GERMAN-AUSTRIA MUST RETURN to the great German mother-country…. Common blood belongs in a common Reich.1
—ADOLF HITLER, 1925
The hard fact is that nothing could have arrested what actually happened [in Austria]—unless this country and other countries had been prepared to use force.2
—NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN, 1938
AT THE PARIS CONFERENCE, an amputated, landlocked Austria of 6.5 million had asked Allied permission to enter into a free-trade zone with a starving Germany. Permission denied. In April and May of 1921, plebiscites on a union with Germany were held in the North Tyrol and at Salzburg: “The votes in the former were over 140,000 for the Anschluss and only 1,794 against. In Salzburg, more than 120,000 voted for union, and only 800 against. This was twelve years before Hitler became Reichsführer.”3
Permission again denied. For the statesmen at Paris did not wish to unify Germans, but to divide them, and to undo the post-1870 alliance of Bismarck’s Germany and the Habsburgs. Under the treaties of Versailles and St. Germain, even a customs union between Austria and Germany was forbidden—without the approval of the League of Nations. This gave Britain, France, and Italy veto power over trade between the two defeated Germanic nations.
In 1931, hard hit by depression, Germany again asked for permission to form an Austro-German customs union. The idea was the brainchild of Chancellor Heinrich Brüning. But President Eduard Beneš of Czechoslovakia and Britain, France, and Italy vetoed it. Historian Richard Lamb, a veteran of the British Eighth Army, views the Allied veto of that customs union as a grave blunder that was to have “dire consequences for both the German and Austrian economies” and, he argues, “the resulting economic distress contributed to the rapid rise of the Nazis to power in Germany.”4Alan Bullock concurs. The Czech-Italian-French veto of the Austro-German customs union
not only helped to precipitate the failure of the Austrian Kreditanstalt and the German financial crisis of the summer but forced the German Foreign Office to announce on September 3 that the project was being abandoned. The result was to inflict a sharp humiliation on the Brüning government and to inflame national resentment in Germany.5
Robert Vansittart of the British Foreign Office had warned British leaders that “Brüning’s government is the best we can hope for; its disappearance would be followed by a Nazi avalanche.”6 Vansittart’s warning was ignored.
Brüning resigned. He was succeeded as chancellor by Franz von Papen, who implored the Allies, given Germany’s economic crisis in the Great Depression, to wipe the slate clean of war reparations. But the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, refused, and demanded another four billion marks. In negotiations, Chamberlain magnanimously settled for three, to the cheers of Parliament. When the German negotiators returned home they were “met at the railway station by a shower of bad eggs and rotten apples.”7 Papen warned the Allies that if German democrats “were not granted a single diplomatic success, he would be the last democratic chancellor in Germany. He got none.”8
In 1938, Hitler would succeed where the Allies had ensured that the German democrats would fail. “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom,” Burke had admonished his countrymen.9
THE HITLER-HALIFAX SUMMIT
HISTORIANS TODAY SEE IN Hitler’s actions a series of preconceived and brilliant moves on the chessboard of Europe, reflecting the grand strategy of an evil genius unfolding step by step: rearmament of the Reich, reoccupation of the Rhineland, Anschluss, Munich, the Prague coup, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, blitzkrieg in Poland, the Rommel-Guderian thrust through the Ardennes, seizure of the Balkans, and Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. This is mythology. While Hitler did indeed come to power with a “vision” of Versailles overturned and a German-dominated Europe, most of his actions were taken in spontaneous reaction to situations created by his adversaries. Hitler “owed all his successes to his tactical opportunism,” wrote Sir Nevile Henderson.10 Henderson was right. Surely this was true of the Anschluss.
For two years after German troops reoccupied the Rhineland, Hitler made no move in Europe. “Until 1938, Hitler’s moves in foreign policy had been bold but not reckless,” writes biographer Ian Kershaw.11
From the point of view of the Western powers, his methods were, to say the least, unconventional diplomacy—raw, brutal, unpalatable; but his aims were recognizably in accord with traditional German nationalist clamour. Down to and including the Anschluss, Hitler had proved a consummate nationalist politician.12
Despite his braggadocio about German military superiority, Hitler knew his forces were inferior to the Royal Air Force and French army, if not to the Czechs and Poles. But he sensed that if he were patient, then, as the conservative German establishment had invited him to become chancellor, the Allies, full of guilt over Versailles and horrified at the prospect of another war, would come to offer him what he wanted. Hitler had read the Allies right.
