Johannes Messner, Prof. DDr.

16.2.1891 – 12.2.1984
born in Schwaz, Austria died in Wien, Austria


Ehrung Titel Datierung Fakultät
Honorary Doctorate Dr. theol. h.c. 1956/57 Faculty of Catholic Theology

The honor is classified as "worthy of discussion" in 2022/23 due to Johannes Messner's involvement in Austrofascism. During the authoritarian corporative state, Johannes Messner acted as a "mastermind and advisor to the political elite". After the assassination of the Austrofascist chancellor, he wrote the book "Dollfuß" (1934) in his honor, the semantics of which were not too different from the Führer cult in Nazi Germany and which can also be seen as a positive tribute to the corporative state. Messer was also in close contact with Dollfußʼ successor Kurt Schuschnigg, at whose request he supervised the "Monatsschrift für Kultur und Politik". Nevertheless, Messner also had links to National Socialism: he had some sympathy for the Nazi economic system and was a staunch anti-Semite.

Messner, the son of a miner, attended the humanistic secondary school “Vinzentinum” in Brixen and then studied from 1910 until 1914 at the Catholic-theological University in Brixen, where he was ordained as a priest in June 1914. For several years he worked in pastoral care and as chaplain in Uderns, Imst, Reutte and Innsbruck.

Messner, who had already dedicated himself to social questions during his studies, published several articles on this subject in the “Allgemeiner Tiroler Anzeiger” after the First World War. After receiving leave of absence from the bishop in 1919, he studied law in Innsbruck (doctorate in 1922) and national economy in Munich (doctorate in 1924), attending lectures by Adolf Weber, Otto von Zwiedineck-Südenhorst and Max Scheler and others. Messner received a prestigious assignment when the bishop for Tyrol and Vorarlberg, Sigismund Waitz, appointed him with the task of writing a social pastoral letter. The letter, written in 1925/26, was titled “Lehren und Weisungen der österreichischen Bischöfe über soziale Fragen der Gegenwart”. In that same year he also took up a position as second chairman of the economic section of the Görres-Society. Meanwhile, from 1925 until 1933, he also was editor of the weekly newspaper “Das Neue Reich”, but again focused more on his scientific work after the paper was merged with Joseph Eberle’s “Schönere Zukunft”.

In 1927 Messner habilitated for social science at the theological faculty of the University of Salzburg with the paper “Sozialökonomik und Sozialethik, Studie zur Grundlegung einer systematischen Wirtschaftsethik”. Two years later, in December 1929, the Dean’s office applied for a transfer of his venia to the University of Vienna, where he began working from that point on and was made associate professor for ethics and social science in 1935. In the authoritarian corporative state, he – together with Johannes Hollnsteiner – was considered an “intellectual leader and advisor of the political elite”. Engelbert Dollfuß, for example, tasked him with interpreting the papal encyclical “Quadragesimo anno” in accordance with the corporative ideals. Messner had also influenced this encyclical. After the Austrofascist chancellor was murdered Messner published a book in his honor: “Dollfuß” (1934). This book’s semantics did not differ very much from the Führer-cult in National Socialist Germany and can be understood as a positive appraisal of the corporative state. Messner also stood in close contact to Dollfuß’s successor Kurt Schuschnigg, on whose request he edited the “Monatsschrift für Kultur und Politik”. From October 1932 until 1935 he was co-publisher and from 1936 until 1938 publisher and editor-in-chief of the paper.

Nonetheless, Messner had links to National Socialism: He could agree with the National Socialist economic order and was a convinced anti-Semite. He for example spoke out against the “harmful influence of Judaism and the Jewish religion” and argued for a strict control of the Jewish immigration from the East. He saw Marxism and liberalism as “subversive powers”. According to Vetter he tried to cooperate with the regime because he wanted to secure and continue church activities. The National Socialist regime was not interested in such a cooperation, however. Immediately after the “Anschluss” he was suspended – on April 22nd, 1938 – and sent into retirement in May. The Gau Head Office of Vienna accused him of connections to Schuschnigg and the archbishop of Salzburg, Waitz, and called him “one of the most influential men of the system time, an enemy of National Socialism and one of the most eager campaigners for an independent Austria”. As an important proponent of the corporative state he supposedly had been responsible for “the change of the planned corporative structure into a liberal capitalistic one”. Arthur Marchet, the head of the Dozentenbund (National Socialist University Teachers’ League) at the University of Vienna, characterized him as one of Schuschnigg’s “most important personal theologists, especially in the field of social politics”, and wrote that Messner’s “Zeitschrift für Politik und Kultur” had served the chancellor as “spiritual platform and feedback”. Another accusation was that he had “as a priest preached against National Socialism”. Messner incidentally also was a member of the Leo-Society and the Catholic Academics’ Society as well as chairman of the international conference for corporative order.

