Hitler’s March into Austria: The Anschluss


512px-KurtVonSchuschnigg1936

Kurt Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, resigned in the face of the “unification”

The German word Anschluss means “union”. Historically, it is the term given to the unification of Germany with Austria in April 1938. This particular moment in history was to prove a sign of things to come, and the following is an overview of how its events unfolded and around whom.

Since the middle of the 19th century, German nationalists had pressed for the amalgamation of the two countries to create Grossdeutschland (all the German speaking peoples of Europe as opposed to Kleindeutschland, of Germany alone). However, after the first world war, the Treaty of Versailles expressly forbade such a thing from happening. But, in 1933, when Hitler came to power, he determined to make the unification of all German speaking peoples, including those in the Rheinland, the Saar Sudetenland (Czechoslovakia), the Memel land (Lithuania) and Austria a reality.

A national by birth, Austria was of particular interest to Hitler. It also happened to be rich in magnesium, iron ore, and the resources of machine tools, along with hydro-electric power, textiles and spare labour – all potentially vital to German rearmament. Unification was also supported by a small but extremely vociferous Austrian Fascist Party. Opposition came from the Austrian Christian Socialist Movement and, initially, it was also opposed by Mussolini, who feared Hitler would demand Italian territories should it become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Austrian Chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, was bullied into meeting Hitler at Berchesgarten in early 1938, against a background of violence and rioting orchestrated by the Viennese Fascists. He was forced by Hitler to promise to hold a plebiscite on unification with Germany. Back on Austrian soil, however, he changed his mind and, in a desperate effort to gain popular support for independence, legalised the banned Social Democratic Party. He also recognised the Austrian Trade Union Movement. Hitler raged with fury at this, and threatened the invasion of Austria, to be spearheaded by SS units. Schuschnigg promptly resigned, a broken man.

In March, Hitler’s stormtroopers crossed the Austro-German border at Branau (Hitler’s birthplace), occupied Linz and marched into Vienna. The subsequent Nazi-controlled referendum resulted in almost the entirety of the Austrian electorate voting for German-Austrian unification.

Reaction in Europe proved fatal. Italy quickly moved towards an understanding with Hitler, in reward for his support of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. England and France refused to interfere. In the east, Stalin lost faith in a common defence agreement with the European powers against German aggression, persuading him to sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. A vicious, totalitarian regime was imposed on Austria. Social Democrats, Jews and Catholics were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Something soon to be repeated on a far greater scale.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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