Social unrest or “attempted red revolution”? The Austrian general strikes 1950 and the role of Soviet secret services and occupation as seen by British intelligence in Austria

Dieter Bacher

In the end of September 1950, a quite critical social situation arouses in occupied early Cold War Austria. Economic difficulties like a withdrawal of American financial aid and a sharp drop in real wages led to the so called “4th price-wage-agreement”, resulting in a massive rise of prices. The major consequences were strikes in several companies, starting in Eastern Austria. These strikes were strongly supported by the Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ). The Western occupation powers USA and Great Britain basically suspected involvement of Soviet intelligence and even a possible attempt for a communist takeover in Austria. Also because of a passive position of all occupation powers in general and immediate measures ordered by the Austrian minister of the interior, the social democrat Oskar Helmer, and chief of police Josef Holaubek, the situation could be calmed down, and a feared confrontation between Western allies and the Soviet Union in Austria could be prevented. For the British side, these incidents came, on the one hand, not “out of the blue”, but also more sudden and severe than expected. Since 1947 at the latest, The British “Intelligence Organisation” (Intorg) as intelligence department of the British Element of the Allied Commission for Austria (ACA/BE) and the British “Joint Intelligence Bureau” with its center in Graz, Styria, already suspected subversive activities of Soviet intelligence to gain political influence in Austria, for example by utilizing members of the KPÖ. British intelligence also knew that Austria already became one of the main “battlegrounds” between Western and Eastern services in this early phase of the Cold War, therefore, the British side was quite vigilant towards the situation and the rising tensions within Austrian society. “External” influences to escalate the situation from the Soviet side were often suspected. The general strikes in 1950 fueled these suspicions even further and made a possible communist takeover an even more realistic possibility for both British and US-services.

This paper wants to give an impression of British advance warnings and estimations on the general strikes in Austrian in September/October 1950. Based on reports of British Intelligence in Austria, mainly from “Intorg”, and additional materials, it will be reconstructed which “warning signals” British services reported and how these signals were evaluated and interpreted. Further, it will be interesting to analyze how the strikes itself were seen and reported, which connections to suspected Soviet subversive activities were established and how these developments were interpreted in the context of the situation in Austria the “Cold War” here and the chance of a possible “communist takeover”. And as a conclusion, it will be shown which conclusions were drawn from these events, also from the point to prepare for a possible political change in Austria. The presentation will also focus especially on some interesting details, for example on the role of the KPÖ or the British interpretation of countermeasures by the Austrian government. Out of this, it will be possible to summarize the position of British intelligence towards these events and to estimate to what extent this position influenced the British image of Austria as an intelligence “highway”, as Philip Vickery stated in the same year, in this interesting and important phase of the Cold War.

Karl Lorentz Kleve