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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.


The Sudetenland: 1938

Two days before marching into Austria, Hitler assures the Czech ambassador in Berlin that he has no designs on his nation. But within a month he is developing a plan to annexe the western part of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland.

He is considerably helped in this ambition by the principles of the treaty of Versailles, for the region has a predominantly German population. Many of these Germans are already Nazi sympathisers. It is easy to argue that the notion of self-determination, so important at Versailles, gives them the right to merge with Germany. During the summer of 1938 Hitler threatens the Czech government at the diplomatic level, while massing troops on the border. But unlike his fait accompli in Austria, this challenge to Czechoslovakia prompts international concern.


Chamberlain flies from London to confer with Hitler, on September 15 and 22, but by September 27 it seems certain that Hitler's forces will cross the Czech border. France has a defensive treaty with Czechoslavakia. Britain would have to support France. The result would be war.

On September 27 Chamberlain broadcasts to the British people, expressing his appalled dismay at being dragged into the affairs of such a 'Faraway country'. The next day he sends a telegram to Hitler, offering to fly again to Germany to discuss the peaceful transfer of the Sudetenland. Hitler postpones the invasion, planned for September 28, and invites Chamberlain, Daladier (the French premier since April) and Mussolini to an immediate meeting in Munich.


Munich and after: 1938-1939

The discussion in Munich between Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini lasts a little over twelve hours, beginning in the middle of the day on September 29 and ending with the signing of an agreed document at 1.30 a.m. on September 30. Though the dismantling of their country is under discussion, Hitler refuses to allow any Czech representative to take part. Two Czech diplomats sit in a nearby hotel, effectively waiting to be told what has been decided.

The conclusion is all that Hitler would wish. The Sudeten areas are to be ceded to Germany during the next ten days. Thereafter plebiscites, organized by the four Munich powers and Czechoslovakia, will reveal exactly where the new border should run.


Before boarding his plane, later on September 30, Chamberlain has another meeting with Hitler in which he asks him to sign a joint declaration. This is the document which Chamberlain waves in the air for the cameras on his return to Britain, stating that he has brought back from Germany 'peace for our time... peace with honour'.

The text above Hitler's signature, on which Chamberlain bases his optimism, declares a determination to remove possible sources of difference between countries 'and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe'. Chamberlain's hope is that the sacrifice of the Sudetenland has preserved not only peace but the rest of Czechoslovakia.


The occupation of Sudetenland brings some 3.5 million people within Nazi Germany, 75% of them German and 25% Czech. But in the event these Czechs are no more unfortunate than their compatriots elsewhere. Three weeks after signing Chamberlain's document, Hitler orders the German army to prepare for a move into the rest of Czechoslovakia. The invasion comes in March 1939. Hitler, in Prague, declares that Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia are now under the protection of the German Reich.

But such a brutal betrayal of the Munich agreement transforms the appeasers. When it becomes evident that Poland is the next likely victim, Britain and France are suddenly resolute.


Danzig and the Polish corridor: 1938-1939

At the very moment of the Munich agreement the Polish government presents its own demand for a slice of Czechoslovakia. There is logic to the claim. If the Sudetenland with its largely German population is to be annexed by Germany, then there is a clear case for the rich industrial area of Teschen Silesia, inhabited mainly by Poles, to be transferred to Poland. On the day the Munich agreement is announced, 30 September 1938, Poland asserts this claim - not for the first time, but now it is instantly acceded to by Czechoslavakia.

Unfortunately the ethnic-majority argument has dangerous implications for Poland herself, confronted by a Hitler increasing day by day in confidence.


The great port of Gdansk (in Polish) or Danzig (in German) has long been a bone of contention between Polish and German interests. Though first brought to prominence by the Hanseatic merchants, the city and its hinterland (eastern Pomerania, or in its Polish name Pomorze) have historically been part of Poland. But from time to time they have been seized by Germans - first by the Teutonic knights in 1308 - and in recent times they have again been German, from the late 18th-century partitions of Poland until the end of World War I.

In 1919 the treaty of Versailles restores Pomorze to Poland and gives Danzig, with its almost entirely German population, the status of a free city within the borders of Poland.


This arrangement is probably unworkable at the best of times, and more so from the mid-1930s when Danzig has an elected Nazi city council. Moreover in this area the provisions of Versailles provide a further cause for German grievance. In returning Pomorze to Poland, and restoring her historical access to the sea at Danzig, the treaty has the effect of severing the province of East Prussia from the rest of Germany.

Pomorze becomes known in the terminology of the 1920s as the Polish corridor, linking Poland and the sea. Hitler now demands a more literal German corridor - a narrow strip of German territory through Poland to East Prussia. Together with this goes his claim to bring Danzig within the Reich.


Both claims are pressed by Hitler with new vigour in October 1938, within days of his winning the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. The Polish government firmly rejects the German demands. Unlike unfortunate Czechoslovakia, this stance wins a positive response from the western powers.

In March 1939 Neville Chamberlain, speaking with the approval of both France and the USSR, gaurantees help to Poland if her independence is threatened. In April Hitler abrogates his own ten-year nonaggression treaty with Poland, signed in 1934, and secretly orders his army to prepare for a Polish invasion. In May France commits herself to military action against Germany if a conflict begins. But then, in August, Hitler produces a diplomatic bombshell.


Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact: 1939

In August 1939 a Franco-British military mission is in Moscow trying to persuade Stalin to commit to a treaty for the defence of Poland. Little progress is made, ostensibly because the Poles are refusing to allow Soviet troops to cross their territory to attack Germany. But there is another hidden reason which soon becomes apparent.

The Soviet Union and Communism have always been twin forces of demonic evil in Hitler's oratory, but he now proves himself happy to sup with the devil for a very real strategic advantage. It is important to his plans that he shall not be distracted by a major war on his eastern front. In August he opens negotiations with Stalin. Poland is his bait.


Stalin, invited by the western powers to join an alliance which will almost certainly involve him in a costly war against Germany for no very evident benefit, now finds himself offered a more attractive option - inactivity and a sizable increase in his territory.

It takes the Russian dictator little time to choose. The world is astonished on August 21 by the announcement from Berlin that Ribbentrop is flying to Moscow to sign a nonaggression pact with his opposite number, the Russian foreign minister Molotov. This sudden friendship of two implacable enemies would seem less inexplicable if people knew of the secret protocol which accompanies the pact.


The protocol agrees a new set of international boundaries. As modified slightly in a second visit by Ribbentrop to Moscow, in September, it acknowledges Germany's approval of the Russian annexation of the independent nations Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (should any such opportunity occur). And it establishes an agreed division of Poland between Germany and Russia.

With this much achieved, Hitler is ready to take his next step - launched, for propaganda purposes, with a grisly little charade.


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