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|Communist Party of Austria
Kommunistische Partei Österreichs
|Leader||Joint leadership of Melina Klaus and Mirko Messner|
|Founded||November 3, 1918|
|European affiliation||Party of the European Left|
|European Parliament group||European United Left - Nordic Green Left|
|Politics of Austria
The Communist Party of Austria (German: Kommunistische Partei Österreichs, or KPÖ) is a communist party based in Austria. Established in 1918, it was banned between 1933 and 1945 under both the Austrofascist regime, and German control of Austria during World War II. It played an important role in the Austrian resistance against the Nazis and fascism.
The party publishes a newspaper called Volksstimmen (previously Volksstimme) and stands in elections, however, it has not had representation in the federal parliament since 1959. After losing its last representative in a state parliament, in Styria in 1970, it has become a fringe movement with limited political significance. At the National Council elections held on November 22, 2002, it won only 0.56% of the votes (27,568 out of a total of 4,909,645), well below the 4% minimum to obtain seats in the National Council. However, it received an exceptional 20% of the vote in the 2003 Graz local elections, and in 2005 it returned to its first state parliament in 35 years after winning 6.3% of the vote in Styria.
The KPÖ was officially established on the 3 November 1918. Due to the Allies' sea blockade during the First World War, there was a supply shortage in Austria, resulting in workers protests. Such tactics included strikes such as the 1918 "Jännerstreik". Concurrent with the Russian October Revolution, the left wing of the workers' movement established the KPÖ. Ruth Fischer, Franz Koritschoner and Lucien Laurat were among the co-founders.
Attempts to establish a Räterepublik (republican system of councillors) in Austria resulted in developments different to those in Germany or Russia, as the Räte were able to establish themselves in only isolated, high-population density areas such as Vienna and the industrial areas of Upper Austria. However, a "Red Guard" (Rote Garde) was formed and soon integrated with the Volkswehr (People's Resistance Army). On November 12, 1918 there was an attempted coup d'état, which was not professionally organised and not authorised by the Soviet government. Within hours, the coup was smashed.
During the First Republic, the KPÖ had little influence and failed to gain a single mandate in parliament, in part because of the ability of the Social Democratic Party SPÖ| ability to unite the workers as an opposition movement. In parallel with the ascent of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1920s, the KPÖ was also refashioned in an authoritarian direction.
In 1933 the KPÖ was banned by an emergency decree of the Austrofascist government of Engelbert Dollfuß but continued to work underground. According to its own sources, the KPÖ had been prepared for this situation since the end of the 1920s. After the Social Democratic Party was also forbidden, many former SPÖ supporters and functionaries, such as Ernst Fischer and Christian Broda, worked underground with the KPÖ.
The KPÖ took part in the workers rebellion of February 12, 1934, which was sparked by the militia Republikanischer Schutzbund. It marked the last attempt to save the democracy from fascism, but was ill fated.
Because the KPÖ had disagreed with Stalin’s branding of social democracy as a form of "social fascism" since the 1920s, the Austrian communists were the avantgarde in their dissent. Their refusal to condemn the Social Democrats reflected aspects of the 7th World Congress of the Comintern in 1935. The Austrian communists' tolerant stance opened their party to an influx of more disappointed Social Democrats.
After the crushing of the February 1934 uprising by the federal army and the Heimwehr, the KPÖ grew rapidly from 4,000 to 16,000 members.
