Scenes from the Anschluss

Austria, 1938

Hitler invited the Chancellor of Austria – Kurt von Schuschnigg – to a meeting at his retreat in Berchtesgaden.  In Schuschnigg’s account of the two-hour meeting with the Führer he states that Hitler launched into a tirade against Austria and the Austrian government.  Hitler was sure that nobody would thwart an attempt by Hitler to take over Austria: Mussolini, who had once so defiantly defended Austria’s sovereignty, was now firmly in the pocket of Hitler and would not oppose annexation. 

On this day at the Führer’s villa, Hitler presented Schuschnigg with a set of demands that included appointing Nazi sympathizers to positions of power in the government. The key appointment was that of Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Minister of Public Security, with full, unlimited control of the police. 

By 9 March 1938 the small, but virulent, Austrian Nazi Party had grown to become such a threat that Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg called a referendum on the issue of annexation, to be held on 13 March.  Hitler was livid when he heard the news and on 11 March he demanded Schuschnigg’s resignation and called for the appointment of Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart as his replacement.

In one final effort to preserve Austria’s independence, Schuschnigg attempted to secure a large majority in the referendum by dismantling the one-party state and appealing to his former rivals.  He agreed to legalize the Social Democratic party in exchange that they support him during the referendum.  He went to other lengths to garner the vote for independence vs. annexation.  He set the minimum voting age at 24 years old – the Nazi ideology was most populat amongst the younger people of Austria. (In contrast, Hitler had lowered the voting age for German elections held under Nazi rule)
The plan failed as it became obvious that Hitler would not allow the referendum to come to the ballots.
Hitler declared that the referendum would be subject to major fraud and that Germany would never accept it. German propaganda started pumping out stories of rioting and calls from the population of Austria on the German army to restore order. Schuschnigg responded that reports of riots were false.
Hitler sent an ultimatum to Schuschnigg on 11 March: hand over all power to the Nazis or face invasion.  Schuschnigg had until noon to decide, but Hitler had already signed the order to send troops into Austria at one o’clock regardless of the answer. 
Schuschnigg desperately sought support for Austrian independence in the hours following the ultimatum. Realizing that neither France nor Britain was willing to offer assistance, he resigned as chancellor that evening, but President Wilhelm Miklas refused to appoint Seyss-Inquart as Chancellor. Hitler ordered the invasion of Austria to take place on the morning of 12 March, 1938.  Arthur Seyss-Inquart was appointed as Chancellor at midnight on March 12 after Miklas resigned himself to the inevitable.

Supporters of Schuschnigg await to be deported to concentration camps.

Excited Austrians greet the Nazis in Vienna.

March 12, 1938

The referendum was eventually held, but only after the Nazis had taken over and been able to influence its outcome.  Apparently, Hitler was very emotional about returning to his homeland and was greeted jubilantly by the crowds of Austrians.  The Austrians were, after all, German speaking peoples, and that further bolstered the Nazi narrative of being liberators vs conquerers.  Hitler saw it as a union of the German people.  The Jews were immediately subject to poor treatment, half would escape before the start of the war and half would die.

The behavior of the Nazis in Vienna is known to have been particularly appalling.  This is where the infamous forced street scrubbing (by Jews) occurred, and many other landmarks were ransacked or destroyed.  The concentration camp Mathausen was built to accommodate the new influx of prisoners.  Apparently, Kurt von Schuschnigg was treated in the most degrading manner and forced to clean latrines and confined to a small room.

The Anschluss had other implications besides just the annexation of Austria.  Czechoslovakia was rendered completely vulnerable to German aggression.  It was also the seal on Hitler’s absolute power over the army and therefore the fall from grace of the elite generals, who were the last vestiges of Old Prussian-centric Germany.

Fun Fact!

Hitler was considering multiple options for how to annex Austria.  He needed something quick, but also couldn’t look like he was blatantly aggressive towards a foreign power without any provocation.  He decided to have a German foreign minister assassinated, blame it on the Austrians, and then use that as an excuse to attack.  Luckily for Franz von Pappen – who was going to be the German official that got shot – Austria folded without a single bullet. 

Infamous Image of Jewish Street Cleaning