Was Hitler responsible for the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss?

IBDP History SL: Internal Assessment

Word Count: 1710



This investigation will be exploring whether or not Hitler ordered the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss. To do so, a variety of sources from newspapers of the time to recent works by recognised experts will be consulted. Chief among these will be Kershaw, whose expertise of Hitler has been highly acknowledged here in Germany, through his informative work on Hitler. As well as Kershaw, Shirer will be of crucial use due to his experience as an American reporter in Berlin and Vienna from 1934 until 1940. As a result of Shirer’s first-hand experience of the lead up as well as the beginning of the Second World War, he has the advantage of being able to portray the Third Reich in great detail and the hindsight that came along with the access to German documents after the end of the war.

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Beginning his career as a secretary of the Lower Austrian Farmers League, Engelbert Dollfuss became Chancellor of Austria and Foreign Minister by 20 May 1932 [1]. Dollfuss was very opposed to the beliefs of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s Anschluss, which is probably what led to his friendship with the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini [2]. Shortly after Dollfuss accepted the role of Chancellor [3], he followed Mussolini’s lead and became a dictatorial power himself. As they were both against the Nazi beliefs [4], Mussolini and Dollfuss schemed in secret ways to prevent the Nazis from rising anymore to power. Their “K plan” was simple: Austria would act as the go-between for Mussolini [5]. Following his assumption of Chancellorship of Austria, Dollfuss banned the Nazi Party from Austria in June 1933 [6] “driving the movement underground” [7]. In response to the Socialist movement that occurred shortly after his admission to office in February 1943 [8] , and as a result of his abuse of the emergency decree much like Hitler, Dollfuss turned Austria into an austrofascist state. During his rule as a dictator, he was viewed by many, in particular the NSDAP and the Social Democrats, with much aversion.     

In February 1934, the Social Democrats staged an uprising to try and overthrow the Austrian government [9]. This attempt was terminated through the use of military force and led to many of the Social Democrat leaders being imprisoned [10]. Although it was the Social Democrats who staged the uprising against the Austrian Government, it was the Austrian Nazis in June 1934 who began a civil war against the government [11]. On 25 July 1934, 154 members of SS Standarte 89 invaded the Federal Chancellery disguised as officers of the Heimwehr (Fascist Home Guard) and fatally shot the Austrian Chancellor in the neck and armpit [12]. They left him to lie in pain without any sort of medical help for seven hours, after which Dollfuss died. In spite of the fact that Dollfuss had died, the Austrian army remained loyal to their government and so, led by Dr Kurt von Schuschnigg, they put an end to the attempted coup d’état [13]. Soon after Dollfuss’ assassination, Mussolini found out and angrily claimed to Starhemberg, Austrian Vice Chancellor, that Hitler was to blame for it [14].     

In order to avenge his ally’s death, Mussolini threatened to declare war on Hitler if he attempted to try to invade and take control of Austria [15]. Mussolini publicised his intentions towards keeping Austria an independent country shortly thereafter [16]. Upon seeing Mussolini’s reaction to Dollfuss’ death, Hitler made sure to deny any ties he may have had in regards to the murder of the Austrian Chancellor and declared his innocuousness in the whole matter. To further prove his innocence, Hitler banned Dollfuss’ assassins from Germany, and they were later tried and hanged for the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss [17]. Hitler’s contribution to Dollfuss’ murder was never fully determined and the actual individual responsible for his assassination has never been ascertained, with multiple accounts providing different sources of evidence that is not necessarily accurate. Mussolini was adamant that Hitler was to blame for Dollfuss’ murder; however, whether or not his theory is true has yet to be determined. Based on the German Chancellor’s actions following Dollfuss’ murder, it seems quite likely that he is to blame, however this could be argued due to the lack of evidence.

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Kershaw, Ian. Hitler. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.

Kershaw is a world-renowned historian whose expertise is the Third Reich. The purpose of the biography is to provide a background and source-based account of Hitler’s life and career, described by him as “a study of Hitler’s power”. The value of this source is that he has access to a substantial range of sources, primary as well as secondary, on which he bases many of his conclusions. As well as this, Kershaw has the benefit of hindsight with which to be able to impartially judge many of the events that transpired. Kershaw examines Dollfuss’ assassination from Hitler’s perspective, which is useful in its provision of information of the extent at which the German dictator was aware of the staged coup d’état. The limitations of this source, however, are that it is a condensed edition and therefore may be lacking information that would have possibly been considered as lacking importance. Another limitation of Kershaw is that, as he was born in 1943, he doesn’t have the benefit of having experienced the reaction provoked by the assassination of Dollfuss, whereas Shirer does.

Word Count: 180


Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. Print.

