Linz, Austria March 12, 1938

After abolishing Germany’s Ministry of War on Febru­ary 4, 1938, and creating in its place the Ober­kom­mando der Wehr­macht (OKW, or Supreme Com­mand of the Armed Forces) with him­self at its helm, Adolf Hitler now focused on a peace­ful take­over of Europe beginning with his native Austria, an Alpine country of 7 million German-speakers who shared borders with Germany (Bavaria) and Czecho­slo­va­kia to their north. (Hitler was born in Brau­nau am Inn near Linz, the Upper Austrian pro­vincial capital.) In mid-Febru­ary 1938 Hitler invited Austrian Chan­cellor Kurt Schusch­nigg to meet him half­way, at the Berg­hof in Bavaria, the Fuehrer’s luxu­rious vaca­tion resi­dence. Schusch­nigg wanted to use the meeting with his German counter­part to reaffirm Austria’s inde­pend­ence of its power­ful neigh­bor. Hitler, in the com­pany of three German generals (one being, in Hitler’s words, one of his “two most brutal-looking generals”), used the meeting to brow­beat Schusch­nigg into joining with him in creating a Greater German Reich (Gross­deutsch­land) through Anschluss (union) with Nazi Germany, an occur­rence that inci­den­tally had been expressly forbid­den by the 1919 Treaty of Ver­sailles that ended the war between Germany and the Allied powers. “Perhaps I’ll appear some­time over­night in Vienna; like a spring storm. Then you’ll see something,” he warned Schuschnigg.

The Austrian chancellor returned home more deter­mined than ever to avoid a German em­brace. Schusch­nigg proposed a national refer­en­dum over the issue of Anschluss, to take place on Sunday, March 13, 1938. Hitler was afraid that the out­come of the vote would be unfavor­able to pro-Nazi Austrians. Schusch­nigg and his prede­ces­sor in office had jailed many Nazi enthu­si­asts, vio­lently sup­pressed and out­lawed the Nazi Party, and raised the voting age to 24 in order to pre­vent the younger gener­a­tion, many of whom were closet Nazis pumped full of Nazi ide­o­logy, from voting in the national referendum.

On the eve of the refer­en­dum, Hitler sent a written ulti­ma­tum to the Austrian govern­ment, insisting that the March 13 referen­dum be cancelled and that Schusch­nigg resign in favor of Austrian right-wing poli­ti­cian Arthur Seyss-Inquart, a secret member of the Nazi Party. To enforce An­schluss Hitler ordered German troops into Austria on this date, Satur­day, March 12, 1938. That after­noon, accom­panied by a 4,000‑man body­guard, Hitler crossed the Austrian border at Brau­nau and made a trium­phal entry into Linz, his “home­town,” later in the evening. Schusch­nigg took to the national air­waves and, in a voice cracking, told his country­men, “We have yielded to force . . . in this terrible situation.”

An ad hoc Einsatzkommando (task force) formed by Rein­hard Hey­drich, psycho­pathic chief of both the Sicher­heits­dienst (SD), or Security Service, and the Sicher­heits­polizei (SiPo), or Security Police, which com­prised in part the noto­rious Geheime Staats­polizei (Gestapo, Secret State Police), secured Austrian govern­ment buildings and documents and inter­rogated senior civil servants. Schusch­nigg was arrested and deported. (Schusch­nigg spent most of the war years in two dif­fer­ent Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps, first Sachsen­hausen north of Berlin, then Dachau near Munich.) Austrian Nazis held a sham plebis­cite the following month, asking voters to ratify the fait accompli. The elec­tor­ate allegedly voted 99.73 per­cent in favor of Anschluss. Austria became known as Ostmark, “the Eastern Region.”

Though the great majority of Austrians were not card-carrying Nazis, support for Germany’s war­time policies remained popu­lar until late in the war. Hundreds of thou­sands of Austrians fought in the German Wehr­macht (armed forces), while a good-size number served in the SS, short for Schutz­staffel, the elite mili­tary corps of the Nazi Party. By war’s end roughly 250,000 Austrians were dead or missing in combat. An even greater number of Austrians were held in pri­soners of war camps. In addi­tion, more than 20,000 Austrians died in Allied bombing raids. When Austria regained its inde­pen­dence in 1945, much of the nation’s infra­struc­ture had been damaged or destroyed. In the post­war occu­pa­tion period Austria ranked as one of the poorest in Europe.

German-Austrian Anschluss, March and April 1938

Anschluss: A triumphant Hitler enters Vienna, March 14, 1938

Above: Hundreds of thousands of cheering Aus­trians lined the streets as Hitler and his entou­rage made a triumphal entry into Austria’s capital, Vienna, on March 14, 1938. Scarlet swas­tika flags hung from buildings, flew from car fenders, and fluttered back and forth in the hands of Vien­nese crowds. Columns of gleaming German limou­sines, motor­cycles, armored cars, and trucks carrying thou­sands of men in field-gray uniforms converged on the city as if overnight.

Kurt Schuschnigg, 1936Anschluss: Arthur Seyss-Inquart with Hitler, 1938

Left: Austro­fascist chancellor of Austria (1934–1938) and Father­land Front leader Kurt Schusch­nigg at a party rally, 1936. Schusch­nigg rejected Hitler’s Pan-German poli­tics; in­stead, he focused on pro­tecting Austria’s inde­pen­dence during a decade of poli­tical unrest in Central Europe. After the war and his release from German captivity, Schusch­nigg emi­grated to the U.S., where he taught poli­tical science at Saint Louis Uni­versity in Missouri from 1948 to 1967. Schuschnigg returned to Austria where he died in 1977.

Right: Nazi Reich Governor Arthur Seyss-Inquart with Hitler in Vienna, March 1938. (Hey­drich is behind Hitler and to his left.) During their February 1938 meeting at the Berg­hof, Hitler bullied Schusch­nigg into appointing Austrian Nazi Party leader Seyss-Inquart to head Austria’s Ministry of Public Security, a sensi­tive post that gave Austrian Nazis full and unlimited control of their country’s police forces. With the assis­tance of Seyss-Inquart’s post-Anschluss puppet govern­ment, the Nazis quickly embarked on a cam­paign of repres­sion and terror. Tens of thou­sands of Austrians, including Catho­lics, Social Demo­crats, Socialists, and Communists, were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Nazi Germany and Hitler’s Entry into Austria, March 1938