Hitler Takes Austria

With Mussolini now his ally, Hitler put into play his plan to annex Austria. In 1936, he had tried to placate Mussolini, who was then Austria's protector, by signing an agreement recognizing the nation's sovereignty. In return, Hitler had forced Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg to declare his nation a German state and promise to share power with the national opposition. These provisions legitimized the Austrian Nazis who advocated reunification with Germany and laid the foundation for Hitler's takeover of the nation two years later.

The groundwork for the planned takeover began in February 1938 when Schuschnigg traveled to Berchtesgaden, Hitler's mountain retreat, to complain about a Nazi coup being planned against him. Hitler was far from sympathetic. With Schuschnigg on his turf, Hitler took the opportunity to browbeat him into signing a pledge to give moral, diplomatic, and press support to Germany; to stop prosecuting Nazi agitators; and to appoint a Naziaffiliated lawyer named Artur Seyss-Inquart as interior minister. A frightened Schuschnigg signed the demands. He quickly recovered after his return to Austria, however, and called for a plebiscite, or popular vote, to determine the people's wishes on Austrian independence. Then, Schuschnigg tried to exclude many Nazi sympathizers by limiting voting to those over the age of twenty-four.

Hitler became furious at Schuschnigg's attempts to prevent reunification. Hermann Goering, whom Hitler had ordered to handle the matter, demanded that the vote be postponed, and Schuschnigg agreed. Goering then demanded Schuschnigg's resignation, which he tendered. But when Goering demanded that Seyss-Inquart be made chancellor, Austrian president Wilhelm Milas refused. On March 12, Hitler ordered his troops into Austria. The occupation was met with little resistance because Schuschnigg urged the army to stand down. Despite his efforts to avert a military confrontation, Schuschnigg was arrested and spent seven years in prison.

Hitler followed his troops into Austria and was met with nearly nationwide adoration. As a result of Hitler's mesmerizing oratory, most Austrians had become convinced that reunification with Germany was the only way to reclaim their lost greatness. Unfortunately, it was also the end of any sort of democratic rule. With Hitler firmly in place as the nation's leader, anti-Nazi dissidents were brutally punished and Jews were sent into exile or to concentration camps.

Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass — refers to the attacks on Jews in Germany and German-controlled territories on November 9, 1938. Over the course of the night, SA and SS units burned more than 200 synagogues, destroyed nearly 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, and attacked any Jew they encountered. More than 200 Jews were killed, 600 were seriously injured, and approximately 30,000 were arrested.

These early years of German expansion also marked the beginnings of the “Final Solution,” Hitler's plan to eliminate as many Jews as humanly possible on the theory that they were to blame for the country's ills. Kristallnacht was followed by a host of other terrible nights and days and weeks and years for Jewish and other “undesirables” in Germany and the countries absorbed by the Third Reich. The Jewish people, especially, were systematically, efficiently, and ruthlessly singled out, transported, and murdered in unimaginable ways. Deportations led to incarcerations led to forced labor led to mass killings. All of this was hidden behind a veneer of political expansion and military threat. The lebensraum that Hitler so publicly pined for — and got, in the Sudetenland and in Austria — didn't include space for Jews.

Despite the obvious force used by Germany to take over Austria, both the United States and Great Britain accepted Hitler's conquest. Italy also accepted the situation, sending congratulations to Hitler. “Tell Mussolini I will never forget him for this,” Hitler told Il Duce's emissary. “Never, never, never, whatever happens.”

The Nazis then ordered another carefully orchestrated plebiscite on the issue of reunification. More than 99 percent of Austrians approved the takeover.

The conquest of Austria — and other nations' unwillingness to confront him on it — gave Hitler the confidence he needed to pursue his dream of world domination, which he saw as Germany's divine right. On August 22, 1939, he made a speech to the German High Command in which he outlined his plan for the swift and brutal invasion of Poland, a nation he had lulled into complacency with a meaningless nonaggression pact.

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