Hitler's quiet invasion of Austria in 1938 was the culmination of events that began much earlier. To understand the invasion of Austria by the Third Reich, one must have some background on the political climate of the European Continent in the mid-1930's.
Both Germany and Italy were controlled by fascist dictators. In Germany, of course, the leader was Adolph Hitler and and his National Socialist party, the NSDAP. In Italy, it was Benito Mussolini and the National Fascist Party, the PNF. Both had expansionist ideas for their countries. Italy had already expanded into Ethiopia and was in the midst of winning that country's control. Meanwhile, in Spain, General Francisco Franco and his facist troops were fighting to take control of Spain from the Loyalist government. Franco was getting help both from Italy and Germany in his attempts. For Germany, it was a training ground of sorts for his military which was growing quickly. It was Hitler's belief that the key to his country was a heavily armed military which could help achieve his expansionist ideas for a newly reunited German Reich.
While Hitler had yet to expand beyond his current boundries, he was feverishly ramping up his military power, while at the same time claiming he was not interested in other countries. In a speech to the Reichstag on May 21, 1935, Hitler declares
"Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in the internal affairs of Austria, to annex Austria or to conclude an Anschluß."
These words, despite the year before, an Austrian pro-Nazi gang murdered then Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss (right). The attempt was a German-controlled coup that failed despite Dollfuss' murder. The planned pretext for Germany's takeover was that Germany was moving to prevent an attempted Hapsburg restoration. At the time, Italy was Austria's protector and Dollfuss, a proto-fascist was friendly with Mussolini. Despite the Austrian Chancellor's leanings, he vowed to keep Austria independent of Germany. When he was killed, Italy sent troops to the border as a warning to Hitler to stay out of Austria. For Hitler this effectively killed any attempt for a coup.
Kurt von Schuschnigg (left) became the Austrian Chancellor. His Fatherland Front, a Christian Fascist party continued their control following the death of Dollfuss. Unfortunately, von Schuschnigg would prove weak against German threats. Despite a failed coup, National Socialist sympathizers were seizing the day in Austria growing ever more powerful. And the Socialists, whom Dollfuss had savagely suppressed were reviving their own party. Even Italy, which had strengthened ties with Germany, no longer supported Austria the way it had under Dollfuss. Hitler and his ilk were smelling blood.
In January, 1938 with von Schuschnigg's blessing, Austrian police raided Nazi headquarters and banned the Austrian Nazi party. Schuschnigg was banking that the Austrian Nazi's would be condemned by Italy, England and France.
But before he could move on Austria, Hitler had other business within his own country to attend; business which would strengthen his resolve to take Austria. The two architects of the Nazi Germany military, Field Marshall Werner von Blomberg, minister of war and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and General Freiherr Werner von Fritsch, commander-in-chief of the army, were out - fired from their positions. von Fritsch was openly opposed to Hitler's plan for the seizure of Austria. To ensure this military shakeup was accepted, Hitler also relieved or transferred many other generals. And Hitler himself became the Supreme Commander of the Armed Services. He had taken a firm hold upon the military.
On the political front, Hitler removed Constantin von Neurath as foreign minister and replaced him with Joachim von Ribbentrop. Several other key ministers were also replaced including Franz von Papen on February 4th, his minister in Vienna who had helped Hitler come to power. Many of the ministers were from the old conservative school and stood in the way of Hitler's launching his foreign policy of expansion.
Finally, in February, 1938, Hitler was ready to act against Austria. He presented Schuschnigg with demands that the National Socialists in Austria be left unrestricted and that they be included in Austria's government. If Schuschnigg failed to act at once, Germany would invade Austria. But on February 16th, Hitler, still wanting satisfactory relations with England, contacted the Italian Ambassador in London, Count Dino Grandi, telling him that this would be the last chance for a reconciliation with England. He wrote "should the Anschluss be an accomplished fact,... it would become increasingly difficult for us to reach an agreement or even talk with the English." Neville Chamberlain saw this as an opening to an appeasement with Hitler. But his desire was at adversity with Anthony Eden his foreign secretary. Eden felt that Chamberlain should have taken up Roosevelt's suggestion for an international conference on the European situation. Eden felt the conference would draw the U.S. into the situation, but Chamberlain believed that like the Brussels Conference on the Far East, the U.S. would "propound moral principles" and England and France would be the enforcers.
Chamberlain convinced Grandi of his position forcing Eden no choice but to resign, which he did on February 20th. While the U.S. viewed this with dismay, some commentators (here, John Steele) naively warned the U.S. public not to be alarmed. Halifax became the new Foreign Secretary charged with carrying out Chamberlain's plan toward Hitler. Chamberlain publicly offered no view on the Austrian situation. Instead, he hoped his new relationship with Italy would force Mussolini to rise up and help prevent any German intervention into the Austrian country.
Generally abandoned by Italy and without hope of support from England or France, Schuschnigg had little choice but to give in to Hitler's demands. He agreed to lift the ban against the Austrian Nazi Party, to amnesty all Nazis in prison including Dollfuss' murderers, and to appoint Austrian Nazis to key cabinet posts giving them charge of the police, the army and the economy. Schuschnigg was in effect signing Austria over to Germany.
On Sunday, February 20th, Adolph Hitler gave a speech to the German Reichstag in which he warned that Germany would know how to protect the ten million Germans living on its borders - seven million in Austria and three million in Czechoslovakia.