In 1937, Lord Halifax, who was close to Baldwin’s successor, the new prime minister Neville Chamberlain, was invited to Germany for a hunt with Hermann Göring, the legendary air ace who had succeeded Manfred von Richthofen as commander of the “Flying Circus” when the Red Baron had been shot down. When Halifax accepted, a second invitation came from Ambassador Ribbentrop—as Halifax told Eden—to “call upon the Leader at his Bavarian hideaway, ‘Berchtergaden, or wherever the place is.’”13 The Cabinet agreed that Halifax should go. But the Hitler-Halifax meeting almost ended before it began, in disaster.
As the immensely tall Halifax was driven up to Berchtesgaden, he could only see, looking down out of the window of his car, the shiny patent-leather shoes and black-trousered pants legs of the man at his car door. Emerging from his limousine, Lord Halifax started to hand his hat and coat to the footman. Only after an agitated Neurath had hissed in his ear, “Der Fuehrer! Der Fuehrer!” did Halifax realize this was Adolf Hitler.14
A diplomatic debacle had been narrowly averted.
Throughout the meeting, Hitler remained in a foul mood. After lunch, Halifax brought up his experiences as viceroy of India, where he had urged a policy of conciliation. Hitler, who had just related how Lives of a Bengal Lancer was his favorite film, and compulsory viewing for the SS to show “how a superior race must behave,” rudely interrupted him.15
A startled Halifax fell silent, as Hitler went into a rant:
“Shoot Gandhi! And if that does not suffice to reduce them to submission, shoot a dozen leading members of Congress; and if that does not suffice, shoot 200 and so on until order is established.”17
“During this tirade,” writes biographer Andrew Roberts, citing a diplomat present, Halifax, a lay leader in the Anglican Church, “gazed at Hitler with a mixture of astonishment, repugnance and compassion. He indicated dissent, but it would have been a waste of time to argue.”18
Early in the meeting, however, Halifax had delivered a crucial message on behalf of Chamberlain. Singling out Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Danzig, Halifax told Hitler that if “far-reaching disturbances” could be avoided, all of Germany’s grievances from Versailles, in Central Europe, could be resolved in Germany’s favor.19 Halifax had told Hitler what he had hoped to hear. Britain would not go to war to prevent an Anschluss with Austria, transfer the Sudetenland to the Reich, or return of Danzig. Indeed, Britain might be prepared to serve as honest broker in effecting the return of what rightfully belonged to Germany, if this were all done in a gentlemanly fashion.
Hitler had just been handed a road map for the peaceful incorporation of the German peoples of Central Europe into the Reich, if only he would avoid those “far-reaching disturbances.” Writes A. J. P. Taylor,
Halifax’s remarks…were an invitation to Hitler to promote German nationalist agitation in Danzig, Czechoslovakia, and Austria; an assurance also that this agitation would not be opposed from without. Nor did these promptings come from Halifax alone. In London Eden told Ribbentrop: “People in England recognized that a closer connection between Germany and Austria would have to come about sometime.”20
Why was Halifax conveying such a message?
Chamberlain had come to believe that, by tearing people and provinces away from Germany at the point of a gun, the Allies had made historic and terrible blunders in 1919. And the new prime minister was ready to rectify these injustices, if Hitler would agree that it would be done diplomatically. Chamberlain believed the peace of Europe depended upon Germany being restored to her rightful role as a coequal Great Power on the continent.
The message Halifax conveyed at the Berghof underscores a crucial point in the history of this era: Hitler’s agenda was no surprise or shock to European statesmen. All of them knew that any German nationalist would demand the same rectifications and adjustments of the frontiers laid down at Versailles. The claims Hitler would make were known in advance and largely assented to by the elites of Europe as the preconditions of peace. Berlin’s drive to restore its ties to its former Vienna ally and effect the return of the Sudetenland, Danzig, and Memel to Germanic rule were not unanticipated demands in the chanceries of Europe. They knew what was coming.
