Modern history

CREATING GREATER GERMANY

I

The remilitarization of the Rhineland profoundly altered the balance of international relations in Europe. Up to this point, as had been made abundantly clear in 1923, the French were potentially able to enforce Germany’s obligations by marching across the Rhine and occupying the country’s biggest industrial region, the Ruhr. From now on, they were no longer able to do so. The French position from 1936 onwards was a purely defensive one. It left the Third Reich a free hand in moving against the small countries of Eastern Europe. Shocked by a development that left them dangerously vulnerable, many of them, previously allied to France, moved to try and improve relations with the Third Reich. Austria now felt particularly at risk, given the new-found friendship between Germany and Italy.55 Before long, too, Hitler and Mussolini’s relationship drew even closer. For, following a left-wing victory in the Spanish elections held in February 1936, right-wing army officers in various parts of the country launched a concerted uprising on 17 July 1936 to overthrow the Republic and create a military dictatorship. The uprising failed to achieve its objectives in most parts of the country, and soon Spain was plunged into a desperate and bloody civil war. German officials and businessmen in Spain urged on Hitler the support of the rebels, and one of the leading figures in the uprising, General Francisco Franco, appealed directly to Hitler for help. It was not long in coming.56

Even before the end of July 1936, German planes were in Spain ferrying rebel forces to the key fronts and thus helping to ensure that the uprising did not fizzle out. From this modest beginning, German intervention was soon to reach startling proportions. The main reasons were both military and political. As the political situation in Spain polarized with unprecedented intensity, Hitler began to be concerned about the possibility that a Republican victory would deliver the country into the hands of the Communists at a time when a Popular Front government, backed by the Communist Party, had just come to power in France. A union between the two countries might create a serious obstacle in Western Europe to his plans for expansion and war in the East, particularly when this encompassed the Soviet Union, as it eventually would. Beyond this, he soon realized that the war would provide an ideal proving-ground for Germany’s new armed forces and equipment.57 Soon, Werner von Blomberg, the German Minister of War, freshly promoted to Field-Marshal, was in Spain telling Franco that he would get German troops and matériel provided he agreed to prosecute the war with more vigour than he had displayed to date. In November 1936, 11,000 German troops and support staff, supplied with aircraft, artillery and armour, landed at Cadiz. By the end of the month, the Nationalist regime had been officially recognized as the government of Spain by the Third Reich, and the German forces had been organized into an effective unit under the name of the Condor Legion.58

Hitler and his generals were clear that German assistance to Franco could not expand indefinitely without attracting the hostility of the other European powers. Britain and France had agreed on a policy of non-intervention. This did not stop supplies from the United Kingdom in particular from reaching the Nationalist side, but it did mean that if the fiction of general neutrality was to be preserved, other powers would have to be careful about the extent to which they intervened. Mussolini’s assistance to the rebels was far greater than Hitler’s, but both were countered by the aid that the Soviet Union gave to the Republican side. Volunteers from many countries flocked to the Republican banner to form an International Brigade; a rather smaller number went to fight for the Francoists. In this situation, preventing the conflict from escalating into a wider war seemed to be in everybody’s interest. The stakes scarcely seemed overwhelming. So Hitler kept the Condor Legion as a relatively small, though highly trained and professional, fighting force.59

Under the command of General Hugo Sperrle, however, it played a significant part in the Nationalist war effort. Soon the Legion was testing its new 88-millimetre anti-aircraft guns against Republican planes. But its most effective contribution was made through its own bombers, which took part in a concerted advance, undertaken at Sperrle’s behest, on the Basque country. On 31 March 1937 the Legion’s Junkers aircraft bombed the undefended town of Durango, killing 248 inhabitants, including several priests and nuns, the first European town to be subjected to intensive bombing. Far more devastating, however, was the raid they carried out, in conjunction with four new fast Heinkel III bombers and some untried Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters, on the town of Guernica on 26 April 1937. Forty-three aircraft, including a small number of Italian planes, dropped 100,000 pounds of incendiary, high-explosive and shrapnel bombs on the town, while the fighters strafed the inhabitants and refugees in the streets with machine-gun fire. The town’s population, normally not more than 7,000, was swollen with refugees, retreating Republican soldiers and peasants attending market-day. Over 1,600 people were killed and more than 800 injured. The centre of the town was flattened. The raid confirmed the widespread fear in Europe of the devastating effects of aerial bombing. Already a symbol of the assault on Basque identity, it gained a worldwide significance through the exiled, pro-Republican Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who dedicated the mural he had been commissioned to produce for the Paris World Exposition a large painting, Guernica, depicting with unique and enduring power the sufferings of the town and its people.60

The international furore that greeted the raid led the Germans and the Spanish Nationalists to deny any responsibility. For years afterwards it was claimed that the Basques had blown their own town up.61 Privately, Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, who had organized the raid, concluded with satisfaction that the new planes and bombs had proved their effectiveness, though he was less than satisfied with the failure of the Spanish Nationalist generals to follow up the raid with an immediate knock-out blow to their Basque opponents.62 But the Condor Legion did not repeat this murderous experiment. Later on, its bid to use fast-moving tanks in the concluding phase of the war was vetoed by the traditionalist Franco. Nevertheless, thanks to German and Italian help, superior resources and generalship, internal unity and international neutrality, the Francoists completed their victory by the end of March 1939. On 18 May 1939, led by Richthofen, the Legion marched proudly past in Franco’s final victory parade in Madrid.63 Once more, international inaction had allowed Hitler free rein. The Spanish Civil War was one more example for him of the supine pusillanimity of Britain and France, and thus an encouragement to move faster in the fulfilment of his own intentions. In this sense, at least, the Spanish conflict accelerated the descent into war.64

More immediately, however, it cemented the alliance between Hitler and Mussolini. Already in September 1936 Hans Frank visited Rome to begin negotiations, and the next month, the Italian Foreign Minister Ciano went to Germany to sign a secret agreement with Hitler. By November 1936 Mussolini was referring openly to a ‘Rome-Berlin Axis’. Both powers had agreed to respect each other’s ambitions and ally themselves against the Spanish Republic. At the same time, behind the backs of the Foreign Ministry, Hitler arranged for Ribbentrop’s office to conclude an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan, pledging both to a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. For the moment, it was of little value, but together with the Rome-Berlin Axis, it completed the line-up of revisionist, expansionist powers that was to take such devastating shape during the Second World War.65 The attempt to bring Britain into the Anti-Comintern Pact, spearheaded by Ribbentrop’s appointment as Ambassador in London in August 1936, was never likely to succeed; it foundered almost immediately on the new envoy’s tactlessness and his use of the threat of undermining Britain’s overseas empire as an instrument of blackmail - a threat taken all too seriously by the British. As far as Hitler was concerned, moreover, nothing less than a global arrangement with the United Kingdom would by this stage have been worth the price of alienating the Italians, given the substantial British presence in the Mediterranean. He did not abandon the idea of some kind of arrangement with the British and continued to believe that the United Kingdom would stand aside from events in Europe, however they unfolded. For the moment, however, such calculations took second place to the pursuit of his immediate aims on the European Continent.66