On Thursday, February 24th Schuschnigg gave Hitler an answer to his Reichstag speech with a speech of his own in the Austrian Bundestag. While conciliatory, Schuschnigg declared that Austria had reached the limit of concessions "where we must call a halt and say: This far and no further." He already had Nazis in his cabinet, and Nazi mobs running loose in the streets undermining his own efforts to stabilize the country. Austria, he said, would never voluntarily give up its independence.
Austrian Nazis, with the blessing of the interior minister, Seyss-Inquart, who was in charge of the police and himself a Nazi, stormed the streets of some of the towns including Vienna. Desperate, Schuschnigg turned to the Social Democrats, whom he had previously banned and offered to allow their party and free their comrades from prison in exchange for their help. While the Socialists agreed to help, it was too little too late.
But Schuschnigg was determined to keep Austria separate. On March 7th, he contacts Mussolini seeking opinion on a plebiscite. Mussolini warns that it would be a mistake to do so. But Schuschnigg ignored the warning and on March 9th in a speech at Innsbruck, announced for March 13th, a plebiscite on whether Austria should remain separate from German control.
"Now I want to know and must know whether the Austrian people wants this free, German, independent, social, Christian and united country, suffering no party divisions. Now I must know whether truth the motto `Bread and peace in the land' can bring together our countrymen and their Front which is invincible; and whether the ideal of equality for all men in the country, so far as they stand by people and fatherland, is for all men without exception one that they can pursue."
The next day, March 10th, Hitler ordered German troops to mobilize on the Austrian frontier and members of the Austrian National Socialist Party began riots in Vienna, Linz, Graz, and Klagenfurt. It is believed that Hitler instigated the rioting. But they were quickly quelled by Austrian police and the mood remained somber. Schuschnigg's hand was strengthened by the Austrian Socialst party and it appeared once more that Schuschnigg had won the day. Many believed that with the backing of the Socialists, Hitler would back away from his threats.
March 11th would turn out to be a critical day for Austria. Schuschnigg called up the Austrian reservists to bolster his strength. And in an apparent point for Schuschnigg, Germany demanded at 10 a. m. through Dr. Edmund von Glaise-Horstenau, Minister without portfolio, that the plebiscite be secret. President Wilhelm Miklas agreed to grant this. But in an about face, Germany at 4 p. m. demanded through Dr. Wilhelm Keppler that the plebiscite be postponed six weeks and that von Schuschnigg be replaced by Seyss-Inquart. Austria agreed to postpone the plebiscite, if the Nazis would stop disturbing the public order. Miklas did not agree to replace Schuschnigg because he would not break his oath by violating the duties of office, but yield only to force.
Germany would not back down. At 6:30 p. m., through Lieutenant-General Muff, the German military attaché at Vienna, Hitler said 200,000 German troops would cross Austrian frontier unless:
Firstly: von Schuschnigg resigned; Secondly: Seyss-Inquart assumed Chancellorship; Thirdly: Nazis were appointed to at least two-thirds of the new Cabinet; Fourthly: full and unrestricted liberty be granted Austrian Nazi party; Fifthly: the Austrian Legion of Nazi exiles be readmitted to Austria.
It appeared that Austria had lost. At 7:30 PM, Schuschnigg resigned his office saying
"This day has placed us before a serious and decisive situation...So I take leave of the Austrian people with a German word of farewell uttered from the depth of my heart: God Protect Austria!"
Almost immediately after, Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart requests Germany send troops into Austria since the arming of the Socialists had reached an alarming degree. He appealed for peace and order and nonresistance to the German Army saying:
". . . any opposition to the German Army should it enter Austria is completely out of the question – out of the question too for the executive, whose most important duty is the maintenance of peace and order in this country."
While Austrian and Czech radio reported the events of an ultimatum, Germany denied that such an ultimatum was issued. Later that evening German troops marched into Austria. France and Britain protested albeit weakly. Chamberlain decried the "use of coercion, backed by force, against an independent State in order to create a situation incompatible with its independence." His claims that Germany was required to consult with England, France and Italy before acting are ignored by Hitler. The German Chancellor assures Mussolini that the Brenner would be a friendly border between Germany and Italy. Late news in Italy reports on the Anchluss events that day.
March 12th dawned with the realization by the world of the Anschluß that had occurred. Czechoslovakia is most nervous since it will now be surrounded on part of its border by the new Germany. In the morning Seyss-Inquart is sworn into office and the new ministry is composed of all Nazis. France invites Italy along with England to examine the events, but Italy declines stating that they "regard the events in Austria as the outcome of a pre–existent state of affairs and as the free expression of the feelings and good will of the Austrian people, unequivocally confirmed by the imposing public demonstrations with which the events were greeted."
As German troops entered Austria, Hitler flaunting his new victory arrived in Linz, the town of his youth; later he arrived in Vienna where he spoke to the cheering crowds. The well-orchestrated appearance at the Heldenplatz in Vienna is phenomenal to hear as it is reported live via shortwave! The loudly cheering crowd, the bands playing and the emotional commentary of the Viennese broadcaster with his almost adoring outbursts as Hitler comes into view (there is an English commentator too) all make this radio report something to hear. World reaction to this Anschluß was predictably neutral with perhaps the exception of a few reporters who had been trying to get the American public to realize the implications of Hitler's power grab. After a quick scramble to cover the Anschluss, CBS reporters Edward R. Murrow and William L. Shirer set up a news Roundtable on the 13th March. With Shirer in London and Murrow in Vienna, they along with some print reporters brought to the American public events which had just occurred. The audio copy of this Roundtable will give you an idea of what Americans heard on the evening of Sunday the 13th.
But realizing the new threats that Germany's new position places upon Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain assures the Czechs that England will support them. But by the fall, events would further thrust the world closer to world war.