In his 1940 memoir Failure of a Mission, Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador in Berlin in 1937, wrote of the Halifax visit, “Hitler cannot but have been—and in fact, so I heard, was—impressed by the obvious sincerity, high principles, and straightforward honesty of a man like Lord Halifax.”21 Historian B. H. Liddell Hart saw it differently: “[T]he German documents reveal that Hitler derived special encouragement from Lord Halifax’s visit in November 1937.”22
The day following his visit to the Berghof, Lord Halifax arrived at Karinhall, the vast estate and game preserve of Göring, where he found its proprietor decked out “in brown breeches and boots all in one, a green leather jerkin and a belt from which was hung a dagger in a red leather sheath, completed by a green hat topped by a large chamois tuft.”23 Put at ease by his host’s comical appearance, Halifax wrote down his impression of the hero of the Great War who now headed the Luftwaffe:
I was immensely entertained at meeting the man himself. One remembered at the time that he had been concerned with the “clean-up” in Berlin on June 30, 1934 [the Night of the Long Knives] and one wondered how many people he had been, for good cause or bad, responsible for having killed. But his personality, with that reserve, was frankly attractive, like a great schoolboy…a composite personality—film star, great landowner interested in his estate, Prime Minister, party manager, head gamekeeper at Chatsworth.24
Lord Halifax, reported his friend Henry “Chips” Channon, had “liked all the Nazi leaders, even Goebbels, and he was much impressed, interested and amused by the visit. He thinks the regime absolutely fantastic.”25
THE HITLER-SCHUSCHNIGG SUMMIT
WITH ENGLAND’S BLESSING TO bring Austria into Germany’s sphere, if done peacefully, Hitler was left with but one problem: how to get the Austrians to agree. Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg would provide Hitler his opportunity.
“A devout Catholic and intellectual, a decent man with little vanity or driving ambition,” a veteran of the Great War, Schuschnigg had arrested the Nazis involved in the plot against Dollfuss, hanged the two who fired the fatal shots, and had himself become chancellor in 1934.26 On July 11, 1936, he had entered into a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Berlin. Vienna was to “maintain a policy based on the principle that Austria acknowledges herself to be a German state,” and Berlin recognizes “the full sovereignty of the Federal State of Austria” and agrees not to interfere in her internal affairs.27 Respectable pro-Nazis were to be permitted in politics and government, but Nazis were to end political agitation and street action. A Committee of Seven was set up to carry out the terms of the Gentlemen’s Agreement. Hitler wanted no repetition of the abortive 1934 coup.
“It was a bad bargain,” writes Manchester. “Secret clauses” of the Gentlemen’s Agreement “stipulated the muzzling of the Viennese press and amnesty for Nazi ‘political prisoners’ in Austrian jails—many of them storm troopers convicted of murdering Jews and critics of the Fuhrer.”28
Austria’s Nazis ignored the agreement and continued to plot the overthrow of Schuschnigg. In January 1938, Austrian police raided the Committee of Seven headquarters and discovered plans there for a Nazi coup. Hitler had assured Mussolini there would be no Anschluss and, according to historian Taylor, he “knew nothing of these plans, which had been prepared despite his orders…. [T]he Austrian Nazis were acting without authority.”29
An indignant Schuschnigg called in Ambassador Papen and showed him the evidence of Nazi violations of the Gentlemen’s Agreement. Papen, who had just been relieved of his Vienna post, had had his own clashes with the Austrian Nazis and was not amused to learn that they had planned to assassinate him as a provocation, while disguising themselves as members of Schuschnigg’s Fatherland Front. Papen suggested Schuschnigg take up the matter directly with Hitler.