II

Those aims were moving appreciably closer to fulfilment by the second half of 1936. The Four-Year Plan, designed to build up Germany’s military power fast enough to undertake a general war by the early 1940s, was under way. The Rome-Berlin Axis, the Anti-Comintern Pact, the successful prosecution of the Spanish Civil War and the ascendancy of appeasement in the British government all helped convince Hitler that he could accelerate the pace of his foreign policy even in the absence of a British alliance. It was in this mood that Hitler held the conference with Blomberg, Fritsch, Goring, Neurath and Raeder on 5 November 1937 where Colonel Hossbach recorded the Nazi Leader’s intention of taking military action against Austria and Czechoslovakia in the not-too-distant future.67 But by this time, Hitler had begun to feel that he was being hamstrung by obstructionism and lack of enthusiasm from some of his underlings. In the winter of 1937-8, he began to replace them with men who would be more willing to go along with an accelerated pace towards war. For a number of top military leaders, backed by sympathizers in the Foreign Office, had become extremely alarmed by Hitler’s increasingly impatient drive towards war. Germany might be able to take over Austria and possibly Czechoslovakia, but the country’s state of military preparedness meant that it was in their view far from ready for a war with Britain and France should military action in East-Central Europe ignite a general conflagration. War Minister Field-Marshal Werner von Blomberg, Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath and Army Commander-in-Chief Werner von Fritsch all expressed serious doubts after the meeting of November 1937. Chief of the Army General Staff General Ludwig Beck was even more alarmed and expressed his dismay at Hitler’s irresponsibility. All these men believed that a general war was both inevitable and desirable, but they were also convinced that to launch it now would be dangerously premature.68

Early in 1938 the opportunity to move presented itself to Hitler in the form of an unexpected scandal. On 12 January 1938, Blomberg, a lonely widower, married a woman thirty-five years younger than himself. He had met her while walking in the Tiergarten in Berlin. Blomberg’s new wife, Margarethe Gruhn, was a simple young woman from a humble background. Hitler approved of the match because it showed the irrelevance of social distinction in the Third Reich. So he agreed to act as a witness in the wedding ceremony. But Gruhn’s background was in reality far from simple. An anonymous phone-call informed Fritsch that she had once registered with the police as a prostitute, posed for pornographic photographs and been convicted of stealing from a client. The police confirmed her identity. On 24 January Goring felt obliged to show her police file to Hitler. Alarmed at the ridicule he would suffer if it became known that he had been a witness to the marriage of an ex-prostitute, Hitler plunged into a deep depression, unable to sleep. The situation was made worse for him, characteristically, by the revelation that the pornographic photographs had been taken by a Jew with whom Gruhn had been living at the time. It was, wrote Goebbels in his diary, the worst crisis in the regime since the Röhm affair. ‘The Leader’, he reported, ‘is completely shattered.’ Goebbels thought the only honourable way out for Blomberg was to shoot himself. Blomberg turned down Göring’s offer of an annulment of the wedding, and was forced to resign as Defence Minister. On 27 January Hitler saw him for the last time; the next day the Field-Marshal and his wife departed for a year’s holiday in Italy.69

But this was by no means the end of the affair. Brooding on the possibility that other senior officers might also be tainted by moral scandal, Hitler suddenly recalled a file he had been shown on Colonel-General Fritsch in the summer of 1936, containing allegations of homosexual conduct levelled at him by a Berlin male prostitute, Otto Schmidt. At the time, Hitler had dismissed the allegations out of hand and ordered the file to be destroyed. But the meticulous Heydrich had kept it locked away, and on 25 January 1938 he submitted it to Hitler. Horrified, Hitler’s military adjutant Colonel Hossbach told Fritsch, who declared that the allegations were completely false. Perhaps, Fritsch told a hastily summoned meeting the next day with Hitler, Goring and Otto Schmidt, hauled out of prison by the Gestapo for the occasion, they referred to a time in 1933-4 when he had regularly lunched alone with a member of the Hitler Youth whom he had provided with free meals. If so, he could assure everybody that the relationship had been entirely innocent. Previously unaware of this relationship, Hitler was now even more alarmed. Fritsch’s lack of indignation as he coolly dismissed Schmidt’s story did not help him either. Interrogated on 27 January by the Gestapo, Schmidt added further circumstantial details of his own supposed relationship with Fritsch. The Army Commander had little difficulty in proving these to be false. But the damage was done. Hitler did not trust him any more. Justice Minister Gürtner, consulted on the matter, opined that Fritsch had failed to clear his name. Plunged into even deeper gloom, Hitler cancelled his annual speech on the anniversary of his appointment as Reich Chancellor on 30 January. On 3 February 1938 he asked Fritsch to resign.70

At Gürtner’s insistence, Fritsch was tried by a military court on 18 March 1938. He was unambiguously cleared of all charges, which rested, the court concluded, on mistaken identity: the Fritsch in question had been someone else altogether. Barred from further access to high military office, he volunteered for service on the Polish front and was killed in battle on 22 September 1939; Blomberg survived the war in retirement, dying in an Allied prison in March 1946.71 In the meantime, Hitler still had to find a way out of the crisis. After intensive discussions with Goebbels, however, Hitler finally acted. The fall of the two top army men could be usefully disguised as part of a much wider reshuffle. Hitler dismissed no fewer than fourteen generals, including six from the air force; they included many men who were known to be lukewarm about National Socialism. Forty-six other senior officers were redeployed. Fritsch was replaced as commander-in-chief of the army by Walther von Brauchitsch, an artillery officer who was now promoted to the rank of colonel-general. Brauchitsch was not a Nazi, but he was an admirer of Hitler, and he was far more subservient to him than his predecessor had been. Hitler brushed aside the claims of Goring for appointment as War Minister. His existing military rank (retired captain) was too junior for this to be acceptable to the generals, and in any case the post might have made him too powerful. Hitler fobbed him off with the title of Field-Marshal.72

