Nineteen months would elapse from the day Hitler
grabbed control of the German Army until the actual start of World War
II. During those months, Hitler engaged in a kind of gangster diplomacy
in which he bluffed, bullied, threatened, and lied to various European
leaders in order to expand the borders of his Reich.
His very first victim was Dr. Kurt von Schuschnigg,
Chancellor of Austria, a country being torn apart from within by Nazi agitators
and also feeling threatened from the outside by Germany's newfound military
strength. Hoping for some sort of peaceful settlement with Hitler, Schuschnigg
agreed to a face-to-face meeting at Berchtesgaden. The meeting was arraigned
by Franz von Papen, the former ambassador to Austria.
On the chilly winter morning of February 12, 1938,
Schuschnigg's car was met at the German-Austrian border by Papen, who joined
him for the ride up to Hitler's spectacular mountaintop retreat. Papen
informed Schuschnigg that Hitler was in a very good mood this morning.
But, Papen added, Hitler hoped that Schuschnigg wouldn't mind if three
of Germany's top generals were also present during the day's discussion.
| The intimidating glare of the Führer Adolf Hitler - at home in his study room inside his mountaintop retreat at Berchtesgaden - scene of his first diplomatic conquest.
Schuschnigg was somewhat taken aback by this,
but it was too late to change anything now. He arrived at the steps of
Hitler's villa and was greeted by the Führer himself. Standing behind
Hitler were the three generals; Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the High Command,
Walter von Reichenau, Commander of Army troops along the German-Austrian
border, and Air Force General Hugo Sperrle.
Hitler led Schuschnigg into his villa and up to
the great hall on the second floor, a big room featuring a huge plate glass
window with sweeping views of the Alps, and in the far distance, Austria
itself. Schuschnigg, taking it all in, broke the ice with a little small
talk about the view. But Hitler cut him right off. "We did not gather
here to speak of the fine view or the weather!"
Thus began two hours of hell in which the quiet-spoken
Austrian Chancellor was lambasted without mercy by the Führer. "You
have done everything to avoid a friendly policy!" Hitler yelled. "The
whole history of Austria is just one uninterrupted act of high treason...And
I can tell you right now, Herr Schuschnigg, that I am absolutely determined
to make an end of this. The German Reich is one of the great powers, and
nobody will raise his voice if it settles its border problems."
After regaining his composure, Schuschnigg tried
to settle down Hitler, telling him: "We will do everything to remove
obstacles to a better understanding, as far as it is possible."
But Hitler didn't let up. "That is what you
say!...But I am telling you that I am going to solve the so-called Austrian
problem one way or the other...I have a historic mission, and this mission
I will fulfill because Providence has destined me to do so...I have only
to give an order and all your ridiculous defense mechanisms will be blown
to bits. You don't seriously believe you can stop me or even delay me for
half an hour, do you?"
Hitler pointed out that Austria was isolated diplomatically
and could not halt a Nazi invasion. "Don't think for one moment that
anybody on earth is going to thwart my decisions. Italy? I see eye to eye
with Mussolini...England? England will not move one finger for Austria...And
Hitler said France had the power to stop him during
the Rhineland occupation but did nothing and that "now it is too late
An exasperated Schuschnigg finally asked Hitler
what his terms were. But Hitler cut him off again, rudely dismissing him
now. "We can discuss that this afternoon."
By the afternoon, the 41-year-old Schuschnigg
had aged about ten years. He was then introduced to Germany's new Foreign Minister,
an amoral character named Joachim Ribbentrop who presented him with a two-page
document containing Hitler's demands. All Nazis presently jailed in Austria
were to be freed. The ban against the Austrian Nazi Party was to be lifted.
Austrian lawyer, Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, a staunch Nazi supporter, was
to become the new Minister of the Interior with full control of the police.
