Military history

THE FOUR WEEKS’ AGONY: FEBRUARY 12–MARCH 11, 1938

Hitler had given Schuschnigg four days—until Tuesday, February 15—to send him a “binding reply” that he would carry out the ultimatum, and an additional three days—until February 18—to fulfill its specific terms. Schuschnigg returned to Vienna on the morning of February 12 and immediately sought out President Miklas. Wilhelm Miklas was a plodding, mediocre man of whom the Viennese said that his chief accomplishment in life had been to father a large brood of children. But there was in him a certain peasant solidity, and in this crisis at the end of fifty-two years as a state official he was to display more courage than any other Austrian. He was willing to make certain concessions to Hitler such as amnestying the Austrian Nazis, but he balked at putting Seyss-Inquart in charge of the police and the Army. Papen duly reported this to Berlin on the evening of February 14. He said Schuschnigg hoped “to overcome the resistance of the President by tomorrow.”

At 7:30 that same evening Hitler approved orders drawn up by General Keitel to put military pressure on Austria.

   Spread false, but quite credible news, which may lead to the conclusion of military preparations against Austria.14

   As a matter of fact, Schuschnigg had hardly departed from Berchtesgaden when the Fuehrer began shamming military action in order to see that the Austrian Chancellor did as he was told. Jodl jotted it all down in his diary.

   February 13. In the afternoon General K[eitel] asks Admiral C[anaris]* and myself to come to his apartment. He tells us that the Fuehrer’s order is that military pressure by shamming military action should be kept up until the 15th. Proposals for these measures are drafted and submitted to the Fuehrer by telephone for approval.

February 14. The effect is quick and strong. In Austria the impression is created that Germany is undertaking serious military preparations.15

General Jodl was not exaggerating. Before the threat of armed invasion President Miklas gave in and on the last day of grace, February 15, Schuschnigg formally advised Ambassador von Papen that the Berchtesgaden agreement would be carried out before February 18. On February 16 the Austrian government announced a general amnesty for Nazis, including those convicted in the murder of Dollfuss, and made public the reorganized cabinet, in which Arthur Seyss-Inquart was named Minister of Security. The next day this Nazi Minister hurried off to Berlin to see Hitler and receive his orders.

Seyss-Inquart, the first of the quislings, was a pleasant-mannered, intelligent young Viennese lawyer who since 1918 had been possessed with a burning desire to see Austria joined with Germany. This was a popular notion in the first years after the war. Indeed, on November 12, 1918, the day after the armistice, the Provisional National Assembly in Vienna, which had just overthrown the Hapsburg monarchy and proclaimed the Austrian Republic, had tried to effect an Anschluss by affirming that “German Austria is a component part of the German Republic.” The victorious Allies had not allowed it and by the time Hitler came to power in 1933 there was no doubt that the majority of Austrians were against their little country’s joining with Nazi Germany. But to Seyss-Inquart, as he said at his trial in Nuremberg, the Nazis stood unflinchingly for the Anschluss and for this reason he gave them his support. He did not join the party and took no part in its rowdy excesses. He played the role, rather, of a respectable front for the Austrian Nazis, and after the July 1936 agreement, when he was appointed State Councilor, he concentrated his efforts, aided by Papen and other German officials and agents, in burrowing from within. Strangely, both Schuschnigg and Miklas seem to have trusted him almost to the end. Later Miklas, a devout Catholic as was Schuschnigg, confessed that he was favorably impressed by the fact that Seyss was “a diligent churchgoer.” The man’s Catholicism and also the circumstance that he, like Schuschnigg, had served in a Tyrolean Kaiserjaeger regiment during the First World War, in which he was severely wounded, seems to have been the basis of the trust which the Austrian Chancellor had for him. Schuschnigg, unfortunately, had a fatal inability to judge a man on more substantial grounds. Perhaps he thought he could keep his new Nazi Minister in line by simple bribes. He himself tells in his book of the magic effect of $500 on Seyss-Inquart a year before when he threatened to resign as State Councilor and then reconsidered on the receipt of this paltry sum. But Hitler had the bigger prizes to dazzle before the ambitious young lawyer, as Schuschnigg was soon to learn.

   On February 20 Hitler made his long-expected speech to the Reichstag, which had been postponed from January 30 because of the Blomberg–Fritsch crisis and his own machinations against Austria. Though he spoke warmly of Schuschnigg’s “understanding” and of his “warmhearted willingness” to bring about a closer understanding between Austria and Germany—a piece of humbug which impressed Prime Minister Chamberlain—the Fuehrer issued a warning which, however much lost on London, did not fall upon deaf ears in Vienna—and in Prague.

Over ten million Germans live in two of the states adjoining our frontiers … There must be no doubt about one thing. Political separation from the Reich may not lead to deprivation of rights—that is, the general rights of self-determination. It is unbearable for a world power to know there are racial comrades at its side who are constantly being afflicted with the severest suffering for their sympathy or unity with the whole nation, its destiny and its Weltanschauung. To the interests of the German Reich belong the protection of those German peoples who are not in a position to secure along our frontiers their political and spiritual freedom by their own efforts.16

That was blunt, public notice that henceforth Hitler regarded the future of the seven million Austrians and the three million Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia as the affair of the Third Reich.

