believes it may change borders in the 21st century by threatening other countries with rockets and tanks.
MT: You are speaking about massive sanctions, agreed-upon by our European partners. Yet, these may only work, if everyone is really aboard. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung [Switzerland’s NY equivalent] opined that it’s highly likely that both Austria and Hungary will fold first and accede to Russian pressure. How far and deep is European unity in these regards really?
AS: I don’t know how many times I must repeat this. There is a consensus, which I strongly felt, and Austria is part of this consensus. I have stressed this stance when I visited [German] Foreign Minister Baerbock in Berlin. I have repeatedly stressed this in Brussels, too: for Austria, this is a matter of principles. This is about a red line, by which is meant international law. In 1938, we have experienced this ourselves, how it is to be left alone. Yet, we need the rule of law. We need an international system that is predicated on law and international law. This means for us that there are no ifs or buts in our relationship with Russia, even if this stance will be painful economically. We must agree to these sanctions against Russia, and we will agree to these sanctions, if there is a military escalation.
I’ll stop here, for this is way too idiotic already. Foreign Minister Schallenberg has disgraced himself by stating such gross inanities (not that he’s a stranger to such things, still, this is…absurd).
You know, when I was working in the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs during my days as a graduate student in the late 2000s, Schallenberg was spoken of as someone who was ‘destined for greater things’, perhaps, the whispers held, he might one day become Austrian ambassador to the US or the UN, or, failing that, at least with the EU in Brussels.
When I read the above idiocies, I seriously question the sanity of my former colleagues. Be that as it may, I’m bringing this up because, as you may very well imagine, Schallenberg’s ahistorical absurdity has triggered a veritable shitstorm in Covidistan. This, however, didn’t come about because of the inanities he said about all matters Russia, no, but about him invoking 1938 as an (a-) historical precedent.
So, please allow me, however briefly, to unpack this for you. Apologies if this is a bit ‘wonkish’, but this is really something where I (history prof.) with 10+ years research experience simply know a lot more about the subject matter than, say, Mr. Schallenberg.
1938, ‘Victim Theory’, and Everything After
As is well-known, the first Austrian Republic (1918/19-33/38) lived only for two decades, at most. The reason these dates are a bit ambiguous is that the Republic that was founded in November 1918 was Deutsch-Österreich, or German-Austria. The difference isn’t just the adjective ‘German’, but that this republic claimed both the other German-speaking areas of the defunct Habsburg polity and to be an integral part of neighbouring Germany, then—like Deutsch-Österreich—a newly-founded republic dominated by the Social Democrats.
Sidenote: professionally, I don’t usually link to Wikipedia, but in this case it’s helpful because their entry on this is quite o.k.-ish, esp. if you don’t know (or care) much about ‘a faraway country’ and its ‘people of whom we know nothing’, in the memorable words of British PM Neville Chamberlain (in office 1937-40).
This notion—the unification with a republican and mildly pink (Social Democratic-centrist) Germany—is also the background why many Austrians who were forbidden from exercising their allegedly universal right to self-determination in this regard (but not in others), were both familiar with, and excited about, the idea of the Anschluss to Germany well before anyone had ever heard of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
The Treaty of Saint-Germain, signed under duress in 1919 by the Social Democrat-led government (that soon collapsed thereafter), between Austria and the victors of the Great War, put paid to many of these notions. Reparations were demanded and both unification with Germany explicitly as well as the self-identificatory ‘German’ in the Habsburg Empire’s ‘successor state’ were both forbidden, too. Austria, virtually overnight, became a small republic whose identity and longings were suppressed by outside forces and whose fate was uncertain.
Politically and economically, the new republic was a basket case: the former imperial centre, Vienna, was home to 2m people and a huge number of gigantic office buildings for what used to be the second- or third-largest European country by surface are, but after 1918/19 the capital of this small alpine republic was simply ‘too big’ for some 6m people. In addition, Vienna had been the centre of this empire, and whatever one might wish to think about it, the metropolis had been intimately connected to, e.g., coal from Bohemia, agricultural imports from Hungary, and the like. The post-WW1 borders had cut across esp. economic ties that were developed over many decades before 1914, hence the overall prospects looked quite grim.
