Austria-Hungary, ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty, had been Germany’s ally during World War I. In 1919, the victorious powers dismembered this vast, motley empire. Hungary and Czechoslovakia became independent countries. Other components fell to Poland, Rumania, Yugoslavia and Italy. Multiple cultures often populated each region. It was impossible to apportion provinces to their respective new countries without placing some of the ethnic colonies inhabiting them under the dominion of the prevailing foreign nationality. Austria, the nucleus of the old realm, shrunk from sovereignty over nearly 30 million people to a diminutive, landlocked republic of 6,500,000 persons.
Southern and eastern Europe’s smaller nations had traditionally belonged to larger empires. The decision to establish independent states for them conformed to Wilson’s proclaimed ideal of self-determination; the right of every people to govern themselves. U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing interpreted Wilson’s cartographic experiment as follows: “If the right of self-determination were sound in principle and uniformly applicable in establishing political allegiance and territorial sovereignty, the endeavor of the Southern States to secede from the American Union in 1861 would have been wholly justifiable."42
On November 12, 1918, Austria’s provisional national assembly declared its country “a component of the German republic.” It officially adopted the name “German Austria.” This contradicted the Allied objective of eliminating the former Central Powers as a future rival. To sanction the Austrian-German union would have helped restore the Reich to its pre-war magnitude. It would also have facilitated German economic influence in the Balkan and Danube regions.
Allied delegates at the peace conference informed Austria that she must “abstain from any act which might directly or indirectly, or by any means whatsoever, compromise her independence."43 It also forbade the country from using the name German-Austria. Chancellor Karl Renner protested to the Allies that this violates the population’s right to self-determination, to which they responded that this right does not extend to defeated enemy countries. Britain forced Vienna to comply by threatening to resume the blockade of foodstuffs.
Post-war Austria became the only part of the former Habsburg realm from which the Entente demanded reparations. Deprived of its industrial base, which fell to Czechoslovakia, Hungary’s agrarian economy and the Danube export market, this was catastrophic for the little country. Discharged soldiers and German-speaking civil servants from the lost provinces returned to the homeland, unable to find work. Unemployment rose to 557,000.44
Most Austrians favored unification with Germany. Hitler, reared in Linz, shared this sentiment. In April 1934, he assigned the Reich’s Foreign Office to prepare a report defining policy. Regarding possible annexation of the country, the report opined that “German efforts in this direction will be frustrated by the unanimous resistance of all European Great Powers."45 In a Reichstag speech in May, Hitler declared, “The German people and the German government have, out of the simple feeling of solidarity toward common national heritage, the understandable wish that not just foreign peoples, but also German people everywhere will be guaranteed the right to self-determination."46
The Austrian government had become a dictatorship. In 1931, the country elected Engelbert Dollfuss Bundeskanzler (National Chancellor). He dissolved parliament in 1933, founded the Fatherland Front, and proscribed other political parties. Dollfuss established detention camps in September, which corralled members of the Communist and National Socialist parties. Dollfuss reinstituted the death penalty. The following February, he ordered the police to disarm the Social Democrats' Defense League. This led to armed resistance in Vienna and in Linz. Dollfuss deployed the army, which bombarded workers' housing districts in the capital with artillery. Over 300 people died in the fighting. Having suppressed the revolt, he banned the Social Democratic Party, abolished the trade unions, and hanged eleven Defense League members.
The bantam dictator died in July 1934, during an equally abortive coup staged by Vienna’s National Socialist underground. Minister of Justice Kurt Schussnigg replaced Dollfuss. Under the new chancellor, 13 of the conspirators received death sentences, based on a proposed statute not signed into law until the day after their execution. The police arrested the chief defense attorney three days after the trial. Without a hearing, he spent the next six months in the Wöllersdorf detention camp.47
Having attained power without a single vote, Schussnigg relied on the Fatherland Front to maintain the dictatorship. Political dissidents, lumped together as “national opposition,” landed in concentration camps. Documented cases of inmate abuse include confinement without trial, house arrest for prisoners' relatives, two or more trials and sentences for the same crime, convictions and fines without evidence, the presumption of guilt until proven innocent, withholding medical care from inmates who were ill, sometimes resulting in death, and forced confessions.48 The regime denied persons of “deficient civic reliability” the right to practice their occupation. Schussnigg judicially persecuted Austrians who favored unification with the Reich. The verdict often fell on members of choral societies and sports clubs nurturing cultural ties with Germany. “Suspicion of nationalistic convictions” cost civil servants their jobs. This included forfeiture of pension and loss of unemployment compensation.