Schuschnigg answered Hitler four days later—on February 24—in a speech to the Austrian Bundestag, whose members, like those of the German Reichstag, were hand-picked by a one-party dictatorial regime. Though conciliatory toward Germany, Schuschnigg emphasized that Austria had gone to the very limit of concessions “where we must call a halt and say: ‘Thus far and no further.’” Austria, he said, would never voluntarily give up its independence, and he ended with a stirring call: “Red-White-Red [the Austrian national colors] until we’re dead!” (The expression also rhymes in German.)

“The twenty-fourth of February,” Schuschnigg wrote after the war, “was for me the crucial date.” He awaited anxiously the Fuehrer’s reaction to his defiant speech. Papen telegraphed to Berlin the next day advising the Foreign Office that the speech should not be taken too seriously. Schuschnigg, he said, had expressed his rather strong nationalist feelings in order to retrieve his domestic position; there were plots in Vienna to overthrow him because of his concessions at Berchtesgaden. In the meantime, Papen informed Berlin, “the work of Seyss-Inquart … is proceeding according to plan.”17 The next day Papen, his long years of devious work in Austria nearing fruition, took formal leave of the Austrian Chancellor and set off for Kitzbuehl to do some skiing.

Hitler’s speech of February 20, which had been broadcast by the Austrian radio network, had set off a series of massive Nazi demonstrations throughout Austria. On February 24, during the broadcast of Schuschnigg’s reply, a wild mob of twenty thousand Nazis in Graz had invaded the town square, torn down the loudspeakers, hauled down the Austrian flag and raised the swastika banner of Germany. With Seyss-Inquart in personal command of the police, no effort was made to curb the Nazi outbreaks. Schuschnigg’s government was breaking down. Not only political but economic chaos was setting in. There were large withdrawals of accounts from the banks both from abroad and by the local people. Cancellation of orders from uneasy foreign firms poured into Vienna. The foreign tourists, one of the main props of the Austrian economy, were being frightened away. Toscanini cabled from New York that he was canceling his appearance at the Salzburg Festival, which drew tens of thousands of tourists each summer, “because of political developments in Austria.” The situation was becoming so desperate that Otto of Hapsburg, the exiled youthful pretender to the throne, sent a letter from his home in Belgium and, as Schuschnigg later revealed, implored him on his old oath of allegiance as a former officer of the Imperial Army to appoint him as Chancellor if he thought such a step might save Austria.

In his desperation Schuschnigg turned to the Austrian workers whose free trade unions and political party, the Social Democrats, he had kept suppressed after Dollfuss had brutally smashed them in 1934. These people had represented 42 per cent of the Austrian electorate, and if at any time during the past four years the Chancellor had been able to see beyond the narrow horizons of his own clerical-fascist dictatorship and had enlisted their support for a moderate, anti-Nazi democratic coalition the Nazis, a relatively small minority, could have been easily handled. But Schuschnigg had lacked the stature to take such a step. A decent, upright man as a human being, he had become possessed, as had certain others in Europe, with a contempt for Western democracy and a passion for authoritarian one-party rule.

Out of the factories and the prisons, from which many of them recently had been released along with the Nazis, the Social Democrats came in a body on March 4 to respond to the Chancellor’s call. Despite all that had happened they said they were ready to help the government defend the nation’s independence. All they asked was what the Chancellor had already conceded to the Nazis: the right to have their own political party and preach their own principles. Schuschnigg agreed, but it was too late.

On March 3 the always well-informed General Jodl noted in his diary: “The Austrian question is becoming critical. 100 officers shall be dispatched here. The Fuehrer wants to see them personally. They should not see to it that the Austrian armed forces will fight better against us, but rather that they do not fight at all.”

At this crucial moment, Schuschnigg decided to make one more final, desperate move which he had been mulling over in his mind since the last days of February when the Nazis began to take over in the provinces. He would hold a plebiscite. He would ask the Austrian people whether they were for a “free, independent, social, Christian and united Austria—Ja oder Nein?*

I felt that the moment for a clear decision had come [he wrote later]. It seemed irresponsible to wait with fettered hands until, in the course of some weeks, we should be gagged as well. The gamble now was for stakes which demanded the ultimate and supreme effort.19

Shortly after his return from Berchtesgaden, Schuschnigg had apprised Mussolini, Austria’s protector, of Hitler’s threats and had received an immediate reply from the Duce that Italy’s position on Austria remained unchanged. Now on March 7 he sent his military attaché in Rome to Mussolini to inform him that in view of events he “was probably going to have to resort to a plebiscite.” The Italian dictator answered that it was a mistake—“Cè un errore!” He advised Schuschnigg to hold to his previous course. Things were improving; an impending relaxation of relations between Rome and London would do much to ease the pressure. It was the last Schuschnigg ever heard from Mussolini.