When famine returned in the first post-war winters (1918/19 and the following winter), many inhabitants remained cold and hungry, but there was also a pervasive sense of hopelessness. By the early 1920s, hyperinflation akin to that which had Germany in its grip due to the illegal (and immoral) occupation of the Ruhr area by French and Belgian troops, had destroyed the little savings the majority of Austrians have had left after the Great War.
The ‘international community’ of victors moved in and ‘helped’ with a large loan, conditional on the implementation of austerity measures and another contractual affirmation that no unification with Germany would be sought, ever (notice a pattern here?). In exchange, the UK, France, Czechoslovakia, and Italy furnished a large loan that ‘saved’ the few, but the impact on economic opportunities for the many proved disastrous: currency reforms led to the introduction of the Schilling, which was a rather ‘hard’ currency compared to the inflation-wrecked Gulden of old, and while this change made the creditors happy, macro-economically speaking, it had the same deflationary consequences as later iterations (here’s looking at you, IMF, World Bank, and how the EU treated its Greek ‘friends’ in the 2010s; if you’d like to read a good book about the underlying concept, I recommend Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea [Oxford, 2013]).
In addition to these foreign strings, there was a lot of domestic dissent, mainly spread across two blocs: on the left-of-centre were the Social Democrats who ran Vienna and a few other industrial areas (Linz, Styria); on the other side of the aisle stood the Christian-Socials (conservatives) and the Great(er) Germans. After the Social Democratic-led unity government collapsed in 1920, the first Austrian Republic was governed by various right-of-centre coalitions until 1938. Socio-politically, though, the country remained a powder keg, with an uncontrolled mass protest in 1927 leading to both the burning of the Justice Department (the reason was a miscarriage of justice that led to the acquittal of a right-wing murderer, which led the workers of Vienna to go on strike; the Social Democratic leadership didn’t approve of it—notice another pattern here?—and police used mounted police and fired into the crowds, which led to the riot that killed 89 protesters in, what Wikipedia calls, the July Revolt of 1927) and the emergence of paramilitary organisations on both the ‘left’ (Schutzbund) and the fascist right (Heimwehr).
In other words: the country was tottering on the brink of political chaos and was close to economic ruin well before the Great Depression hit. The economic storm came in the guise of a banking crisis, most notable was the collapse of one of the country’s largest banks, the Credit-Anstalt (about which Susanne Wurm has written about, and I highly recommend her weblog), which back then was the largest lender east of Germany (another one of these patterns, as the bankruptcy of the HypoAlpeAdria after 2008 illustrates). Its collapse in spring 1931 and subsequent attempts by the government to ‘rescue’ the too-big-too-fail institution chaired by Louis Rothschild were only a partial ‘success’. Foreign creditors and the financial elites were delighted, but the Austrian public less so, and throughout the summer, the people who remembered the hyperinflationary losses of a decade earlier, closed down their bank accounts throughout the country. Eventually, in early Oct. 1931, the government clamped down on this and introduced exchange controls, but the damage was done.
From this disastrous moment onwards—the political system began circling the drain: people had little faith in any government (whose heads changed swiftly), and comparable developments in neighbouring Germany had similarly put the republican system on notice: the rise of the Nazi Party was swift and seemed unstoppable after the onset of the Great Depression. Like in the last days of Weimar Germany, in small Austria, these ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ entanglements led to the continued decay of peace and order, which resulted in the rise of political violence on the streets (on which see Dirk Schumann’s excellent book Political Violence in the Weimar Republic, 1918-33 [New York, 2009], but note there’s, sadly, no such study on Austria) that fuelled the demands for a return to law and order, which played into the hands of the Nazi Party.
As is well-known, Adolf Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler on 30 Jan. 1933, and I shall not focus on Germany now, but this event proved pivotal as it provided a seminal push to the Nazi faction in neighbouring Austria. To counter the street, but also electoral, power of the not-yet illegal Austrian Nazi Party, Chancellor Engelberg Dollfuß, in office since July 1932, saw an opportunity to move towards (clerical) fascism in March 1933 and suspended parliament on a borderline illegal technicality (see below) and tried to re-imagine an Austrian identity that affirmed its cultural German-ness, but maintained its independence from Nazi Germany.
