Anschluss is German, literally meaning ‘connection’ or ‘annexation’ – it is the word to describe the event of 12th March 1938, when Austria was incorporated into the German Reich, thus reuniting the ethnic Germans of Austria with the motherland. Ideologically, this was not a new proposal. Germany and Austria had been united in a loose confederation of German states until the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 resulted in the separation of Austria. In 1918, the newly created Republic of German Austria (after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire) attempted to join with Germany, but the allied powers retrospectively forbade this under the Treaties of Saint Germain and Versailles (both 1919).
In the run up to the Anschluss there had been several years of pressure from people in both Austria and Germany for a re-unification of the two nations, or Heim ins Reich movement. After Hitler was elected as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, support for unification grew immensely in Austria – the ruling Christian Social Party (CS) of Austria saw this, so proceeded to ban the NSDAP in Austria, imprisoning most of its senior figures. The state in Austria became increasingly authoritarian, banning all other political parties as a state of crisis ensued (Austrian Civil War 1934-38) – the result was what is now known as Austrofascism, which was an highly authoritarian regime based on Catholic traditions. Note, this regime was highly similar to Mussolini’s fascism and very different from German National Socialism.
In the years between the NSDAP coming to power in 1933 and the unification with Austria in 1938, Germany had been transformed from a bankrupt failed state to the economic powerhouse of Europe, with unemployment down to negligible levels and free trade of goods with other nations, circumventing the international banking cartel. Clearly, Austrians under the fascist dictatorship of the CS grew evermore frustrated that they could not join the Germans and enjoy the rewards of their new found success, so the agitation became ever greater – Austrian Nazis in exile committed various acts of terrorism against the Austrian state. Domestic agitation, along with the economic boycott imposed on the Austrian fascist regime by Germany, forced the CS to compromise. Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schushnigg, having put Austrian Nazis in internment camps the previous year, did in 1936 sign an agreement with Germany’s Franz von Papen for the halt of state repression of National Socialists, in return for the a guarantee on Austrian sovereignty.
However, the popular support for unification was still growing. It is highly likely that unification would have occurred democratically had the National Socialists not been banned in Austria, or committed terrorist acts. In the face of renewed economic pressure, Schushnigg had no choice but to listen to demands from Hitler regarding the status of Austria – the latter eventually went so far as to demand Schushnigg’s resignation and the appointment of Arthur Seyss-Inquart (prominent Austrian National Socialist) as Chancellor. Schushnigg, desperate to hold onto illegitimate power in Austria, refused to resign and instead arranged a referendum in March 1938 that he believed would settle the issue of Austrian sovereignty.
However, it became increasingly apparent that Schushnigg and his government were never going to allow a free and fair referendum – the voting age was set to 24 in order to exclude the young who were the most in favour of National Socialism, and other measures were put in place to further restrict the ability of every man and woman to have their say. It was also clear that the rhetoric of the Schushnigg government was designed to grossly manipulate the Austrian people. Schushnigg controlled the press and ensured the National Socialists were portrayed as a ‘Prussian-led’ conservative movement – in actual fact they were socialists, with the movement originating in Munich. The Austrian state’s policy was to remove the attraction of the Nazis, conflate unification with National Socialism, and prevent the people from making the ‘wrong’ choice.
The powers in Germany, however, had no intention of allowing the Austrian Chancellor to hold the referendum, in light of the underhand tactics being employed. On the morning of 12th March 1938, the German Wehrmacht 8th Army entered Austria. They were greeted with such enthusiasm by the Austrian public, it surprised even the military themselves. Adolf Hitler crossed into Austria later that afternoon at the border town of Braunau, his birthplace – he was greeted like the long lost son of Austria, returning home. The overwhelming reception actually had an impact in changing the fate of Austrian politics. Initially, the plan was for Austria to be semi-autonomous within the German Reich, but the state was instead politically incorporated into Germany.
Even though the Austrian referendum didn’t take place, a plebiscite was held after the Wehrmacht entered Austria in order to gauge popular opinion and legitimise the actions of Germany. The results appear somewhat suspicious, as 99.7% of voters voted in favour of German-Austrian unification and the party leader, Adolf Hitler. Historians all agree that the results were counted accurately, but it is questionable whether the plebiscite was free or fair, considering the heavy SS presence at ballot stations and the lack of secret ballots. No threats or punishments occurred as a result of ‘voting the wrong way’. The actual ballot itself is quite clearly intended to make the voter choose a certain option, but is this dissimilar to modern day referendums in supposed democracies?
Ever since the end of the second world war, this episode we know as the Anschluss has been referenced as the firs episode of Nazi aggression – or rather, Austria was considered the first victim of Nazi aggression, in the eyes of the victorious allies. Austria was not subjected to the same press controls and long-term occupation as Germany was, perhaps explaining why today the Austrian people are on the verge of electing a Freedom Party President in Norbert Hofer.
But this recollection of events is all wrong – as Churchill himself so arrogantly put it, history is written by the victors. And of course, it was. Today children are taught in schools that the evil Nazis ‘invaded’ democratic Austria and turned it into a fascist state. In actual fact, Austria had been in essence a fascist state since 1934, thanks to the Christian Social Party’s paranoia that National Socialism was growing in popularity in their country. Rather than accept the will of the people to elect a government of their choosing, they instead suppressed and controlled to get their own way. In some ways, the Wehrmacht marched into Austria as liberators and the destroyers of Austrofascism.
Some may argue, however, that one dictatorship replaced another, that Austria became a puppet state of National Socialist Germany. It is certainly true that the Anschluss brought more harm than good to Austria in the long run – a war that cost money and the lives of good men, occupation by internationalists and communists after the war, a history tainted with talk of genocide and destruction.
But, with all these things put aside, is it not the right of every ethnic group to fulfil self-determination? After all, Austrians are Germans by way of ethnicity, language and for the most part, culture. Yes, today Austria has a much stronger sense of her own identity, but many Austrians will still identify as German which is significant in itself – the internationalists will always manipulate the people to lose their historic sense of identity, but it can always be found once more if one knows where to look within themselves.