Military history

THE MEETING AT BERCHTESGADEN: FEBRUARY 12, 1938

Papen showed up at the frontier to greet his Austrian visitors and in the frosty winter morning air seemed to be, Schuschnigg thought, “in the very best of humor.” Hitler, he assured his guests, was in an excellent mood this day. And then came the first warning note. The Fuehrer, Papen said genially, hoped Dr. Schuschnigg would not mind the presence at the Berghof of three generals who had arrived quite by chance: Keitel, the new Chief of OKW, Reichenau, who commanded the Army forces on the Bavarian–Austrian frontier, and Sperrle, who was in charge of the Air Force in this area.

Papen later remembered of his guests that this was “a piece of information that seemed little to their taste.” Schuschnigg says he told the ambassador he would not mind, especially since he had “not much choice in the matter.” A Jesuit-trained intellectual, he was getting on his guard.

Even so, he was not prepared for what now took place. Hitler, wearing the brown tunic of a storm trooper, with black trousers, and flanked by the three generals, greeted the Austrian Chancellor and his aide on the steps of the villa. Schuschnigg felt it was a friendly but formal greeting. In a few moments he found himself alone with the German dictator in the spacious second-floor study whose great picture windows looked out upon the stately, snow-capped Alps and on Austria, the birthplace of both these men, beyond.

Kurt von Schuschnigg, forty-one years old, was, as all who have known him would agree, a man of impeccable Old World Austrian manners, and it was not unnatural for him to begin the conversation with a graceful tidbit about the magnificent view, the fine weather that day, and a flattering word about this room having been, no doubt, the scene of many decisive conferences. Adolf Hitler cut him short: “We did not gather here to speak of the fine view or of the weather.” Then the storm broke. As the Austrian Chancellor later testified, the ensuing two-hour “conversation was somewhat unilateral.”*

   You have done everything to avoid a friendly policy [Hitler fumed] … The whole history of Austria is just one uninterrupted act of high treason. That was so in the past and is no better today. This historical paradox must now reach its long-overdue end. And I can tell you right now, Herr Schuschnigg, that I am absolutely determined to make an end of all this. The German Reich is one of the great powers, and nobody will raise his voice if it settles its border problems.

   Shocked at Hitler’s outburst, the quiet-mannered Austrian Chancellor tried to remain conciliatory and yet stand his ground. He said he differed from his host on the question of Austria’s role in German history. “Austria’s contribution in this respect,” he maintained, “is considerable.”

   HITLER: Absolutely zero. I am telling you, absolutely zero. Every national idea was sabotaged by Austria throughout history; and indeed all this sabotage was the chief activity of the Hapsburgs and the Catholic Church.

SCHUSCHNIGG: All the same, Herr Reichskanzler, many an Austrian contribution cannot possibly be separated from the general picture of German culture. Take for instance a man like Beethoven …

HITLER: Oh—Beethoven? Let me tell you that Beethoven came from the lower Rhineland.

SCHUSCHNIGG: Yet Austria was the country of his choice, as it was for so many others …

HITLER: That’s as may be. I am telling you once more that things cannot go on in this way. I have a historic mission, and this mission I will fulfill because Providence has destined me to do so … who is not with me will be crushed … I have chosen the most difficult road that any German ever took; I have made the greatest achievement in the history of Germany, greater than any other German. And not by force, mind you. I am carried along by the love of my people …

SCHUSCHNIGG: Herr Reichskanzler, I am quite willing to believe that.

After an hour of this, Schuschnigg asked his antagonist to enumerate his complaints. “We will do everything,” he said, “to remove obstacles to a better understanding, as far as it is possible.”

   HITLER: That is what you say, Herr Schuschnigg. But I am telling you that I am going to solve the so-called Austrian problem one way or the other.

He then launched into a tirade against Austria for fortifying its border against Germany, a charge that Schuschnigg denied.

   HITLER: Listen, you don’t really think you can move a single stone in Austria without my hearing about it the next day, do you? … I have only to give an order, and in one single night all your ridiculous defense mechanisms will be blown to bits. You don’t seriously believe that you can stop me for half an hour, do you? … I would very much like to save Austria from such a fate, because such an action would mean blood. After the Army, my S.A. and Austrian Legion would move in, and nobody can stop their just revenge—not even I.

