by Walter R. Roberts
At a conference in Washington, several months ago, the Austrian ambassador to the United States mentioned that Mexico was the only country that formally protested the March 11, 1938 incorporation of Austria into Nazi-Germany. He was right and it reminded me of that fateful day when I lived in Vienna. Mexico’s demarche also prompted me to think about the responses of other countries to the takeover and of the actions of the Austrian and German governments.
Mexico submitted its protest to the League of Nations in Geneva on March 19, 1938. The League of Nations records show that no other country acted. On June 11, 1938, Chile expressed its regret that Austria had disappeared as a member of the League of Nations and the representative of the Spanish Republican government at the League accused Nazi Germany on the same day, stating that “they have devoured Austria; they are trying to reduce Spain to ashes; they menace the very existence of Czechoslovakia.” On September 21, 1938, six months after the annexation, the League of Nations revealed that in March the Soviet Union had unsuccessfully attempted to rally Britain and France to join the USSR to prevent Austria’s demise.
Indeed, Britain and France stood idly by as Austria was incorporated into Nazi Germany on March 11, 1938. Telegrams sent to the Department of State by the American embassies in London, Paris and Berlin show that France (which was at that time between governments) attempted to persuade Britain to act but gave up when London exhibited no interest. Britain had a Conservative government with Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister and Lord Halifax as the newly appointed Foreign Secretary (Anthony Eden had resigned as Foreign Secretary a couple of weeks earlier for reasons not connected with the Austrian question). When a member of the Labor Party inquired in the House of Commons a day before the annexation whether His Majesty’s government intended to make a statement about the Austrian situation, Prime Minister Chamberlain replied with two words: “No, Sir.”
Benito Mussolini who was Austria’s protector after Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933 and was influential in advising the Austrian government to adopt a fascist regime as early as 1933, turned his back on Austria in 1938. Italy was involved in a war with Abyssinia and found itself challenged by Britain and France. The last thing Italy needed was opposing Germany. On the contrary, Italy did everything to endear itself to the Nazi government in Berlin. When the Austrian Chancellor, Dr. Kurt Schuschnigg, attempted to reach Rome by telephone on that fateful March 11, 1938, nobody in Rome, most certainly not Mussolini, answered the call.
As to the position of the United States: there was no official reaction until March 19 – eight days after Germany’s annexation of Austria. At a press conference, Secretary of State Cordell Hull said: “ The extent to which the Austrian incident” – he called it an incident – “is calculated to endanger the maintenance of peace…is of course a matter of serious concern to the Government of the United States.”
Two days earlier, on March 17, the Minister of Austria in Washington informed the Department of State that Austria had ceased to exist; that his Legation had been abolished and that its affairs had been taken over by the Embassy of Germany. On March 21, the Department of State informed the German ambassador in Washington that the US Government “finds itself under the necessity as a practical measure of closing its Legation in Vienna, and of establishing a Consulate General.”
This is how I remember March 11, 19381:
It was a Friday. I studied law at Vienna University. On that afternoon, I walked with one of my professors from the university along the Ringstrasse to the Opera where the professor was to board a streetcar that would take him to his home in one of Vienna’s suburbs.
Just when we passed Parliament, the professor said: “I have a feeling that something is terribly wrong. There is tension in the air.” The professor took the streetcar home and I went to pick up my girlfriend (my future wife) from work. We went to a coffee house; afterwards, I accompanied her to her apartment house. By that time, it was about 7:45pm.
Suddenly, as if by pre-arranged signal, the windows of the apartment houses on the right and on the left of the street opened and hundreds of flags emboldened with swastikas appeared. I knew that something cataclysmic had happened. When I arrived home, my father told me that the Chancellor of Austria, Kurt Schuschnigg, had resigned and that the Minister of the Interior, Arthur Seyss-Inquart (a well-known Austrian Nazi), would become chancellor. Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria was just hours away.
The events that caused this explosive situation are many.2 Everyone knew that Hitler was a born Austrian who had always wanted the unification of Germany and Austria. He so wrote in Mein Kampf as early as 1923. But after he became German chancellor in 1933, he had other priorities such as, in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, to rearm Germany and to reoccupy the Rheinland. The Austrian Nazis, however, were determined to achieve Austria’s unification with Germany. Their aggressive and lawless actions resulted in the Austrian government declaring the Austrian Nazi party an illegal organization in June of 1933. A year later, on July 25, 1934, a group of Austrian Nazis assassinated the Austrian chancellor Dr.Engelbert Dollfuss. Germany distanced itself from that act and did not, certainly not overtly, take steps prior to 1938 to incorporate Austria into Nazi-Germany.
In early February 1938, however, events took place that laid the foundation for the fateful day of March 11. Hitler had decided on major personnel changes in the defense and foreign affairs fields. Among others, the German minister in Vienna, Franz von Papen, was told that he would be replaced. However, von Papen did not want to leave Vienna. He felt he had a mission to complete: a major rapprochement between Germany and Austria with the eventual aim of unification of the two countries. (Von Papen was in a strong position having played a decisive role in January 1933 when his party allied itself with the National Socialists. The latter had failed in the last German general election to obtain an absolute majority – but with the votes of von Papen’s rightwing party, Hitler obtained the necessary majority in the Reichstag to become chancellor).
