The 1930s was a pivotal decade for the whole sweep of European and, indeed, world history. The decade saw the fascist forces move from strength to strength and the failure to check them led inevitably to the cataclysm of World War II. One of my favourite histories of the period is Between Two Fires, by acclaimed historian David Clay Large. Large adopts an intriguing approach to his history of the rising tide of conflict and violence that so fractured European society and led to the consolidation of power for Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, and Horthy in Hungary. He chronicles a growing intolerance for left wing political movements, and for Jews and other minorities. Large writes individual chapters on key events in each of the major European countries. Generally, the chapters illustrate in dramatic terms just why the great poet W. H. Auden would refer to the period as the “low, dishonest decade.”
Between Two Fires is much more carefully constructed than most academic histories and is filled with wit and eloquence.
I would like to focus on just two of the book’s chapters here, as they provide a neat contrast between Britain and most of Continental Europe in that era. The chapter entitled “The Death of Red Vienna” centers on an important trial, which demonstrated to left-wingers in Austria, and particularly to the highly popular Social Democrats, just how unfair the established institutions were and how they would operate in a way to deny equal treatment and halt progressive movements in their tracks. After the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire at the end of the First World War, the small country of Austria came into being, with Vienna, the capital, dominating what had emerged as a “dwarf republic.” Whereas the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been steered by a series of somewhat conservative Hapsburg rulers, the center of power in the new democratic age had shifted to workers and those members of the middle class dedicated to eradicating the inequalities of the past. The new constitution, in affording democratic rights and free speech, and creating a federal structure, opened up splendid opportunities for progressive political developments. The Social Democrats swept into power and throughout the 1920s implemented a series of measures to assist the working class by creating affordable housing, providing new educational opportunities for all, and extending social welfare programs to lift the Viennese out of poverty. Indeed, Vienna became something of a mecca for young and enthusiastic writers and intellectuals from Britain and elsewhere, who viewed the city-state as the true beacon for a progressive, democratic socialist future.
Unsurprisingly, those who considered they had much to lose under the new political order, the wealthy and the remaining members of the aristocratic class, were unprepared to accept such substantial changes without a struggle. As the ‘20s wore on, both the hard right and the left developed small armies of supporters, which became paramilitary organizations. They were outfitted with weapons and from time to time threatened violence against their opponents. In 1927 a battle took place resulting in the murder of a socialist supporter and an 8-year-old bystander. Also, a number of other Social Democrat supporters were seriously wounded. It was ascertained that the responsible individuals were members of the quasi-fascist veterans group, The Front Fighters.
The trial of three members of the Front Fighters on murder charges, to be decided by a jury, was an intense and closely watched event. The use of juries in criminal trials was a recent innovation in Austrian law and many Viennese undoubtedly placed considerable faith in the trial process. Large provides vivid details, however, of the role played by the reactionary press in shaping the opinion of conservative members of the middle class, and quite possibly the jury itself, in the process of creating sympathy for the accused. State officials, including the prosecutor, spoke repeatedly of the irresponsible conduct of the left-wingers in fomenting fear and unrest. In the end, the jury acquitted the men of all charges. Riots and continued disturbances broke out in the following months.
The trial might be seen as a symbolic turning of the tide, as the hard right appeared more confident of its abilities to roll back the initiatives of the left in subsequentBetween Two Fires is much more carefully constructed than most academic histories and is filled with wit and eloquence. years. Although the Social Democrats continued to hold power, ultimately civil war broke out between “Red” and “Black” Vienna, with the latter holding more and more of the cards. Unemployment increased in the 1930s and rather than providing adequate relief, the new government of Chancellor Englebert Dollfus drastically shrank the social safety net. In April of 1933 Dollfuss illegally confiscated a massive sum – 22 million schillings – from the Socialist municipal government shortly after he had suspended parliamentary government altogether. Black Vienna would prove to be victorious in the Civil War that followed in 1934.
Some of those British political activists and writers who had been so impressed by the democratic socialist achievements rushed to the aid of the beleaguered Social Democrats. Hugh Gaitskell, later to become leader of the Labour Party, worked tirelessly on behalf of socialists who were facing imminent arrest and lengthy imprisonment. He had the assistance of the historical novelist Naomi Mitchison who recounts their experiences in her Vienna Diary. The Diary gives a gripping account of the tense and fearful moments that the small band of British sympathizers had in attempting to save the many young socialists from their grim fate. By the time they left, 170 wanted Viennese had escaped through Gaitskell’s network and many others were given some financial and practical assistance.
The blow that the crushing of the Viennese Spring had on the hopes of progressives throughout Europe is captured brilliantly in Christopher Isherwood’s novel Prater Violet. There, characters on the set of a film being made in Berlin react with growing horror at the news of the declaration of martial law, massive arrests and the grotesquely unfair trials that followed. One of the men referred to by Isherwood is also discussed by Large in Between Two Fires. The leading socialist Koloman Wallisch is said to have performed brilliantly in his own defence, but the whole effort is futile. In fact, we learn that gallows were being constructed outside the court during the proceedings. His execution and the requirement that white flags be raised in the workers’ tenements serve as a requiem for what had been a hopeful social revolution.
The trial of three members of the Front Fighters on murder charges, to be decided by a jury, was an intense and closely watched event. The use of juries in criminal trials was a recent innovation in Austrian law and many Viennese undoubtedly placed considerable faith in the trial process.By contrast, Large’s chapter on Britain takes us into a quite different world. The Jarrow Crusade, as it was called, was a large-scale peaceful demonstration, protesting the callous disregard of the needs of the entire community of Jarrow, in northern England. The major shipyard had been closed and uncaring businessmen liquidated the assets with no thought of the needs of the human dereliction which followed. The Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin had no plan to alleviate the immense suffering. A municipal councillor and politicians from all parties joined forces, together with community leaders, to organize a march all the way to Parliament in distant London. The feisty democratic socialist MP, “Red” Ellen Wilkinson, became the leading voice for the unemployed.
What one is struck most by in reading Large’s account is the immense dignity and pride of the many unemployed who took part in the march. They displayed patience and perseverance in making visible to the remote politicians the effect of the bankrupt policies they were pursuing. This rather remarkable exercise of free speech and free assembly unfortunately did not have any impact on government policy.
World War II then intervened.At the end of that conflict a new government, Labour, headed by Clement Attlee and including “Red” Ellen Wilkinson in cabinet, developed measures to ensure that wide-scale unemployment and demeaning laws like the “Means Test” would be relegated to the dustbin of history.