The War Ministry remained unoccupied. From now on, Hitler would carry out its functions himself as supreme commander, creating subordinate Ministries for each of the three branches of the armed forces, co-ordinated by a new High Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW), under General Wilhelm Keitel, the top military administrator under the old structure. At the same time, he took the opportunity to replace Neurath as Foreign Minister with his own man, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who could be trusted far more to do his bidding. The conservative Ulrich von Hassell was recalled from the embassy in Rome and replaced with a more pliant ambassador. Hitler also announced the appointment of the loyal Walther Funk as a replacement for Schacht at the Ministry of Economics, from which Schacht had resigned on 26 November 1937. The official explanation for these changes was that Blomberg and Fritsch had retired on health grounds, but Hitler told the real story to both the cabinet, meeting for its last ever time on 5 February 1938, and the senior generals, earlier the same day. The army officers, convinced by the circumstantial details that Hitler enumerated, were aghast. The moral integrity of the army leadership had been destroyed. It was now completely at Hitler’s mercy. On 20 February Hitler addressed the Reichstag for several hours. The armed forces, he declared, were now ‘dedicated to this National Socialist state in blind faith and obedience’.73

These changes left Hitler in unfettered command of German foreign, military and economic policy. Surrounded by acolytes who constantly reiterated their admiration for him, he now had nobody who was willing to restrain him. By this time, too, he had shed the few personal friends who retained anything like a mind of their own. One of them, Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl, who had supported Hitler in his early days, had been granted the somewhat empty title of Foreign Press Chief of the Nazi Party in 1932. But he had never been able to challenge Goebbels’s domination of this area of propaganda, and Hitler himself had no more real use for him. Gone were the undignified days when Hitler had strode around Hanfstaengl’s drawing-room waving his arms about while his host played Wagner on the piano. Vain, self-centred, never one of Hitler’s slavishly adoring followers, Hanfstaengl caused mounting irritation in the Nazi leadership with exaggerated stories of his bravery in staying in New York during the First World War after America entered the war in 1917, at a time when several of them had been fighting on the front. When he coupled this with disparagement of the courage of the German troops fighting on Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War, Hitler and Goebbels decided to teach him a lesson. In February 1937 Hitler ordered Hanfstaengl to go to Spain to liaise with German war correspondents behind the front. In mid-air, the pilot, following Hitler’s instructions, informed Hanfstaengl that he was in fact being sent on a secret mission behind enemy lines. Not the bravest of men, Hanfstaengl panicked. Eventually the pilot set him down on an airstrip near Leipzig, claiming there was something wrong with the engine. Every part of the episode was caught on film by Goebbels’s cameramen. The resulting footage, Goebbels later noted in his diary, was enough to make him die laughing. Hanfstaengl did not see the joke. Convinced he had been the subject of an assassination attempt, he fled to Switzerland and did not return.74

III

At the beginning of 1938, Hitler’s attention turned once more to Austria. He had concluded a formal agreement with the Austrian government on 11 July 1936 in which Austria had accepted the principle that it was a German state and the Austrian dictator, Kurt von Schuschnigg, had complied with Hitler’s request to give the ‘national opposition’, or in other words the Austrian Nazi Party, a share in government. But while Schuschnigg regarded this as settling the difficulties that had emerged in Austo-German relations with the coup attempt of two years before, Hitler saw it only as the thin end of a political wedge that would eventually prise open Austrian sovereignty and deliver complete union with Germany.75 Yet for a long time, Hitler did not think the moment was appropriate for a move. Throughout 1936, he urged caution on the Austrian Nazis, not wanting to cause international alarm while the rest of Europe was digesting the remilitarization of the Rhineland and its consequences. He continued in this vein through much of 1937 as well. The leadership of the Austrian Nazis obeyed, downplaying the hostility to the Catholic Church that was creating such a furore in their neighbour to the north. Austria was an overwhelmingly Catholic state, and it was vital to keep the Church hierarchy at worst neutral, at best sympathetic, towards the idea of a reunion with Germany. The movement’s rank and file chafed at the restrictions this policy imposed on their activism, and the underground Party was seriously divided. Another source of tension was supplied by Schuschnigg’s appointment of Arthur Seyss-Inquart, a pro-Nazi lawyer, to the government. So great was the Austrian Nazi Party’s resentment at this seeming co-optation of one of its leading figures into the governmental political machine that it formally expelled one of Seyss-Inquart’s team, Odilo Globocnik, in October 1937. The Austrian SS, led by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, was particularly forceful in propagating illegal activities against the wishes of the Party leadership. In the light of these divisions, any hope that Austrian independence could be overthrown from within had to be abandoned.76

While Hitler was urging caution, however, Hermann Goring was taking a somewhat bolder line. As head of the Four-Year Plan, he was becoming increasingly anxious about the rapidly growing shortfalls of raw materials and skilled industrial labour in the drive to rearm and prepare for war. Austria possessed both in abundance. Goring was particularly keen to grasp rich iron-ore deposits in Styria. Making his intentions clear, he showed a specially made map of Europe, with Austria already incorporated into Germany, to Mussolini in September 1937, and to the top official in the Austrian Foreign Ministry two months later. He took Mussolini’s silence for assent. The incorporation of Austria fitted well into Göring’s geopolitical idea of a broad, German-led economic sphere in Central Europe - the traditional idea, familiar since the early 1900s, of Mitteleuropa. So he also pressed for a currency union between the two countries. The idea met with a lukewarm response from the Austrian government, which suspected that this would lead inexorably to political union, given the vastly greater economic strength of Germany. This aggressive policy was too tough, Hitler told Mussolini during the Italian leader’s visit to Germany in September 1937. Nevertheless, he did nothing to stop Göring’s initiatives. For in practice he was already moving towards Göring’s position and beginning to think that the incorporation of Austria should come sooner rather than later.77

The heightened sense of urgency that began to grip Hitler early in 1938 had several different causes. German rearmament was progressing at a headlong pace, but other countries were beginning to rearm too, and soon the advantage that Germany had built up would be lost. At the moment, too, experience seemed to show that Britain and France were still reluctant to take firm action against German expansion. This reluctance was underlined by the replacement on 21 February 1938 of Anthony Eden by the more conciliatory Lord Halifax as British Foreign Secretary. But how long would the will for appeasement last? Moreover, around 1937-8, Hitler himself began to feel that his own time was running out. He was nearing his fiftieth birthday, and he was becoming concerned about his health; in May 1938, he even suspected for a while that he had cancer. More immediately, and most crucially, one way of distracting attention from the crisis in the army leadership was to undertake some spectacular move in foreign policy. And here, for neither the first nor the last time, events played into Hitler’s hands. The growing rapprochement between Germany and Italy had resulted among other things in Mussolini’s withdrawal of all his previous objections to a German takeover of Austria, an aim that Hitler, as a native Austrian, had entertained since the beginning of his political career. Moreover, Schuschnigg, encouraged by Hitler’s special ambassador in Vienna, Franz von Papen, was anxious to meet Hitler to try and curb the violence of the Austrian Nazis, who, he feared, were planning a coup along the lines of the failed putsch that had resulted in the death of his predecessor in 1934. The meeting was to be a momentous one.78