At this time, Hitler was in the grip of a political crisis and personal scandal. He had stood up on January 12 at the wedding of Minister of War Blomberg, after which it was discovered that Frau Blomberg had been a Berlin prostitute with a police record and had posed for pornographic photographs, taken by a Jew, with whom she had been living at the time. As Richard Evans writes, Hitler was mortified to the point of paralysis:
Alarmed at the ridicule he would suffer if it became known that he had been witness to the marriage of an ex-prostitute, Hitler plunged into a deep depression, unable to sleep…. It was, wrote Goebbels in his diary, the worst crisis in the regime since the Roehm affair. “The Leader,” he reported, “is completely shattered.”30
“Blomberg can’t be saved,” noted Goebbels. “Only the pistol remains for a man of honour…. The Fuhrer as marriage witness. It’s unthinkable…. The Fuhrer looks like a corpse.”31 Writes Kershaw, “Scurrilous rumours had it that Hitler took a bath seven times” the day after he was told “to rid himself of the taint of having kissed the hand of Frau Blomberg.”32 The following day, he was heard muttering, “If a German Field-Marshal marries a whore, anything in the world is possible.”33
Blomberg resigned. The generals favored as his replacement army commander in chief Colonel-General von Fritsch. But Fritsch was regarded by the Nazis as even less reliable than Blomberg. So Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, gathered or fabricated evidence that Fritsch was a homosexual who had used a Berlin rent-boy known as “Bavarian Joe.” Hitler set up a meeting in his private library at the Reich Chancellery with Fritsch, the prostitute Otto Schmidt, and Göring. Schmidt and General Fritsch stuck by their contradictory stories. Unconvinced of his innocence, Hitler decided that Fritsch, too, must go.
Meanwhile, Hjalmar Schacht, architect of Germany’s recovery from the Great Depression, had resigned, and Hitler was trying to bury the news by sweeping his Cabinet clean of all the old conservatives, including Neurath and Papen. As Hitler was casting about for a way to divert public attention from the lurid Blomberg and Fritsch scandals and the resignation of Schacht, Papen came to him with the recommendation that he invite Schuschnigg to Berchtesgaden. Hitler seized it. Set up a meeting at once, he told Papen.
On February 12, Schuschnigg arrived at Berchtesgaden, intending to play the victim who had faithfully adhered to the Gentlemen’s Agreement, only to see it blatantly violated by treacherous Austrian Nazis. Hitler did not wait to hear him out. He exploded, addressing Austria’s chancellor as “Herr Schuschnigg” and berating him for having been first to violate their 1936 agreement. “The whole history of Austria,” Hitler ranted, “is just one uninterrupted act of high treason. That was so in the past and remains so today.”34 Hitler then proceeded to issue his own demands.
Germany would renew its full support of Austria’s sovereignty if all imprisoned Austrian National Socialists, including the assassins of Dollfuss, were set free within three days and all dismissed National Socialist officials and officers were reinstated in their former positions. In addition, Artur Seyss-Inquart, the leader of the moderate Pan-German faction, was to be appointed Minister of Interior with full, unlimited control of the nation’s police forces; a “moderate” Austrian Nazi was to be Minister of Defense.35
Vienna was also to coordinate its economic and foreign policies with Berlin. Schuschnigg replied that he lacked the authority to make such commitments, which would mean an end to Austrian sovereignty. He wished to return to Vienna and consult with President Miklas and his Cabinet. Hitler continued to rant, called his generals in and out of the room to intimidate the Austrian chancellor, then sent Schuschnigg away for two hours to reflect on the consequences should he refuse the Fuehrer’s demands.
Though bullied brutally, Schuschnigg returned to Vienna with a deal. Seyss-Inquart got the security post, but Germany condemned the Austrian Nazis and Hitler made good on his promise to remove the worst of the lot. The Nazi underground leader in Austria, Captain Josef Leopold, was called before Hitler and denounced as “insane.”36 Other Austrian Nazis were expelled and also berated by Hitler, who conceded in his notebook, “This Schuschnigg was a harder bone than I first thought.”37
By mid-February the Austrian crisis was over. The German army units demonstrating on the border had stood down and Hitler had informed the Reichstag, “Friendly co-operation between the two countries has been assured…. I would like to thank the Austrian Chancellor in my own name, and in that of the German people, for his understanding and kindness.”38
“When a snake wants to eat his victims,” snorted Churchill, “he first covers them with saliva.”39
SCHUSCHNIGG RELIGHTS THE FUSE
HITLER HAD NOT ABANDONED his plan to convert Austria into a satellite, but believed this should and would come about through an “evolutionary solution.”40 Austria would drop like ripe fruit, for, with Italy now an Axis power, she was isolated, had nowhere else to go, and the Allies had neither the will nor the power to prevent her eventual merger with the Reich. As for Austria’s Nazis, Hitler was incensed that they had again disrupted and imperiled his “evolutionary solution.”