The dictator sought an alliance with Italy to support Austrian sovereignty. The Italian head of state, Benito Mussolini, anticipated that an Austrian-German union would jeopardize his country’s control of southern Tirol. The Entente had awarded this province, populated by 250,000 ethnic Germans, to Italy after World War I. During Dollfuss’s tenure, Mussolini had supplied aid to Austria. The new Bundeskanzler failed to maintain the good relationship that Dollfuss had cultivated with Rome. The vivacious Mussolini did not relate well to the austere, impersonal Schussnigg. The Austrian government’s human rights violations alienated France and Czechoslovakia. The Italian-German dissonance that Schussnigg hoped to capitalize on diminished in 1936. When Italy invaded Abyssinia, she was able to defy League of Nations sanctions through Hitler’s economic support. Mussolini advised Schussnigg to normalize relations with Germany.
Hitler, unjustly blamed for the 1934 coup to topple Dollfuss, sought to break the diplomatic deadlock. He appointed Franz von Papen, a conservative aristocrat distant to National Socialism and a devout Catholic, special ambassador to Vienna. Papen presented Austrian Foreign Minister Egon Berger with the draft for an Austrian-German “Gentleman’s Agreement.” The compact corroborated Hitler’s strategy for incorporating Austria as an evolutionary process, promoting economic and cultural ties between both countries.49
The preamble stated, “The German Reich’s Government recognizes the complete sovereignty of the Austrian national state.” It bound Germany not to interfere in Austria’s internal political affairs. In return, the preamble obligated Schussnigg “with respect to the German Reich, to maintain a basic position that conforms to the fact that Austria sees herself as a German state."50 The document required that “all decisive elements for shaping public opinion in both countries shall serve the purpose of developing mutual relations which are once again normal and friendly.” 51
The agreement offered general guidelines for promoting commerce, such as lifting restrictions on travel and trade across the frontier. Schussnigg agreed to allow members of the “national opposition” to participate in government. He released 15,583 political prisoners. Many were National Socialists whom Hitler arranged to resettle in Germany. Upon the Führer’s insistence, Schussnigg relaxed restrictions on the press. An important element of the agreement stipulated, “Both governments will exchange views in foreign policy matters that affect both countries."52
Papen and Schussnigg signed the agreement in Vienna on July 11, 1936. Germany’s assurance to respect Austrian independence drew praise from the international press, even in France. Hitler summoned Josef Leopold, leader of the Austrian National Socialists, and instructed him to take the new treaty “very seriously.” The Führer warned Leopold that he wanted no encore of the 1934 coup: “The Austrian National Socialists must maintain exemplary discipline and regard unification as an internal German matter, a solution to which can only be found within the scope of negotiations between Berlin and Vienna."53 Hitler was hopeful, thanks in part to Schussnigg’s encouraging remark that Austrian-German unification was “an attainable political objective for the future.”
The Bundeskanzler, however, had no interest in honoring the compact. He openly criticized Hitler for allegedly misinterpreting the mission of the Reich: “With his assertion that the unity of the Reich is based on the harmony of the race and the language of the people living within it, Hitler has falsified and betrayed the spirit of the Reich. The Reich is not determined by race and is not heathenish; it is Christian and universal."54 Schussnigg publicly described Austria as “the last bulwark of civilization in central Europe,” a studied insult to his ethnic neighbor to the north. During 1937, Schussnigg entreated the British government to guarantee Austrian sovereignty. This clandestine diplomatic maneuver, as well as the unfriendly public statements regarding Germany, directly violated the agreement signed in July.55
Europe was in the age of nationalism; the average Austrian rejected Schussnigg’s liberal perception of Austria as a universal realm transcending ethnic roots and customs. While the country wallowed in the throe of economic depression, commerce in the Reich flourished. Unification with Germany promised employment and prosperity. Schussnigg was himself a dictator; he could not argue that incorporating his country into the German authoritarian state would cost Austrians their liberties. England and France showed no interest in guaranteeing a country that flouted democratic principles. In an atmosphere of internal unrest and diplomatic isolation, the Bundeskanzler turned again to Germany.
Hitler invited Schussnigg to meet at the Berghof on February 12, 1938. The Führer hoped to get Austrian-German relations back on track toward unification as an evolutionary process. A member of Austria’s “national opposition,” Arthur Seyss-Inquart, prepared a list of proposals for Schussnigg as a basis for negotiations in Berchtesgaden. These included bringing political opponents into the government. Informed of the proposals, Hitler prepared his own list.
The ten German proposals, among others, called for joint consultation in foreign policy matters mutually affecting Austria and Germany, amnesty for political prisoners, pensions for dismissed civil servants, and legalization of the National Socialist party in Austria. They demanded freedom of the press and preparations to merge the two countries' economic systems. This last would be particularly beneficial to the Austrian population. The list recommended several names - none of them hard-line National Socialists -for cabinet posts, including Seyss-Inquart.56 Point eight proposed a military officers exchange program, joint general staff conferences, promoting camaraderie, and sharing knowledge in weapons development.
