AskDefine | Define anschluss

Extensive Definition

The Anschluss ( German: connection), also known as the Anschluss Österreichs, was the 1938 annexation of Austria into Greater Germany by the Nazi regime.
The events of March 12, 1938, marked the culmination of historical cross-national pressures to unify the German populations of Austria and Germany under one nation. However, the 1938 Anschluss, regardless of its popularity, was enacted by Germany. Earlier, Nazi Germany had provided support for the Austrian National Socialist Party (Austrian Nazi Party) in its bid to seize power from Austria's Austrofascist leadership. Fully devoted to remaining independent but amidst growing pressures, the chancellor of Austria, Kurt Schuschnigg, tried to hold a plebiscite.
Although he expected Austria to vote in favour of maintaining autonomy, a well-planned internal overthrow by the Austrian Nazi Party of Austria's state institutions in Vienna took place on March 11, prior to the vote. With power quickly transferred over to Germany, Wehrmacht troops entered Austria to enforce the Anschluss. The Nazis held a plebiscite within the following month, where they received 99.73% of the vote. No fighting ever took place and the strongest voices against the annexation, particularly Fascist Italy, France and the United Kingdom (the "Stresa Front"), were powerless or, in the case of Italy, appeased. The Allies were, on paper, committed to upholding the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which specifically prohibited the union of Austria and Germany.
Nevertheless, the Anschluss was among the first major steps in Adolf Hitler's long-desired creation of an empire including German-speaking lands and territories Germany had lost after World War I. Already prior to the 1938 annexation, the Rhineland was retaken and the Saar region was returned to Germany after fifteen years of occupation. After the Anschluss, the predominantly German Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia was taken, with the rest of the country becoming a protectorate to Germany in 1939. That same year, Memelland was returned from Lithuania, the final peaceful territorial aggrandizement before the start of World War II.
Austria ceased to exist as a fully independent nation until late 1945. A Provisional Austrian Government was set up on April 27, 1945 and was legally recognized by the Allies in the following months, but it was not until 1955 that Austria regained full sovereignty.

Situation before the Anschluss

Main articles: German Empire and Austrofascism
The idea of grouping all Germans into one state had been the subject of inconclusive debate since the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Before 1866, it was generally thought that the unification of the Germans could only succeed under Austrian leadership, but the rise of Prussia was largely unpredicted. This created a rivalry between the two that made unification through a Großdeutschland solution impossible. Also, due to the multi-ethnic composition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire centralized in Vienna, many rejected this notion and it was unthinkable that Austria would give up her "non-German" territories, let alone submit to Prussia. Nevertheless, a series of wars, including the Austro-Prussian War, led to the expulsion of Austria from German affairs, allowed for the creation of the North German Confederation and consolidated the German states through Prussia, enabling the creation of a German Empire in 1871. Otto von Bismarck played a fundamental role in this process, with the end result representing a Kleindeutsche solution that did not include the German-speaking parts of Austria-Hungary. The Emperor in Vienna did not want to become a member of Bismarck's Second Reich, because he would have been forced to be an Emperor of "second class" compared with the Emperor in Berlin. When Austria-Hungary broke up in 1918, many German-speaking Austrians hoped to join with Germany in the realignment of Europe, but the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and the Treaty of Saint-Germain of 1919 explicitly vetoed the inclusion of Austria within a German state, because France and the UK feared the power of a larger Germany, and had already begun to disempower the current one. Also Austrian particularism, especially among the nobility, played a huge role, as Austria was Roman Catholic, while Germany was dominated, especially in government, more by Protestants. Both constitutions, that of Weimar Republic and that of the First Austrian Republic, included the political aim of unification and this aim was widely supported also by democratic parties. In the early 1930s, popular support for union with Germany remained overwhelming, and the Austrian government looked to a possible customs union with Germany in 1931.

