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Sylvia Merrill

Tribute to Austrian Workers
Who Fought Fascism in 1934

(March 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 10, 6 March 1944, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On that day of March 1933, when the newspapers declared to the world that Adolph Hitler had been appointed Chancellor, the whole labor movement felt it had been dealt a great blow. The year following the triumphant rise to power of the German fascists was a very gloomy one.

The great German socialist, communist and trade union movements had gone down before the greatest enemy of labor – without a struggle. The cowardice of the German Social-Democratic leaders and their fanatic adherence to only legal forms of struggle, while the labor movement was being persecuted in violation of the constitution every day, and the treachery of the German Communist Party in their ultra-radical phrases which led them to refuse a united front with the most conservative sections of the labor movement, gave the fascists a clear road to victory.

Yes, they were depressing days – the great German labor movement was smashed!

Lessons Not Learned

Almost immediately after, the Austrian fascists, emboldened by the victory of their German cohorts, began to attack the Austrian labor movement. But the lessons of the German events had not been learned by the Austrian socialist leadership. The Austrian socialist leaders, like their German leaders, gave the wrong answer to the provocations, the parades into workers’ districts by the Heimwehr (Austrian Storm Troopers), the fighting, the house arrests, the breaking up of meetings and attacking of workers’ headquarters, the beating up of workers. They merely pleaded with Dollfuss and Fey, heads of the government, not to violate the Constitution, and the Austrian Schutzbund (Workers’ Defense Guards) were told not to be “provoked” by the outrages against the working class.

Were we to see the German events repeated on a smaller scale?

Austrian Workers Fought Back

On February 12, 1934, the first shots were fired by the workers in defense of their homes and headquarters. Those first shots were shots of hope and courage. Workers all over the world lifted their heads with pride and hope. The Austrian workers would not take it lying down. They would fight to protect their lives, their homes, their hard-won gains.

If their leaders had not learned how to struggle against fascism, the workers of Austria knew it was fatal to continue to swallow the insults heaped upon them and their organizations by the fascists. The workers of the city of Linz could no longer carry out the desires of their leaders “not to be provoked.” They were fighting. When the news reached Vienna, the leaders had no choice but to call a general strike.

But they had waited too long. They had threatened to strike, but instead of preparing the workers for it by a period of struggles with the fascists and climaxing it with the strike, they had permitted the workers to be brow-beaten and pushed around for so long that the final step of the general strike was like a bolt out of the blue. Therefore, the struggle was carried out only by the most courageous, the most bold. It was carried out by those who understood that to permit the fascists to come to power without a struggle was to accept death without a fight.

A Heroic Defense

For seven brave days the workers defended themselves in the streets of Austria’s cities. For seven brave days they fought with their rifles and home-made hand grenades against the howitzers, mortars, machine guns and other weapons of modern warfare, mustered by the government.

In Vienna the workers barricaded themselves in the model apartment houses, the Karl Marx Hof, where they defended themselves with their primitive arms. The government replied by shelling them out.

The socialist headquarters in one of the working class sections destroyed by the fascist Heimwehr was described by a New York Times correspondent as follows:

“For a parallel to the picture that the ruins of this building and the movie theater next door presented one would have to turn to photographs of Chateau-Thierry or some other well-shelled town in the World War. The front was shot to pieces, all the windows were gone and the roof was damaged. Pieces of the building cumbered the road, together with masses of broken glass, thousands and thousands of cartridge cases and clips, both exploded and ‘bad,’ minnenwerfers, and every kind of debris.”

Despite their vacillation, many of the leaders of the Austrian Socialist Party fought side by side with the workers on the barricades. Some were caught by the fascists and shot. Some escaped to Czechoslovakia.

The fighting, which lasted a week, were shots of hope to the international working class. Many of the workers were hunted until they took refuge in sewers, from which they continued to fight. They were defeated – but they had shown the way. They had taught a lesson – a lesson in blood. ONLY THE WORKING CLASS CAN LEAD THE STRUGGLE AGAINST FASCISM – BECAUSE. FASCISM IS DIRECTED AGAINST THE WORKERS.

They Were the First

The memory of the struggle of the Austrian workers against fascism is for the working class a sad one – for the Austrian workers were defeated. But it is not mourning with bowed head and tears, but with anger and defiance that we commemorate their defeat. THEY WERE THE FIRST TO TAKE UP ARMS. All others – including the “democratic” governments of England, France and the United States – appeased the fascists and provided Dollfuss with money to support his dictatorship.

On this tenth anniversary of their gallant struggle we pay tribute to these socialist fighters – the first to raise the banner of the working class in struggle against fascism.

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