The KPÖ also took an independent stance from the mainstream in its views about nationhood and an Austrian identity separate from Germany:
"The view that the Austrian people are a part of the German nation is theoretically unfounded. A union of the German nation, in which also the Austrians are included, never existed and does not exist today either. The Austrian people have lived under different economic and political conditions than the remaining Germans in the "Reich", and have therefore chosen another national development. How far this process of a national development is, and/or how close the connections from the common descent and common language are, only a concrete investigation of its history can answer that." (Note: free translation)
Original: "Die Auffassung, daß das österreichische Volk ein Teil der deutschen Nation ist, ist theoretisch unbegründet. Eine Einheit der deutschen Nation, in der auch die Österreicher miteinbezogen sind, hat es bisher nie gegeben und gibt es auch heute nicht. Das österreichische Volk hat unter anderen wirtschaftlichen und politischen Lebensbedingungen gelebt als die übrigen Deutschen im Reich und daher eine andere nationale Entwicklung genommen. Wie weit bei ihm der Prozeß der Herausbildung zu einer besonderen Nation fortgeschritten ist bzw. Wie eng noch die nationalen Bindungen aus der gemeinsamen Abstammung und gemeinsamen Sprache sind, kann nur eine konkrete Untersuchung seiner Geschichte ergeben." (Alfred Klahr, also known as "Rudolf"): Zur nationalen Frage in Österreich; in: Weg und Ziel, 2. Jahrgang (1937), Nr. 3. These comments were written by the leading communist intellectual Alfred Klahr (under his pseudonym "Rudolf"), after being asked in 1936 by the communist leadership in exile in Prague if the theoretical notion of an independent Austrian nation separate from Germany existed. In contrast, many Austrian Social Democrats regarded the affiliation to the German nation as natural and even desirable. Echoing the thoughts of Klahr, the KPÖ expressed its firm conviction in an independent Austria when the country was annexed to Nazi Germany in March 1938. In their historical call "An das österreichische Volk" ("To the Austrian People"), the party denounced Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship and called on all people to fight together for an independent Austria.
As a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, a number of Austrian communists-in-exile, such as KPÖ founder member Franz Koritschoner, were deported from the Soviet Union and handed over to the Nazis. After war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Soviets quickly reverted their stance and tried to support the Austrian Communists against their former allies.
During the Third Reich, the communists played an important role in the Austrian resistance, fighting side-by-side with former political enemies such as Christian socialists, Catholics, Monarchists, and farmers against the regime of Hitler. Thus the KPÖ took seriously the order of the Allied Powers in the Moscow Declaration from October 1943, which called for Austria's "own contribution" to its liberation from fascism as a condition for the resurrection of their own state. Over 2,000 communists lost their lives during the course of the resistance. There was also an Austrian communist resistance network in Belgium, the Österreichische Freiheitsfront.
There is some disagreement amongst historians if the Austrian communists fought the Nazis out of pure patriotism or if they followed the pattern of the fight of communism against fascism in general. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. The Austrian communists wanted their country free from German occupation as much as they wanted it to become communist.
After Austria regained its freedom from Germany, the party briefly reached national importance because it was in part able to count on the support of the occupying Soviet authorities. In the first provisional government under Karl Renner, the KPÖ was represented by seven members along with ten socialists and nine Christian socialists (see also the article about building of the Renner’s government in eLib the Austria project). Party chairman Johann Koplenig became vice-chancellor, Franz Honner responsible for home affairs, and Ernst Fischer was in charge of education. However, Renner outflanked the Communists by having two undersecretaries in each ministry. During the years of national reconstruction, the KPÖ vehemently criticised the "capitalistic reconstruction at the expense of the working class" and totally rejected the Marshall Plan.
The Communists assured the Soviets that they could win as much as 30% of the vote in the first National Council elections in 1945. However, the KPÖ won only 5.4% of the votes (approximately 175,000 votes) and was thus represented with only four members in the Austrian parliament. Nevertheless, chancellor Leopold Figl offered the party a ministerial position in the government and Karl Altmann was made Minister for Energy. With the beginning of the Cold War and the continuing arguments around the Marshall Plan, Altmann resigned in 1947 from his office and the KPÖ became an opposition party.
Because the post-war national economy was totally destroyed, the government had to institute an austere programme of recovery. The planned measures (Viertes Lohn- und Preisabkommen, Fourth wage and price-fixing agreement) included substantial price increases but much smaller wage increases and large-scale strike movements formed in protest from September 26 to October 6, 1950. This, the largest strike action in the post-war history of Austria, started in the Steyr and Voest factories and the nitrogen plants in the American zone of occupation. However, the interruption of the strike to legitimise it with a conference of all Austrian work councils took the momentum out of the movement and in the second phase the concentration of strikes shifted to the Soviet zone of occupation. In the Soviet occupied districts of Vienna, communist commandos stormed power stations and tram-depots. The Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) rejected the strike. The KPÖ took a prominent role in this strike, which is why politicians of the grand coalition feared a coup d'état behind the strikes, with the goal of the installation of a people's republic. The KPÖ denied any such intentions.