Sidenote: how did Dollfuß pull this off? Well, the onset of the Great Depression brought renewed strength and electoral successes to both the Social Democrats and the fascist right-wing, but the main point is that the former were in opposition on the national level even though the Social Democrats were, by and large, the biggest parliamentary party. One centre-right government after another was formed by the Christian Socials (Dollfuß’ party) and the Great(er) Germans to deny the Social Democrats participation in the federal government. This worked, until it didn’t, and that moment came in March 1933.
According to the constitution, parliament has three presidents (Speakers of the House, in US lingo), a constitutionally similarly high office in the republic (the president of parliament is the no. 3 office in the state, right after the president and the chancellor), which is traditionally held by the three biggest parties according to their share of the votes. So, in March 1933, these offices were held by a Social Democrat (1st pres.), a Christian Social (2nd), and a Great(er) German (3rd) politician, elected from among the parliamentary factions, but once elected, these high state officials couldn’t vote.
In March 1933, there was a hung parliament, i.e., there was a tie between the opposition (Social Democrats) and the government coalition, and to break the deadlock, the 1st president resigned, which would have provided the opposition with the opportunity to win a vote of no-confidence. As a consequence, both the 2nd and 3rd presidents resigned too, which restored Dollfuß’ majority—who saw this and jumped at the opportunity to declare that parliament had ‘self-eliminated itself’ and moved towards the imposition of Italian-style fascism.
From spring 1933 onwards, though, the situation quickly deteriorated into more violence. In Febraury 1934, a faction of the Social Democrats—who continued to insist that their fascist opponents should return to ‘normal’ politics—and their paramilitary wing, the Schutzbund, opened fire on police that attempted to raid a party locale in Linz, Upper Austria. This triggered the Austrian Civil War, which ended within a few days because Dollfuß used the army to suppress the protesting workers, including the use of field artillery to pound workers’ quarters in Vienna and elsewhere.
Aided by the fascist paramilitary Heimwehr, Dollfuß moved swiftly to consolidate his dictatorship by outlawing all other parties (incl. the Nazi Party), had some ‘ringleaders’ of the February rising ‘tried’ and executed, and created a one-party state that looked eerily similar to neighbouring Germany, albeit with a more clerical-Catholic ring to it. Austrofascism had emerged.
Many workers, though, were very much disillusioned with the lacklustre support of the Social Democratic party leadership for armed resistance to fascism. Also, many workers shared the antisemitic sentiments of rest of the population, in part due to the shenanigans of the hyperinflationary period whose ‘winners’ included a sizable number of newly-enriched Jews. This combination, aided and abetted by the apparent success of Hitler Germany, made many Social Democratic voters and sympathisers from the working class support the similarly illegal Austrian Nazi Party, a fact that continues to be a veritable Voldemort issue in contemporary Austrian historical scholarship, incl. the role of antisemitic sentiments among the working classes.
Replete with surging numbers, the Austrian Nazis tried to overthrow the Dollfuß dictatorship in July 1934. While an armed detachment—aided by many sympathisers in law enforcement and the army—entered the chancellery, shot, and fatally wounded Dollfuß (who literally died in office), the Austrofascist régime was just strong enough to fend off this coup d’état. Dollfuß was succeeded by Kurt Schuschnigg (in office 1933-38) who persecuted the putschists and tried to assert Austrian independence. In his four years in office, Schuschnigg relied ever more strongly on the political organisation cobbled together by Dollfuß, the ‘Fatherland Front’, and on support for Austria’s continued ‘existence’, if only to deny Hitler the success of claiming to ‘make Germany great again’. At that time, it shall be noted, Italy was still on the side of victors of WWI, but this affiliation soon deteriorated due to Mussolini’s desire for expansion (into Ethiopia in 1936).
By early 1938, Hitler felt strong and bold enough to move into Austria, which Schuschnigg tried to prevent by meeting with the Führer in Berchtesgaden in February. The meeting was a de facto capitulation on part of Schuschnigg: it envisioned a firm commitment to Germany by appointment of Nazi politicians to cabinet positions and by allowing the Nazi party again. Once back in Vienna, Schuschnigg reneged on these promises (obtained under duress) and at least tried to keep Austria independent, if not sovereign. In early March, he proposed a yes/no referendum on the topic, which triggered frenetic activity, mainly led by Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Göring, who pushed for the military option. Under immense pressure to revoke the envisioned referendum—which, and this is speculative, may even have shown considerable support for an alliance with Germany, but not outright ‘unificiation’, hence Hitler’s stance—Schuschnigg eventually resigned on 11 March, after receiving word from Rome that Mussolini was unreachable (i.e., the Italians had cast in their lot with Hitler). The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
The above picture shows Adolf Hitler arriving in Vienna on 15 March 1938.
