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Germans abroad: 1938

From the start it has been part of Hitler's dream, expressed in Mein Kampf, that he will unite the German-speaking peoples of Europe in a recreation of the great Reich which once held them together. This first Reich, in the form of the Holy Roman Empire, was disbanded in 1806 when under threat from Napoleon. There was a chance to reconstitute it in 1871, with the creation of the second German Reich. But Bismarck, influenced by the long rivalry between Prussia and the Habsburgs, was determined to exclude Austria from his new Germany.

How satisfactory then if a new leader, born in Austria but rising to be head of state in Germany, should rectify Bismarck's failure of vision and bring Austria into the German fold.


By the time Hitler wins power, in 1933, there is already a sizable Nazi party in Austria. In July 1934 they overreach themselves in attempting a coup which has disastrous results. Although they seize the chancellery in Vienna and murder the chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, the putsch ends in their surrender and execution. Hitler, delighted at the first news of their action but not himself actively involved, finds himself compelled to disown them.

He shares their aim but must bide his time in achieving it. He begins a slow game of cat and mouse with Dollfuss's successor as chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg.


The first agreement between Hitler and Schuschnigg is ostensibly an attempt to bring relations between their two nations back to a state of normalcy two years after the failed Nazi putsch of 1934. In the Austro-German Agreement of July 1936 Hitler recognizes Austria's full sovereignty and both nations agree not to interfere in each other's internal affairs; but Austria does promise to maintain a foreign policy in keeping with her identity as 'a German state'.

Moreover, among other clauses about normalizing trade and border relations, there is an agreement by Schuschnigg to allow some Nazi sympathisers into his government. The Nazi party itself is still banned in Austria. But Hitler now has a toe in the door.


Two years later, leading a much stronger Germany, Hitler is in a very different mood. He effectively summons the Austrian chancellor to a meeting in his residence at Berchtesgaden on 12 February 1938. When Schuschnigg arrives, he is treated to a two-hour rant by Hitler about the perfidious behaviour of Austria.

It includes the open threat 'I can tell you here and now, Herr Schuschnigg, that I am absolutely determined to make an end of all this. The German Reich is one of the Great Powers, and nobody will raise his voice if it settles its border problems.' Schuschnigg is informed that unless he agrees to everything that Hitler demands, Germany will settle the matter by force.


Over the next few hours Schuschnigg is browbeaten into accepting an agreement which allows the Nazi party in Austria full freedom, together with a guaranteed role in developing economic and military collaboration between the two countries. Schuschnigg is then dismissed, to return home and put the agreement into effect.

But back in Vienna, after weeks of indecision, he gambles upon what seems his last practical chance. A central plank of Hitler's argument has been that a majority of Austrians want union with Germany. Schuschnigg now determines to put this to the test. On March 9 announces that a plebiscite will be held in four days' time, on Sunday March 13. The people will be asked to say whether they want an Austria which is free and independent.


Hitler is outraged at this act of idefiance, but he also knows that he cannot allow the plebiscite to take place. On such occasions the people usually answer yes to whatever question is phrased for their own purposes by the politicians.

There is no immediate plan to invade Austria, for Hitler assumes that Schuschnigg will bend to his will. But arrangements are hurriedly put in place, and German tanks are ready to cross the border at the appointed time - dawn on Saturday March 12, the day before the plebiscite. Everything is in place for Hitler's long desired outcome, the Anschluss.


Anschluss: 1938

On the morning of March 11 Germany closes the border with Austria. There follows a day of frantic last-minute diplomacy, conducted by telephone and telegram. Hitler is determined that the German army shall be invited into Austria. To this end a succession of ultimatums are made to the Austrians, with the threat of immediate invasion if each is not accepted.

The first is that the proposed plebiscite be postponed. The second is that Schuschnigg resign. He does so just before the deadline of 7.30 pm, declaring in a broadcast to the nation that he is yielding to force. The third, which the Austrian president (Wilhelm Miklas) resists until around midnight, is that Austria's leading Nazi sympathiser be appointed chancellor.


The man in question is Arthur Seyss-Inquart, whom Schuschnigg has taken into his government in 1937 under pressure from Hitler. Anticipating his new powers by an hour or two, Seyss-Inquart sends a message to Berlin during the evening of March 11, requesting the use of German troops to restore order in Austria.

So there is no opposition when German troops cross the border at dawn on March 12. Hitler decides to follow them, encouraged by reports of German Austrians lining the streets to cheer. That evening in Linz, a town where he went to school and where his parents are buried, he is greeted by an ecstatic gathering of Austrian Nazis.


He speaks to them in terms of a mission fulfilled: 'If Providence once called me forth from this town to be the leader of the Reich, it must, in so doing, have charged me with a mission - to restore my dear homeland to the German Reich. I have believed in this mission, I have lived and fought for it, and I believe I have now fulfilled it.'

In his enthusiasm he makes an abrupt change of plan. His intention has been to place Seyss-Inquart in control of the country. Now he decides, before moving on to spend a day in Vienna, that Austria is to be absorbed within a greater Germany. It is to be known simply as Ostmark, the eastern frontier. The Anschluss ('union' or 'annexation') is complete.


And there will be a plebiscite after all. On April 10 every citizen within the new borders will be asked to approve Hitler's action in creating Grossdeutschland, the greater Germany. Of those who vote, 99.08% in Germany say yes. In Austria the figure is even higher, at 99.75%.

Those non-citizens who have no vote, including Vienna's large population of Jews (one sixth of the city), have already had drastic evidence of what life in this greater Germany will mean. Himmler is in Vienna two days before Hitler's arrival, organizing the future activities of the SS and Gestapo. On the day of the Anschluss the first arrests are made.


The victims will include politicians, trade unionists, more than two thirds of the officers in the Austrian army and some 30,000 Jews. Most of them are despatched to concentration camps in Germany.

The Nuremberg Laws, depriving Jews of their rights, now automatically apply in this eastern province of the Reich. Austria's Jewish community experiences, as if overnight, the full force of the persecution which in Germany has taken the five years of the Nazi regime to build up. In the very first days after the Anschluss Jewish shops and businesses are looted throughout Austria, and individual Jews are attacked and humiliated. By the time of Kristallnacht, later in this same year, Austria is merely one small part of the greater anti-Semitic Germany.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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