In addition, Nazis were to be appointed as Minister of War and Minister
of Finance with preparations made for the assimilation of Austria's entire
economy into the German Reich. This was, Schuschnigg was told, the Führer's
final demands and there could be no discussion. He was to sign immediately,
Under such pressure, the Austrian Chancellor wobbled
and said he would consider signing, but first sought assurances that there
would be no further interference in Austria's internal affairs by Hitler.
Ribbentrop, joined by Papen, gave friendly assurances that Hitler would
indeed respect Austria's sovereignty if all his demands were met.
At this point, Schuschnigg was ushered back in
to see Hitler. "You will either sign it as it is and fulfill my demands
within three days, or I will order the march into Austria," Hitler
Schuschnigg gave in and agreed to sign, but informed
Hitler that under Austrian law only the country's president could ratify
such a document and carry out the terms. And, he added, there was no guarantee
the agreement would be accepted by Austria's president, the stubborn-minded
"You have to guarantee it!!" Hitler
exploded. But Schuschnigg said he simply could not. Hitler then rushed
to the doorway and hollered out for General Keitel. Then he turned to Schuschnigg
and abruptly dismissed him. Schuschnigg was taken to a waiting room, left
to ponder what Hitler was saying to Keitel.
Schuschnigg didn't know he had just been the victim
of an outright bluff. When Keitel arrived to ask for orders, a grinning
Hitler told him: "There are no orders. I just wanted to have you here."
A half-hour later, Schuschnigg was ushered back
in to see Hitler. He was given three days to take the agreement back to
Austria and get it signed by the president, or else.
Schuschnigg departed Berchtesgaden, accompanied
during the ride back to the border by a somewhat embarrassed Papen. "You
have seen what the Führer can be like at times," Papen consoled
him. "But the next time I am sure it will be different. You know,
the Führer can be absolutely charming."
Thus ended the first of what would be several diplomatic
coups at Berchtesgaden. Like Schuschnigg, all of the heads of state and
various diplomats arriving there would be at a terrible disadvantage. They
were dealing with a man always willing to go the limit, willing to send
in the troops and shed blood in order to get what he wanted.
Hitler knew that civilized men such as Schuschnigg,
and those who followed, would readily compromise to prevent the loss of
life. They would all learn too late that Hitler did not value life and
that war was his ultimate goal.
Years earlier, Hitler had once confided to his
friend Hermann Rauschning: "We must be prepared for the hardest struggle
that a nation has ever had to face. Only through this test of endurance
can we become ripe for the dominion to which we are called. It will be
my duty to carry out this war regardless of losses. The sacrifice of lives
will be immense. We all of us know what a world war means. As a people
we shall be forged to the hardness of steel. All that is weakly will fall
away from us. But the forged central block will last forever. I have no
fear of annihilation. We shall have to abandon much that is dear to us
and today seems irreplaceable. Cities will become heaps of ruins. Noble
monuments of architecture will disappear forever. This time our sacred
soil will not be spared. But I am not afraid of this."
Hitler's Germany was already well on the road
to war. New weapons were being manufactured day and night. The whole economy
had been placed on a war footing under Göring's Four Year Plan. Germany's
youth, meanwhile, was being hardened like steel via the Hitler Youth paramilitary
organization which elevated Hitler to god-like status and placed supreme
value on duty and sacrifice. Young people were taught that the life of
the individual, their life, was not important. Duty to the Führer
and Fatherland was all that mattered.
Now, in mid-February 1938, Hitler had sent the
Austrian Chancellor back home to convince President Miklas to ratify the
ultimatum. But the stubborn Miklas refused to accept all of the demands.
He was willing to amnesty the jailed Nazis but not to hand over the police
to Nazi sympathizer Seyss-Inquart.
Meanwhile, Hitler ordered General Keitel to conduct
military maneuvers near the Austrian border to make it appear an invasion
was imminent. The bluff worked its magic and President Miklas soon caved
in. He granted a general amnesty for all Nazis in Austria and appointed
Seyss-Inquart as Minister of the Interior with full control of the police.
Seyss immediately rushed off to Germany to see Hitler and receive his instructions.