Schuschnigg’s government had grown steadily weaker since 1936. It had made almost no headway at all in trying to improve the economic situation, which remained sunk in the depths of the Depression. Years of grinding poverty and mass unemployment had left the majority of the population not only disillusioned with the government but also more convinced than ever that the small Austrian Republic would never become economically viable on its own. Throughout the 1920s all the major political parties had been committed to reunifying Austria - part of Germany in its various incarnations all the way up to 1866 - with the Reich. Although the Nazi seizure of power had led the Marxist-oriented Austrian Socialists to drop this particular demand from their programme in 1933, there was no doubt that many of them continued to believe it was the best solution to their country’s problems; after all, they thought, by joining the Third Reich they would only be leaving an unsuccessful dictatorship for a successful one. Moreover, many Socialists, embittered by their violent suppression by the government and the army in February 1934, were under no circumstances prepared to lend their support to the hated Schuschnigg, whom they held partly responsible for the killing of hundreds of their comrades during the conflict. More generally, Austrian antisemitism, a government report noted in 1936, was ‘continuously growing’ as people cast about for someone to blame. It was encouraged not only by the Austrian Nazis but also by the small but increasingly popular monarchist movement, led by the Archduke Otto von Habsburg, heir to the Habsburg throne. Schuschnigg’s attempt to rally support by founding his own fascist-style Fatherland Front had completely failed; fascist movements in Europe gained their power from harnessing popular discontent, and a government-sponsored imitation convinced nobody. In 1936, Schuschnigg banned the turbulent Home Defence Leagues. This deprived him of the only remaining paramilitary force that might have helped him resist a German invasion; the paramilitary division of the Austrian Socialists had already been outlawed under his predecessor Dollfuss. Thousands of disgruntled paramilitaries gravitated towards the underground Austrian Nazi Party, also banned under Schuschnigg.79

Brokered by Papen, a meeting took place between Hitler and Schuschnigg at Berchtesgaden on 12 February 1938. In order to intimidate the Austrian dictator, Hitler had arranged for senior German military figures to be present at his mountain retreat, including the commander of the Condor Legion in Spain, Hugo Sperrle. Hitler had already been fully informed by Seyss-Inquart about Schuschnigg’s position. Giving him no chance to put his arguments, Hitler launched into a furious tirade. ‘The whole history of Austria’, he ranted, ‘is just one uninterrupted act of high treason. That was so in the past and remains so today. This historical paradox must now reach its long-overdue end.’ For two hours he lectured Schuschnigg on his own invincibility (‘I have achieved everything that I set out to do and have thus perhaps become the greatest German of all history’) and made clear that military action would follow, unimpeded by foreign intervention, if the Austrians did not bow to his demands (‘The German Reich is a major power, and no one can or will try to interfere when it puts things in order at its borders’).80 When Schuschnigg demurred, and asked for time for consultation, Hitler called General Keitel into the room, where he sat for ten minutes, full of implicit menace, before being sent away again. The following morning, to underline the threat, Keitel was ordered to Berlin to make the arrangements for intimidatory military manoeuvres on the Austrian border.81

On 15 February, Schuschnigg, thoroughly browbeaten, complied with all Hitler’s demands, agreeing formally to conduct a joint foreign policy with Germany, to legalize the Austrian Nazi Party within the Fatherland Front, to release imprisoned Nazis and revoke all measures taken against them and to embark on programmes of military and economic collaboration. On Hitler’s demand, Seyss-Inquart was appointed Austrian Minister of the Interior. Many Austrian Nazis hated Seyss-Inquart, whose willingness to compromise with the government they regarded as treason, and their response was to smash all the windows in the German Embassy in Vienna. On 21 February 1938, Hitler summoned five top leaders of the Austrian Nazis to Berlin and effectively sacked them, forbidding them to return. From now on, he said, their Party had to take a legal course. Evolution, through a forced takeover of the Austrian government, not revolution by violence from below, was the way forward, he told them. But even this failed to quell the radicalism of some elements in the Austrian Nazi Party, who staged public demonstrations that far outweighed those of the Fatherland Front. More and more people, it was reported, were using the Hitler salute and the swastika emblem in public despite Seyss-Inquart’s attempts to ban them in pursuit of his policy of taking over the government from within. The police were now refusing to enforce these regulations and the army was clearly going over to the National Socialists as well. A familiar dialectic was emerging of official pressure from above, coupled with the rhetoric of restraint, and matched by rapidly mounting pressure from below. Schuschnigg’s agreement to Hitler’s terms had turned Austria into a German satellite state; now, amidst mounting expectations that this would lead to a rapid union between the two countries, his support, and the already fragile legitimacy of the Austrian state, was disappearing before his very eyes.82

On the morning of 9 March 1938, in response to this increasingly desperate situation, Schuschnigg suddenly announced that a referendum was to be held on 13 March to ask Austrian voters whether they were in favour of ‘a free and German, independent and social, Christian and united Austria; for freedom and work, and for the equality of all who declare for people and fatherland’. To ensure that this heavily loaded question got a resounding ‘yes’ from the Austrian electorate, voting was restricted to people over twenty-four years of age, thus disenfranchising a large part of the Nazi movement, whose supporters were predominantly young. Moreover, under the repressive conditions of Schuschnigg’s clerico-fascist dictatorship, there was no guarantee that voting would be free or secret, nor did the Chancellor provide any assurances that it would be; the lack of a proper electoral register opened the way to potentially massive electoral fraud. Hitler was outraged at what he saw as a betrayal of the Berchtesgaden agreement. Summoning Goring and Goebbels, he began feverish discussions on what could be done to stop the vote. While the army was hastily organizing invasion plans based only on a study prepared earlier for the eventuality of a Habsburg restoration, Hitler sent an ultimatum to Schuschnigg at ten in the morning on 11 March 1938: the referendum had to be postponed for a fortnight and the wording changed to one similar to that of the Saar plebiscite, in other words, implicitly asking people to approve union rather than oppose it. Schuschnigg had to resign and be replaced by Seyss-Inquart. Schuschnigg agreed to postpone the vote but refused to resign. Seizing the initiative, Goring telephoned the nervous and reluctant Seyss-Inquart and told him to inform the Austrian Head of State, Wilhelm Miklas, that if he did not appoint him Chancellor ‘then an invasion by the troops already mobilized on the border will follow tonight and that will be the end of Austria’. And, he added, ‘you must let the National Socialists loose throughout the whole country. They are now to be allowed to go on the streets everywhere.’83