In light of these evaluations he lost his pension payments in March 1939 in accordance with §4 of the Career Civil Servants Act. This article was used for political or ideological reasons. According to a letter from Otto Wächter, the state commissioner at the Reich Governor’s Office, to the Gau Head Office Vienna from July 14th, 1939, Messner also was fired on the basis of §4. In the “Career Civil Servant Act”-files in the Austrian state archive no document supporting this statement can be found, however. At this point, Messner was already abroad. After first moving to Schwaz in Tyrol (according to the regional group office) he already fled to England via Switzerland in 1938, where he found accommodation at the oratory in Birmingham founded by Cardinal Newman. Here he also began work on his most important book, “Das Naturrecht”. The stay in England and the study of the Anglican cultural and spiritual world had an effect on Messner’s work. He still advocated his corporative societal concepts, but adapted them.

A return to the University of Vienna was delayed, and so at first prelate Hilgenreiner from Prague took over the lectures in ethics and Christian social science as a visiting professor. In July 1946 Messner announced that he would be staying in England for at least another year to complete his work on “Das Naturrecht”. At the beginning of 1949 his literary plans still were an obstacle to his return, which is why he rejected a call to the chair for Christian social science at the University of Münster. He was interested in a visiting professorship, however. In any case he returned to his lectures at the Catholic-theological faculty in the winter semester of 1949/50, resulting in the reinstatement of his office at the University of Vienna. While Messner was in Münster due to a visiting professorship in 1950, the president made him associate professor of ethics and sociology (with retroactive effect from October 1st, 1949). In that same year “Das Naturrecht” was published, with which Messner achieved a comprehensive account of all areas of social, political and economic life. In 1950 the faculty applied for him to receive a full chair after he had rejected a position as full professor for sociology at the University of Münster, among other things. Messner himself was not interested in 1951, however, since he would have been indisposed for at least a year due to the position of Dean he would have had to take up, and would not have been able to travel to England. Thus, he asked to be put on leave every summer semester until 1964, so that he could conduct research in Birmingham for six months every year. In 1956 he received the title of full professor, completed his honorary year in 1961/62 and still taught in the winter semester of 1964/65 when the associate chair was not yet filled.

Messner was papal house prelate (1953), honorary doctor of the Universities of Vienna (Dr. theol. h.c. on December 5th, 1956), Feiburg i. Br. (1957), Louvain and Innsbruck as well as corresponding member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (1961). He also received the Ring of Honor of the city of Vienna in 1973, the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art, the Cross of Honor for Science and Art 1st Class (1961), the Grand Cardinal Innitzer Award and the Leopold Kunschak Award. In 1981 he received the Grand Decoration of Honor in Gold with Star for Services to the Republic of Austria. On October 31st, 2002, Vienna’s archbishop, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, initialized the beatification process for Messner.

Apart from “Das Naturrecht” (1950), some of his most famous works are “Soziale Frage und soziale Ordnung” (1928), “Dollfuß” (1934), “Die berufsständische Ordnung” (1936), “Kulturethik” (1954), “Ethik” (1955) and “Das Gemeinwohl” (1962).

Archive of the University of Vienna, Rectorate GZ 677 ex1937/38, Catholic School peronnel file 45 | Austrian State ArchivesOeStA/AdR/Bundeskanzleramt/Bestand „Berufsbeamtenverordnung“ (BBV), OeStA/AdR/Bestand Unterricht, Personalakt Messner; OeStA/AVA/Bestand Unterricht, Personalakt Messner

Andreas Huber and Rupert Klieber

Zuletzt aktualisiert am 06/04/24