Following the First World War, the German-speaking Austrians desired unification, or Anschluss, with Germany, but were forbidden to do so by the Treaty of Versailles. As early as 1932, the Austrian Nazis won 16 per cent of the votes in a nationwide election.
In July 1934, the Austrian Nazis attempted an overthrow of the government, killing the chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, in the process but ultimately failing when the Austrian army stayed loyal to the government. Mussolini, a friend of Dollfuss, happened to be entertaining the chancellor’s wife and children on the day of the assassination, and had to break the news to them. Outraged at the death of his friend, Mussolini pledged his support to the new chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg; and placed an army on the Austrian-Italian border at the Brenner Pass, ready to intervene at a moment’s notice should the Nazis try again. Later, as Mussolini’s allegiance moved towards Germany, this support was quietly withdrawn.
In 1938 Schuschnigg, fearing a renewed attack, demanded an audience with his fellow Austrian, Hitler. When Hitler did finally agree to meet the Austrian chancellor, he harangued him over the rights and the ‘intolerable conditions’ of the German-speaking Austrians and forced Schuschnigg into accepting a number of concessions, including the inclusion of two Nazis into the Austrian government, most prominently Arthur Seyss-Inquart.
Browbeaten, Schuschnigg returned to Austria and decided to call for a referendum on whether his countrymen wanted independence or to be incorporated into the German Reich. Furious at Schuschnigg’s audacity, Hitler demanded the cancellation of the referendum. Schuschnigg turned to Britain and France for help. When these leading representatives of the League of Nations were unable to assist, Schuschnigg bowed to the inevitable and resigned.
The new Austrian chancellor, the Nazi Seyss-Inquart, promptly invited the Germans into Austria to ‘restore order’. On 12 March 1938, Hitler’s troops marched into the city of Linz (pictured below), followed a few hours later by Hitler himself where, in his home town, he received a rapturous welcome. On the following day, as Hitler paraded victoriously through the streets of Vienna, crowds cheered and shouted, ‘Down with the Jews.’ That same day the Anschluss was formally announced: Germany and Austria were as one.
Nazi troops welcomed into Salzburg during the Anschluss, March 1938
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1988-119-04A / Unknown / CC-BY-SA
Immediately the arrest and persecution of Austrian Jews began. Forced out of their homes, their businesses closed and liberties curtailed, the Jews were taunted and subjected to humiliation: the cleaning of pavements with toothbrushes or the hacking off of beards.
A referendum, held on 10 April, ratified the union; 99.5 per cent voted ‘yes’, although by this stage casting a ‘no’ vote would have been dangerous.
The 82-year-old Sigmund Freud, crippled by cancer, chose this moment to leave his homeland. Before leaving for London, he was obliged to write a complimentary reference about his treatment at the hands of the Nazis. He obliged, writing, ‘I can strongly recommend the Gestapo to one and all.’