By the evening of 11 March, Austrian Nazis were demonstrating all over the country, while an SS contingent occupied the headquarters of the Tyrolese provincial government. The Nazi Regional Leader of Upper Austria announced to an ecstatic crowd of 20,000 on the main square in Linz that Schuschnigg had resigned, as indeed he had at 3.30 in the afternoon under the impact of Göring’s second ultimatum. The plebiscite was summarily cancelled. In Vienna by chance, William L. Shirer was ‘swept along in a shouting, hysterical Nazi mob’. The police, he reported, were ‘looking on, grinning’. Some were already wearing swastika arm-bands. ‘Young toughs were heaving paving blocks into the windows of the Jewish shops. The crowds roared with delight.’ As the demonstrations spread, Goring told Seyss-Inquart to send a formal request for German troops to restore order. Not yet appointed Chancellor, he hesitated; the request had to be sent by Wilhelm Keppeler, the head of the Nazi Party’s Austrian bureau, who was now in Vienna, instead. It went off at ten past nine on the evening of 11 March 1938. Meanwhile, Hitler had sent Prince Philip of Hesse to Mussolini to secure his neutrality. At 10.45 p.m., the prince telephoned Hitler personally to say that everything was all right. ‘Please tell Mussolini I will never forget him for this,’ Hitler said. ‘Never, never, never, whatever happens.’ The British signalled their neutrality. At midnight, the Austrian President finally yielded and appointed Seyss-Inquart Chancellor. It was all too late anyway; spurred on by Goring, who told him that he would seem weak if he did not act, whether or not the Austrians accepted the ultimatum Hitler had given Keitel the invasion order already, at a quarter to nine. Earlier in the evening, Schuschnigg had made an emotional broadcast to the Austrian people, outlining the terms of the ultimatum and denying that there was any disorder. ‘We are not prepared even in this terrible situation to shed blood,’ he said. At 5.30 in the morning of 12 March 1938, German troops, mustered in Bavaria over the previous two days, crossed the Austrian border. They met with no resistance.84

IV

As they drove and marched slowly towards Austria’s main towns in the course of the morning, the German troops were greeted by ecstatic crowds shouting ‘Hail’ and throwing flowers at their feet. Everywhere, clandestine members of the banned Austrian Nazi Party were openly revealing their allegiance, ostentatiously turning over the swastika buttons they had hitherto kept hidden behind their lapels.85 Assured by army commanders that he would be safe, Hitler flew to Munich and was driven towards the border in an open-topped car, accompanied by a motorized column of his SS bodyguard. Arriving at 3.50 in the afternoon at his birthplace, Braunau am Inn, he was greeted by jubilant crowds, who cheered him on his way. Later in the evening, after a four-hour journey by road, constantly slowed down by the enthusiastic crowds that lined the streets, he reached Linz, where he joined a group of leading Nazis including Himmler and Seyss-Inquart. As the church bells rang out, Hitler addressed a huge crowd from the balcony of the town hall, repeatedly interrupted by shouts of ‘hail!’ and chants of ‘one people, one Reich, one Leader’. ‘Any further attempt to tear this people asunder’, he warned, ‘will be in vain.’86 After laying flowers on his parents’ grave at Leonding, and visiting his old home, Hitler returned to his hotel to consider how the formal union of Austria with Germany could best be achieved. Initially he had thought merely of becoming President of Austria himself and holding a plebiscite on union, which would keep most of Austria’s existing institutions intact. But the rapturous reception he had received now convinced him that a full incorporation of Austria into the Reich could be achieved immediately without any serious opposition. ‘These people here are Germans,’ he told a British journalist.87

By the evening of 13 March 1938 a Law providing for the annexation of Austria, drafted by a senior Interior Ministry official flown in from Berlin, had been approved by the reconstituted Austrian cabinet and signed by Hitler. The union of the two countries created ‘Greater Germany’ (Grossdeutschland). Initially, Austria as a whole became a province by itself, headed by Seyss-Inquart; but Hitler was now determined to erase Austrian identity and downgrade Vienna, the capital, which he had always disliked, in favour of the regions. By April 1939, the Rhenish Nazi Party Regional Leader Josef Bürckel, flown in to become Reich Commissioner for the Reunification of Austria with the Reich, had abolished the regional assemblies and merged regional with Party administration, though retaining, with some modifications, the identity of the regions themselves. Austria became the Eastern March (Ostmark); its identity was to be obliterated conclusively in 1942 when it was divided into the Reich Regions of the Alps and Danube.88 This was not what many Austrians, and especially Viennese, had expected; even the leaders of the Austrian Nazi Party were bitterly disappointed at being sidelined in favour of administrators imported from Germany. Yet initially at least their enthusiasm was overwhelming. On 14 March 1938, Hitler’s motor cavalcade drove from Linz to Vienna, again slowed down by cheering crowds; he was obliged to address them from his hotel balcony after his arrival, since they would not quieten down until they had heard him speak. The delay in his arrival had given the Viennese Nazis time to prepare: schools and workplaces were closed for the occasion, and Nazis and Hitler Youth members has been bussed in from the countryside. On 15 March, Hitler addressed a vast, delirious crowd of perhaps a quarter of a million people in Vienna, announcing that Austria’s new historic mission was to provide a bulwark against the threat from the East.89

