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Irving Howe

Civil War in Austria

(June 1941)

From The New International, Vol. VII No. 5 (Whole No. 54), June 1941, pp. 127–8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Defenders
by Franz Hoellering
Little, Brown and Company

Franz Hoellering, a young refugee writer, has set himself the extremely ambitious task, in his novel, The Defenders, of depicting a cross-section of Viennese society immediately before and during the suppression of the Austrian proletariat in February 1934. The task is tremendous: not merely to show the effect of the actual struggle on different sections of society, but also to attempt a description of the social decay leading to the conflict; not merely to show one class of Vienna in the transition which led to the February revolt, but to attempt a description of the interweaving political and personal cross-currents which result in the revolt.

It is clear that only a master could succeed in this attempt and Hoellering is not a master – at least not yet. Most of the novels that have dealt successfully with themes of proletarian struggle have produced excitation and suspense by concentrating intensely on a specific event and the sharpened reactions of the participants in that event (Man’s Fate); or they have been, in one or two cases, thoughtful discussions of the problems facing the proletariat, posed in terms of certain specific human problems (Bread and Wine). But Hoellering has neither the intensity of Malraux nor the depth of Silone.

Resultantly, the novel winds itself into a serious contradiction which destroys it as a total effect and produces a series of disjointed parts. Such a situation is, of course, not unusual with a young writer.

Hoellering’s description of the Viennese intelligentsia – the most futile of all intelligentsias – rotting in their cafes and awaiting their doom, does not arouse interest in the reader; at best it arouses a mixture of detached pity and nausea. Here Hoellering can only produce stilted types who never come to life and about whom Hoellering can write only copy-book banalities. When he describes professors, actors, critics and passé noblemen, one gains the inescapable impression of receiving second-hand goods.

But not only is it that Hoellering appears to be incapable of bringing these people to life, it is impossible in a book of 500 pages to adequately develop all the situations and characters which he suggests. The result is that an entire section of the book is shadowy and irritatingly inadequate. It lacks the panoramic scope necessary to achieve Hoellering’s intention and it is too disjointed and diffused to bring the drama which is present in the last section of the book – the description of the actual revolt – to its greatest possible intensity.

When Hoellering turns, however, to the proletariat, to the Social-Democratic movement, to the intellectuals attached to the movement, he gains confidence and assurance. Here he is at home. And in those chapters in which he writes of the Viennese proletariat the novel is vivid and extraordinarily moving.. His capacities are as yet limited to an ability to write only of this one section of society, but that he does splendidly.

The capitulation of the German Social-Democracy and the Stalinists to Hitler without a struggle had an extremely depressing effect on the Austrian workers, ut it was still possible to fight and win – provided the Viennese workers were rallied under a militant banner of audacious struggle. Such a struggle might have had unforetold results in the rest of Europe where there were still mighty organizations of the working class and might well have been the turning point to beat down the fascists. But the Austrian Social-Democracy restrained the workers after each provocation of the reactionary clerical government until the point was reached where large sections of the workers became demoralized and disgusted. Then the Heimwehr government – negotiating all the while with the Social-Democratic leaders – provoked the workers into an uneven struggle and smashed them.

All this is vividly shown in Hoellering’s book. His picture of Hippmann, the two-faced SDP leader, is a biting portrait of the reformist leadership. Hippmann restrains the workers, cajoles them with pretty speeches about Socialist culture and humanitarianism. But a considerable section of the younger workers are restive and resentful; the hero of the novel is a young worker who resigns from the SDP because of disgust with its constant retreats. It is around this section of the most militant of the Viennese workers that the most vital section of the novel revolves.

Here the book grows to profound proportions. The picayune romances, the empty petty-bourgeois dimwits, the banalities and journalese ineptitudes that fill the other sections are absent. Here Hoellering writes with passion and warmth, with fire and understanding.

As a result, we meet a group of workers who are alive and important. The young worker-intellectual Merk who, after having left the SDP in disgust with its reformist position, gives up his life in the revolt; the older, experienced worker Kraus, who expresses the thoughts of the disciplined proletariat of Vienna when he enters the struggle with the realization of defeat but with the words “We are fighting on out of a sense of honor and to set an example for those who will come after us” on his lips; the heroic Mother Merk, an old woman, out of the party, who gains dignity and purpose in life when she is entrusted with the secret hiding places of the arms caches and who, in her determination to continue the struggle, even after the defeat and the death of her only son, expresses the indomitable will of the proletariat to liberation; and, above all, the extraordinary figure of Franze, a drummer in the symphony orchestra, who gives tragic stature to his ridiculous personality by his devotion to the proletarian struggle through his last act: dragging his dying body to a comrade’s house in order to inform them of a police spy whom he has uncovered – these are a gallery of unforgettable characters.

If Hoellering had pared his book down only to the sections in which the revolt of the workers is described, it would have been a far better novel than it is. But even with all its technical imperfections, it is an extraordinarily moving account of one of the most heroic of all proletarian struggles; and as such it deserves to be read by all to whom the working class revolution is more than a mere reminiscence of past youthfulness.

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