On the night of February 20th, Hitler gave a speech
in Berlin that was also broadcast throughout Austria. He depicted Austrian
Nazis as a persecuted minority, saying it was "intolerable for a self-conscious
world power to know that at its side are co-racials who are subjected to
continuous suffering because of their sympathy and unity with the whole
German race and ideology." After the speech, Nazis throughout Austria
took to the streets amid wild shouts of 'Sieg Heil!' and 'Heil Hitler!'
Chancellor Schuschnigg, having regained his nerve
to some degree, responded to Hitler four days later via a speech of his
own in Vienna. He said Austria had conceded enough to the Nazis and would
never give up its independence. "Thus far and no further," he
declared. The line had been drawn.
But Austria was being eaten alive from within
by the emboldened Nazi agitators. Mobs brazenly tore down the red-white-red
Austrian flag and raised the swastika banner while police, under Seyss'
control, stood by and watched.
The escalating political unrest soon caused economic
panic. People rushed to banks and withdrew all of their money. Overseas
orders for goods and services were abruptly canceled. Tourists stayed home.
A few outer provinces were even taken over by Austrian Nazis. In Vienna,
Schuschnigg's government was beginning to fold under the pressure – just
what Hitler and the Austrian Nazis had hoped for.
In a desperate gamble to halt the demise and to
stave off Hitler, Schuschnigg announced there would be a national plebiscite
on Sunday, March 13, allowing Austrians to vote on whether or not their
country should remain independent from Germany.
Hitler, on hearing of this surprise announcement,
flew into a rage. He decided on the spot to send in the German Army to
prevent the vote. Plans for the invasion of Austria were hastily drawn
up by General Keitel and General von Manstein and involved three Army corps
and the Air Force.
But there was still a big problem for Hitler.
He wasn't sure how Italy's powerful Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, would
react to a German invasion of neighboring Austria. And so Hitler rushed off an emissary
to Rome bearing a personal letter justifying the coming military action
and pleading for Mussolini's approval. The letter included outrageously
false claims that Austria and Czechoslovakia were both plotting to restore
the old Hapsburg monarchy and attack Germany.
By Friday morning, March 11th, Chancellor Schuschnigg
had become aware of the pending invasion. At 2 p.m. that afternoon, he
informed Seyss-Inquart in Vienna that the plebiscite would indeed be canceled
to avoid any bloodshed. A telephone call was then placed by Seyss to Göring
in Berlin informing him of Schuschnigg's decision. The Chancellor's position
was hopelessly weakened and Göring immediately pounced on him like
A series of telephone calls, amounting to diplomatic
extortion, now ensued. First, Göring successfully badgered Schuschnigg
into resigning, then he demanded that President Miklas appoint Seyss as
the new Chancellor of Austria. But Miklas refused. Göring then issued
an ultimatum that Seyss must be appointed as Chancellor or German troops
would invade that very night. But Miklas stubbornly held out.
Hitler by now had enough of Austria's defiance.
At 8:45 p.m., he ordered his generals to commence the invasion beginning
at dawn the next day. Then came the news Hitler had been waiting to hear
from Mussolini. Hitler was informed by telephone that Austria was considered
"immaterial" to the Italian dictator. There would be no interference
with the Nazi invasion.
"Tell Mussolini I will never forget him for
this!" Hitler told his envoy on the telephone. "Never, never,
never, no matter what happens...I shall stick to him whatever may happen,
even if the whole world gangs up on him!"
Around midnight, President Miklas, realizing his
own position was hopeless, appointed Seyss as the new Chancellor of Austria.
At dawn on Saturday, March 12, 1938, German soldiers in tanks and armored
vehicles roared across the German-Austrian border on schedule. They met
no resistance and in most places were welcomed like heroes. Many of Austria's
seven million ethnic Germans had longed to attach themselves to the rising
star of Germany and its dynamic Führer, a son of Austrian soil.