The Anschluss of 1938

Hitler's first moves

In early 1938, Hitler had consolidated his power in Germany and was ready to reach out to fulfill his long-planned expansion. After a lengthy period of pressure by Germany, Hitler met Kurt Schuschnigg, the Chancellor of Austria on 12 February 1938 in Berchtesgaden (Bavaria) and instructed him to lift the ban on political parties, reinstate full party freedoms, release all imprisoned members of the Nazi party and let them participate in the government. Otherwise, he would take military action. Schuschnigg complied with Hitler's demands and appointed Arthur Seyss-Inquart, a pro-Nazi lawyer, as Interior Minister and another Nazi, Edmund Glaise-Horstenau, as a Minister without Portfolio.
Before the February meeting, Schuschnigg was already under considerable pressure from Germany. This may be seen in the demand to remove the chief of staff of the Austrian Army, Alfred Jansa, from his position in January 1938. Jansa and his staff had developed a scenario for Austria's defense against a German attack, a situation Hitler wanted to avoid at all costs. Schuschnigg subsequently complied with the demand.
During the following weeks, Schuschnigg realized that his newly appointed ministers were working to take over his authority. Schuschnigg tried to gather support throughout Austria and inflame patriotism among the people. For the first time since 12 February 1934 (the time of the Austrian Civil War), socialists and communists could legally appear in public again. The communists announced their unconditional support for the Austrian government, understandable in light of Nazi pressure on Austria. The socialists demanded further concessions from Schuschnigg before they were willing to side with him.

Schuschnigg announces a referendum

On 9 March, as a last resort to preserve Austria's independence, Schuschnigg scheduled a plebiscite on the independence of Austria for 13 March. To secure a large majority in the referendum, Schuschnigg set the minimum voting age at 24 in order to exclude younger voters who largely sympathized with Nazi ideology. Holding a referendum was a highly risky gamble for Schuschnigg, and, on the next day, it became apparent that Hitler would not simply stand by while Austria declared its independence by public vote. Hitler declared that the plebiscite would be subject to major fraud and that Germany would not accept it. In addition, the German Ministry of Propaganda issued press reports that riots had broken out in Austria and that large parts of the Austrian population were calling for German troops to restore order. Schuschnigg immediately responded publicly that reports of riots were false.
Hitler sent an ultimatum to Schuschnigg on 11 March, demanding that he hand over all power to the Austrian National Socialists or face an invasion. The ultimatum was set to expire at noon, but was extended by two hours. However, without waiting for an answer, Hitler had already signed the order to send troops into Austria at one o'clock, issuing it to Hermann Göring only hours later.
Schuschnigg desperately sought support for Austrian independence in the hours following the ultimatum, but, realizing that neither France nor the United Kingdom was willing to take steps, he resigned as Chancellor that evening. In the radio broadcast in which he announced his resignation, he argued that he accepted the changes and allowed the Nazis to take over the government in order to avoid bloodshed. Meanwhile, Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas refused to appoint Seyss-Inquart Chancellor and asked other Austrian politicians such as Michael Skubl and Sigismund Schilhawsky to assume the office. However, the Nazis were well organised. Within hours they managed to take control of many parts of Vienna, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs (controlling the Police). As Miklas continued to refuse to appoint a Nazi government and Seyss-Inquart still could not send a telegram in the name of the Austrian government demanding German troops to restore order, Hitler became furious. At about 10 PM, well after Hitler had signed and issued the order for the invasion, Göring and Hitler gave up on waiting and published a forged telegram containing a request by the Austrian Government for German troops to enter Austria. Around midnight, after nearly all critical offices and buildings had fallen into Nazi hands in Vienna and the main political party members of the old government had been arrested, Miklas finally conceded to appoint Seyss-Inquart Chancellor. Hitler later commented: "Certain foreign newspapers have said that we fell on Austria with brutal methods. I can only say: even in death they cannot stop lying. I have in the course of my political struggle won much love from my people, but when I crossed the former frontier (into Austria) there met me such a stream of love as I have never experienced. Not as tyrants have we come, but as liberators."
The Anschluss was given immediate effect by legislative act on 13 March, subject to ratification by a plebiscite. Austria became the province of Ostmark, and Seyss-Inquart was appointed Governor. The plebiscite was held on 10 April and officially recorded a support of 99.73% of the voters. Hitler's brutal methods to emasculate any opposition were immediately implemented in the weeks preceding the referendum. Even before the first German soldier crossed the border, Heinrich Himmler and a few SS officers landed in Vienna to arrest prominent representatives of the First Republic such as Richard Schmitz, Leopold Figl, Friedrich Hillegeist and Franz Olah. During the few short weeks between the Anschluss and the plebiscite, Social Democrats, Communists, and other potential political dissenters, as well as Jews, were rounded up and either imprisoned or sent to concentration camps. Within only a few days of 12 March, 70,000 people had been arrested. The referendum itself was subject to large-scale propaganda and to the abrogation of the voting rights of around 400,000 people (nearly 10% of the eligible voting population), mainly former members of left-wing parties and Jews.
The moderate reaction to the Anschluss was the first major consequence of the strictly followed appeasement British foreign policy strategy. The international reaction to the events of March 12, 1938 led Hitler to conclude that he could use even more aggressive tactics in his roadmap to expand the Third Reich, as he would later in annexing the Sudetenland. The relatively bloodless Anschluss helped pave the way for the Treaty of Munich in September 1938 and the annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, because it reinforced appeasement as the right way for Britain to deal with Hitler's Germany.

