Book review

Hitler's Hometown: Linz, Austria, 1908-1945

Reviewed by John M. Ries

Tracing the transition of Linz, Austria from a peaceful Danubian êntrepot in the waning years of the Emperor Franz Josef to one of Europe's major industrial and manufacturing centers, this comprehensive account by Evan Burr Buckey is a worthy addition to the growing list of specialized studies in Central European history. The development of Linz and the surrounding countryside of Upper Austria since the early years of this century is a sort of microcosm of the problems and solutions that have beset German-Austria. Dominated by three major political elites, the Christian Socials, the German Nationalists, and the Social Democrats, Linz became somewhat of an exception to the prevailing pattern of sociopolitical activity through the development of a “moderate political culture.” This was largely the work of the provincial governor (Landeshauptmann) of Upper Austria from 1908 until his death in 1925, the so-called “red prelate,” Johann Nepomuk Hauser. Hauser believed in democratic political rule and was instrumental in establishing the first measure toward universal manhood suffrage in Linz as early as 1908, through a phasing out of the strict property requirements for voting.. His ability to convince the competing elites of the merits of compromise assured his continued popularity, enabling him to become the only provincial governor to survive the transition from imperial to republican rule in 1918-1919.

The 1920's produced the same conflicts in Linz as in the rest of Austria, with the exception that they were kept in bounds due to the moderate, democratic tradition established by Hauser and carried on by his successor, Josef Schlegel. Mr. Buckey ably describes the state of balance that existed between Social Democratic Linz, protected by its paramilitary Republican Defense Corps (Schützbund), and the Upper Austrian countryside, where quasi-fascist organizations, led by Prince Starhemberg's Heimwehr, tried to gain control. Eventually, the forces of reaction won out, as the Austrian Civil War in February 1934 put an end to parliamentary government in Linz and Upper Austria.

From the standpoint of this reviewer, and perhaps for the readers of the Journal as well, it seems that the author's treatment of the less familiar, and somewhat controversial, years from the Anschluss up to the end of World War Two should bear the closest scrutiny. Accordingly, it is with the period 1938-1945 that the remaining portion of this review is concerned.

Beginning with the entry of German troops into Linz itself around noon on the 12th of March, 1938, there seemed little doubt as to where the citizens of this once “rather dull and unexciting capital” of the province of Upper Austria stood with respect to the impending re-unification. Indeed, Hitler, who had grown up in Linz, was so struck by the “wild jubilation” that greeted his arrival later that evening, that he “impulsively decided to abandon an earlier plan for a 'personal union' of Austria and Germany and to incorporate his homeland into the Reich.” In Linz, as elsewhere in the future Ostmark, “Blumen statt Bombenn ("flowers instead of bombs” was the order of the day.

Yet how do we account for such a “torrent of enthusiasm"?” Certainly, as Mr. Buckey clearly documents, the National Socialist seizure of power in Linz was “the direct result of German pressure and intervention. It did not occur as a consequence of a deal with traditional elites nor in the wake of a mass upheaval.” Moreover, the Catholic peasantry of the surrounding countryside would remain aloof and suspicious of the Third Reich throughout the next seven years. Whatever prompted the spontaneous display of approbation at the dissolution of the Austrian state can only be explained if we take into account the years its inhabitants had spent searching for a national identity, a quest that transcended class and party lines; a stagnating economy made worse by the recent effects of the worldwide Depression; and the prevailing belief that unification with a resurgent Germany would be a major improvement over the way things had been. In the end, therefore, it was the compelling desire for change, regardless of the consequences, that ultimately sanctioned what seemed to many on the outside as the “suicide of a state.”

And the changes would, indeed, be extensive. Mr. Buckey points to the measures “relieving social distress, especially by the Strength Through Joy [Kraft durch Freude] Organization, the revitalization of the Linz economy, and above all, the elimination of local unemployment within six months of the Anschluss” as decisive factors in the establishment of a popular consensus for the National Socialist regime. Considering the latter, in March 1938, of the some 37,120 people without jobs in Upper Austria, some 12,000 resided in Linz. Seven months later, in October, the number had dropped to 3,195 and 1,098, respectively. Within two years after the Anschluss, there would be as many as 13,900 unfilled jobs in the region.

Hitler's plans to transform his hometown into a “Second Budapest” received a great deal of personal attention, but while his patronage did not quite produce the extensive cultural changes that he had envisioned, it did contribute to the development of a major manufacturing center from the decaying remnants of a pre-industrial provincial capital. With an infusion of 60 million marks, courtesy of the director of the Four-Year Plan, a massive industrial complex arose, focusing on the appropriately named Hermann Göring Steel Works. Also, a nitrogen plant, a chemical works, and other large scale enterprises manufacturing aluminum, artificial fibers, and armaments began to spring up. The period of National Socialist rule in Linz, as “brutal and capricious” as it may have been, witnessed the creation of a modern industrial city. Outmoded structures and interest groups, recalcitrant labor unions and leftist parties — all were altered through a thorough reworking of the entire economic system. In the process, it was the Reich Germans who “played the most conspicuous role since they alone possessed the vision and the capital” to effect the desired changes.

Outside of the Hitler regime's economic program, a great deal of local support for the National Socialist government rested on its anti-Jewish and anti-clerical policies. In an earlier section of the book, Mr. Buckey describes how the German Nationalist followers of the nortorious Judeophobe Georg Ritter von Schönerer gained strong support in Linz during the first decades of this century, even controlling the municipal council from 1900-1919. Anti-Semitism had also been encouraged by the Church and was perhaps reflected to a great extent in the enthusiasm demonstrated by the local peasantry in the anti-Jewish measures taken by the National Socialists following the Anschluss. Indeed, given this background, it may come as no surprise to learn that “the Nazi seizure of power in Hitler's hometown began with a pogrom.” During the ensuing months, the relatively small number of Jews (there seemed to be around 1000 at the time of the Anschluss) who lived in Linz was significantly reduced, many either volunteering or being forced to leave. The assertion that the remnant who decided to remain following the Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938) “perished in the 'final solution' in mid-summer 1942” is open to question from a Revisionist standpoint.

The anti-clerical policies of the National Socialist government were also supported strongly by the town population, going back to a long tradition of opposition to Church authority. Schools were closed, priests deported or imprisoned, and other restrictions were imposed, all against the sustained opposition of local Bishop Gföllner, who, according to Mr. Buckey, “may have been the only bishop in Germany and Austria to have opposed National Socialism for two decades.” As it turned out, these and similiar policies by the government cost the regime the allegiance and support of the region's Catholic peasantry.

The prolonged effects of the war did not seem to weaken seriously the National Socialist consensus in Linz, at least until late 1944, when the suffering due to food shortages, disease, and repeated bombing began to take its toll. Only then did the Hitler regime begin to be perceived as an alien domination. This is perhaps underscored by the resistance movements which sprang up in Linz over the preceding few years: all seemed to be mainly concerned with ending the war rather than Nazi rule. In this sense, they should more properly be called “peace movements.”

I highly recommend this excellent study of an important city in recent Austrian history not only for its own sake but also as a valuable preparation for the eventual appearance of that definitive modern history of Austria which we are all anxiously awaiting.


Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 380-382.