What Was the German-Austrian Anschluss?: Austria Became Part of Nazi Germany from 1938-1945

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Soldiers of the Austrian Federal Army in Vienna, 12 February 1934.

The German takeover of Austria in 1938 was known as the Anschluss. Why did Germany do this, and what was Austrian public opinion with regard to the Anschluss at the time?

In March of 1938, after the annexation of Austria by Germany (known as the Anschluss), German officers marched into Austria. This change, which was more of an absorbing of Austria into Germany than an equal unification, lasted until the end of World War II in 1945.

Why Did Germany Take Over Austria?

Germany became a dictatorship in 1933, when Adolf Hitler became chancellor. Hitler openly defied the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which stated that Germany was not to acquire new territory or build up its military. Hitler, originally from Austria, saw the opportunity to take over Austria as beneficial to his plan of a German Reich (empire).

Did Austrians Support the Anschluss?

It would be nice to imagine a scene similar to the one in the classic Hollywood film, The Sound of Music, where Captain von Trapp starts singing “Edelweiss,” and Austrians, to the annoyance of the Nazi officers in the audience, join in. In reality, however, public opinion of the Anschluss was nowhere near that sort of opposition.

Austrians, in general, were very much in favor of Anschluss. They saw it as being economically advantageous (even vital) for the country. When the Germans marched into cities like Salzburg, the Austrians greeted them with open arms, waving Nazi flags and holding up pictures of Hitler.

Devastating Effects of the Anschluss

On November 9-10, 1938, Nazi forces known as the Sturmabteilung (SA) smashed windows of synagogues, shops and other businesses owned by Jews, and even homes. The SA burned synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the recently invaded Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.

This horrific pogrom was known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass. Deportations of Jews began, and many fled Austria during the winter of 1938-39. Concentration camps, including Mauthausen-Gusen, were built in Austria not long after the Anschluss, where many were worked to death and murdered until 1945.

Pockets of Resistance Prior to, During, and After the Anschluss

Though an overwhelming percentage of Austrians supported the Anschluss, there were some, particularly small groups of young Catholics, who did oppose it, or at the very least opposed the politics of the Nazi party. Some resistance did occur in Austria throughout the first years of the Anschluss up until the end of the Second World War, but there was never a single mass, highly organized movement.

References and Further Reading

For information about the Anschluss, including Hitler’s motivation behind it, see Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe (New York: Penguin, 2008). Volume Two of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler biography, Nemesis: 1936-1945 (New York: Norton, 2001) is also worth reading for this purpose.

An overview of the Anschluss, and of Austrian history from 1938-1945, can be found in Walter B. Maass’s Country without a Name: Austria Under Nazi Rule, 1938-1945 (New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1979), For an account of Kristallnacht, as well as the other atrocities the Nazis committed against Jews in Austria, see the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

The Anschluss may have brought about economic stability for the Austrians, who overwhelmingly supported merging with Germany. But it also led to a host of atrocities in Austria through the enaction of Nazi policies against Jews, communists, and others deemed to fall outside the Nazis’ radical racial and political ideas. It is not a proud event in Austrian history, but it is significant in that it helps show the dangers associated with ever letting something like Nazi Germany happen again.

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