March 12, 1938: Annexation Austrian-Style

By Marion Kraske

When the Nazis marched into Austrian on March 12, 1938, hundreds of thousands of Austrians turned out to welcome them. But after the war, the country preferred to see itself as just another of Hitler's victims.

Suddenly, events began moving in fast-forward: It was 10 minutes to eight in the evening, March 11, 1938, when Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg took to the radio to address his people. He bade them farewell with portentous words: “God protect Austria.”

The next day at 5:00 a.m., SS leader Heinrich Himmler landed with his staff at the Aspern Airport in Vienna. Shortly thereafter, the German army crossed the border into Austria. “Operation Otto,” as the military element of the Austrian takeover was known, and the “reunification of Austria with the German Reich,” as Hitler formulated it for a law decreed earlier that same day, was in full swing. A referendum on the topic of independence, planned by Schuschnigg for March 13, had prompted Hitler to take matters into his hands and push ahead quickly with the solution to the “Austria question.”

Hitler headed first to Linz, where he had spent part of his childhood, and then to Vienna, where excited crowds were forming on the streets. Tens of thousands had gathered to give him a raucous welcome. On March 15, he declared the “entry of my homeland into the German Reich” from the balcony of the Hofburg Imperial Palace. On Heldenplatz, 250,000 people gathered to celebrate the occasion. Afterwards, a parade marched around the Ringstrasse, which circles the heart of Vienna. Not just the German Eighth Army took part in the parade, but also SA and SS units. Tanks and fighter planes rolled past as well -- a precisely staged performance for the cheering masses. One year later in Czechoslovakia, the scene would be different: The Germans marched into Prague’s Wenceslas Square and were met by completely empty streets.

In Austria, it was the position of the clergy which proved decisive: In a statement on March 18, Austrian bishops spoke out decidedly in favor of unification. The religious elite calculated that, by supporting the new regime, they would be able to preserve their far-reaching privileges. Leading politicians also agreed to the “Anschluss” (Annexation) without hesitation. Former Social Democratic Chancellor Karl Renner, for example, underscored his clear “yes” in a newspaper interview.

'One People, One Empire, One Leader'

The Nazis moved ahead quickly with their decisive grab for power. An emphasis was placed on propaganda, with banners hung everywhere. In Vienna alone, 200,000 pictures of Hitler went up, augmented by slogans such as “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” -- “One people, one empire, one leader.” In the subsequent referendum, 99.73 percent of the population voted for “reunification” with the German Reich. There was, of course, the immense pressure exerted by the military, but the result was also reflective of a country willing to join the Nazi movement.

The reason for the “mass elation, even hysteria,” in the words of Viennese historian Wolfgang Neugebauer, were many: The Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed in 1918 and the Republic of German Austria emerged in its place on November 12, 1918. It was a traumatic turn of events. From its very birth, the new state lacked a sense of identity, and a large portion of the population was in favor of annexation to Germany. Making things even worse was the economic crisis and resulting, large-scale unemployment. In February 1933, 600,000 Austrians were without jobs.

As in Germany in the early 1930s, anti-democratic leanings were widespread and many yearned for strong leadership, and a strong leader. And the Nazi party, founded across the border in Bavaria, gained influence. In 1932 state elections, the Nazis were able to substantially increase their share of the vote in Vienna, Salzburg and Lower Austria. Many hoped that the “party of the small people” would finally bring them a better life. “Austria,” says Brigitte Bailer, scientific director of the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW), “fell into Nazi Germany’s lap like a ripe fruit.”

The 1938 takeover ended up running without a hitch as well. As early as 1933, after Hitler rose to power in Germany, National Socialists in Austria began to mobilize. Political opponents were terrorized and in the first half of 1934 alone, 300 assassinations were carried out -- often with logistical support from Germany. The violence culminated in an attempted coup on July 25, 1934, in which then-Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss was killed.

Chancellor Dollfuss, himself, was hardly the poster child of democracy. In 1933, he dissolved parliament in order to create a Christian state with a fascist face. But his regime did little to relieve the rampant economic misery or the lack of a national identity. Those on the political left were systematically persecuted and the workers’ movement brutally suppressed. In foreign affairs, Dollfuss allied himself with Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who served as a temporary insurance policy against an annexation to Germany -- although Mussolini himself later turned to Hitler.

