The History Place - The Triumph of Adolf Hitler

Nazis Take Austria

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 France?"

Hitler said France had the power to stop him during the Rhineland occupation but did nothing and that "now it is too late for France."

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, or else.

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 told him.

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 Wilhelm Miklas.

"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 tiger.

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.

Hitler's motorized troops head into a small town in Upper Austria as a crowd of townsfolk awaits their arrival. Below: The tumultuous scene in Vienna as Hitler's entourage enters.
Below: Hitler in Vienna with Reich Governor Arthur Seyss-Inquart (left), while behind Hitler stands Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and others.
Below: Jews in Vienna face a stark and uncertain future with nowhere to turn for help.

"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 from Germany.

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.

Upon 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 be discovered.

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 attempting escape.'

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."

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