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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Austria Annexed By Germany, March 12, 1938

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Today in 1938, Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. This union, or Anschluss, made the nation part of Greater Germany and brought Adolf Hitler one step closer to his goal of unifying all the German-speaking areas of Europe under one government. It also tested the resolve of the Allies and their commitment to upholding the agreements which ended the First World War.

The idea of a unified German-speaking nation in Europe was not new; in fact, talk of it had occurred as early as the late 18th century. By the early 1930's, a majority of Austrians supported a union with Germany. After Hitler came to power in 1933, however, enthusiasm for such a move cooled, especially among those in power in Vienna. Austria's type of government at that time was referred to as Austrofascism, more like Italian Fascism than Naziism. Austrian Nazis who supported a union with Germany attempted a coup in 1934 (in which the nation's reigning Chancellor was killed), but its failure and the short civil war that followed caused many of them to escape to Germany. The remainder were rounded up and placed in internment camps. Thus was the level of support for Naziism in Austria.

By the beginning of 1938, Adolf Hitler was ready to put his expansionist plans into action. That February, he summoned Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg to Bavaria for a meeting. During their talk, Hitler demanded that the Chancellor lift his ban on political parties and release all imprisoned Nazis. Furthermore, the freed Nazis were to be allowed to participate in Austria's government. Hitler made it clear that failure to take these actions would result in military action. Schuschnigg did as Hitler demanded and placed two Nazis in high Austrian office, that of Minister and Interior Minister.

Other demands were soon made, including a call for the dismissal of the Austrian Army's Chief of Staff, who had created an extensive plan for the defense of Austria in the event of a German invasion. Hitler did not want to expend any military capital in Austria, so the removal of the top military leadership in Austria was of vital importance. Once again, Schuschnigg agreed to Hitler's demand.

As the weeks went by, it became clear that the new Nazis appointed to government positions in Vienna were working to undermine the Chancellor's authority. Desperate to save the independence of his nation, Schuschnigg called for a referendum to be held on March 13th in which the citizens of Austria would vote on whether or not they wanted to remain a separate nation. Upon hearing this, Hitler was enraged. The German Ministry of Propaganda released information to the world's press outlets that unrest was sweeping the towns and cities of Austria and that the population was calling for the intervention of German troops to put an end to the rioting and looting. Schuschnigg appeared in public and denounced the reports as false, which they were. On March 11th, two days before the referendum, Hitler issued an ultimatum to Schuschnigg: hand over power to the Austrian Nazis or face an invasion. Before the ultimatum expired at 2PM local time that day, Hitler signed an order to send troops across the border. It was formally issued just hours later.

Schuschnigg hoped for support from England or France since the union of Austria and Germany was forbidden by the Versailles Treaty, the agreement that ended the First World World War. But both nations remained essentially silent, so the Chancellor resigned his office that evening. At about 10PM, the German government published a forged telegram that appeared to be from the Austrian government. In it, Vienna requested that German troops enter Austria. By this time, all the major government buildings in the nation were in hands of the Austrian Nazi party. By the time the 8th Army of the Wehrmacht crossed the border the next morning, the issue had been decided.

Newsreels from March 12, 1938 show cheering crowds greeting German troops as they enter town after town. Hitler was received in Vienna by a crowd of 200,000 people, all of them presumably supporters of their nation's absorption into Greater Germany. But while many Austrians did, in fact, support unification, it is doubtful that a majority did so. While the March 13th referendum was canceled in most places in Austria, several small villages not immediately occupied by German troops held their vote anyway. In each one, a very large majority voted for Austrian independence.

The Anschluss was rubber-stamped into law on March 13th, one day after the invasion. The law required that a referendum be held in which the Austrian people would approve or disapprove the German intercession. 99.73% of voters voted in favor of unification with Germany. This number seems incredible until one learns that Nazi officials watched every voter as he cast his ballot and that more than 70,000 voters, mainly communists and Jews, had been arrested and more than 400,000 more had been denied the right to vote.

Austria remained a part of Greater Germany until April 27, 1945, when the Austrian government declared the Anschluss null and void. The nation was occupied by the Allies after the war and did not fully regain its independence until 1955.

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