DOLLFUSS: An Austrian Patriot, by Fr Johannes Messner

DOLLFUSS: An Austrian Patriot, by Fr Johannes Messner

Alice von Hildebrand

Alice von Hildebrand's tribute to Dollfus, the Austrian Chancellor murdered by Nazis

DOLLFUSS: An Austrian Patriot
by Fr Johannes Messner

(IHS Press, 2004, 160pp, $25.95. Available from AD Books)

This is an edited version of Alice von Hildebrand's foreword to the above book. Dr Hildebrand is the widow of the great philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand.

Journalism has its ironic side. How often are long columns devoted to the obituary of a man whose name, just a few months after his death, will be buried for ever. Dostoyevsky's biting humour had this in mind when he wrote in A Raw Youth: "... all these talented gentlemen of the middling sort who are sometimes in their lifetime accepted almost as geniuses, pass out of memory quite suddenly and without a trace when they die."

On the other hand, there are some truly great men who are so maligned by an antagonistic press during their lifetime that, even though their names make the headlines when they die (or are murdered), history must "rediscover" them.

How grateful, then, must we be to IHS Press for republishing Johannes Messner's book on Engelbert Dollfuss. Written by someone who knew the Chancellor of Austria - who was later to be murdered by Nazi agents - it makes us realise that this victim of National Socialism deserves to be placed upon a pedestal as one of the very great political leaders of the 20th century - and possibly as one of the finest Catholic statesmen of all time.

Why, then, should his name be unknown to the overwhelming majority of American and English citizens who have no sympathy at all for National Socialism and who should therefore be eager to have an acquaintance with one of the most remarkable of its opponents?

Evil of Nazism

Dollfuss was one of the few political leaders of the day who saw with matchless clarity the evil of the National Socialist philosophy and who, in spite of the weakness of his country, which had been largely dismembered in the wake of World War I, became a new David confronting a new Goliath, Adolf Hitler.

It is for this reason that the book by Johannes Messner is to be highly welcomed: he gives the reader a superb view of who this man was, of his philosophy, of the inhuman difficulties that he was facing, of his courage and wisdom, of his goodness and sense of justice, of his deep faith, and of his martyrdom. It is thanks to Fr Messner, then, that history will finally do justice to Engelbert Dollfuss.

This is a book that fascinates the reader. Well translated, it presents facts with precision and clarity. It offers innumerable quotations taken from the writings and speeches of Dollfuss, and it permits readers to draw their own conclusions.

It should be welcomed not only because of its historical value, but also because it teaches contemporary statesmen a lesson: that one can be a good Catholic and a fine statesman; and that being a Catholic statesman means being someone who serves his country selflessly, someone for whom political power means to be at the service of his country, someone who is not ambitious, someone who does not seek to fill his own pockets, someone who does not seek to be served, but merely seeks to serve.

Some political leaders are hated because they deserve to be hated. Some are hated because they have the courage to oppose the Zeitgeist - the spirit of the age - and proclaim boldly a truth that is unpalatable to man's fallen nature.

Dollfuss was much loved by those who understood that he was their friend: as a Catholic, as an Austrian patriot, as one of "them." But his very goodness and his political clear- sightedness were bound to trigger the hatred of those who had endorsed evil causes: be it National Socialism, Communism, or Liberalism.

No one could have foreseen that the talented, modest, little man who was Engelbert Dollfuss - born of peasant parents, raised in rural conditions and accustomed to hard, agricultural work, devoted to his country, first serving humbly in the army during World War I and then pursuing a modest career of public service - would ultimately be compelled by circumstances to rise to meet some of the most decisive challenges that Austria would face during the first turbulent years of the 1930s.

When on 4 March 1933, the Austrian Parliament was dissolved, Dollfuss, who was already serving as Chancellor, saw with remarkable clarity that the call of the hour was to create an authoritative government which alone would have a chance of opposing the terrible threat outside its borders - National Socialism - and the violent threat within its borders - Communism.