We pick up the pieces of this particularly sordid episode in early 1945, a topic which I’ve written about before (see here), which means that I won’t repeat most of the details, but I won’t spare you the following facts that directly relate to the historical fakery proposed by Schallenberg four days ago:
In late April 1945, while the ruins of Vienna were smoldering, a number of political leaders from both large camps, conservative (People’s Party, or ÖVP) and socialist/social-democratic (SPÖ) alike, came together and conspired to play the Allied powers. The leading figure was Karl Renner (1870-1950), who was the first republic’s chancellor from 1918-20 and whose political acumen was instrumental in the establishment of the second republic in 1945.
With the Soviet troops outside, Renner and his counterpart (and eventual successor) Leopold Figl invited the Communist Party to join a provisional government, which proclaimed the restoration of an Austrian republic on 27 April 1945. The provisional government remained in power until 20 Dec. of that year when national elections were held.
During these eight months, the new government struggled to gain acceptance and recognition from the US-led western powers who were initially very suspicious of the entire operation: Renner, (in-) famously, had supported the annexation, of Anschluss, of Austria in 1938, and in addition the new government was initially supported by the USSR. Eventually, the US-led western powers came around to accepting the new government, which fits in neatly with the emerging ideological-in-name confrontation known as the Cold War.
I will spare the reader most of the details of the subsequent decades, it suffices to mention that, although Austria was ‘the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression’, it remained occupied (liberated) by the four major powers until 1955, paid hefty reparations (which the US-led western allies eventually let go), and its leadership also paid a certain amount of lip-service to de-nazification. That latter part was particularly problematic, for if taken to its logical conclusion, the majority of political, economic, church, and other leaders would be implicated, hence it was quietly discontinued, with the tacit support of western governments.
The most important addition to the Austrian consciousness and identity after 1945 was the creation of what is called ‘victim theory’ (Opferthese), by which is meant that the Austrian leaders after 1945 proclaimed the Allied Moscow Declaration as self-evidently true and referred to it as if it were gospel. In a truly Ibsen-like fashion, this ‘life-lie’ became elevated to reason of state, for it allowed Austria and Austrians to escape most of the responsibilities that same declaration had bestowed upon them, and, of course, this would have been impossible if the US-led western powers hadn’t conspired with the second republic in that regard. As such, Austria’s post-1945 history is both a telling account of duplicity and a warning about believing one’s own edifice of lies.
One last thing to remember is that in mid-April 1938, a referendum was indeed held in both Austria and Germany, which returned the expectable support for ‘unification’. Most leading Austrians were not only ‘o.k.’ with this, but Social Democrat Karl Renner (founder of both the First and Second Republics) called on the working class to support Hitler, as did Theodor Innitzer, Cardinal and Archbishop of Vienna, to note just two luminaries of both left-and-right-of centre factions that dominated domestic politics before and after WW2. Yes, some Austrofascist leaders were sent to prison or concentration camps (Schuschnigg, for instance), but if there was ‘resistance’, it came mainly from some of the illegal Communists, with only a handful—a ‘fringe minority’, if you like—of Social Democrats (which fragmented over this particular issue) who fled, first to Czechoslovakia, only to be pushed further into exile after March 1939.
Betrayal in 1938—and 2022
When Schallenberg spoke about the events of 1938 in the context of Ukraine, he engaged in revisionism of the worst sort: ‘fake history’, which is about as ‘true’ as the ‘state of emergency’ is triggered by ‘all matters Covid-19’. As a reminder, here’s the key line by Schallenberg:
This is about a red line, by which is meant international law. In 1938, we have experienced this ourselves, how it is to be left alone
There was a country that, in 1938, was ‘left alone’, if not betrayed by its ‘international partners’. That country was Czechoslovakia, which was destroyed in all but name in October 1938 by the Munich Agreement (ironically, that moment was associated with Schallenberg’s good times at this year’s Security Conference at the same location)—which is to say that Czechoslovakia was left alone by none other than the British, French, and Italian governments that all worked in cahoots with Hitler.