   After these threats, Hitler reminded Schuschnigg (rudely addressing him always by his name instead of by his title, as diplomatic courtesy called for) of Austria’s isolation and consequent helplessness.

   HITLER: Don’t think for one moment that anybody on earth is going to thwart my decisions. Italy? I see eye to eye with Mussolini … England? England will not move one finger for Austria … And France?

   France, he said, could have stopped Germany in the Rhineland “and then we would have had to retreat. But now it is too late for France.”

Finally:

   HITLER: I give you once more, and for the last time, the opportunity to come to terms, Herr Schuschnigg. Either we find a solution now or else events will take their course … Think it over, Herr Schuschnigg, think it over well. I can only wait until this afternoon …

   What exactly were the German Chancellor’s terms? Schuschnigg asked. “We can discuss that this afternoon,” Hitler said.

During lunch Hitler appeared to be, Schuschnigg observed somewhat to his surprise, “in excellent spirits.” His monologue dwelt on horses and houses. He was going to build the greatest skyscrapers the world had ever seen. “The Americans will see,” he remarked to Schuschnigg, “that Germany is building bigger and better buildings than the United States.” As for the harried Austrian Chancellor, Papen noted that he appeared “worried and preoccupied.” A chain cigarette smoker, he had not been allowed to smoke in Hitler’s presence. But after coffee in an adjoining room, Hitler excused himself and Schuschnigg was able for the first time to snatch a smoke. He was also able to tell his Foreign Undersecretary, Guido Schmidt, the bad news. It was soon to grow worse.

After cooling their heels for two hours in a small anteroom, the two Austrians were ushered into the presence of Ribbentrop, the new German Foreign Minister, and of Papen. Ribbentrop presented them with a two-page typewritten draft of an “agreement” and remarked that they were Hitler’s final demands and that the Fuehrer would not permit discussion of them. They must be signed forthwith. Schuschnigg says he felt relieved to have at least something definite from Hitler. But as he perused the document his relief evaporated. For here was a German ultimatum calling on him, in effect, to turn the Austrian government over to the Nazis within one week.

The ban against the Austrian Nazi Party was to be lifted, all Nazis in jail were to be amnestied and the pro-Nazi Viennese lawyer Dr. Seyss-Inquart was to be made Minister of the Interior, with authority over the police and security. Another pro-Nazi, Glaise-Horstenau, was to be appointed Minister of War, and the Austrian and German armies were to establish closer relations by a number of measures, including the systematic exchange of one hundred officers. “Preparations will be made,” the final demand read, “for the assimilation of the Austrian into the German economic system. For this purpose Dr. Fischboeck [a pro-Nazi] will be appointed Minister of Finance.”5

Schuschnigg, as he later wrote, realized at once that to accept the ultimatum would mean the end of Austria’s independence.

Ribbentrop advised me to accept the demands at once. I protested, and referred him to my previous agreement with von Papen, made prior to coming to Berchtesgaden, and made clear to Ribbentrop that I was not prepared to be confronted with such unreasonable demands … 6

But was Schuschnigg prepared to accept them? That he was not prepared to be confronted with them was obvious even to a dullard such as Ribbentrop. The question was: Would he sign them? In this difficult and decisive moment the young Austrian Chancellor began to weaken. He inquired lamely, according to his own account, “whether we could count on the good will of Germany, whether the Reich government had at least the intention to keep its side of the bargain.”7 He says he received an answer “in the affirmative.”

Then Papen went to work on him. The slippery ambassador admits to his “amazement” when he read the ultimatum. It was an “unwarrantable interference in Austrian sovereignty.” Schuschnigg says Papen apologized to him and expressed his “complete surprise” at the terms. Nevertheless, he advised the Austrian Chancellor to sign them.

He furthermore informed me that I could be assured that Hitler would take care that, if I signed, and acceded to these demands, from that time on Germany would remain loyal to this agreement and that there would be no further difficulties for Austria.8

Schuschnigg, it would appear from the above statements, the last given in an affidavit at Nuremberg, was not only weakening but letting his naïveté get the best of him.

He had one last chance to make a stand. He was summoned again to Hitler. He found the Fuehrer pacing excitedly up and down in his study.