Schussnigg attended the Berchtesgaden session with his military adjutant, Lieutenant-Colonel Bartl, and Guido Schmidt. During the initial private session between the two heads of state, Schussnigg became defensive and asserted that it was he, not Hitler, who represented Austria. Hitler, born an Austrian, retorted, “Just once, try holding a free election in Austria, with you and I opposing each other as candidates. Then we'll see."57
During parallel talks between Guido Schmidt and Germany’s newly appointed foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Austrian government won significant concessions. It reduced the obligation to joint consultation on foreign policy matters to “an exchange of thoughts.” It limited the political activity of National Socialists in Austria. Hitler agreed to publicly condemn illegal acts, such as sabotage, of his followers there. The Führer approved Vienna’s request that aggressive National Socialists be relocated to Germany. The Germans withdrew those candidates suggested for Austrian cabinet posts that Schussnigg objected to. Berlin abandoned its plan for a joint economic system and reduced the scope of military cooperation. At the conclusion of the conference, Hitler told Schussnigg, “This is the best way. The Austrian question is regulated for the next five years."58
Newspapers in England, France, and the USA claimed that Hitler presented his demands as an ultimatum, intimidated Schussnigg by inviting three German generals to the conference, and threatened invasion if the Bundeskanzler failed to sign. The fact that the Austrians negotiated significant modifications demonstrates that Germany’s proposals were not an ultimatum. The generals attended to provide consultation on questions of integrating the two countries' armed forces. Schussnigg brought along his own military advisor. Guido Schmidt testified later that he had no recollection of a German threat to invade Austria.59
Papen stated that it was his impression that Schussnigg enjoyed full freedom of decision throughout the sessions. The Bundeskanzler confessed that he had been under considerable mental stress but nothing more. The British ambassador to Austria, Sir Charles Palairet, reported to London on a number of initial demands which Hitler withdrew. He confirmed that Schmidt told him nothing of German threats. Palairet cited “Herr Hitler’s desire to achieve his aims in regard to Austria by evolutionary means."60
Schussnigg appointed Hitler’s choice, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, interior minister and national police chief on February 15. The next day in Berlin, Seyss-Inquart told Hitler of his intention to operate “strictly on the basis of a self-sufficient and independent Austria” and “within the framework of the constitution."61 Hitler accepted this. Addressing the German parliament on February 20, the Führer thanked Schussnigg for his “understanding and kindness.” He predicted that “friendly cooperation between the two countries in every field has been assured.” The following day, he received Austria’s underground National Socialist leader, Josef Leopold. Calling his activities “insane,” he brusquely ordered Leopold and his four chief lieutenants to pack up and move to Germany.62
Hitler believed that the compact insured a period of harmony that would gradually bring Austria into the German realm through democratic means. Schussnigg did not share this belief. Theodor Hornbostel, chief of the Austrian State Chancery, told the British ambassador that month, that the loosely defined guidelines of the agreement with Hitler would be easy to circumvent. Hornbostel confided that his government “really doesn't want to put them into practice."63
Stability in Austria however, deteriorated. The international stock exchange, with its usual nose for ominous developments, experienced a sudden flight from the Austrian shilling. Austrian government bonds plummeted in value, especially in London and Zurich. National Socialist sympathizers in the Fatherland Front and in the Austrian youth organizations steadily transformed the political disposition of these groups. Spontaneous mass demonstrations by National Socialists enjoyed popular support. Graz, for all practical purposes, came under their control. In many areas, Schussnigg’s followers scarcely risked appearing in public.
Displaying his customary lack of political finesse, Schussnigg took a desperate step to rescue his career. In Innsbruck on March 9, he announced a national plebiscite to take place in four days' time. The purpose was to give voters the opportunity to affirm their confidence in the government and preference for Austrian independence. Such a poll could only accentuate the division between German and Austrian. It transgressed against the spirit of the evolutionary process of assimilating the two cultures, a process Schussnigg had accepted by signing the agreement with Germany.
