March 12, 1938, is the date of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into the German Third Reich. Literally, “Anschluss” means “connection” or “political union,” and there is still disagreement among historians as to whether the occupation of Austria was indeed that – that is, a voluntary tying of that country’s fate to that of Germany – or whether the Austrians were, as they have often claimed, Hitler’s first victims, faced with no choice when the Fuehrer delivered an ultimatum to the Austrian government that it hand power over to the country’s Nazis a mere month after he had agreed to honor Austrian sovereignty.
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On the one hand, it is correct that Germany did force a union onto Austria, a partnership that violated the peace treaties that ended World War I. On the other, the occupation was enthusiastically welcomed by a significant majority of the Austrian population.
The Austrian Republic had only come into existence in 1918, with the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the end of the war. By 1934, the country had devolved into a civil war of sorts, which pitted the nationalists of the Christian Social Party, who favored independence, against the socialists, who pushed for economic if not political union with Germany.
In July 1934, Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss was assassinated by Austrian Nazis, as part of a failed coup. The Christian Social party came out of the civil war victorious, and the place of Dollfuss was taken by Kurt Schuschnigg, who abolished other parties and imposed a semi-fascist regime on the country.
The question of union with Germany remained alive, however, and the Nazis maintained a constant campaign of terror against the Christian Social regime. In 1936, Schuschnigg agreed to end the ban of the Nazi party in Austria and accepted Nazis into his cabinet.
This did not satisfy Adolf Hitler, who upped his demands for incorporation of Austria into the Reich – part of a general foreign policy of Heims in Reich, literally, “home into the Reich,”, which called for bringing ethnic Germans living beyond the country’s borders under German sovereignty. In practice, this would include annexation of Austria, western Poland and Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland.
This was the prelude to the Anschluss, which was greeted by vocal protests from the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the Vatican, but not much more. On March 12, when German forces crossed the border into Austria, they faced no resistance, and were greeted with flowers. That same afternoon, Hitler arrived, crossing into the country at Braunau, his birthplace. Over the next few days, he toured the country, with the climax of his visit taking place in Vienna on March 15, where he appeared at a rally before some 200,000 people at the Heldenplatz.
A month later, a plebiscite on incorporation was held, and 99.7 percent of the population voted to approve. (By that time, some 70,000 potential dissenters had been rounded up and imprisoned.)
At the time of the Anschluss, Austria’s Jewish population was about 190,000 (the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates the number at 225,000), most of them living in Vienna. On Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938), most of Vienna’s synagogues were destroyed, and 27 Jews murdered, following which Jews began to be rounded up and imprisoned. Even before 1938, the Jews had begun to emigrate from the country, but now the trickle became a torrent, so that by December 1939, by which point the Nazis had instituted restrictions on Jewish involvement in society, only 57,000 are thought to have remained in the country.
Mass deportations began in October 1941, with some 35,000 Jews being sent to ghettos in Poland and Eastern Europe, where they were killed by Einsatzgruppen, and another 15,000 finding their deaths in Auschwitz. Within a year, only some 5,000 Jews remained in the country: They were either smuggled out of Austria, or spent the rest of the war in hiding.
An estimated 65,000 Austrian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust – with the names of 62,000 of them being known.