Legacy of the 1938 Anschluss

The Anschluss: annexation or union?

The word "Anschluss" outside the context of March 1938 is properly translated as "joinder", "connection", "unification" or "political union". In contrast the German word "Annektierung" that would mean military annexation unambiguously was and is not commonly used in this context. The usage of the term "Anschluss" has been widespread before and in 1938 describing an incorporation of Austria into Germany. Calling the incorporation of Austria into Nazi Germany an "Anschluss", that is a unification or joinder, was however also part of the propaganda used in 1938 by Hitler and the Nazis to create the impression the events of March 1938 were not backed and enforced by military pressure. Hitler himself stressed the meaning of the events numerous times following the "Anschluss" and described the incorporation of Austria as the return of it to its original home (Heimkehr). The word Anschluss endured the years of the Second World War and the years thereafter, letting the term, despite its non-correlating to the actual events and propaganda usage in 1938 stand for the events that took place.
Some historical sources, for instance, Encyclopædia Britannica, describe the Anschluss as an "annexation" rather than a union. From a factual view of the events that were mainly driven by the German military power and political pressure within Austria and from the outside the term annexation is the closer description than the term "Anschluss". It however omits to present the differences between the "Anschluss" and other annexations of Nazi Germany backed by force, i.e. large parts of the Austrian population either supported or were indifferent to the incorporation of Austria into the Third Reich.

The appeal of Nazism to Austrians

The Anschluss can be misunderstood as merely a military annexation. This invites confusion with other German military occupations of European countries. Adolf Hitler himself was an Austrian. Despite the subversion by Hitler's sympathisers, Austrian acceptance of direct government by Hitler's Germany was a different phenomenon from the administration of other collaborationist countries.

The Second Republic

The Moscow Declaration

The Moscow Declaration of 1943, signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom included a "Declaration on Austria," which stated the following:
The governments of the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States of America are agreed that Austria, the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression, shall be liberated from German domination.
They regard the annexation imposed on Austria by Germany on 15 March 1938, as null and void. They consider themselves as in no way bound by any charges effected in Austria since that date. They declare that they wish to see re-established a free and independent Austria and thereby to open the way for the Austrian people themselves, as well as those neighbouring States which will be faced with similar problems, to find that political and economic security which is the only basis for lasting peace.
Austria is reminded, however, that she has a responsibility, which she cannot evade, for participation in the war at the side of Hitlerite Germany, and that in the final settlement account will inevitably be taken of her own contribution to her liberation.
To judge from the last paragraph and subsequent determinations at the Nuremberg Trial, the Declaration was intended to serve as propaganda aimed at stirring Austrian resistance (although there are Austrians counted as Righteous Among the Nations, there never was an effective Austrian armed resistance of the sort found in other countries under German occupation) more than anything else, although the exact text of the declaration is said to have a somewhat complex drafting history. At Nuremberg Arthur Seyss-Inquart and Franz von Papen, in particular, were both indicted under count one (conspiracy to commit crimes against peace) specifically for their activities in support of the Austrian Nazi Party and the Anschluss, but neither was convicted of this count. In acquitting von Papen, the court noted that his actions were in its view political immoralities but not crimes under its charter. Seyss-Inquart was convicted of other serious war crimes, most of which took place in Poland and the Netherlands, was sentenced to death and executed.