But while the crisis appeared over, it was not. For Schuschnigg, like Dollfuss a man of courage, seethed over the abuse at the Berghof and relit the fuse. After consulting Mussolini on March 7, who warned him he was making a mistake—“C’é un errore!”— Schuschnigg, on March 9 in Innsbruck, announced that on Sunday, March 13, a plebiscite would be held to decide, finally and forever, whether the country wished to remain a “free, independent, social, Christian and united Austria—Ja oder Nein?”41
Twenty thousand Tyroleans had roared their approved, but Prince Starhemberg had not. “This means the end of Schuschnigg,” the ex–vice chancellor told his wife. “Let us hope it is not the end of Austria. Hitler can never allow this.”42
Hitler was stunned. As Kerhsaw writes,
The German government was completely taken aback by Schuschnigg’s gamble. For hours, there was no response from Berlin. Hitler had not been informed in advance of Schuschnigg’s intentions, and was at first incredulous. But his astonishment rapidly gave way to mounting fury at what he saw as a betrayal of the Berchtesgaden agreement.43
Schuschnigg had ordered a vote in four days where Austrians would choose between Christianity and Nazism, Austria and Germany, Schuschnigg and Hitler. To Hitler, Schuschnigg had broken their Berchtesgaden agreement and bellowed a defiant “No!” to his vision of an “evolutionary solution” and eventual union of Germany with the land of his birth. Moreover, after winning the grudging backing of the socialist unions and Marxists for the plebiscite, Schuschnigg’s government believed it would sweep between 65 percent and 70 percent of the Austrian vote.44
After the army scandals and Cabinet debacle, Hitler could not abide humiliation at the hands of Schuschnigg. Yet neither he nor the army had prepared for a campaign against Austria. Hitler called in General Wilhelm Keitel and told him to make ready to invade. Keitel remembered that the army had drawn up an “Operation Otto” plan in the event Otto von Habsburg attempted to regain the Austrian throne. “Prepare it!” Hitler ordered.45 When Keitel got to army headquarters, he found that Operation Otto was a theoretical study. No German army plans existed for an invasion of Austria.
Hitler called his generals to Berlin and ordered all troops anywhere near Austria to proceed to the border and be prepared to invade on March 12. Leaving Göring in command in Berlin, Hitler departed to lead his army into the land of his birth.
RETURN OF THE NATIVE
HITLER KNEW FROM THE Dollfuss affair that Mussolini might react violently. Through Prince Philip of Hesse, who flew by special plane to Rome, Hitler sent a letter to Il Duce explaining the confrontation with Schuschnigg and proffering a naked bribe. Said Hitler, “I have drawn a definite boundary…between Italy and us. It is the Brenner.”46
Hitler was telling Mussolini that if given a free hand in Austria, South Tyrol was Italy’s forever. To corral seven million Austrians, Hitler was prepared to sell out two hundred thousand Tyrolese who had been his countrymen.
On March 11, Germany closed its border with Austria and, on Göring’s orders, the pro-Nazis in Schuschnigg’s government demanded the March 13 plebiscite be canceled. Schuschnigg phoned Mussolini. Il Duce did not take his call. Nor did Paris respond. The Radical government of Camille Chautemps, in power for only a year and in financial straits, had just resigned. Former premier Léon Blum, at the instigation of the president, was trying to form a new government to deal with the Austrian crisis when the Anschluss was proclaimed. When Göring sought out the Czechs for their reaction to any German move into Austria, the Czechs assured Göring they would not mobilize. The British ambassador in Berlin, Henderson, agreed with Göring that “Dr. Schuschnigg had acted with precipitate folly.”47
For Prime Minister Chamberlain, news of the imminent invasion came at an awkward moment. He and Halifax were hosting a farewell lunch at 10 Downing Street for Ambassador Ribbentrop, who had just been named by Hitler to replace Neurath as foreign minister. Ribbentrop had been assuring his British hosts the Austrian situation was calm, when a telegram arrived from Schuschnigg informing Chamberlain that the German army was at his border and asking “for immediate advice of his Majesty’s Government as to what he should do.”48
Shaken, Chamberlain suggested that he, Ribbentrop, and Halifax repair to his study “for a private word.”49 Halifax was incensed. But Ribbentrop soothed the British leaders, assuring them he knew nothing of an invasion and perhaps this was a false report. Yet, if true, Ribbentrop added, might it not be the best way to resolve the matter?