Austrians’ acceptance of the reunification was assured not merely by the long-term disillusion of the country’s citizens with their tiny, barely viable state, but also by careful preparation on the part of the Nazis. The Socialists had long been in favour of reunification, allowing doubts to creep in only because of the form the German government took from 1933, not because of any matter of broader national principle. The party had in any case been crushed by Dollfuss in the brief civil conflict of February 1934. Its leaders were mostly in exile, in prison, in the underground opposition, such as it was, or politically quiescent. The Nazis carefully wooed the moderate wing of the party, persuading its leading figure Karl Renner to declare openly on 3 April that he would vote yes in the forthcoming plebiscite. And in a meeting brokered by the indefatigable Franz von Papen, Cardinal Innitzer, leader of Austria’s Catholics, accepted Hitler’s personal assurances that the Church and its institutions, including schools, would not be affected. Already inclined to see in Nazism the best defence against the threat of Bolshevism, Innitzer recruited other leading prelates to issue a joint declaration in favour of the reunion on 18 March, affixing a personal ‘Hail, Hitler!’ to the foot of the page. 90Organized by Josef Bürckel, who had masterminded the Saar vote, the plebiscite was coupled with an election in which voters were presented with the Leader’s list of candidates for the Greater German Reichstag. It was held on 10 April amidst massive manipulation and intimidation. A predictable 99.75 per cent of Austrian voters supported the annexation, although probably, to judge at least from some Gestapo reports, only a quarter to a third of Viennese voters were genuinely committed to the idea of union.91

Map 19. The Annexation of Austria, 1938

Austrians soon found out what being incorporated into the Third Reich meant in practical terms. The postal service, the railways, the banking system, the currency and all other economic institutions were obliterated by their German equivalents; the taxation systems were merged with effect from January 1940. Within two days of the takeover, the Austrian economy had been subsumed into the Four-Year Plan. German firms moved in to take over Austrian businesses, which the Plan’s economic managers considered slow and inefficient. Parts of Austrian business were already German-owned, of course, but the takeover spurred a new wave of purchases. A huge new Hermann-GoringWorks was set up in Linz to take advantage of Austria’s large iron ore deposits. Petroleum and iron production increased substantially as a result of the takeover. Austria’s very considerable gold and foreign currency reserves also accrued to the Reich, giving a temporary boost to Germany’s reserves. The extension of the German border to the south-east made trade with the Balkans easier. Austria also supplied manpower to the Four-Year Plan. Absorption into the already overheated German economy brought many benefits for Austrians; unemployment fell rapidly, and the influx of German soldiers and administrators into Austria increased local demand. But Austria’s economic problems did not disappear overnight, and higher wages in Germany proved insufficient as an incentive to bring unemployed skilled industrial workers in from the Austrian provinces. To relieve the manpower shortage in Germany and help reduce Austrian unemployment statistics, therefore, Goring decided to draft workers by force. A decree to this effect was issued on 22 June 1938 and by the following year, 100,000 Austrian workers had been compulsorily taken off to work in what was now known as the ‘Old Reich’, including 10,000 skilled engineering workers. Their removal, the provision of new jobs in Austria itself, and the enrolment of all Austrian workers into the German Labour Front and the Strength Through Joy organization, had a further dampening effect on workers’ opposition.92

But the Nazis were not taking any chances. Among the earliest arrivals in Vienna were Himmler and Heydrich, who brought in a team of Gestapo officers to eliminate the opposition. While many leading men in the former regime fled into exile, ex-Chancellor Schuschnigg refused to leave and was arrested; he spent the rest of the Third Reich in custody. Papen’s secretary, Wilhelm von Ketteler, was picked up by the Gestapo; shortly afterwards his lifeless body was found in a canal. The former leader of the Home Defence Brigades, Major Fey, who had played a leading role in putting down the Nazi uprising in 1934, killed himself with his entire family; 2,555 officers were compulsorily retired from the Austrian army, and an even larger number were transferred to administrative duties. These measures affected over 40 per cent of the officer corps. The rest of the troops were dispersed throughout the German army, obliterating the military identity of Austrians altogether. The State Secretary for Security, in overall charge of the police, was replaced by the head of the Austrian SS, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, while the new Vienna chief of police was Otto Steinhäusl, who had played a significant role in the abortive 1934 putsch. Six thousand ordinary German policemen were drafted in as reinforcements, along with a substantial number of Gestapo agents. But in general the Austrian police needed no thorough purge. Many of them were secret Nazis. They willingly made over the elaborate and extensive lists of oppositional elements compiled under Dollfuss and Schuschnigg. The Gestapo moved swiftly into action, arresting everyone thought to pose a threat to Nazi rule - 21,000 in all - in the night of 12-13 March. Special new facilities were made available in the Dachau concentration camp to accommodate them. Most of those imprisoned were released later in the year; only 1,500 were left by the end of 1938. There was to be no significant resistance in Austria until near the end of the war. Meanwhile, Himmler set up an entirely new camp, at Mauthausen, close to Linz, where prisoners from across the Reich would quarry stone for use in Speer’s building projects. It was to prove the harshest of all the camps within the territory of Greater Germany before the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The Vienna City Council made the land available on condition that some of the stone was used for cobbling the city’s streets.93

The harshest repression of all fell on Austria’s Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom - 170,000 out of nearly 200,000 - lived in Vienna. After living for years in the frustration of illegality, Austria’s Nazis had accumulated a degree of pent-up aggression that now outstripped anything seen so far in the Old Reich. Hard-line Nazis were jubilant at what one called ‘the liberation of Vienna and the East March from alien Jewish rule’ and proclaimed a ‘general cleansing of jewified Austria’.94 All the various stages of antisemitic policy and action that had been developing over the years in Germany now happened in Austria at the same time, telescoped into a single outburst of rabid hatred and violence. The country’s new Nazi rulers rapidly introduced all the Old Reich’s antisemitic legislation, including the Aryan Paragraph and (in May 1938) the Nuremberg Laws. Jews were summarily ousted from the civil service and the professions. An elaborate bureaucracy - the Property Transfer Office, with a staff of 500 - was set up to manage the Aryanization of Jewish-owned businesses. A great deal of Jewish assets and property found its way into the hands of old Austrian Nazis, who demanded it as compensation for the years of repression they had suffered under Schuschnigg (and for which the Jews were in no sense to blame).95 By May 1938, 7,000 out of 33,000 Jewish-owned businesses in Vienna had already been closed down; by August 1938, 23,000 more had gone. The remaining ones were Aryanized. Official action had in many cases been preceded by unofficial violence. Shortly after the takeover, a gang of stormtroopers threw Franz Rothenberg, chairman of the board of the Kreditanstalt, the most important Austrian bank, into a car and pushed him out at top speed, killing him instantly. Isidor Pollack, director-general of a dynamite factory, was beaten so badly by brownshirts in April that he died of his injuries; his firm was taken over by I. G. Farben, while the Kreditanstalt fell into the hands of the Deutsche Bank.96