Austrian identity and the "victim theory"

After World War II, many Austrians sought comfort in the idea of Austria as "the Nazis' first victim". Although the Nazi party was promptly banned, Austria did not have the same thorough process of de-Nazification at the top of government which was imposed on Germany for a time. Lacking outside pressure for political reform, factions of Austrian society tried for a long time to advance the view that the Anschluss was only an annexation at the point of a bayonet.
This view of the events of 1938 has deep roots in the ten years of Allied occupation and the struggle to regain Austrian sovereignty: The victim theory played an essential role in the negotiations on the Austrian State Treaty with the Soviets, and by pointing to the Moscow Declaration, Austrian politicians heavily relied on it to achieve a solution for Austria different from the Germany's division into East and West. The State Treaty, alongside with the subsequent Austrian declaration of permanent neutrality, marked important milestones for the solidification of Austria's independent national identity during the course of following decades.
As Austrian politicians of the Left and Right attempted to reconcile their differences in order to avoid the violent conflict that had dominated the First Republic, discussions of both Austrian-Nazism and Austria's role during the Nazi-era were largely avoided. Still, the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) had advanced, and still advances, the argument that the establishment of the Dollfuss dictatorship was necessary in order to maintain Austrian independence; while the Austrian Social Democratic Party, (SPÖ), argues that the Dollfuss dictatorship stripped the country of the democratic resources necessary to repel Hitler; yet it ignores that Hitler himself was indigenous to Austria.

Political events

For decades, the victim theory established in the Austrian mind remained largely undisputed. The Austrian public was only rarely forced to confront the legacy of the Third Reich (most notably during the events of 1965 concerning Taras Borodajkewycz, a professor of economic history notorious for anti-Semitic remarks, when Ernst Kirchweger, a concentration camp survivor, was killed by a right-wing protester during riots). It was not until the 1980s that Austrians were finally massively confronted with their past. The main catalyst for the start of a Vergangenheitsbewältigung was the so-called Waldheim affair. The Austrian reply to allegations during the 1986 Presidential election campaign that successful candidate and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim had been a member of the Nazi party and of the infamous SA (he was later absolved of direct involvement in war crimes) was that scrutiny was an unwelcome intervention in the country's internal affairs. Despite the politicians' reactions to international criticism of Waldheim, the Waldheim affair started the first serious major discussion on Austria's past and the Anschluss.
Another main factor for Austria and its coming to terms with the past emerged in the 1980s: Jörg Haider and the rise of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). The party had combined elements of the pan-German right with free-market liberalism since its foundation in 1955, but after Haider had ascended to the party chairmanship in 1986, the liberal elements became increasingly marginalized while Haider began to openly use nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. He was often criticised for tactics such as the völkisch (ethnic) definition of national interest ("Austria for Austrians") and his apologism for Austria's past, notably calling members of the Waffen-SS "men of honour". Following an enormous electoral rise in the 1990s peaking in the 1999 elections, the FPÖ, now purged of its liberal elements, entered a coalition with the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) led by Wolfgang Schüssel that met international condemnation in 2000. This coalition triggered the regular Donnerstagsdemonstrationen (Thursday demonstrations) in protest against the government, which took place on the Heldenplatz, where Hitler had greeted the masses during the Anschluss. Haider's tactics and rhetoric, which were often criticised as sympathetic to Nazism, again forced Austrians to reconsider their relationship to the past.
But Haider is not alone in making controversial remarks about Austria's past: Haider's coalition partner, former Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, in a 2000 interview with the Jerusalem Post stated that Austria was the first victim of Hitler-Germany.


Tearing into the simplism of the victim theory and the time of the Austrofascism, Thomas Bernhard's last play, Heldenplatz, was highly controversial even before it appeared on stage in 1988, fifty years after Hitler's visit. Bernhard's achievement was to make the elimination of references to Hitler's reception in Vienna emblematic of Austrian attempts to claim their history and culture under questionable criteria. Many politicians from all political factions called Bernhard a Nestbeschmutzer (so. damaging the reputation of his country) and openly demanded that the play should not be staged in Vienna's Burgtheater. Kurt Waldheim, who was at that time still Austrian president called the play a crude insult to the Austrian people.