Chamberlain instructed Halifax to wire Schuschnigg: “His Majesty’s Government cannot take responsibility of advising the Chancellor to take any course of action which might expose his country to dangers against which His Majesty’s Government are unable to guarantee protection.”50 The Austrians were on their own.
Abandoned and alone, Schuschnigg canceled the plebiscite. But this was no longer sufficient. Göring, who was managing the crisis by telephone, demanded that Austria replace Schuschnigg with Seyss-Inquart. President Miklas refused. Göring told Seyss-Inquart to declare himself chancellor and invite the German army in to restore law and order. But before Seyss-Inquart’s telegram arrived in Berlin calling on Germany to intervene, Hitler’s army was in Austria. On the morning of March 12, Seyss-Inquart wired Berlin to say that, as he was in charge in Vienna, the invasion should be halted. Göring told him this was now impossible.
As Hitler’s army pushed into Austria, Prince Philip phoned from Rome: “I have just returned from the Palazzo Venezia. Il Duce took the news very well indeed. He sends his very best regards to you.”51 Hitler was ecstatic. On and on he burbled to the prince:
[P]lease tell Mussolini that I shall never forget this…. Never, never, never! Come what may!…And listen—sign any agreement he would like…. You can tell him again. It hank him most heartily. I will never forget him!…Whenever he should be in need or in danger, he can be sure that I will stick with him, rain or shine—come what may—even if the whole world would rise against him—I will, I shall—”52
This commitment Hitler would keep. His faithfulness to Mussolini would be a principal cause of Germany’s defeat and his own downfall.
On March 13, the day of Schuschnigg’s plebiscite to decide if Austria should remain an independent nation, Hitler arrived in the hometown of his boyhood. As Gen. Heinz Guderian, who stood beside him in Linz, relates, tears ran down Hitler’s cheeks; “this was certainly not play-acting.”53
In Vienna, Hitler recalled for one reporter a day years before when, following a blizzard, he and five down-and-outers hired themselves out to shovel snow. By chance, they were assigned to sweep the sidewalk and street in front of the Imperial Hotel on a night when the Habsburgs were entertaining inside. Said Hitler, bitterness and resentment pouring out:
I saw Karl and Zita step out of their imperial coach and grandly walk into this hotel over the red carpet. We poor devils shoveled the snow away on all sides and took our hats off every time the aristocrats arrived. They didn’t even look at us, although I still smell the perfume that came at our noses. We were about as important to them, or for that matter to Vienna, as the snow that kept coming down all night, and this hotel did not even have the decency to send a cup of hot coffee to us…. I resolved that night that someday I would come back to the Imperial Hotel and walk over the red carpet in that glittering interior where the Hapsburgs danced. I didn’t know how or when, but I have waited for this day and tonight I am here.54
“I can only describe him as being in a state of ecstasy,” von Papen wrote.55 And it was while in that state, in an utterly unexpected decision, that Hitler declared the annexation of Austria.
Göring, who had brilliantly and brutally managed the crisis, may have been the instigator of Anschluss. Seeing the Wehrmacht welcomed without a shot being fired, and how wildly the crowds received Hitler, he sent a courier by plane to the Fuehrer: “If the enthusiasm is so great, why don’t we go the whole hog?”56
Hitler did. Seyss-Inquart was instructed to resign, as Austria was now a province of Germany. His twenty-four hours as chancellor were up. For seven years, Austria ceased to exist and became the Ost-mark, the East Mark, the ancient bulwark of Europe against the hordes of Asia.
Mussolini had not expected Hitler to annex Austria. “Floored” by the news, he railed about “that damned German,” but then recognized reality.57 After forty-eight hours of silence, he sent a congratulatory message. Again Hitler replied, “Mussolini, I shall never forget this.”58
A fortnight before the Anschluss, Göring was a guest in Warsaw of Col. Jozef Beck, the foreign minister who had taken over on the death of Pilsudski. As the two walked into dinner, “they passed an engraving of John Sobieski, the Polish king coming to the rescue of the besieged city of Vienna in 1683. Beck drew Göring’s attention to the title: ‘Don’t worry,’ he remarked, ‘that incident will not recur.’”59
In a year, Beck’s turn would come.