So, if Schallenberg speaks about these events, context matters greatly, especially when it comes to the historical record. (It was this reason why I put the Chamberlain quote, issued but half a year later upon return to England, waving a scrap of paper and proclaiming ‘peace for our time’ while German troops marched through Prague…)
Of course, there was fake outrage in Covidistan, but mainly, if not exclusively so, among the political caste. The country’s professional contemporary historians remained shamefully quiet about it.
On 21 Feb. 2022, state broadcaster ORF provided a summary of the ‘outrage’. If you’ve made it so far, you know much, much more about the context than, obviously, either Schallenberg or the people quoted below. Now, see if you can spot the disingenuous parts (and, if you’d like to do so, let me know in the comments below which one you found most absurd; as always, emphases below are mine):
Speaking in Brussels while the EU’s foreign ministers met, Schallenberg said [on Monday] he believes the outrage to be misplaced, because this is all a misunderstanding. ‘What I meant was, in fact, the opposite of a rehashing of the Victim Theory. Back then, there were too many people who cheered [Hitler’s speech delivered] on Heldenplatz.’
He added that he mean the ‘massive engagement’ in late 1937 and early 1938 to ‘obtain international support and solidarity’ that emanated from [the Austrofascist régime]…it was only Mexico that reacted positively and filed a written complaint about the ‘Anschluss’ [annexation] of Austria, and ‘these two—international law and what happened on Heldenplatz—are entirely different debates’.
Ukraine can count on ‘our solidarity’, but ‘particularly we Austrians, because of our own history, must have a special understanding how it feels if one’s country is standing face-to-face with a potential aggressor, with only international law left on one’s side’.
Schallenberg was roundly criticised on both social media and by Social Democrat hack Jörg Leichtfried, who chastised the foreign minister for his ‘unacceptable historical revisionism, the sugar-coating of the Schuschnigg régime, and the return to the inaccurate myth of Austria as Hitler’s first victim’. Leichtfried was joined by other hacks from his own party who further called on Chancellor Nehammer (ÖVP) and his deputy Kogler (Greens) to say something about this. It was only Freedom Party and Vienna state representative Leo Kohlbauer who bird-pooped that Schallenberg should ‘not remain the foreign minister of a neutral country for one minute longer’.
As you can see, both Schallenbergs idiotic statements and the domestic reactions are only partially in line with the historical record. This is part and parcel of the post-1945 Austrian identity and its perhaps pathological schizophrenic characteristics.
Whatever the precise or exact reasons, but both sides are lying, yet it’s important to stress that the only bit of sanity came, again, from the Freedom Party. Post-1945 Austrian identity, such as it exists, still revolves around the notion of ‘neutrality’, which was codified on 26 October 1955 upon the withdrawal of the Allied forces from Austrian territory, completed a day earlier.
Neutrality is the law of the land, and while there were calls to also join NATO in the 1990s, emanating mainly from both the ÖVP and the FPÖ, these calls have subsided since. Austria did join NATO’s Orwellian-named ‘Partnership for Peace’ in early 1995, a handful of days after acceding to the EU. In both fact and law, Austrian neutrality, then, is perhaps as ‘real’ since then as the historical record espoused by Schallenberg and his ilk (and this incl. his political opponents, for they also obscure those parts of the historical record deemed ‘uncomfortable’.)
Implications: will neutral Austria join NATO?
So, here’s what I think this stupid episode actually means: having changed the domestic post-1945 régime via the emergency measures put in place to ostensibly ‘fight Sars-Cov-2 and Covid-19’, the Committee of Public Safety may now turn to foreign affairs. Long the proverbial poor relation of Austrian politics, at least since the decision to apply for EEC (later EU) membership in the late 1980s, it is appropriate to ask:
Will this belligerent and, frankly, outright unfriendly act towards Russia—which is very much in line with the shrill agit-prop emanating from Washington, NATO, and ‘Western’ legacy media—result in Austria formally joining NATO?
Finland is already considering doing so, with perhaps Sweden only a moment behind.
I should certainly hope this isn’t the case, but after the domestic Covid Coup, I wouldn’t be surprised a bit if the putschists would try to ‘revolutionise’ foreign affairs as well.
That this would come about with the more or less active support of the Greens should tell everyone about their true nature, too.