Since no elections had taken place since 1932, there were no current lists of registered voters. There was insufficient time to prepare new rosters. Only citizens above 25 years of age were eligible. This prevented young adults, a disproportionately large percentage of whom backed National Socialism, from participating. The general secretary of the Fatherland Front, Guido Zernatto, prepared guidelines that allowed only members of the reigning political party to staff the balloting stations. The ballot cards had the word “yes” printed on one side but were blank on the other. This required people voting “no” to write the word in the same size characters on the back of the card. Polling station personnel, all members of the Fatherland Front, would therefore be able to identify dissenters. During preparations for the election, the government press announced that anyone voting “no” would be guilty of treason.64
Publication of these details evoked protests from the “national opposition.” Fearing German intervention, Schussnigg appealed to France and Britain for assistance. In the midst of another cabinet crisis, France could not respond. The British recognized the plebiscite as a flagrant challenge to Hitler. Chamberlain called the plebiscite a “blunder.” Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax considered Schussnigg’s maneuver “foolish and provocative."65 He blandly informed the Austrian dictator that England could offer neither advice nor protection. Halifax could not help adding that Schussnigg failed to seek Britain’s counsel before announcing the plebiscite, “which has caused so much trouble."66
Hitler was aghast that Schussnigg violated their agreement only weeks after signing. At first he simply refused to believe the news; however, once he did, his reaction was temperate. He flew his diplomatic trouble-shooter, Wilhelm Keppler, to Vienna. Keppler’s instructions were to either prevent the plebiscite “without military threats” or at least arrange for it to include the opportunity to vote for Anschluss, or unification, with Germany.67 Seyss-Inquart and General Edmund von Glase-Horstenau, minority representative in the Austrian cabinet, confronted Schussnigg. They pointed out that the entire balloting process drawn up by the Fatherland Front violated the constitution. They demanded a postponement, allowing time to prepare a plebiscite in which all parties would be fairly represented.
The dictator summoned Defense Secretary General Zehner, security chief Colonel Skubl, and Lieutenant-Marshal Hülgerth of the Fatherland Front militia. He asked whether armed resistance against a German invasion was feasible. The Austrian army, reduced to 30,000 men by the 1919 treaty, was not mobilized. Skubl dismissed the police force as too saturated with National Socialists to be reliable. Only the militia, Hülgerth assured the Bundeskanzler, was prepared. Recognizing this force as insufficient, Schussnigg attempted without success to telephone Mussolini to solicit military aid.68 Out of options, he resigned as chancellor. This terminated the era of a politician who entreated Austria’s wartime enemies France, Britain, and Italy, and called upon his own followers as well, to transform his country into a battleground in a war against his German brethren and former comrades-in-arms of the World War.
Schussnigg’s entire cabinet withdrew, and Austria was, practically speaking, without a government. Throughout the land, members of Austria’s SA and its smaller, elite cousin, the SS, began assuming administrative functions. The following day, March 12, 1938, German troops crossed into Austria. Schussnigg ordered the Austrian army not to resist.
Hitler’s decision to militarily occupy Austria was neither premeditated nor desired by him. He had hoped to maintain a semblance of legality in assimilating Austria. With Seyss-Inquart as Bundeskanzler and a new cabinet, the two governments could have coordinated the transition smoothly via the evolutionary process. In fact, the German army general staff had no operational plan for an invasion of Austria in place; the entire maneuver was impromptu. The Führer was aware of the bad publicity abroad such an apparent act of force would generate; however, he feared that Austrian Marxists might capitalize on the country’s momentary political vacuum and stage an uprising. Göring warned of the possibility that the Alpine republic’s neighbors might also exploit its temporary weakness. Italy could occupy eastern Tirol, Yugoslavia the Kärnten province, or Hungary the Burgenland. Yugoslavia had already annexed part of Kärnten in 1919 during Austria’s post-war impotence.69
Described as aggression by the foreign press, the German army’s advance made a welcome impression inside Austria. A sergeant in the SS Signals Battalion related his experience while sent with a comrade ahead of the column to reconnoiter the route to Vienna. Two days under way, the pair stopped at an inn. As the soldiers entered, “Almost everyone present rose and greeted us with shouts of 'Heil! '... We were pressed to a table, the waiters rushed over with coffee and pastries, and we kept shaking hands with people, answering questions and expressing our gratitude for all the attention.... It was harder to leave the inn. The guests stood up, clapped, wished us well and stuffed cigarettes in our pockets."70
Another member of the battalion gave this account: “The closer the column approached Vienna, the greater was the rejoicing of the people lining the roads. Often with tears in their eyes, they gave full expression to their joy, shook hands with the soldiers in the vehicles and tossed flowers and packs of cigarettes to them. Everyone seemed seized with frenzy."71 Throughout the military occupation of Austria, largely symbolic in nature, not a single shot was fired nor was one person injured.
Hitler scheduled joint plebiscites in Austria and Germany for April 10, 1938. Both populations decided on whether to incorporate the two countries into a single state. The people of Austria cast 99.73 percent of their ballots in favor of Anschluss with Germany. The Germans voted 99.08 percent for unification. As testimony to how distant Schussnigg had been to the heartbeat of his nation, he had personally estimated in early March that 70 percent of the Austrian populace supported his regime’s policy of independence.72
On March 18, 1938, the German government notified the League of Nations that Austria had cancelled its affiliation. This international body, which had never manifest concern for the plight of the distressed little nation, now debated whether Germany was responsible for paying Austria’s delinquent membership dues of 50,000 Swiss francs from January 1 to March 13.73 This ended the chain of circumstances leading to the unification of Hitler’s homeland with the German Reich, an event known to history as “the rape of Austria.”