Shirer, having been present in Berlin during the assassination of Dollfuss as an American journalist writing about the rise of the Reich, is famous for being known as “a witness to history rather than a professional historian”. The purpose of his work is to chronicle the events affiliated with the rise of the third Reich under the rule of Hitler. As Shirer was in Germany at the time of Dollfuss’ murder, his work has particular value due to the access the journalist had upon German defeat, of the countless sources of German documents. Another value of Shirer’s work is that, as a result of its publishing being in 1960, the author has the benefit of hindsight to support the authenticity of his opinions on the causes as well as effects of the events. The limitations of Shirer’s work is that, as he originally was a journalist, he takes a journalistic point of view on the events, and therefore conclusions he has reached may be based more on a purpose of entertainment rather than informing.

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Following Engelbert Dollfuss’ assassination by the Austrian Nazis on 25 July 1934, the blame immediately fell onto Hitler. Upon hearing of the Austrian Chancellor’s death, Mussolini is known for having angrily declared to Starhemberg, “Hitler is the murderer of Dollfuss” [18]. As well as this, Mussolini threatened Hitler if he attempted to make any move towards claiming Austria [19]. Due to Mussolini’s angry outburst and the ironic convenience the situation provided for Hitler, considering that Dollfuss was the person standing in the way of Hitler’s policies of Anschluss, naturally Hitler received the blame for the occurrence. When referring to the assassination Kershaw states “Hitler was aware of it, and gave his approval” [20], however “on the basis of a flawed understanding” [21], whilst Shirer explains how, according to Wagner’s granddaughter, the news of Dollfuss’ assassination “greatly excited” Hitler [22].     
Considering the situation at the time, Kershaw’s theory seems quite plausible as “Hitler did seem intent on seeing Austria’s Chancellor, the pro-Mussolini Engelbert Dollfuss, removed from office, and on having Nazis installed in the Austrian government” [23], however murdering Dollfuss would not have been in his best intentions, taking into account the alliance he was trying to procure with Mussolini. Mussolini and Dollfuss were known for having a close relationship and so, if Hitler wanted to forge an alliance with Italy, the assassination of Dollfuss would have been detrimental to his purpose. Kershaw speaks of Hitler’s reaction to finding out of the assassination of Dollfuss, “Papen found Hitler in a near-hysterical state, denouncing the idiocy of the Austrian Nazis for landing him in such a mess” [24], strengthening the argument that Hitler’s intention had only been to remove Dollfuss from power rather than murdering him, and therefore causing “damage to relations with Italy” [25].     
Shirer’s argument, however, seems also reasonable. Dollfuss was the only figure standing in between Hitler and his aims of Anschluss; it seemed in tone with his goals for Hitler to have wanted to somehow eradicate the problem the Austrian Chancellor created for him. An Italian historian, Franco Selleri, agrees with Kershaw saying, “Hitler fa assassinare il cancelliere austriaco Dollfuss con il chiaro intento di annettersi l’Austria”, the literal translation being “Hitler had the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss assassinated with the clear intention to annex Austria” [26]. Most historians support Shirer’s perspective on the responsibility of Hitler for assassinating Engelbert Dollfuss, due to the fact that Dollfuss was preventing Hitler’s aims being accomplished. Public opinion at the time of the assassination was also in favour of blaming Hitler, which is shown through the New York Times explicitly mentioning, “Revolt is laid to Hitler” [27].
Word Count: 459


Both Kershaw and Shirer agree that Hitler was aware of and supported the Austrian Nazis coup d’état that later turned into the Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss’ assassination. Kershaw states that Hitler’s understanding of the coup d’état was based on a misunderstanding, and had originally believed that the coup d’état had resulted in Dollfuss’ removal from office, later realising that it had progressed into a murder. However, as Shirer explains, it seems unlikely that Hitler was aware of the coup d’état, had furnished the Austrian Nazis with the weapons required to stage their rebellion and had been misled on the aspect of Dollfuss’ assassination. By playing such an influential role in the progression of the rebellion it seems implausible that Hitler wouldn’t have been prepared for or had expected the assassination of the Austrian Chancellor during the process of maintaining power in the Federal Chancellery, meaning Hitler was responsible for the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss.

Word Count: 154


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-       Shell, Kurt Leo. The Transformation of Austrian Socialism. Albany: State U of New York, 1962. Print.

-       Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. Print.

-       Waldheim, Kurt. The Austrian Example. Trans. Ewald Osers. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. Print.

   [1] Waldheim (33)  [2] Lightbody (22)  [3] Lowe, Marzari (232)  [4] Kershaw (523)  [5] Corvaja (21)  [6] Burleigh (272)  [7] Blamires, Jackson (67)  [8] Shell (20)  [9] Shell (20)  [10] Shell (21)  [11] Bell (Ch. 14)  [12] Sachar (212)  [13] Sachar (214)  [14] Burgwyn (98)  [15] Ho (34)  [16] Noakes, Pridham (54)  [17] Kershaw (524)  [18] Burgwyn (98)  [19] Kemp (285)  [20] Kershaw (523)  [21] Kershaw (523)  [22] Shirer (279)  [23] Mallett (87)  [24] Kershaw (524)  [25] Kershaw (524)  [26] Selleri (78)  [27] Timothy Hughes – Rare & Early Newspapers