Meanwhile, Austrian Nazis were breaking into Jewish premises, houses and apartments, looting the contents, and driving the inhabitants out onto the streets, where they were mustered under a hail of curses and blows and taken away to clean anti-Nazi graffiti off the city’s buildings. Soon a new version of this sport was discovered: the Jews were made to kneel on the streets and clean away Austrian crosses and other signs painted or chalked on them by patriots amidst the derisive comments and applause of the onlookers. Frequently they were doused with cold water, pushed over, or kicked as they carried out their humiliating task. ‘Day after day’, wrote George Gedye, the Vienna correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph,

Nazi storm-troopers, surrounded by jostling, jeering and laughing mobs of ‘golden Viennese hearts’, dragged Jews from shops, offices and homes, men and women, put scrubbing-brushes in their hands, splashed them well with acid, and made them go down on their knees and scrub away for hours at the hopeless task of removing Schuschnigg propaganda. All this I could watch from my office window overlooking the Graben. (Where there was none available, I have seen Nazis painting it for the Jews to remove.) . . . Every morning in the Habsburgergasse the S. S. squads were told how many Jews to round up that day for menial tasks . . . The favourite task was that of cleaning the bowls of the w.c.s in the S. S. barracks, which the Jews were forced to do simply with their naked hands.97

Other Jews, going about their daily business on the streets, were assaulted with impunity, their wallets robbed and their fur coats taken before they were beaten up.98

By 17 March 1938 even Heydrich was proposing to get the Gestapo to arrest those Nazis who were responsible for such acts. It was not until 29 April, however, when stormtrooper leaders were threatened with dismissal if they allowed these outrages to continue, that the tide of violent incidents began to subside. Meanwhile, the Nazis had begun officially to confiscate Jewish-owned apartments in Vienna: 44,000 out of 70,000 had been Aryanized by the end of 1938. They also initiated the forced expulsion of Jewish populations in a manner far more direct than had so far occurred in the Old Reich. In the small eastern region of the Burgenland, bordering on Hungary, the new Nazi rulers confiscated the property of the 3,800 members of the old-established Jewish community there, closed down all Jewish businesses, arrested community leaders, then used the creation of a security zone on the border as an excuse to expel the entire Jewish population. Many Jews were hauled off to police stations, and beaten until they signed documents surrendering all their assets. The police took them to the border and forced them across. However, since neighbouring countries often refused to accept them, many Jews were left stranded in no-man’s land. Fifty-one of them were dumped unceremoniously on a barren, sandy islet on the Danube, in an incident that aroused worldwide press condemnation. The majority fled to friends and relatives in Vienna. By the end of 1938 there were no Jews left in the Burgenland. Partly in response to this mass flight, the Gestapo in Vienna arrested 1,900 Jews who were known to have criminal convictions, however trivial, between 25 and 27 May 1938 and sent them to Dachau, where they were segregated and particularly brutally mistreated. The police also arrested and expelled all foreign Jews and even German Jews living in Vienna. Altogether, 5,000 Jews had been deported from Austria by November 1938. By this time, too, Jews who lived outside the capital were being forcibly removed to Vienna. All these events created a panic amongst Austria’s Jewish population. Many hundreds committed suicide in despair. Thousands of others sought to leave the country by every means they could. In order to speed up this process, the Nazi authorities established a Central Agency for Jewish Emigration on 20 August 1938.99

It was run by Adolf Eichmann, a man who was subsequently to become notorious for his role in the wartime extermination of Europe’s Jews. His career, therefore, deserves closer scrutiny at the moment, in 1938, when he first acquired a degree of prominence, not least because the procedures he set up in the Central Agency were to have a far wider application later. Eichmann was originally a Rhinelander. Born in 1906, he had lived in Austria since his family moved to Linz the year before the outbreak of the First World War. Middle-class by background and upbringing, Eichmann did not have a university qualification, but had worked as a sales representative for a petroleum company during the 1920s. As a member of Austria’s small Protestant minority, he identified strongly with pan-German nationalism, joined the independent youth movement and hobnobbed with right-wing nationalists, most notably the Kaltenbrunners, a family of middle-class pan-Germans. He joined the Austrian Nazi Party in 1932 and fell under the influence of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, a 29-year-old law graduate and former student fraternity activist. Kaltenbrunner was an active antisemite who had joined the Austrian SS in 1930, and in 1932 he persuaded Eichmann to become a member of the SS as well. Losing his job in the Depression, Eichmann moved to Germany in August 1933 and underwent intensive physical and ideological training in the SS. Soon he had joined Heydrich’s SS Security Service to compile information about Freemasons in Germany. His diligence and efficiency secured his rapid promotion through the ranks. By 1936 he was working in the Security Service’s Jewish Department, writing briefing papers on Zionism, emigration and similar topics and imbibing the Department’s ethos of radical, ‘rational’ antisemitism. 100

Eichmann arrived in Vienna on 16 March 1938 as part of a special unit, already kitted out with an arrest list of prominent Jews. The Security Service realized that the orderly conduct of forced emigration required the collaboration of Jewish leaders, especially if the poorest Jews, who lacked the means to leave and start a new life elsewhere, were to be included in the plan. Eichmann ordered leading members of the Jewish community up from their cells for interview and selected Josef Löwenherz, a respected lawyer, as the most suitable for his purpose. He sent him back to his cell with orders that he was not to be released until he had produced a plan for the mass emigration of Austria’s Jews. Löwenherz’s request for a streamlined system of processing applications that did away with the chicanery and deliberate delays common up to then met with a ready response. Eichmann instituted an orderly method of processing applications and arranged for the confiscated assets of the Jewish community and its members to be used by the Central Agency for subsidizing the emigration of poor Jews. Prodded by horror stories spread about the maltreatment of the Austrian Jews held in Dachau, by systematic abuse and insults from Agency officials, and by the continuing terror on the streets, Austria’s Jews queued in their thousands to obtain exit visas. Löwenherz and other Jews co-opted into the Agency’s work were repeatedly threatened with deportation to Dachau if they did not fill their quotas. The result, Eichmann later bragged, was that some 100,000 Austrian Jews had emigrated legally by May 1939, and several thousands more had crossed the border illegally, many of them eventually reaching Palestine. Newly promoted as a reward, and revelling in his new power, Eichmann became coarse and brutal in his dealings with individual Jews. His Agency, with its assembly-line processing, its plundering of Jewish assets to subsidize the emigration of the poor, its application of terror and its use of Jewish collaborators, became a model for the SS Security Service in its subsequent dealings with the Jews.101