On October 5 the chairman of the Building and Wood workers Trade Union, Franz Olah, succeeded in the dissolution of the October strikes. Olah organised workers who supported the SPÖ, in clashes with the communists they were able to outnumber and defeat them. This caused great irritation with the communist party and many SPÖ members. The fact that the Soviet Red Army did not interfere also brought the strike to an end.
During the 10-year allied occupation from 1945–55, the threat of national division similar to that which befell post-war Germany loomed large. The Iron Curtain was dividing the European continent into two halves. Previously kept top-secret documents in the archives in Moscow have recently been made available to the public. The so-called Sondermappe contains valuable information about loans given to the provisional Austrian government of Renner, as well as about the extent of Soviet support and influence on the KPÖ and events in Austria. In December 2005, the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften) published a new report, as a finale to the jubilee year of 50 years of Austrian independence since World War II. The report, which has been summarised in the book Sowjetische Politik in Österreich 1945-1955 by the historian Werner Mueller, reveals that the leadership of the KPÖ was in constant contact with the Soviet authorities and Moscow. The ÖVP and the SPÖ were able to win the majority of the votes in parliamentary elections on November 25, 1945 (St. Catherine's Day, therefore the elections became known as the Katharinen-Wahl), the KPÖ surprisingly won only four mandates. The KPÖ representative in Moscow, Friedrich Hexmann (b. 1900 – d. 1991) had to present a report to the Politburo with proposals on how to improve the situation for the party. The problem with the strategy of the communists was their goal to build a future coalition (Volksfront) with the socialists. This however meant that the difference between the KPÖ and the SPÖ was not very apparent, which meant severe losses to the communists. There were also several other problems back then with the party’s ideology:
Retrospectively, it can be assumed that especially the closeness of the KPÖ to Moscow made many voters wary of the party and its aims. In the former territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, multiparty democracies were slowly but surely being penetrated and undermined by the local communist parties with the covert or even overt support of the Soviets, as was observable in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. As the Iron Curtain was being drawn closed, Austrians feared the same fate as their neighbours.
Talks between the leader Johann Koplenig and Stalin (Sondermappe Codename: Gen. Filipof(f)) resulted in proposals of a possible division of Austria between East and West, similar to Germany. Since the KPÖ was constantly losing votes in the parliamentary elections, a division and establishment of a communist-led East Austria would have been a practical way to consolidate at least a part of their dwindling power. Interestingly, the Soviet authorities in Moscow showed little interest for such a division for various reasons: the size of a newly established East Austria would have been quite small and may not have been capable of existing without massive assistance. Already, the situation in the Soviet sector of Austria was extremely difficult as the Soviets confiscated all industries, factories and goods and transported anything of economic value back to the Soviet Union as part of war-reparations. Strategically, a division of Austria would have ultimately meant that a West Austria, closely linked to NATO, would have provided a connection between West Germany and Italy. A united, neutral Austria however could act as a barrier, together with Switzerland, thereby securing a part of the Central European front for the Soviets. The proposals by the Austrian communists were therefore brushed aside.
Historians agree that Austria was extremely lucky considering the circumstances. Why was Austria spared the fate of a complete communist dictatorship unlike its neighbouring countries or even state division as in Germany? The position of the communists in Austria was not strong enough in order for them to effectively take over power, as opposed to in Czechoslovakia for example. The potentially important working class preferred to vote for the SPÖ; not even the great strike of 1950 could change that pattern. Besides, even though Austria and Vienna was divided up into four zones controlled by the Allies, similar to Germany and Berlin, an "East Austria" would have been unviable. Stalin was basically not willing to waste any further time and energy for this seemingly difficult situation, focusing rather on consolidation of the rest of eastern and central Europe under Moscow’s rule. The only realistic exit strategy was to come to some favourable agreement with the Americans, British, and French and restore Austria’s independence.