So von Papen asked for a private meeting with Hitler. It was granted. In that meeting, he suggested that Hitler invite the Austrian chancellor Schuschnigg to Berchtesgaden to discuss putting the German-Austrian question on a solid cooperative basis. Hitler agreed and so did Schuschnigg after von Papen described the forthcoming meeting in the rosiest terms.
On February 12, Schuschnigg went to Berchtesgaden. His conference with Hitler turned out very differently.
Hitler decided to use the meeting to intimidate Schuschnigg. He ordered the Wehrmacht to show its strength when Schuschnigg drove in von Papen’s car from the German-Austrian border to Berchtesgaden. He summoned the Chief of the German General Staff, General Wilhelm Keitel, to Berchtesgaden as well as the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. The final communiqué was drafted before Schuschnigg arrived.
The discussions were often heated, with Hitler raising his voice and Schuschnigg objecting to some of Hitler’s statements. In the end, Schuschnigg was forced to agree to appoint Arthur Seyss Inquart as Minister of the Interior with power over the police. He also had to agree to release all Nazis who were in jail and to free the Austrian Nazi party of all restraints.
The news that Schuschnigg had gone to Berchtesgaden to meet Hitler became known within hours. The dire consequences were clear after it had become known that Seyss-Inquart would become Minister of the Interior and Nazi insignia were overtly displayed all over Austria. The pressure increased – both by the German government and by the Austrian Nazis. Schuschnigg’s reaction: he announced on March 9 his plan to hold a plebiscite in Austria on the following Sunday, March 13 that was to decide whether the Austrian people favored the continued independence of Austria. The reaction of the German government was furious. The events of March 11 demonstrate the extent of that fury.
Nobody knew on March 11, how momentous the day would be, except the highest levels in both governments. It started with a telephone call to Schuschnigg from the Austrian Secretary for Security Affairs informing him that Germany had closed the German-Austrian border and that German forces were assembling on the border. Later in the morning of March 11, Hermann Goering, one of Hitler’s closest collaborators who was put in charge of the Austrian question, telephoned from Berlin. He called Seyss-Inquart and not Chancellor Schuschnigg, and demanded that the plebiscite be cancelled. (Clearly, the Hitler regime in Germany and the Austrian Nazis feared that the plebiscite would support an independent Austria).
Seyss-Inquart called on Schuschnigg around midday of March 11 and conveyed the German ultimatum. After a two-hour intra-governmental discussion, Chancellor Schuschnigg called on the President of Austria, Wilhelm Miklas, to advise the president that he had decided to call off the plebiscite.
Seyss-Inquart informed Goering that the plebiscite had been cancelled, but that no longer satisfied the German government. By now it was 3 pm. Goering told Seyss-Inquart that the German government insisted on Schuschniggs’s immediate resignation and the appointment of Seyss-Inquart as Chancellor. Seyss-Inquart was instructed that his first action should be to invite German troops to march into Austria to “assure the maintenance of order”.
In these circumstances, Schuschnigg decided to resign and submitted his letter of resignation personally to Austria’s President. However, the President refused to appoint Seyss-Inquart as Chancellor. Schuschnigg addressed the Austrian people at 7:47pm saying that the German government had presented an ultimatum to which Austria had to succumb.
President Miklas continued to oppose Seyss-Inquart’s appointment as Chancellor but when news reached him late in the evening that German troops had crossed the Austrian border – news that was fabricated – he gave in and appointed Seyss-Inquart as Chancellor of Austria. The appointment was broadcast at 11:14pm. (N.B. Seyss-Inquart was a defendant at the Nuremberg Trials less for his actions in Austria but for his deeds as deputy commissioner in occupied Poland and particularly as Reichskommissar in German-occupied Netherlands. He was convicted, sentenced to death and executed by hanging on October 16, 1946).
At five a.m. on Saturday, March 12, German troops crossed the Austrian border. In the following days, Austria was incorporated into Germany as the German province of Ostmark..
Austria’s independence was restored de facto at the end of World War II and de jure on May 15, 1955 when the Austrian State Treaty was signed in Vienna.
(I am indebted to my friend, Hugo Portisch, one of the leading Austrian foreign policy experts, for his monumental book Oesterreich 1.)
This essay deals with the immediate antecedence of Germany’s annexation of Austria. A subsequent article will address events that laid the foundation for March 11, 1938, including efforts to unite the two German-speaking countries after World War I.
 Historically, the territories now covered by Germany and Austria were included in the thousand year Holy Roman Empire (HRE) that ended in 1806 when Emperor Francis II under overwhelming pressure from Napoleon dissolved the HRE. Two years earlier, he had created the Empire of Austria and ruled it as Francis I. In 1867 Austria and Hungary reached an agreement that the country would henceforth be known as Austria-Hungary. When the Holy Roman Empire ended in 1806, the several German states rallied under Prussia’s leadership and in 1871 the German Reich was created with Otto von Bismarck of Prussia as Chancellor.
In World War I, Germany (the German Reich) and Austria-Hungary were allies.