Military history

11. ANSCHLUSS: THE RAPE OF AUSTRIA

TOWARD THE END OF 1937, due to a change of jobs from newspaper to radio reporting, my headquarters were transferred from Berlin to Vienna, which I had come to know as a youthful correspondent a decade before. Though I would spend most of the period of the next three crucial years in Germany, my new assignment, which was to cover continental Europe, gave me a certain perspective of the Third Reich and, as it happened, set me down in those very neighboring countries which were to be victims of Hitler’s aggression just prior to and during the time the aggression took place. I roved back and forth in those days between Germany and the country that for the moment was the object of Hitler’s fury and so gathered a firsthand experience of the events which are now to be described and which led inexorably to the greatest and bloodiest war in man’s experience. Though we observed these happenings at first hand, it is amazing how little we really knew of how they came about. The plottings and maneuvers, the treachery, the fateful decisions and moments of indecision, and the dramatic encounters of the principal participants which shaped the course of events took place in secret beneath the surface, hidden from the prying eyes of foreign diplomats, journalists and spies, and thus for years remained largely unknown to all but a few who took part in them.

We have had to wait for the maze of secret documents and the testimony of the surviving leading actors in the drama, most of whom were not free at the time—many landed in Nazi concentration camps—to tell their story. What follows, therefore, in the ensuing pages is based largely on the mass of factual evidence which has been accumulated since 1945. But it was perhaps helpful for a narrator of such a history as this to have been personally present at its main crises and turning points. Thus, it happened that I was in Vienna on the memorable night of March 11–12, 1938, when Austria ceased to exist.

For more than a month the beautiful baroque capital by the Danube, whose inhabitants were more attractive, more genial, more gifted in enjoying life, such as it was, than any people I had ever known, had been prey to deep anxieties. Dr. Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, would later recall the period between February 12 and March 11 as “The Four Weeks’ Agony.” Since the Austro–German agreement of July 11, 1936, in which Schuschnigg, in a secret annex to the treaty, had made far-reaching concessions to the Austrian Nazis,* Franz von Papen, Hitler’s special ambassador in Vienna, had been continuing his labors to undermine the independence of Austria and bring about its union with Nazi Germany. In a long report to the Fuehrer at the end of 1936, he had reported on his progress and a year later had done the same, this time stressing “that only by subjecting the Federal Chancellor [Schuschnigg] to the strongest possible pressure can further progress be made.”1 His advice, though scarcely needed, was soon to be taken more literally than even he could conceive.

Throughout 1937, the Austrian Nazis, financed and egged on by Berlin, had stepped up their campaign of terror. Bombings took place nearly every day in some part of the country, and in the mountain provinces massive and often violent Nazi demonstrations weakened the government’s position. Plans were uncovered disclosing that Nazi thugs were preparing to bump off Schuschnigg as they had his predecessor. Finally on January 25, 1938, Austrian police raided the Vienna headquarters of a group called the Committee of Seven, which had been set up to bring about peace between the Nazis and the Austrian government, but which in reality served as the central office of the illegal Nazi underground. There they found documents initialed by Rudolf Hess, the Fuehrer’s deputy, which made it clear that the Austrian Nazis were to stage an open revolt in the spring of 1938 and that when Schuschnigg attempted to put it down, the German Army would enter Austria to prevent “German blood from being shed by Germans.” According to Papen, one of the documents called for his own murder or that of his military attaché, Lieutenant General Muff, by local Nazis so as to provide an excuse for German intervention.2

If the debonair Papen was less than amused to learn that he was marked—for the second time—for assassination by Nazi roughnecks on orders from party leaders in Berlin, he was also distressed by a telephone call which came to him at the German Legation in Vienna on the evening of February 4. State Secretary Hans Lammers was on the line from the Chancellery in Berlin to inform him that his special mission in Austria had ended. He had been fired, along with Neurath, Fritsch and several others.

“I was almost speechless with astonishment,” Papen later remembered.3 He recovered sufficiently to realize that Hitler evidently had decided on more drastic action in Austria, now that he had rid himself of Neurath, Fritsch and Blomberg. In fact, Papen recovered sufficiently to decide to do “something unusual for a diplomat,” as he put it. He resolved to deposit copies of all his correspondence with Hitler “in a safe place,” which turned out to be Switzerland. “The defamatory campaigns of the Third Reich,” he says, “were only too well known to me.” As we have seen, they had almost cost him his life in June 1934.

Papen’s dismissal was also a warning to Schuschnigg. He had not fully trusted the suave former cavalry officer, but he was quick to see that Hitler must have something worse in mind than inflicting on him the wily ambassador, who at least was a devout Catholic, as was he, and a gentleman. In the last few months the course of European diplomacy had not favored Austria. Mussolini had drawn closer to Hitler since the establishment of the Rome–Berlin Axis and was not so concerned about maintaining the little country’s independence as he had been at the time of the murder of Dollfuss, when he had rushed four divisions to the Brenner Pass to frighten the Fuehrer. Neither Britain, freshly embarked under Chamberlain upon a policy of appeasing Hitler, nor France, beset by grave internal political strife, had recently shown much interest in defending Austria’s independence should Hitler strike. And now, with Papen, had gone the conservative leaders of the German Army and Foreign Office, who had exercised some restraining influence on Hitler’s towering ambitions. Schuschnigg, who was a narrow-minded man but, within his limits, an intelligent one, and who was quite well informed, had few illusions about his worsening situation. The time had come, as he felt it had come after the Nazis slew Dollfuss, to further appease the German dictator.

Papen, discharged from office though he was, offered an opportunity. Never a man to resent a slap in the face if it came from above, he had hurried to Hitler the very day after his dismissal “to obtain some picture of what was going on.” At Berchtesgaden on February 5, he found the Fuehrer “exhausted and distrait” from his struggle with the generals. But Hitler’s recuperative powers were considerable, and soon the cashiered envoy was interesting him in a proposal that he had already broached to him a fortnight before when they had met in Berlin: Why not have it out with Schuschnigg personally? Why not invite him to come to Berchtesgaden for a personal talk? Hitler found the idea interesting. Unmindful of the fact that he had just fired Papen, he ordered him to return to Vienna and arrange the meeting.

Schuschnigg readily assented to it, but, weak as his position was, laid down certain conditions. He must be informed in advance of the precise points which Hitler wanted to discuss, and he must be assured beforehand that the agreement of July 11, 1936, in which Germany promised to respect Austria’s independence and not to interfere in her internal affairs, would be maintained. Furthermore, the communiqué at the end of the meeting must reaffirm that both countries would continue to abide by the 1936 treaty. Schuschnigg wanted to take no chances in bearding the lion in his den. Papen hurried off to Obersalzberg to confer with Hitler and returned with the Fuehrer’s assurance that the 1936 agreement would remain unchanged and that he merely wanted to discuss “such misunderstandings and points of friction as have persisted” since it was signed. This was not as precise as the Austrian Chancellor had requested, but he said he was satisfied with the answer. The meeting was set for the morning of February 12,* and on the evening of February 11 Schuschnigg, accompanied by his Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Guido Schmidt, set off by special train in the strictest secrecy for Salzburg, whence he would drive by car over the border to Hitler’s mountain retreat on the following morning. It was to prove a fateful journey.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!