Moscow wanted a guarantee of neutrality as a pre-condition for the release of Austria into independence; the country would not be allowed to join either sides of the Iron Curtain. As negotiations got underway, the KPÖ changed its tactics. The KPÖ swerved to Moscow’s stance and supported the idea of neutrality during the negotiations of the Austrian State Treaty. Many members of the other parties, such as Leopold Figl, did not want neutrality but a firm anchoring with the West and NATO. However the Soviets were able to push this demand through. The Austrian State Treaty was voted upon on May 15, 1955, the declaration of neutrality proclaimed on October 26, 1955. This was decided in the National Council with the votes of the ÖVP, SPÖ and the KPÖ; the Federation of Independents (VdU, the forerunner of the FPÖ) voted against neutrality.
Because of the economic recovery and the end of the occupation in 1955, the protective power of the Soviet occupiers was lost to the KPÖ. The party lost a main pillar of support and was shaken by internal crisis. Just like most of the other communist parties around the world, the KPÖ had oriented itself towards Marxism-Leninism of the Stalinist brand. After Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev took over as chairman of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He pursued a course of reform and shocked delegates at the 20th Party Congress on February 23, 1956 by making his famous Secret Speech denouncing the "cult of personality" that surrounded Stalin. As a consequence of this "thaw" the KPÖ also dissociated itself from Stalinism. A thorough analysis of the causes and the erroneous interpretations connected with Stalinism as well as its negative impact on socialism and the communist world movement, however, took place only after the collapse of the communist bloc in 1989.
The party’s failure to condemn the bloody suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising led to a wave of withdrawals from the party. On May 10, 1959 the KPÖ lost the National Council elections, receiving 142,000 votes, 3.3% of the total tally and thus missing the 4% benchmark.
The invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops in 1968 during the Prague Spring was at first condemned by the KPÖ. However in 1971 the party revised its position and swung back to the Soviet side. A critic of these developments ("tank communism"), the former KPÖ Minister of Education, Ernst Fischer was expelled from the party and rehabilitated in only 1998.
Because of the continuiing fall in support, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the party flirted briefly with the idea of Eurocommunism. This was a new brand of communism, tailored specifically to western European needs, away from the diktat of Moscow and the eastern European communist parties. Eurocommunism was supposed to work within the framework of a liberal democracy without abandoning the aims of communism. This in turn provoked the protest of the core supporter, who saw little difference to socialism and feared a weakening of the communist cause. The leadership of the KPÖ eventually saw itself forced to backtrack on this new ideology and Eurocommunism was subsequently dropped, the party restoring the connections to the CPSU.
Having previously had 150,000 members in the first couple of post-war years, the party’s ranks shrank to around 35,000 in the 1960s and to a few thousands in the 1970s. As of 2005, membership stands at about 3,500 members.
The KPÖ was represented in the National Council from 1945 until 1959, in the state assemblies (Landtage) (partially with interruptions) of Salzburg until 1949, in Lower Austria until 1954, in the Burgenland until 1956, in Vienna until 1969 and in Carinthia as well as Styria until 1970. In Upper Austria, the Tyrol and Vorarlberg the KPÖ never won state representation. After losing its seats in the National Council and the state assemblies, the political emphasis shifted inevitably more strongly to enterprises and trade unions, the municipalities and starting from the 1970s to non-parliamentary alliance networks.
With the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the KPÖ saw itself confronted with new challenges about its philosophy and future. The experiment with a moderate form of Eurocommunism did not go down well with its core supporters; however, moderate voters could not be persuaded either. The KPÖ faced difficult times as communism and communist parties throughout the world were receding.
In January 1990 two new leaders, Walter Silbermayr and Susanne Sohn, stepped in to renew the party and uncover the errors which were made in the past. The attempts by Sohn and Silbermayr to create a leftist alliance (Wahlbündnis) for the 1990 National Council elections failed. The party lost about a third of its members. In March 1991, only three months later, both chairpersons resigned, because their course of renewal was not being supported internally enough by party-members.
