Munich, Germany September 25, 1937

On this date in 1937 Italian strongman Benito Mus­so­lini paid his first visit to Germany, meeting Adolf Hitler in the Fuehrer’s pri­vate, luxurious nine-room apart­ment in Munich, 10 minutes away from the Brown House, Nazi Party national head­quarters, and the Fuehrer­bau, where Hitler had formal offices. During the visit Musso­lini made Hitler an honorary cor­poral of the Ital­ian Fascist mili­tia, while Hitler con­ferred the Iron Cross of Greater Germany on Musso­lini. The meeting of the two former World War I cor­porals in­cluded a secret under­standing regarding Austria, the tiny coun­try (6.75 mil­lion people in 1937) that lay between them. Hitler made his guest aware that Italy’s accep­tance of his scheme to gobble up Aus­tria (the so-called Anschluss, or union) was a pre­con­di­tion of their two nations’ con­tinued friend­ship and the for­mali­za­tion of their 1936 Rome-Berlin Axis coali­tion. For his part, Il Duce (Italian, “the leader”) was ready to accept Anschluss as long as Hitler notified him in advance. Hitler kept his word, apprising Mus­so­lini of Germany’s upcoming annex­a­tion of Austria in a letter dated March 10, 1938, just two days before Nazi troops surged over the international border.

Mussolini had recently grown tired of being Europe’s guar­dian of Aus­trian inde­pen­dence. Four years earlier Musso­lini had taken the mur­der of his friend and Aus­trian chan­cel­lor Engel­bert Doll­fuss by Aus­trian Nazis as a per­sonal affront. Musso­lini told the Aus­trian vice-chan­cel­lor, who had come to arrange a meeting between the Duce and Doll­fuss’s suc­ces­sor, Kurt Schu­schnigg, that he knew “the Reich chan­cellor [Hitler] had ordered the mur­der of Doll­fuss.” He despised Hitler: “A dan­gerous mad­man, a revolt­ing indi­vid­ual, a sex­ual degen­erate.” Musso­lini pre­dicted that Hitler “will create an army, will rearm the Ger­man people, and go to war, per­haps in two to three years. I can’t hold him off by myself.” (Mussolini got most of it right.)

Mussolini floated the idea of a multi­na­tional treaty that would guaran­tee Aus­trian inde­pen­dence, but it was rejected by Schu­schnigg when the two men met in August 1934. One alter­na­tive—Italian troops on Austrian soil—made Schu­schnigg ner­vous: “Polit­i­cally un­accept­able,” he told an irked Musso­lini, who went on to sus­pend clan­des­tine arms ship­ments to the Austrian armed forces that were designed to pre­vent a second Nazi coup from succeeding. Musso­lini now redirected Italy’s geo­poli­ti­cal atten­tion from north of his border to the south and east, to North­east Africa (Second Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935–1936) and the Medi­ter­ranean area (Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939). Poor Schu­schnigg. He and the majority of his country­men failed to fully appre­ciate the steps the Austrian-born German chan­cellor could and would take to bring Austria into the Nazi firma­ment. For Schu­schnigg personally, these included his arrest and intern­ment in Sach­sen­hausen, then Dachau con­cen­tration camps after Musso­lini had aban­doned Aus­tria to the Nazi pre­da­tor in their September 1937 meeting. Mussolini now regarded Schu­schnigg’s Austria “as a German Austria that could conduct no policy other than a German one.” When columns of goose-stepping jack­boots, can­non, and armored vehicles entered Vienna, Austria’s capital, in March 1938, an aggressive pan-Germany was born.

Austria, March 1938: The Return of Provincial Son Adolf Hitler

Hitler’s motorcade into Vienna, March 1938

Above: Tens of thousands of Austrians lined Vienna’s streets hours before Hitler’s motor­cade entered the capi­tal on Monday, March 14, 1938. Hitler had followed his army’s en­trance from Bava­ria into Austria on Satur­day, March 12, visiting his birth­place, Braunau am Inn just over the German border, before arriving that evening to an enthu­si­astic wel­come in Linz, Austria’s third-largest city. Hitler’s travels east­ward were turned into a trium­phal tour that cli­maxed with his speech in Austria’s capi­tal on Tuesday, March 15, 1938. “Not as tyrants have we come, but as liberators,” he told his audience.

Hitler addresses citizens in Vienna's Heldenplatz, March 1938

Above: A crowd estimated at 200,000 gathered in Vienna’s Helden­platz (Heroes Square) to hear Hitler say: “The oldest east­ern pro­vince of the German people shall be, from this point on, the newest bas­tion of the German Reich.” The Anschluss was given imme­di­ate effect by a legis­la­tive act, sub­ject to voters’ rati­fi­ca­tion. A plebis­cite was held on April 10 and approved by 99.7 per­cent of the voters, but not before 70,000 peo­ple had been arrested, and not before a huge propa­ganda cam­paign had had its effect, and not before some 400,000 peo­ple (nearly 10 per­cent of the eli­gible voting popu­la­tion) had been disen­fran­chised. Those un­able to vote were chiefly former mem­bers of the Schu­schnigg govern­ment, members of left-wing par­ties (especially Com­mu­nist), German émigrés, Austrian royalists, and Jews, who num­bered 200,000 and lived primarily in the capital. Austria became the German pro­vince of Ost­mark, its once-vibrant capital eventually turned into a drab provincial town.

Big Fish Swallows Little Fish: Austria Becomes Part of Hitler’s Greater German Reich