It bears repeating. In 1934, an Austrian chancellor, Dollfuss, died a hero’s death resisting Nazism, the only European leader to give up his life fighting Hitlerism from 1933 to 1939. In 1938, his successor, Schuschnigg, took a desperate gamble to break Austria forever free of the Reich. He failed, and spent the next seven years in a Nazi prison for defying Hitler. Austria capitulated because she was facing a Germany ten times her size and had been abandoned by all who could have helped her stay free—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, France, and Great Britain.
As the German army entered Vienna, the world awakened to two realities. First, the vaunted Wehrmacht, 70 percent of whose tanks and armored vehicles broke down on the roads, was in no condition to fight a major war. Second, the cheering crowds showed that Hitler was wildly popular in his home country:
The scenes of enthusiasm according to a Swiss reporter who witnessed them “defied all description.” An English observer of the scene commented, “To say that the crowds which greeted [Hitler] along the Ringstrasse were delirious with joy is an understatement.” Hitler had to appear repeatedly on the balcony of the Hotel Imperial in response to continued shouts of “We want to see our Fuhrer.”60
On April 10, the Anschluss was submitted to a vote of the Austrian people. Fully 99 percent voted in favor. Some historians consider this a fair reflection of Austrian sentiment by then, but, if that was true, why had Hitler been so fearful of Schuschnigg’s plebiscite?
There is surely truth in the sharp note Churchill wrote to Hitler idolater Unity Valkyrie Mitford, who had compared sitting next to Hitler like “sitting beside the sun” and who told Churchill that 80 percent of all Austrians were pro-Hitler. “It was because Herr Hitler feared the free expression of opinion that we are compelled to witness the present dastardly outrage.”61
Yet, as Taylor writes, Schuschnigg, not Hitler, precipitated the crisis with his call for a plebiscite in four days to dramatize Austria’s separation from Germany.
The belief soon became established that Hitler’s seizure of Austria was a deliberate plot, devised long in advance, and the first step toward the domination of Europe. This belief was a myth. The crisis of March 1938 was provoked by Schuschnigg, not by Hitler. There had been no German preparations, military or diplomatic. Everything was improvised in a couple of days—policy, promises, armed force.62
Taylor and Henderson are correct that Hitler had responded to Schuschnigg’s initiative. Yet it must not be forgotten that absorption of Austria into the Reich he now ruled conformed to Hitler’s vision from the time of Mein Kampf. Unlike the British Empire, which Lord Palmerston famously said had been “acquired in a fit of absentmindedness,” a Germanic empire existed in the mind of Hitler before it ever came to be. True, he was an opportunist, but he also knew where he wished to go. As of 1938, Hitler had taken what he wanted in the south, Austria, and let go of what he had always been willing to trade away: South Tyrol.
For his Anschluss with Austria, however, Hitler would pay a price. His use of raw military power to overrun and annex a small neighbor stunned Europe. The Germans were no longer walking into their own back garden. Many who had been prepared to work with Hitler for redress of grievances dating to Versailles now began to think of standing up to him. Hitler had Austria, but Germany had lost any moral high ground it had held as the victim of Versailles. Moreover, the abominable public mistreatment of the Jews of Vienna by Austrian Nazis was reported across Europe and America. CBS’s William Shirer called it an “orgy of sadism.”63 The Anschluss was not an unmitigated triumph for the Third Reich.
Why did Britain and France sit paralyzed? Why did they not act to stop the Anschluss? Consider the situation they confronted.
Though naked aggression, invading Austria was not a premeditated act Hitler had been carefully plotting for months, or even weeks. After reoccupying the Rhineland in March 1936, Hitler had not made a move on the European chessboard for two years. There had been no confrontations with the Allies.
Moreover, Austria was not an ally of Britain or France. She shared no common border with them. She had offered no resistance. From start to finish, the invasion did not last seventy-two hours. In town after town, thousands had cheered Hitler’s arrival in his native land. Mussolini shared a border with Austria and, in the 1934 crisis, had marched four divisions to the Brenner. But due to the British, French, and League of Nations sanctions of 1935, Italy was no longer a Stresa Front partner but Hitler’s ally in the Rome-Berlin axis.
The Anschluss was a clear violation of Versailles, but the British had negotiated an Anglo-German naval treaty in 1935, which also violated the terms of Versailles. And if Britain and France had failed to resist German rearmament or German remilitarization of the Rhineland, a direct threat to France, why fight over a German Anschluss with an Austria of seven million Germans, who had no border with France?