The Historical Commission and outstanding legal issues

In the context of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany, one encounters a Vergangenheitsbewältigung ("struggle to come to terms with the past") that has been partially institutionalised, variably in literary, cultural, political, and educational contexts (its development and difficulties have not been trivial; see, for example, the Historikerstreit). Austria formed a Historikerkommission ("Historian's Commission" or "Historical Commission") in 1998 with a mandate to review Austria's role in the Nazi expropriation of Jewish property from a scholarly rather than legal perspective, partly in response to continuing criticism of its handling of property claims. Its membership was based on recommendations from various quarters, including Simon Wiesenthal and Yad Vashem. The Commission delivered its report in 2003. Noted Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg refused to participate in the Commission and in an interview stated his strenuous objections in terms both personal and in reference to larger questions about Austrian culpability and liability, comparing what he to be relative inattention to the settlement governing the Swiss bank holdings of those who died or were displaced by the Holocaust:
I personally would like to know why the WJC World Jewish Congress has hardly put any pressure on Austria, even as leading Nazis and SS leaders were Austrians, Hitler included... Immediately after the war, the US wanted to make the Russians withdraw from Austria, and the Russians wanted to keep Austria neutral, therefore there was a common interest to grant Austria victim status. And later Austria could cry poor - though its per capita income is as high as Germany's. And, most importantly, the Austrian PR machinery works better. Austria has the opera ball, the imperial castle, Mozartkugeln [a chocolate]. Americans like that. And Austrians invest and export relatively little to the US, therefore they are less vulnerable to blackmail. In the meantime, they set up a commission in Austria to clarify what happened to Jewish property. Victor Klima, the former chancellor, has asked me to join. My father fought for Austria in the First World War and in 1939 he was kicked out of Austria. After the war they offered him ten dollars per month as compensation. For this reason I told Klima, no thank you, this makes me sick.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center continues to criticise Austria (as recently as June 2005) for its alleged historical and ongoing unwillingness aggressively to pursue investigations and trials against Nazis for war crimes and crimes against humanity from the 1970s onwards. Its 2001 report offered the following characterization:
Given the extensive participation of numerous Austrians, including at the highest levels, in the implementation of the Final Solution and other Nazi crimes, Austria should have been a leader in the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators over the course of the past four decades, as has been the case in Germany. Unfortunately relatively little has been achieved by the Austrian authorities in this regard and in fact, with the exception of the case of Dr. Heinrich Gross which was suspended this year under highly suspicious circumstances (he claimed to be medically unfit, but outside the court proved to be healthy) not a single Nazi war crimes prosecution has been conducted in Austria since the mid-1970s.
In 2003, the Center launched a worldwide effort named "Operation: Last Chance" in order to collect further information about those Nazis still alive that are potentially subject to prosecution. Although reports issued shortly thereafter credited Austria for initiating large-scale investigations, there has been one case where criticism of Austrian authorities arose recently: The Center has put 92-year old Croatian Milivoj Asner on its 2005 top ten list. Asner fled to Austria in 2004 after Croatia announced it would start investigations in the case of war crimes he may have been involved in. In response to objections about Asner's continued freedom, Austria's federal government has deferred to either extradition requests from Croatia or prosecutorial actions from Klagenfurt, neither of which appears forthcoming (as of June 2005). Extradition is not an option since Asner also holds Austrian citizenship, having lived in the country from 1946 to 1991.

See also


Additional reading


  • Bukey, Evan Burr (1986). Hitler's Hometown: Linz, Austria, 1908–1945. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-32833-0.
  • Parkinson, F. (ed.) (1989). Conquering the Past: Austrian Nazism Yesterday and Today. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-2054-6.
  • Pauley, Bruce F. (1981). Hitler and the Forgotten Nazis: A History of Austrian National Socialism University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-1456-3 .
  • Scheuch, Manfred (2005). Der Weg zum Heldenplatz: eine Geschichte der österreichischen Diktatur. 1933–1938. ISBN 3-8258-7712-4.
  • Schuschnigg, Kurt (1971). The brutal takeover: The Austrian ex-Chancellor's account of the Anschluss of Austria by Hitler. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-00321-6.
  • Stuckel, Eva-Maria (2001). Österreich, Monarchie, Operette, und Anschluss: Antisemtismus, Faschismus, und Nationalsozialismus im Fadenkreuz von Ingeborg Bachman und Elias Canetti.

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