When one must resist, firm in the Faith
It is July 25, 1934. The scene is the chancellery of Austria. A man whom historians have not done justice lay on the floor, bleeding to death, while his Nazi executioners looked on in cold delight. He asked for a doctor. They refused. He asked for a priest, for the Last Rites. They refused. Two of the captured guards came to him and tried to stanch his bleeding with a bandage. He thanked them, and said, “I never wanted anything other than peace. We were never the aggressors. We were always forced to defend ourselves. May God forgive them.”
The man was the Catholic chancellor of Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss. His words are recorded in the memoirs of the great Dietrich von Hildebrand, a part of which has now been published as My Battle Against Hitler.
But Dollfuss is characterized as “controversial” and “authoritarian” – a martyr at the hands of the Nazis!
[…] Some Catholics sought to influence Nazism from within, believing that its nationalism could be respected in part; but von Hildebrand saw through it. Nor had he any patience with puerile contempt for the Chosen People, the Jews. Where were the Western statesmen and intellectuals during the 12 years it took for Hitler to come to power? …
Engelbert Dollfuss was not an ambitious man. He jested that his growing deafness was a gift of God, because then he could retire sooner. He was a devout Catholic who wanted to see Catholic Austria standing free, independent, the voice of old Europe against the madness of Nazism and the inhumanity of collectivism. When he became chancellor in 1932, Austria bristled with socialist and nationalist parties, armed with militias and eager for violent revolution to get their way. Dollfuss saw that the ordinary machinery of democracy would prove worse than useless: the Nazis wanted disarray in Austria. So in 1933 he dissolved parliament and established the Patriotic Front, to unite all who sought first the independence of their nation and resistance against the Nazis.
He and Austria would be almost alone: the League of Nations tried to mollify the Nazis, and radicals of all stripes cried out against his policies. Dollfuss knew that Mussolini in Italy favored an independent Austria and (at that time) considered Hitler a disgrace. Dollfuss enlisted il Duce’s support, though he knew that fascism was another form of the evil of the collective. Historians will not forgive him for that, either.
Yet von Hildebrand says that Dollfuss stood like David against Goliath. … [Dollfuss] saw that politics had to address fundamental questions about the human person, his orientation towards community, and his destiny before God.
… Dollfuss was hated because he was noble and kind. […] His life of prayer and submission to the Church earned him no favor, just as a similar life now earns you little more than loathing from secular reporters, politicians, and educators – and many of those now, as their counterparts then, will have subordinated their Catholic faith to the spirit of the age.
Excerpt taken from How the Church Has Changed the World – Volume II, by Anthony Esolen (Magnificat, 2020), pp. 141-144. www.magnificat.com
DR. ANTHONY ESOLEN is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of Liberal Arts in Warner, NH. He is author and translator of more than 20 books, publishing on a broad range of topics from literature, to theology, to education and culture, ancient to modern.