And how would the Allies resist the Anschluss? Had Britain sent an ultimatum to Hitler to get out of Austria and Hitler rejected it, how would Britain and France fight a war for Austrian independence? Britain had no draft and no army to send to France. The French army was dug deep inside the Maginot Line. How would they wage war on Germany? By a bombing campaign that would cause German bombs to rain down in retaliation on London and Paris?
And if Austria and Germany wished to unite—99 percent of each nation would vote in favor of unification in April—on what moral and political ground could Britain and France stand to deny Austrians the right of self-determination that they had preached to the world at Versailles? Should they declare war and, after countless dead, defeat Germany, what would they do with Austria—if the Austrians had fought beside the Germans? Separate the nations again? A war to oppose Anschluss would mean a war to reimpose Versailles. But Chamberlain and Halifax believed Versailles had been a blunder, because Germans and Austrians had been denied the right of self-determination granted to Poles and Czechs. Faced with Anschluss, the Allies were militarily hamstrung and morally paralyzed.
Halifax had supported Versailles, but he and Chamberlain had come to believe that Germany had been wronged and peace required the righting of those wrongs. They believed that Germans under Czech and Polish rule in 1938 should be granted the same right of self-determination extended to Poles and Czechs under German and Austro-Hungarian rule in 1919. They believed that addressing Germany’s valid grievances and escorting her back into Europe as a Great Power with equality of rights was the path to the peace they wished to build. Their problem was this: If they assisted Hitler in gathering into the Reich all Germans who wished to be part of the Reich, they would be helping to remake Germany into what she had been in 1914, the dominant power in Europe. But the ruler of Germany was now Adolf Hitler, and should he turn aggressor, as his words in Mein Kampf portended, he would be a graver threat than the Kaiser, who had almost conquered Europe. For Italy, Japan, and Russia, Britain’s allies in the Great War, were all now potential enemies. And America was gone from Europe.
Through the 1930s, British principles clashed with British interests. Chamberlain, Halifax, the Cabinet, and Parliament believed that rectifying the wrongs of Versailles and granting Germans the right of self-determination was essential for any lasting peace. However, self-determination for Germans meant an Anschluss with Austria, and the amputation of German peoples and their ancestral lands from France’s allies Poland and Czechoslovakia. Some Britons, including Churchill, believed Britain should go to war, if necessary, to prevent the restoration of a Bismarckian Reich in Central Europe that encompassed Austria. European security, they believed, trumped any German claim to severed lands or lost peoples.
Chamberlain and Halifax had to ask: If they fed this tiger, would it turn on them and devour them? Perhaps Britain should have killed the cub. But that issue was now academic, for the opportunity had passed in the time of MacDonald and Baldwin. “The watershed between the two world wars extended over precisely two years,” writes Taylor. “Post-war ended when Germany reoccupied the Rhineland on March 7, 1936; prewar began when she annexed Austria on March 13, 1938.”64
After the Anschluss, Chamberlain wrote his sister to tell her that he planned to say to Hitler “it is no use crying over spilt milk and what we have to do now is consider how we can restore the confidence which you have shattered.”65 Chamberlain now mulled over an offer to Hitler of the return of some of the former German colonies in Africa.
The Prime Minister still saw the return of colonies as a powerful gesture which it was hoped would calm down Germany’s expansionist ambitions in central and south-eastern Europe. Halifax seemingly placed even more emphasis on this point, having articulated the belief that colonial concessions were the only vital question between Britain and Germany.66
It is a mark of the distance British leaders had traveled from reality that the prime minister and foreign minister entertained the idea, in March 1938, that Hitler might be diverted from his vision of restoring German lands and peoples in the east of Europe by the return of the Cameroons or Togoland.
Where was Churchill at the time of Anschluss?
In the Commons debate of March 14, Churchill called for a warning to be sent to Hitler that if he invaded any other country, Britain would intervene to stop him.67 On March 24, he rose in Parliament and in a speech full of foreboding—“a kind of terror,” Robert Payne writes—spoke of the retreat of British power since the rise of Hitler:
I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine, broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet…. Now the victors are vanquished, and those who threw down their arms in the field and sued for an armistice are striding on to world mastery.68