On the evening of March 9, Schuschnigg announced in a speech at Innsbruck that a plebiscite would be held in four days—on Sunday, March 13. The unexpected news sent Adolf Hitler into a fit of fury. Jodl’s diary entry of March 10 described the initial reaction in Berlin:

By surprise and without consulting his Ministers, Schuschnigg ordered a plebiscite for Sunday, March 13 …

Fuehrer is determined not to tolerate it. The same night, March 9 to 10, he calls for Goering. General v. Reichenau is called back from Cairo Olympic Committee. General v. Schobert [commander of the Munich Military District on the Austrian border] is ordered to come, as well as [Austrian] Minister Glaise-Horstenau, who is … in the Palatinate … Ribbentrop is being detained in London. Neurath takes over the Foreign Office.20

The next day, Thursday, March 10, there was a great bustle in Berlin. Hitler had decided on a military occupation of Austria and there is no doubt that his generals were taken by surprise. If Schuschnigg’s plebiscite on Sunday were to be prevented by force the Army would have to move into Austria by Saturday, and there were no plans for such a hasty move. Hitler summoned Keitel for 10 A.M., but before hurrying to the Fuehrer the General conferred with Jodl and General Max von Viebahn, chief of the Fuehrungsstab (Operations Staff) of OKW. The resourceful Jodl remembered Special Case Otto which had been drawn up to counter an attempt to place Otto of Hapsburg on the Austrian throne. Since it was the only plan that existed for military action against Austria, Hitler decided it would have to do. “Prepare Case Otto,” he ordered.

Keitel raced back to OKW headquarters in the Bendlerstrasse to confer with General Beck, Chief of the General Staff. When he asked for details of the Otto plan, Beck replied, “We have prepared nothing, nothing has been done, nothing at all.” Beck in turn was summoned to the Reich Chancellery. Seizing General von Manstein, who was about to leave Berlin to take up a divisional post, he drove with him over to see Hitler, who told them the Army must be ready to march into Austria by Saturday. Neither of the generals offered any objection to this proposal for armed aggression. They were merely concerned with the difficulty of improvising military action on such short notice. Manstein, returning to the Bendlerstrasse, set to work to draft the necessary orders, finishing his task within five hours, at 6 P.M. At 6:30 P.M., according to Jodl’s diary, mobilization orders went out to three Army corps and the Air Force. At 2 A.M. the next morning, March 11, Hitler issued Directive Number One for Operation Otto. Such was his haste that he neglected to sign it, and his signature was not obtained until 1 P.M.

TOP SECRET

1.     If other measures prove unsuccessful, I intend to invade Austria with armed forces to establish constitutional conditions and to prevent further outrages against the pro-German population.

2.     The whole operation will be directed by myself….

3.     The forces of the Army and Air Force detailed for this operation must be ready for invasion on March 12, 1938, at the latest by 12:00 hours …

4.     The behavior of the troops must give the impression that we do not want to wage war against our Austrian brothers…. Therefore any provocation is to be avoided. If, however, resistance is offered it must be broken ruthlessly by force of arms…. 21

A few hours later Jodl issued supplemental “top-secret” orders on behalf of the Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces:

1.     If Czechoslovakian troops or militia units are encountered in Austria, they are to be regarded as hostile.

2.     The Italians are everywhere to be treated as friends, especially as Mussolini has declared himself disinterested in the solution of the Austrian question.22

   Hitler had been worried about Mussolini. On the afternoon of March 10, as soon as he had decided on military invasion, he had sent off by special plane Prince Philip of Hesse, with a letter to the Duce (dated March 11) informing him of the action he contemplated and asking for the Italian dictator’s understanding. The letter, a tissue of lies concerning his treatment of Schuschnigg and conditions in Austria, which he assured the Duce were “approaching a state of anarchy,” began with such a fraudulent argument that Hitler had it omitted when the letter was later published in Germany.* He stated that Austria and Czechoslovakia were plotting to restore the Hapsburgs and preparing “to throw the weight of a mass of at least twenty million men against Germany.” He then outlined his demands to Schuschnigg, which, he assured Mussolini, “were more than moderate,” told of Schuschnigg’s failure to carry them out and spoke of the “mockery” of “a so-called plebiscite.”

   In my responsibility as Fuehrer and Chancellor of the German Reich and likewise as a son of this soil, I can no longer remain passive in the face of these developments.

I am now determined to restore law and order in my homeland and enable the people to decide their own fate according to their judgment in an unmistakable, clear and open manner….

Whatever the manner may be in which this plebiscite is to be carried out, I now wish solemnly to assure Your Excellency, as the Duce of Fascist Italy:

1.     Consider this step only as one of national self-defense and therefore as an act that any man of character would do in the same way, were he in my position. You too, Excellency, could not act differently if the fate of Italians were at stake….

2.     In a critical hour for Italy I proved to you the steadfastness of my sympathy. Do not doubt that in the future there will be no change in this respect.

3.     Whatever the consequences of the coming events may be, I have drawn a definite boundary between Germany and France and now draw one just as definite between Italy and us. It is the Brenner … *

Always in friendship, Yours, ADOLF HITLER23

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