V

The incorporation of Austria into the Third Reich, with its accompanying anti-Jewish excesses, gave a tremendous boost to antisemitism across the whole of Germany. Apart from anything else, the addition of 200,000 Jews to the population of the Third Reich more than balanced out the numbers of Jews whom the Nazis had succeeded in forcing out of Germany between March 1933 and March 1938.102 It almost made the effort seem in vain. So the Nazis redoubled their determination to speed up the process of forced emigration. Without the Austrian example, and the feelings of triumph and invulnerability it engendered in Nazi Party activists, it is impossible to understand the upsurge of violence towards Jews that swept across Germany in the summer of 1938 and culminated in the pogrom of 9-10 November. The full force of the pogrom was felt in Austria as well. Forty-two synagogues were burned down in Vienna, most of the remaining Jewish-owned shops were destroyed, and nearly 2,000 Jewish families were summarily ejected from their houses and apartments. A detachment of SS men trashed the Jewish community headquarters and the Zionist offices on 10 November. Eichmann complained that the pogrom disrupted the orderly conduct of emigration, but in fact he was well aware that its basic intention was to speed up the whole process through the sudden application of a spectacular degree of mass terror, and this indeed was its affect in Austria as elsewhere.103

Just as striking was the impulse the annexation of Austria and the expropriation of its Jewish community gave to the cultural ambitions of leading Nazis. They confiscated many major art collections, including those of the Rothschilds, which the Reich Finance Ministry eventually began selling off to meet newly imposed tax bills. The Mayor of Nuremberg succeeded in having the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, taken from his city to Vienna in 1794, transferred back in preparation for the 1938 Party Rally. Art dealers began to gather round the looted collections like vultures round a carcass. Hermann Goring vetoed further sales and exports with an eye to acquiring some of the artworks for himself. But it was Hitler who led the plunder. A visit to Rome in May 1938 convinced him that Greater Germany too needed a major artistic capital, and his eye lighted upon Linz, where he had spent his childhood. On 26 June 1939 he ordered the art historian and Dresden museum director Hans Posse to create a collection for a planned art museum in Linz. On 24 July the Austrian administration under Bürckel was informed by Bormann that all confiscated collections were to be made available to Posse or Hitler personally; by October, Posse had managed to get the Rothschild collections included as well. The looting of the cultural heritage of Europe had begun.104

These acts of plunder were not widely known among Germans. Their immediate reactions to the annexation were mixed. The same pattern was evident as on previous occasions, such as the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936: national pride was mingled with nervousness, even panic, born out of fear of a general war. According to some reports, the latter was the first response to the Austrian crisis, giving way fairly quickly to nationalistic enthusiasm as the passivity of the other European powers made it clear that war would not come, at least not on this occasion. ‘Hitler is a master of politics,’ was one widespread view; ‘yes, he’s truly a great statesman, he’s greater than Napoleon, because he’s conquering the world without war.’ The peaceful nature of the annexation was the key factor here. Workers may have been depressed by the absence of Socialist opposition (‘where was Red Vienna?’), but many were also hugely impressed by Hitler’s bloodless coup: ‘He’s really a good chap,’ remembered one.105

Hitler’s Vienna speech on 15 March 1938 was greeted by what one Social Democratic agent admitted was a massive enthusiasm and joy at this success . . . The jubilation knew almost no bounds any more . . . Even sections of society that had been cool towards Hitler up to this point, or rejected him, were now carried along by the event and admitted that Hitler was after all a great and clever statesman who would lead Germany upwards again to greatness and esteem from the defeat of 1918.106

The annexation of Austria brought Hitler’s popularity to unprecedented heights. Middle-class nationalists were ecstatic, whatever their reservations on other points of the Third Reich’s policies.107 The reunification of Germany and Austria was, wrote Luise Solmitz in her diary, ‘world history, the fulfilment of my old German dream, a truly united Germany, through a man who fears nothing, knows no compromises, hindrances or difficulties’. In mounting excitement she listened to the radio as it broadcast the unfolding events, recording every move, every speech in a spirit of mounting ecstasy despite all the problems from which her family suffered because of their racially mixed status. ‘It’s all like a dream,’ she wrote, ‘one is completely torn away from one’s own world and from oneself . . . One must recall that one is excluded from the people’s community oneself like a criminal or degraded person.’108 Victor Klemperer was in despair: ‘We shall not live to see the end of the Third Reich,’ he wrote on 20 March 1938. He also noted that ‘since yesterday a broad yellow bill with the Star of David has been stuck to every post of our fence: Jew’.109

For Hitler himself, the success of the annexation brought a further increase in self-confidence, the certainty that he had been chosen by Providence, the belief that he could do no wrong. His speeches at this time are full of references to his own, divinely ordained status as the architect of Germany’s rebirth. There was now no one left to restrain him. The army, still in a state of shock and, in parts of the officer corps, disillusion after the Blomberg-Fritsch affair, had no answer to this major success. Even those officers who were now convinced that Hitler would lead them into the abyss in the long run felt unable to take any direct action in the light of the huge popularity the Nazi Leader had now attained. Already, Hitler was looking to Czechoslovakia, egged on by Ribbentrop, who assured him blithely that Britain would not intervene. So feeble had been the reaction of the other European powers to the annexation of Austria that there seemed no reason why the takeover of Czechoslovakia, announced as an intermediate aim by Hitler at the meeting recorded by Colonel Hossbach in 1937, should not go ahead.110

In his speech to the Reichstag on 18 March 1938, Hitler already referred in emotional terms to the ‘brutal violation of countless millions of German racial comrades’ across Europe. On 28 March, in the middle of a campaign of public speeches and rallies for the combined election and plebiscite to be held on 10 April, Hitler held a secret meeting with the leader of the Sudeten German Party, a Nazi-backed organization that claimed to represent the German minority in Czechoslovakia. The Party, Hitler said, had to avoid collaboration with the Czech government and instead embark on a campaign for ‘total freedom for the Sudeten Germans’.111 The subversion of Czechoslovakia was under way. Its ultimate end was the complete destruction of the Czechoslovak state and its absorption into the German Reich in one form or another. Only in this way could the boundaries of Germany be reordered in such a manner as to create a springboard for the invasion of Poland and Russia and the creation of the racially reconstituted ‘living-space’ for the Germans in Eastern Europe that Hitler had long desired. Hitler told his generals and Foreign Ministry officials on 28 May that he was ‘utterly determined that Czechoslovakia should disappear from the map’. Two days later, revised military plans were presented for implementing his ‘unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the foreseeable future’.112 For the first time, therefore, Hitler was now embarking on a course that could not be represented as the adjustment of unfair and punitive territorial provisions arrived at in the Peace Settlement of 1919. The consequences of this step were to be momentous.

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