When news of the invasion reached Britain and
France, they reacted just as they had when Hitler occupied the Rhineland
a few years earlier. They did nothing. In France, internal political problems
once again prevented any military response. Britain, now led by Prime Minister
Neville Chamberlain, had already indicated it would pursue a policy of
appeasement to preserve the peace. Making matters worse, Austria, proud
and defiant in its hour of need, never formally requested any outside assistance.
In Germany, the Saturday editions of all Nazi
newspapers printed a phony telegram supposedly sent by Chancellor Seyss
to Berlin asking "the German government to send German troops as soon
as possible" to restore order. There were also faked reports by Goebbels
regarding rioting in Vienna and street fights involving Communists. This
was the version of events Hitler presented to the world, that the Austrians
themselves, desperate to restore order, had requested military assistance
Aware that his troops were getting fantastic welcomes,
Hitler decided to accompany his soldiers into his birthplace at Braunau
am Inn and then on to Linz, where he had been a schoolboy. He also visited
his parents' grave site at Leonding and laid a wreath.
At Linz he gave an emotional speech declaring:
"If Providence once called me forth from this town to be the leader
of the Reich, it must in doing so have charged me with a mission, and that
mission could only be to restore my dear homeland to the German Reich."
Hitler thus ordered a law drafted providing for
immediate Anschluss (union) of Austria with Germany. The next day, Sunday,
March 13, the law was approved by the Austrian government led by Seyss.
The formal announcement was then made to the world. Austria had ceased
to exist. It was now a province of the German Reich. Hitler himself shed
tears of joy when he was presented with the actual Anschluss document.
On Monday afternoon, he made his grand entry into
Vienna, the city he had known so many years earlier as a down-and-out tramp.
He stayed at the Hotel Imperial, the same hotel where he once worked as
a half-starved day laborer, shoveling snow off the sidewalk outside the
entrance and respectfully removing his cap as wealthy guests came and went.
As a poor youth he could never go inside. Today he was the guest of honor.
returning to Germany, Hitler scheduled another plebiscite, just as he had
done after occupying the Rhineland. The people of Germany and Austria were
now asked to approve the Anschluss. On April 10th, ninety-nine percent voted
'Ja,' with most afraid to ever vote no, knowing their vote might easily
The Nazi occupation of Austria was marked by an
outbreak of anti-Jewish violence, the likes of which had not even been
seen in Germany. Vienna was home to about 180,000 Jews. Throughout the
city, Jewish men and women were grabbed at random by Nazis and forced to
scrub walls and sidewalks clean of any pro-independence slogans. Other
humiliations including cleaning public toilets and the latrines in SS barracks
with sacred Hebrew prayer cloths. Thousands were also jailed for no reason
while police allowed open looting of Jewish homes and businesses.
SS Leader Heinrich Himmler, along with Reinhard
Heydrich, had accompanied Hitler into Vienna. They quickly realized Jews
there would pay just about anything to exit the country. Heydrich then
set up an Office for Jewish Emigration run by an Austrian SS man named
Adolf Eichmann which extorted money and valuables from Jews in return for
their freedom. This office was so successful that it became the model for
one set up in Germany.
Himmler also established the first concentration
camp outside Germany at Mauthausen, located near Linz. About 120,000 persons
would be worked to death there in the camp's granite quarry or 'shot while
As for Dr. Kurt von Schuschnigg, the man who had
defied Hitler, he was arrested by the Gestapo and spent several years in
a variety of Nazi concentration camps including Dachau and Sachsenhausen.
Hitler had taken Austria without firing a single
shot. Czechoslovakia next door now trembled at the thought that it was
surrounded on three sides by the German Army. Hitler wasted no time in
pressing his advantage. He began to consider plans for the occupation of
the Sudetenland, the western portion of Czechoslovakia home to about three
million ethnic Germans.
A month earlier, Hermann Göring had assured
the nervous Czech government, "I give you my word of honor that Czechoslovakia
has nothing to fear from the Reich."