Today is the day: Anschluss

Bruckner

He sat stoically waiting for news. A gramophone turned in the corner, the needle scratching over the shellac of the record. The music rose and fell, crescendos of horns and strings played out the movements of Bruckner’s seventh symphony. The plate of the gramophone turned on, the needle drawing closer to the centre. A tense feeling in the air, a tinge of heroism or was it dark and foreboding. Midnight came to pass, and beyond the doors from where the man sat in contemplation adjutants and officers sat huddled around a radio in the mountain retreat. Their ears listened, straining to hear the signal fading in and out as if in time with the music that barely penetrated the wooden doors behind them. The voice that stuttered with the airwaves was that of Wilhelm Miklas. Closer to the radio officer’s and adjutants leaned. Miklas was to resign, to protect shedding of brotherly blood, or rather to protect his family. The Austrian President was gone and in his stead Arthur Seyss-Inquart was to be proclaimed Chancellor.

The adjutants and officers brought the crystal of their schnapps glasses together whilst one stood. Now the sounds of hobnailed boots rang on the wooden floor, quick, short and sharp steps, two quick knocks followed and the wood of the door opened into the office where Bruckner still echoed amongst the furniture of vast proportions. The man in the chair looked to the adjutant and simply spoke, “how can anyone one say Austria is not German! Is there not anything more German than the old and pure Austrianess!” Looking into the penetrating stare of that had captured so many millions already the adjutant clicked his heels, raised his arm and cried “mein Führer!”

Austro-Germany

The idea of a unified Germany, of all the German speaking peoples united, also known as pan-Germanism, was not a new one. The Holy Roman Empire had existed as a predominantly German speaking empire since the time of Henry the Fowler in the 10th century AD when he founded a medieval German state. This state would evolve under his successor Otto into the Holy Roman Empire that lasted until 1806 when it was dismembered and dissolved during the Napoleonic wars.

From the dismembering of the Holy Roman Empire, Germany existed as an idea. Neil McGregor’s book Germany does best to try and dissect exactly what it meant to be German, from arts to craftsmanship. However in simple regards it is those lands where the language is predominantly German.

There was an attempt in 1848, as a result of the year of revolutions, where a united Germany seemed possible once more only for the crown offered to the romantic King of Prussia Frederick Wilhelm IV to be rejected as a gutter crown.

In 1867 Austria and Hungary became one country with two monarchies only the monarch was the same, forming Austria-Hungary. Even under Bismarck and the wars of German unification the all the German lands were not unified. Austria remained in its unison with Hungary, separate to the new German Reich. However, to the people of Austria there was no Austrian identity. Rather the identity was that they belonged to the lands of Habsburg rule. So the Habsburg’s continued to rule, as the Hohenzollerns in Prussia were elevated to Emperors over Germany. This so remained until the war that changed everything.

The bloody and brutal first world war not only saw the deaths of millions in the muddy trenches and fields of Flanders, or on the rocky cliffs of Gallipoli, or forgotten battles in the East, but also the deaths of Empires.

On the 9th of November 1918 the German Kaiser fled into Exile and on the 11th the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Karl resigned. A new Europe was to be formed.

From the scarred continent a new idea was formed. As Hungary was no longer part of Austria there was a claim by the Austrians, Habsburg-less and free to claim the lands that had once fallen within their Empire with a predominant German speaking population to be part of one country of flowing borders and enclaves to be called the Republic of German-Austria. It was founded upon the day of the resignation of Karl and its goal was to be find unity with Germany. Yet the victorious allies were not supportive of the idea.

For the allies the war had been partly about crushing a strong central European power or Empire. For the birth of a nation to rise from their victory would signal, in reality, a defeat. The idea was quashed firstly with the treaty of Versailles that banned a unison with Germany and then by the treaty of Saint Germain of September 1919. The lands claimed by German-Austria in the Tyrol to Italy, German Bohemia was gifted to Czechoslovakia and Carynthia and Styria to Yugoslavia, the land that remained was renamed the Republic of Austria.

A new attempt

Hitler had made no secret of his desire to unify the German people under one nation as he had also not made secret his desire for the so called Lebensraum or living space for the German people that he desired. He himself was, in fact, an Austrian, and he saw it as only natural that the German and Austrian people, of Germanic descent, be unified under one nation. Thus the idea for an Anschluss of Austria into Germany.

The Nazi party had been active in Austria during the early thirties. A failed attempt at stealing power in 1934 had led to the assassination of Chancellor Dollfuss, the leading Austrian Nazis fleeing to Germany where they supported Nazi terror attacks on the Austrian state up until 1938.

Dollfuss was succeeded by Kurt Schuschnigg who like his assassinated predecessor took a stance against the Nazis within Austria whilst also choosing a fascist direction for the country. Nazis were banned from holding gatherings and a rise in Police actions saw many more Nazis begin to Flee to Germany, often through the German areas of Czechoslovakia.