The party has consistently been critical of the European Community and the European Union, comparing Austria’s accession to the EU in 1995 to the Anschluß to Nazi-Germany. The party campaigned against the European Constitution in its planned form; however it does not regard leaving the European Union as an immediate priority, but more as a long-term goal.
Until 2003, there was an official celebration on the Jesuitenwiese in the Vienna Prater park normally held each year in the first weekend of September. The celebration was named Volksstimmefest, named its former party-newspaper. Due to financial reasons, the festival was unable to take place in 2004. It has however since then staged a comeback in September 2005. Today the KPÖ sees itself as part of the anti-globalisation movement as well as a feminist party. In the national elections it ran together with LINKE Liste, during the European elections 2004 as part of the Party of the European Left.
After the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989, there were long court-proceedings for many years concerning the considerable net assets of the company "Novum", which was in possession of the KPÖ as a fortune reserve. Even though the company was officially an East German one, it was used to siphon money and finance the KPÖ. The company used to be able to make large amounts of money through GDR foreign trade and the protection of the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED), with the profits used almost exclusively to support the Austrian communists. As the successor state, the Federal Republic of Germany laid claim to all the finances of Novum, which was hotly contested by the KPÖ. It came to legal proceedings. The German courts decided in 2002, that the former SED-company belonged to the state-assets of the GDR, hence to its successor state the unified Germany. Therefore, these net assets of the KPÖ were confiscated.
Due to the court decision over the "Novum" holding, the party lost over 250 million euros of its financial assets. The party saw no alternative but to fire all its employees and stop the production of its weekly newspaper Volksstimme ("Voice of the people"). The continuing existence of the party depends largely on volunteer work of dedicated communists and sympathisers.
Because of the financial problems, the party had to sell the so-called Ernst-Kirchweger-Haus (EKH), which was occupied by the so-called Autonome (autonomous) activists since 1990. The sale led to substantial criticism from leftists within and outside Austria, being condemned as "capitalistic". Critics accused the KPÖ of not having exhausted all possibilities to avoid the sale. The accusation that the private buyer was a right-wing extremist could however not be substantiated.
In January 2005, there were several acts of vandalism against cars and private dwellings of KPÖ functionaries as well as the house of the KPÖ chairman. According to media reports the perpetrators outed themselves through the graffiti as EKH sympathisers. The KPÖ defended itself by arguing it had no other possible financial means to keep the house. Already in 2003 the party tried to convince the city of Vienna to buy the object to save it from privatisation; however, the city authorities did not respond so the house's occupying groups were also not willing to co-operate. Only before the 2005 local council elections, a solution could be found.
Since 1994 a conflict has been boiling between the party leadership around Walter Baier and different internal oppositional party-groups, who had gathered themselves mainly around the newspaper nVs (neue Volksstimme, "new Voice of the people") and the internet platform www.kominform.at. While the critics accused Walter Baier of revisionism and betrayal of Marxism, he in turn accused them of Stalinist tendencies.
This conflict escalated in 2004, when at a party convention it was decided to enter the Party of the European Left. In the elections to the European parliament the KPÖ ran in a largely self-financed alliance ("Wahlbündnis LINKS") with Leo Gabriel as the leading candidate. In an interview with the magazine profil, he spoke out against socialism ("Ich will ein solidarisches, kein sozialistisches Europa." de:Kpö#Innerparteilicher Konflikt "I want a Europe of solidarity, not a socialist Europe"), which sparked furious criticism from the internal party opposition. A further point of contention for the opposition was that the party, in the course of its entry to the European Left Party, had to drop its previous demand of an Austrian withdrawal from the European Union. Many party organisations therefore boycotted the election campaign. The election result of 0.77% or 20,497 votes was disappointing and meant a drop of 1,466 voices compared to the election results of 1999.