HITLER: Herr Schuschnigg … here is the draft of the document. There is nothing to be discussed. I will not change one single iota. You will either sign it as it is and fulfill my demands within three days, or I will order the march into Austria.9

Schuschnigg capitulated. He told Hitler he was willing to sign. But he reminded him that under the Austrian constitution only the President of the Republic had the legal power to accept such an agreement and carry it out. Therefore, while he was willing to appeal to the President to accept it, he could give no guarantee.

“You have to guarantee it!” Hitler shouted.

“I could not possibly, Herr Reichskanzler,” Schuschnigg says he replied.10

   At this answer [Schuschnigg later recounted] Hitler seemed to lose his self-control. He ran to the doors, opened them, and shouted, “General Keitel!” Then turning back to me, he said, “I shall have you called later.”11

   This was pure bluff, but the harassed Austrian Chancellor, who had been made aware of the presence of the generals all day, did not perhaps know it. Papen relates that Keitel told later of how Hitler greeted him with a broad grin when he rushed in and asked for orders. “There are no orders,” Hitler chuckled. “I just wanted to have you here.”

But Schuschnigg and Dr. Schmidt, waiting outside the Fuehrer’s study, were impressed. Schmidt whispered that he would not be surprised if the both of them were arrested within the next five minutes. Thirty minutes later Schuschnigg was again ushered into the presence of Hitler.

   I have decided to change my mind—for the first time in my life [Hitler said]. But I warn you this is your very last chance. I have given you three additional days to carry out the agreement.12

   That was the extent of the German dictator’s concessions, and though the wording of the final draft was somewhat softened, the changes, as Schuschnigg later testified, were inconsequential. Schuschnigg signed. It was Austria’s death warrant.

The behavior of men under duress differs according to their character and is often puzzling. That Schuschnigg, a veteran despite his comparative youth of the rough and tumble of politics which had seen his predecessor murdered by the Nazis, was a brave man few would doubt. Yet his capitulation to Hitler on February 11, 1938, under the terrible threat of armed attack has left a residue of unresolved doubts among his fellow countrymen and the observers and historians of this fateful period. Was surrender necessary? Was there no alternative? It would be a rash man who would argue that Britain and France, in view of their subsequent behavior in the face of Hitler’s aggressions, might have come to the aid of Austria had Hitler then and there marched in. But up to this moment Hitler had not yet broken across the German borders nor had he prepared his own people and the world for any such act of wanton aggression. The German Army itself was scarcely prepared for a war should France and Britain intervene. In a few weeks Austria, as a result of the Berchtesgaden “agreement,” would be softened up by the local Nazis and German machinations to a point where Hitler could take it with much less risk of foreign intervention than on February 11. Schuschnigg himself, as he later wrote, recognized that acceptance of Hitler’s terms meant “nothing else but the complete end of the independence of the Austrian government.”

Perhaps he was in a daze from his ordeal. After signing away his country’s independence at the point of a gun he indulged in a strange conversation with Hitler which he himself later recorded in his book. “Does the Herr Reichskanzler,” he asked, “believe that the various crises in the world today can be solved in a peaceful manner?” The Fuehrer answered fatuously that they could—“if my advice were followed.” Whereupon Schuschnigg said, apparently with no sign of sarcasm, “At the moment the state of the world looks rather promising, don’t you think?”13

Such an utterance at such a moment seems incredible, but that is what the beaten Austrian Chancellor says he said. Hitler had one more humiliation to administer to him. When Schuschnigg suggested that in the press release of their meeting mention be made that their discussion reaffirmed the July 1936 agreement, Hitler exclaimed, “Oh, no! First you have to fulfill the conditions of our agreement. This is what is going to the press: ‘Today the Fuehrer and Reichskanzler conferred with the Austrian Bundeskanzler at the Berghof.’ That’s all.”

Declining the Fuehrer’s invitation to stay for dinner, Schuschnigg and Schmidt drove down from the mountains to Salzburg. It was a gray and foggy winter night. The ubiquitous Papen accompanied them as far as the frontier and was somewhat uncomfortable in what he terms the “oppressive silence.” He could not refrain from trying to cheer his Austrian friends up.

“Well, now,” he exclaimed to them, “you have seen what the Fuehrer can be like at times! But the next time I am sure it will be different. You know, the Fuehrer can be absolutely charming.”*

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