Austria was in a difficult situation however. Economically it relied heavily on the German economy. Like it or not Germany and Hitler had a power over the small Republic. Despite Hitler making public statements that there was no intention to annex Austria, Hitler increased the pressure on Schuschnigg, forcing him to appoint more and more Nazi sympathisers to the Austrian cabinet. One of these appointments included Arthur Seyss-Inquart. The weight of power in Austria was turning.

Goose Steps

February brought about a change in to the speeches of Hitler. No longer was it preserving Austria but rather protecting the millions of Germans that existed outside of Germany’s boundaries and within. It was not just meant in reference to Austria but also to Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Poland and many more. For those within Hitler spoke on the 20th of February that “the German Reich is no longer willing to tolerate the suppression of the tens of millions across its borders.” His mind was made up. Austria was part of Germany only the government of Austria did not realise it.

Schuschnigg tried desperately to out maneuver Hitler. In attempt to show the intentions of Hitler’s Germany for what they really were, an invasion attempt, he called for, on the 9th of March, a plebiscite to be held on the 13th. It was to be the chance for the people of Austria to have their voice and to show that any attempts by Germany to seize Austria by force would be an invasion. Hitler was furious.

Hitler threatened to invade Austria unless Schuschnigg resigned in favour of Seyss-Inquart and cancel the plebiscite. Yet Schuschnigg pressed forwards. He legalised once more the Social Democrats to gain their support, raised the voting age to 24 to stop the youth within whom the Nazi ideology was festering. Hitler declared that the vote would be a fraud and Germany would not accept it. For Schuschnigg the vote was not only for the independence of Austria but a platform to show the true intentions of Hitler.

Hitler sent telegram after telegram calling for Schuschnigg to cancel the plebiscite yet Schuschnigg continued to refuse. Hitler sent a ultimatum on the 11th, set to expire at noon it was extended by two hours when no answer was received. Schuschnigg was cornered. His head must have hung low when he received news that Britain and France were not to come to his aide, they were to allow the troops of Nazi Germany to Goose Step into Austria unopposed.

Resignation

Defeat is a heavy burden to bear. Schuschnigg had done what he could. However, with no support from the powers that could have stopped Germany at a time when militarily Germany were the weaker, and with a nation a fraction the size of the one that was threatening them Schuschnigg resigned. The President, Wilhelm Miklas, refused to appoint Hitler’s choice Seyss-Inquart as Chancellor and at 8:45 pm on the 11th of March 1938 Hitler ordered the invasion of Austria by the troops of the Wehrmacht to begin at dawn on the 12th of March.

But with a back to the wall, and perhaps to spare his own family, Miklas, the President of Austria resigned. Seyss-Inquart was appointed chancellor and on the morning of the 12th of March 1938 the German troops of the 8th army marched into Austria with no resistance. On the same day Hitler visited his birth town of Bernau am Inn, once in the Republic of Austria but now under his control in the Greater German Reich.

Fate of a Nation

Hitler would arrive in Vienna on the 15th of March 1938 and give a speech to a cheering crowd. A plebiscite was organised, but with fear of reprisals, intimidation there was little chance that there would be any other outcome other than voting for joining with Germany on the 10th of April. What the annexation really meant for Austria was not the changing of its flag, but the changing of its fate. Now the cruel and horrendous laws of Nazi Germany, chiefly among them, the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, the intentions of which were the abhorrent and horrendous persecution of the Jewish people would be applied upon the lands formerly known as the Republic of Austria.

These Nuremberg laws would lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of the Jewish people of Austria. Brutalism and barbarity had triumphed with goose step and intimidation over culture, respect and humanity. There was no secret amongst the world to these horrendous laws and the knowledge that Hitler and his Nazis would be implementing them on the Austrian people. But, as Britain and France did when Schuschnigg begged for help during the ticking clock of Hitler’s ultimatum, the nations that had considered themselves the old powers of Europe, the nations that had been entrusted with guarding the terms of the treaty of Versailles, turned a blind eye, it was only Mexico that voiced publically concern over the Anschluss of Austria. Only 3% of the Viennese Jews would survive the concentration camps.

A voting card from the Anschluss of Austria

Afterword

Understanding the complexities of what to be German historically speaking means is a difficult task so I highly recommend the aforementioned book by Neil McGregor titled Germany, unaffiliated links are found below. The Anschluss of Austria was the beginnings of the expansion of Hitler’s Reich, the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia would soon follow, swiftly followed by the rest of the Czech lands that would be renamed Bohemia and Moravia. In these times of crisis Britain and France also predominantly remained silent in terms of actin, opting rather for a line of appeasement, all the while allowing the steel mills and factories of the German Reich to increase production and produce a stronger and better equipped German army that shortly thereafter would rain terror over Europe and its populace.

Neil McGregor Germany UK: Amazon UK link

Neil McGregor Germany US: Amazon US link

Memorial for the Austrian Jews who were victims of the Shoah

Concrete box memorial to the shoah in Vienna, Austria. Today is the day Anschluss

If you’ve found this interesting then follow us on instagram, twitter and facebook for more updates. And if you are visiting Berlin in the near or the distant future get in contact with us, we’re here to help make your experience in Berlin an unforgettable one.