Dollfuss’ successor, Kurt Schuschnigg, also proved unsuccessful in his attempts to prevent a Nazi dictatorship. The treaty Schuschnigg signed with Germany in July 1936 defined Austria as a “second German state.” Intended as a maneuver to reduce pressure from Hitler’s Germany, it instead led to a de facto erosion of Austrian sovereignty. This, in turn, led to the agreement signed at Berchtesgaden on Feb. 12, 1938. There, on the lofty heights of the Obersalzberg mountainside, Schuschnigg met Hitler and, under massive pressure, sealed his country’s fate: Austria became completely annexed to Nazi Germany. The graphic illustration of Austria's new status came a month later with the invasion of German troops.

For Hitler, who was born in Austria and only became a German citizen at the age of 43, the unification of both “German” countries was a priority for two reasons. First of all, in 1938 Austria possessed valuable reserves of gold and raw materials -- much the opposite of the German economy, which was becoming increasingly depleted by preparations for war. After the Annexation, around 2.7 billion shillings in gold and foreign currency fell under the control of the German Reichsbank. Secondly, in geopolitical terms, Austria was an important jumping-off point for the Nazis’ war plans. The country was seen as a bridgehead for the capture of Eastern and Southern Europe.

After Annexation came the terror, systematic intimidation, persecution, expulsion. The victims were Jews, Socialists, and also the representatives of the state. “By 1936, the judicial system and police had been infiltrated by Nazis,” says historian Bailer. “Thus, the Gestapo had immediate access to complete lists naming so-called ‘enemies of the people.'” Throughout the country, thousands joined the Nazis in their campaign of terror. Many stood to profit from the new regime: Suddenly there were apartments standing empty and jobs available.

Numerous Viennese train stations provided the starting point for transports heading to concentration camps. In total, 65,000 Jews were killed during the Nazi terror, with thousands more political opponents landing in prison. Around 2,700 resistance fighters -- there are no exact figures -- were sentenced to death.

Austria's Victim Doctrine

Still, Austrians denied the role they played in the Holocaust for decades after the war. Having lost its autonomy in 1938, the country adamantly adhered to a “comprehensive victim’s doctrine,” according to historian Oliver Rathkolb in his book “Die paradoxe Republik” (The Paradoxical Republic). Sole responsibility for the Holocaust was shunted off to the German Reich -- although up to 600,000 Austrians had been registered as Nazi Party members.

The foundation for this slanted view of history was provided by, among other factors, the 1943 Moscow Declaration, which named Austria as the first victim of Hitler’s aggression. The Austrian Independence Treaty of 1955 also included this victim thesis -- and still does.

The one-sided view of the past first began to change in the 1980s, when historians started to question Austrian victim-hood. The revelation that Austrian President Kurt Waldheim had concealed his past as a member of the SA -- and the scandal that followed -- served to open up public discourse.

Today, Austria still has a hard time with its own Nazi legacy. The debate surrounding Nazi perpetrators like Heinrich Gross -- who led a child euthanasia program in Vienna, in which more than 800 girls and boys were killed, and enjoyed a career in justice after the war -- still touches open wounds. Attempts to bring Gross to justice continued well into the earlier part of this decade. Still, says historian Bailer, “there is no legitimate research on the perpetrators.”

And if there is no willingness to go after the perpetrators -- because one's own father, uncle or grandfather might be connected to Nazi atrocities -- then the victims are necessarily neglected. The planned Simon Wiesenthal Center in Vienna, for example, is still fighting for funding. So far, the Republic of Austria and the City of Vienna have been unable to reach a compromise.

Of the 61 Jewish cemeteries in Austria, around a third are run-down -- in contrast, the country’s military cemeteries are in excellent condition. One has the impression, says political scientist Anton Pelinka, “that the large political parties are still of a mind that it could have a negative effect to be seen as too Jew-friendly.” That is the “paradox of the victim thesis,” he says, “The actual victim is treated worse than the perpetrator.”

This feature first appeared on the SPIEGEL ONLINE Web site einestages, a history portal named last week as Germany's "Web Magazine of the Year for 2008" by the prestigious Lead Awards.

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