When one looks at modern European history, two names usually come to mind, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Although, both Italy and Germany did play a major role in the run up to World War II, another nation was just as important, Austria.
Austria was not just the birthplace of Adolf Hitler but also of "The Forgotten Dictator", Engelbert Dollfuss. Dollfuss was born in Texingtale, Austria, and served in the First World War, then studied law and economics for several years. He was appointed several different positions in Austria, ranging from managing railways to overseeing agricultural operations. In 1931, Dollfuss was appointed Minister of Agriculture and Forests.
Dollfuss slowly gained political power in Austria mainly due to the Great Depression and its dire effects on the Austrian population. In 1933, the same year that Hitler came to power in Germany, Dollfuss merged the Christian Social Party with the Patriotic Front. Dollfuss outmaneuvered his political adversaries and became dictator of Austria. Once in power, he controlled all aspects of people's lives, just as Hitler did in Germany.
Austria became a fascist state just like Italy and Germany. Interestingly by 1933, Dollfuss and Mussolini became close allies and Germany was seen as their common enemy. Dollfuss viewed Hitler as a potential threat to Austrian and Italian independence. Germany was also seen as an obstacle in Austria and Italy's way, which may have prevented them from annexing local territories.
Dollfuss's ideas of Austrofascism were directly modeled after Italian Fascism. Dollfuss believed in extreme nationalism, private property, territorial annexation, and a powerful military. He was especially intrigued by Mussolini’s concept of irredentism, which is part of the fascist ideology pertaining to a country annexing former territories. If Austria could follow in Mussolini's footsteps of recreating a vast empire, Austria could have potentially amassed an empire of its own.
Dollfuss made sure that the threats of Nazism and Soviet Communism would never reach the doorsteps of Austria. The Nazi party in Austria was banned and the short Austrian Civil War was won by the austrofascists. This ultimately led to the banning of all socialist parties in Austria. Dollfuss made it a priority to ensure the Austrian people that Hitler would never enter the country. Moreover, he felt that being supported by Italy gave him considerable military backing.
On July, 25 1934, Dollfuss was shot dead by ten Austrian Nazis under the direct orders of Hitler.Mussolini had lost his closest ally. Furthermore, Mussolini lost an essential buffer zone that was supposed to contain Nazi Germany. In response to the assassination of Dollfuss, Mussolini immediately mobilized the Italian army to the Austrian border and threatened war against Hitler if he were to attempt to annex Austria.
These events were immensely important to both Italy and Germany because this was the first time that Hitler was directly challenged by another western European power. Hitler was shocked to see how many Italians were distraught over the death of Dollfuss. Hitler eventually decided to tell the Italians that he deeply regretted Dollfuss's death and made a formal apology. This was just one of Hitler's strategies to avert a potential Italian military campaign against Germany. At this time Germany's military was still in its early phases of modernization. A war with Italy could have drastically damaged Germany's military capabilities and the morale of the German army and its citizens. Hitler and his generals didn't necessarily fear Mussolini’s army, but were extraordinarily concerned about an ongoing military confrontation which may have been drawn-out over a long period of time. This conflict may have drawn other nations such as Britain and France into the war, potentially against Nazi Germany. Hitler knew that a war with Italy would create a gargantuan dilemma for Germany.
There is no doubt that Dollfuss was a brutal fascist dictator that stripped basic rights and democracy from all Austrians. But one must realize that Dollfuss was a man that stood up to Hitler and Nazism directly. One must wonder; what may have happened if Mussolini and Dollfuss attempted to attack Germany as early as 1934? On the other hand, one also should think about what a potential Italian assault on Germany could have looked like after Dollfuss's assassination?
Dollfuss will always be remembered as a forgotten dictator in European history, but more importantly, one should remember him as the first dictator to directly defy Hitler!