The pressure on the party leadership to convene a party congress rose as a consequence whereupon the leadership, which consisted of Walter Baier and two further members, called up the 33rd Party Congress of the KPÖ for the December 11 and December 12, 2004 as a delegation party congress in Linz-Ebelsberg. With this summoning the leadership ignored a resolution of the 32nd Party Congress (which was held as an "all-members" party congress, not a delegates), which stated that the following 33rd Party Congress again be held as an "all-member" party congress, somewhere outside Vienna. Since the Party Congress is, according to party statute, the highest committee of the KPÖ, the opposition saw a breach of the statute and called upon the arbitration commission of the party, which has to decide in such cases. The arbitration commission decided however that formally no breach of the statute was recognisable since according to statute the Party Congress cannot decide on the concrete form of a convening party congress. Some members of the branch KPÖ Ottakring (Ottakring is a traditional worker’s district in Vienna) tried to convene an all-members party congress of their own, justifying their actions on the statute of the party. This attempt was called off quickly due to threats of legal action from the party’s chair. The delegates Party Congress convened and took place on December 4 and December 5, 2004 with 76 delegates meeting in Ebelsberg. The Party Congress was boycotted by the internal party opposition as well as of the regional branch KPÖ Tyrol and the KPÖ Graz/Styria. The agenda of the 33rd Party Congress were the rejection of the European constitution and the European Union services guideline, the defence of public property from privatisation, as well as how to celebrate the Austrian jubilee year 2005 (60 years since the end of World War II, 50 years of independence as the Second Republic, 10 years as a member of the European Union) .
Walter Baier was re-elected without contest with 89.4% of the votes. Among other things, the party statute was also changed. Because of the internal conflict several members of the opposition were excluded from the party. Some critics accused the leadership of undemocratic procedures and also withdrew from the party.
In March 2006 Walter Baier resigned from the presidency of the party for personal and political reasons. He was replaced by Mirko Messner, a Carinthian Slovene and longtime party-activist, and Melina Klaus later that month. Also the relationship to the Communist Youth of Austria - Young Left (KJÖ) was tense, because attempts have been made by the leadership to develop a new youth organisation.
On the local level a continuing importance was achieved in the state of Styria, where the KPÖ Graz developed to a successful local party (20.75% in the 2005 local council elections). This was achieved due in large part to the popular town councillor Ernst Kaltenegger. Traditionally at the year’s end the leaders of the Graz KPÖ reveal their accounts. KPO councillors are required to earn the average industrial wage and donate the rest to social programmes in accordance with the basic rules of the KPÖ. In the election to the Styrian Landtag (State Diet or assembly) on October 2, 2005 the KPÖ with leading candidate Ernest Kaltenegger were able to win four seats. This was their first return in the Styrian assembly since 1970.
|Results of the last important elections|
|Year||Location||Percentage of votes received|
|2006||Austria||1.01% (+ 0.45%)|
|2005||Vienna||1.47% (+ 0.83%)|
|2005||Styria||6.32% (+ 5.31%)|
|2003||Upper Austria||0.80% (+-?)|
|2003||Lower Austria||0.77% (+-?)|
|2002||Austria||0.56% (+ 0.08)|
In state elections the KPÖ ran for the last time in 1987 in Burgenland (0.56%), in Salzburg in 1989 (0.5%), and in Vorarlberg in 1989 (0.71%). After hitting an absolute low in most elections in the 1990s, the party gradually succeeded to recover to results similar to the 1980s. Since October 2, 2005, the KPÖ is once again represented with 4 seats in the Styrian state assembly. Because of this regional success and the resulting extensive media-coverage the party was able to profit in the following state election in Vienna on October 23, 2005, where it reached 1.47%. This doubling in votes was partly because the age of voting was lowered to 16 years for the first time. For the first time since 1991 the KPÖ had seats in the districts. On October 23, 2005 one mandate each was won in the districts of Leopoldstadt and Landstraße. In the remaining 21 districts mandates were narrowly missed. See also: Styria state election, 2005, Vienna state election, 2005
The chart below shows a timeline of the communist chairpersons and the Chancellors of Austria. The left bar shows all the chairpersons (Bundesparteivorsitzende, abbreviated as "CP") of the KPÖ, and the right bar shows the corresponding make-up of the Austrian government at that time. The red (Social Democratic Party) and black (Austrian People's Party) colours correspond to which party led the federal government (Bundesregierung, abbreviated as "Govern."). The last names of the respective chancellors are shown, the Roman numeral stands for the cabinets.
Media related to Communist Party of Austria at Wikimedia Commons