Hitler had taken power in Germany just thirty-three days earlier, and Dollfuss understood that only a strong, internally united government based upon Catholic principles could raise Christ's banner and wage a spiritual war against Nazi paganism and Soviet Russia's atheism.

Mortal divisiveness

From early in 1933 it became apparent to the Chancellor that, regardless of his affections for German civilisation and the greater Germany, the Nazism of Berlin was quickly becoming yet another force that was contributing to the mortal divisiveness plaguing the country.

Divided between supporters of Nazism, Communism, and Liberalism, the latter two of which Dollfuss had already begun to contend with, the Austrian political situation looked as if it were beyond human repair.

Many were those who, hating Communism, became ardent Nazis; and many were those who, hating Nazism, turned to Communism - most failing to understand that these two seemingly opposite views were animated by the same anti-Christian ethos.

However, he saw that only a philosophy based on Christian principles, and following the precepts of the wonderful encyclical of Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, could build a dam to protect Austria.

Dollfuss, the modern David, knew that he was fighting a Goliath, but, like the man who was to become a great king to his people, he put all his confidence in God and used all the means at his disposal to save his country from the severe crises which confronted it during his brief Chancellorship.

The most severe of those crises was probably the socialist revolt of February 1934, during which Dollfuss was compelled to employ the army, and several hundred troops and agitators lost their lives.

The tragedy of the situation was only magnified by the treasonous way in which some leading Catholics, including the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who had just two months before expressed to my husband, Dietrich, his admiration for Dollfuss, slandered the Chancellor as one who trampled upon the workers.


To his (not surprising) credit, however, Chesterton saw the truth of the matter, and of Dollfuss's career. Writing in The End of the Armistice, he praised Dollfuss as "a small man of poor and peasant ancestry, stood up by the ancient instinct of such ancestry, resolved to save the remnant of the Roman civilisation of Germany."

My husband, like Messner, knew Chancellor Dollfuss personally, and was both inspired by his Catholic statesmanship, and filled with profound sorrow when he was murdered. Dietrich had sought earnestly to do his part to assist the Dollfuss Government in reaching its objectives, and he had been personally encouraged by the Chancellor to put his writing, teaching, and philosophical talents at the service of Austria.

Dollfuss supported my husband's effort to establish a journal that would attack both Nazism and Communism simultaneously, which in those days was a unique enterprise.

While Dietrich had wanted a name for the journal that emphasised specifically the fight against National Socialism, Dollfuss's associates insisted the journal be named after the chief idea of the "new" Austria.

That the Dollfuss Government took such a position on the importance of the Corporate ideal is not surprising, given the Chancellor's own commitment to the medieval heritage of Social and Corporate Catholicism that he was seeking to build upon.

Hence his comment to my husband upon their first meeting: "For me the fight against National Socialism is essentially a fight in defence of the Christian conception of the world. Whereas Hitler wants to revive the old Germanic paganism, I want to revive the Christian Middle Ages".

In support of that great idea, and out of devotion to its greatest modern exponent, my husband composed his own work on the Chancellor shortly after his assassination: Engelbert Dollfuss: Ein Katholicher Staatsman.

Fr Messner's book, meanwhile, emphasises the crucial aim of Engelbert Dollfuss: to establish a truly Catholic state. Shortly before his murder, Dollfuss said: "It is not power or riches that will make for the happiness of nations, but interior peace, agreement and harmony among individuals. For this we do not need empty piety; but we do intend to be upright, honourable and resolute men. We do intend to become better and nobler men in accordance with Christian principles, and to behave as such in regard to our fellows ...".

"It is sound statesmanship," he continued, "to foster and encourage a life of religion."

It is likely that because of those high ideals, the death which Dollfuss died - a direct consequence of his commitment to them - was that of a martyr. That martyrdom, too, Fr Messner relates with poignancy and emotion. His book, however, ought not to be merely the occasion for learning about the sacrifices, struggles, and death of a great Catholic leader. It must also be an encouragement to imitate him in all the actions of our own lives.

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