Military history

Book Three

9. THE FIRST STEPS: 1934–37

To TALK PEACE, to prepare secretly for war and to proceed with enough caution in foreign policy and clandestine rearmament to avoid any preventive military action against Germany by the Versailles powers—such were Hitler’s tactics during the first two years.

He stumbled badly with the Nazi murder of the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss in Vienna on July 25, 1934. At noon on that day 154 members of the S.S. Standarte 89, dressed in Austrian Army uniforms, broke into the Federal Chancellery and shot Dollfuss in the throat at a range of two feet. A few blocks away other Nazis seized the radio station and broadcast the news that Dollfuss had resigned. Hitler received the tidings while listening to a performance of Das Rheingold at the annual Wagner Festival at Bayreuth. They greatly excited him. Friedelind Wagner, granddaughter of the great composer, who sat in the family box nearby, was a witness. Two adjutants, Schaub and Brueckner, she later told, kept receiving the news from Vienna on a telephone in the anteroom of her box and then whispering it to Hitler.

   After the performance the Fuehrer was most excited. This excitement mounted as he told us the horrible news … Although he could scarcely wipe the delight from his face Hitler carefully ordered dinner in the restaurant as usual.

“I must go across for an hour and show myself,” he said, “or people will think I had something to do with this.”1

   They would not have been far from right. In the first paragraph of Mein Kampf, it will be remembered, Hitler had written that the reunion of Austria and Germany was a “task to be furthered with every means our lives long.” Soon after becoming Chancellor he had appointed a Reichstag deputy, Theodor Habicht, as inspector of the Austrian Nazi Party, and a little later he had set up Alfred Frauenfeld, the self-exiled Austrian party leader, in Munich, whence he broadcast nightly, inciting his comrades in Vienna to murder Dollfuss. For months prior to July 1934 the Austrian Nazis, with weapons and dynamite furnished by Germany, had instituted a reign of terror, blowing up railways, power stations and government buildings and murdering supporters of the Dollfuss clerical-fascist regime. Finally, Hitler had approved the formation of an Austrian Legion, several thousand strong, which camped along the Austrian border in Bavaria, ready to cross over and occupy the country at an opportune moment.

Dollfuss died of his wounds at about 6 P.M., but the Nazi putsch, due largely to the bungling of the conspirators who had seized the Chancellery, failed. Government forces, led by Dr. Kurt von Schuschnigg, quickly regained control, and the rebels, though promised safe-conduct to Germany through the intervention of the German minister, were arrested and thirteen of them later hanged. In the meantime Mussolini, to whom Hitler only a month before at their meeting in Venice had promised to leave Austria alone, caused uneasiness in Berlin by hastily mobilizing four divisions on the Brenner Pass.

Hitler quickly backed down. The news story prepared for the press by the official German news agency, D.N.B., rejoicing at the fall of Dollfuss and proclaiming the Greater Germany that must inevitably follow, was hastily withdrawn at midnight and a new version substituted expressing regret at the “cruel murder” and declaring that it was a purely Austrian affair. Habicht was removed, the German minister in Vienna recalled and dismissed and Papen, who had narrowly escaped Dollfuss’ fate just a month before during the Roehm purge, was packed off to Vienna posthaste to restore, as Hitler directed him, “normal and friendly relations.”

Hitler’s first joyous excitement had given way to fear. “We are faced with a new Sarajevo!” Papen says he shouted at him when the two conferred about how to overcome the crisis.2 But the Fuehrer had learned a lesson. The Nazi putsch in Vienna, like the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, had been premature. Germany was not yet militarily strong enough to back up such a venture by force. It was too isolated diplomatically. Even Fascist Italy had joined Britain and France in insisting on Austria’s continued independence. Moreover, the Soviet Union was showing interest for the first time in joining the West in an Eastern Locarno which would discourage any moves of Germany in the East. In the autumn it joined the League of Nations. The prospects for dividing the Great Powers seemed dimmer than ever throughout the crucial year of 1934. All that Hitler could do was to preach peace, get along with his secret rearmament and wait and watch for opportunities.

Besides the Reichstag, Hitler had another means of communicating his peace propaganda to the outside world: the foreign press, whose correspondents, editors and publishers were constantly seeking interviews with him. There was Ward Price, the monocled Englishman, and his newspaper, the London Daily Mail, who were always ready at the drop of a hint to accommodate the German dictator. So in August 1934, in another one of the series of interviews which would continue up to the eve of the war, Hitler told Price—and his readers—that “war will not come again,” that Germany had “a more profound impression than any other of the evil that war causes,” that “Germany’s problems cannot be settled by war.”3 In the fall he repeated these glowing sentiments to Jean Goy, a French war veterans’ leader and a member of the Chamber of Deputies, who passed them on in an article in the Pans daily Le Matin.4

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