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 18th century. By 1930, 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 government officials in Vienna. Although today it may seem like splitting hairs, Austria's type of government at that time was referred to as Austro-fascism, 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. Support for unification dropped sharply during the next four years, despite the fact that Hitler was from Austria.
By early 1938, the German dictator was ready to put his expansionist plans into action. That February, he summoned Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg to Bavaria for a meeting. During their discussion, which would later be remembered as more of a lecture, 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 offices, 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 became enraged. The German Ministry of Propaganda released information to the world's press outlets claiming 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, but the refutation was of little value. 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 which ended the First World World War in 1918. 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 World War Two and did not fully regain its independence until 1955.
Since the end of the Second World War, historians have debated the actions of the Allied nations, especially Great Britain and France, before, during and immediately after the Anschluss. It has been argued that a simple threat of military force against Germany would have brought Hitler back in line, at least with regard to his expansionist desires. While we tend think of the German war machine as being unstoppable during the Blitzkrieg months of Spring, 1940, France alone had a much larger military than Germany in 1938. The training and modernization levels of the French and British armies may not have been comparable to the Germans, but the two forces together could certainly have forced at least a stalemate and reconsideration of Germany's actions on the Continent.
As mentioned earlier, Germany's annexation of Austria was a major breach of the Versailles Treaty. At first glance, one might imagine that such a violation would have been met with harsh criticism in the capitals of Europe. But Germany had begun ignoring the Versailles Treaty as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933. While Hitler's rebuilding of the German war machine was supposed to be a closely-held secret, it was nothing of the kind. Winston Churchill began warning his countrymen in 1930 that the Nazi Party in Germany would one day lead Europe into another war and by 1935 the strength of the German military could no longer be hidden.
But it is important to remember the times in which that generation of leaders lived. During the 1930's, the Great Depression gripped the entire industrialized world. Military budgets had been slashed to the bone in most countries. Furthermore, Hitler came to power in Germany less than 15 years after the end of the First World War. Nearly 17 million human beings had died in Europe during the war years of 1914-1918, a total so large that it was considered doubtful another war of that magnitude would ever be fought between modern nations. The terrible losses in the trenches of western Europe gave birth to a generation of British and French citizens for whom nothing was worth another war. Even though the losses experienced by the United States during the First World War were small in comparison to those suffered by the European powers, Americans tended more than ever towards isolationism during the 1920's and 30's.
We will, of course, never know what diplomatic or military action by the Allied powers would have done towards stopping the Anschluss or even preventing another world war. Two things are certain: in this case, inaction proved to be action in another direction and history, however terrible, would repeat itself yet again with humanity paying a cost that no one in 1938 could even begin to imagine.